March 10, 2012

The Croakers: had New York by the ears

Avaunt, arch enemy of fun,
Grim nightmare of the mind!
Which way, great Momus, shall I run,
A refuge safe to find?
My puppy's dead; Miss Rumor's breath
Is stopt for lack of news,
And F*** is almost hyp'ed to death,
And Lang has got the blues...

I'm sick of General Jackson's toast,
Canals are nought to me,
Nor do I care who rules the roast,
Clinton or John Targee:
No stick in any bank I own,
I fear no lottery shark,
And if the Battery were gone,
I'd ramble in the park...

In vain! for like a cruel cat
That sucks a child to death,
Or like a Madagascar bat
Who poisons with his breath:
The fiend, the fiend is on me still;
Come, Doctor, here's your pay,
What lotion, potion, plaster, pill,
Will drive the beast away?

It's hard to imagine how such an innocuous piece of poetic doggerel could have caused such a sensation in New York when "To Ennui" was published in the New York Evening Post on March 10, 1819. The five stanzas poked fun at current events, including those in opposition to Governor De Witt Clinton and the building of the Erie Canal. Perhaps it sparked interest in part because a response was published two days later, kick-staring a series of humorous back and forth in the pages of several New York periodicals. Most importantly, when interest was piqued, the two authors refused to be identified, even to their editors. Instead, they relied only on the moniker "The Croakers" — though the name "F***" in the first stanza almost gave it away.

In fact, the series was written by Joseph Rodman Drake and Fitz-Greene Halleck, two of the earliest of the "Knickerbocker" group of writers. As one contemporary noted, the two "had New York by the ears." The second stanza alludes to "F***" (or, less subtly, "Fitz" in later editions) being "hyp'ed," a popular reference to hypochondria. In fact, Halleck was suffering from depression which only worsened after Drake's death about a year after the Croakers series began. As the series continued, the duo attacked local politicians, artists, businessmen, and even editors and publishers.

Some have suggested (with good evidence) that Halleck was secretly in love with Drake. After Drake's early death, Halleck even suggested the two should be buried side-by-side. A decade later, in 1830, Halleck concluded the Croakers series with one final croak (though he himself did not croak  until 1867).

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