Rebel Souls: Walt Whit­man and Amer­ica’s

First Bo­hemi­ans by Justin Martin, Da Capo Press, 352 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Bill Kohlhaase

Justin Martin’s Rebel Souls is as much about Henry Clapp Jr. as it is about Walt Whit­man. In the years be­fore and dur­ing the Civil War, Clapp hosted an eclec­tic cir­cle of artists and per­form­ers at Pfaff’s Restau­rant and Lager Bier Sa­loon, a tworoom Green­wich Vil­lage tav­ern tucked away in the base­ment at 647 Broad­way, just north of Bleecker Street. A jour­nal­ist, Clapp had gone to Paris in 1849, plung­ing into the bo­hemian arts scene there. The French, he said, were “ad­dicted to talk.” When he came back to Amer­ica, he in­tro­duced New York to his own brand of café so­ci­ety — Pfaff ’s Bo­hemi­ans, as they were known.

Clapp cu­rated his crowd care­fully, se­lect­ing ex­tro­verted ec­centrics to join in the out­ra­geous, of­ten bois­ter­ous con­ver­sa­tion. Whit­man, who came to the party late — in 1858, two years after Clapp had launched his salon — was almost forty and still liv­ing in Brook­lyn with his mother at the time. The Pfaff’s meet­ings of­fered the poet a per­fect en­vi­ron­ment for let­ting loose. Whit­man could not only wit­ness ag­gres­sive, even out­ra­geous, di­a­logue at the long ta­ble in the sa­loon’s nar­row back­room but search among the men in Pfaff’s pub­lic front room for some after-hours com­pan­ion­ship.

The ve­rac­ity of Martin’s claim that the Pfaff cir­cle con­sti­tuted “Amer­ica’s first bo­hemi­ans” hangs on what we un­der­stand the term bo­hemian to mean. Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emer­son, Louisa May Al­cott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other lu­mi­nar­ies were gath­er­ing in Con­cord, Mas­sachusetts, to dis­cuss lit­er­a­ture while Clapp was in the midst of his Paris so­journ. The Con­cord group was ded­i­cated to art as well, as all good bo­hemi­ans are. But they weren’t party an­i­mals, like those who came later at Pfaff’s. Draw­ing from high and low cul­ture, Clapp’s col­lec­tion of jour­nal­ists, po­ets, ac­tresses, and other un­con­ven­tional char­ac­ters blurred the line be­tween art and en­ter­tain­ment even fur­ther. But they all knew about the poverty suf­fered by many artists. “What wit, hu­mor, repar­tee, word wars, and some­times bad blood,” Whit­man wrote of the gath­er­ings. The ban­ter, afloat on a “roil­ing sea of egos,” of­ten got nasty, and Whit­man re­called his fel­low Pfaf­fi­ans as some­times be­ing “the en­emy.” Each mem­ber did their best to as­sert su­pe­ri­or­ity over the oth­ers. Whit­man mostly stayed out of such frays, and no one cared much what he thought at that point any­way. By forty, he was still an ob­scure poet with only bad reviews; de­spite the nice things Ralph Waldo Emer­son had writ­ten about him — which Whit­man printed with­out per­mis­sion on the cover of Leaves of Grass — he didn’t yet carry the clout of celebrity.

Martin doesn’t over­play the im­por­tance of Pfaff’s Bo­hemi­ans to the strug­gling poet. At the sa­loon, Whit­man mixed with other po­ets. He ac­quired some barfly flu­ency that would later sur­face in his writ­ing. And Clapp pub­lished Whit­man’s work in his weekly cul­tural jour­nal, The Satur­day Press. While a mem­ber of Clapp’s cir­cle, Whit­man wrote nu­mer­ous po­ems that ap­peared in later ver­sions of Leaves of Grass. Martin sug­gests that Whit­man may have been in­spired by the soar­ing the­atri­cal lan­guage he heard at Pfaff’s, even if the poet him­self did his best to stay out of what he de­scribed as the ver­bal “rub­bing and drub­bing.” “My own great­est plea­sure at Pfaff’s was to look on — to see, talk lit­tle, ab­sorb,” Whit­man wrote. “I never was a great dis­cusser, any­way — never.”

Bi­o­graph­i­cal bits about oth­ers in­volved in the cir­cle make for some of the best read­ing here. They in­clude de­tails about the ac­tress Ada Clare, who, Martin writes, re­acted to her posh up­bring­ing by well-heeled grand­par­ents by be­com­ing a “spir­ituelle,” a woman who “led a free and easy life in pur­suit of art,” and about Charlie Brown, a jour­nal­ist who dropped his de­cid­edly unglam­orous given name to be­come Arte­mus Ward. Martin of­fers sto­ries about Fitz Hugh Lud­low, a man known to in­gest “heroic doses of hashish” and who au­thored a popular Thomas De Quinceystyle con­fes­sion about his in­dul­gences, as well as about Adah Isaacs Menken, who, Martin claims, was “one of the great sex sym­bols of the nine­teenth cen­tury.” There are tales about the th­es­pian Ed­win Booth (John Wilkes Booth’s older brother), a sort of Pfaff’s char­ter mem­ber who spent lit­tle time at the sa­loon but who knew the play­ers there and was liv­ing in New York dur­ing the au­tumn of 1858, while “in the midst of a colos­sal drink­ing binge.” Against the back­drop of all this fla­grant ex­cess, Clapp and Whit­man (es­pe­cially Whit­man, who wasn’t a zeal­ous drinker) can seem a lit­tle dull.

So­cial and po­lit­i­cal events of the time, of course, col­ored such a group’s mood — but once the Civil War is un­der way, the book be­gins to wan­der far afield from Pfaff’s. Lud­low and some of the oth­ers even­tu­ally head west, where a new bo­hemian out­post is be­ing es­tab­lished in Cal­i­for­nia. Whit­man goes to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to min­is­ter to fallen sol­diers, and de­cides to stay there. Other chap­ters in­clude the long story of the pub­li­ca­tion of the poet’s third edi­tion of Leaves of Grass, and his poor health after the war is over. In the end, Lin­coln’s as­sas­si­na­tion sucks the last of the oxy­gen out of Clapp’s scene.

Rebel Souls il­lu­mi­nates an in­trigu­ing but poorly doc­u­mented page in Amer­i­can cul­tural his­tory — one to which even David S. Reynolds de­votes only a few pages in his weighty work from 1996, Walt Whit­man’s Amer­ica: A Cul­tural Biog­ra­phy. Though we wish for more “bo­hemian” anec­dotes, for more eye­wit­ness ac­counts of the Pfaff’s long-ta­ble con­ver­sa­tions, for more di­rect as­so­ci­a­tions be­tween Whit­man’s ex­pe­ri­ences there and his po­etry, Martin does man­age to do a good job with what lit­tle archival ma­te­rial he has. But he loses his fo­cus when the bo­hemi­ans stum­ble up­stairs to street-level Broad­way and wan­der off into the larger world: That party down­stairs is much more fun. Clapp’s crowd, with their egos, their anger, their opin­ions, and their pas­sions, sets the stage for all the bo­hemian move­ments, from the Beat­niks on (Allen Gins­berg has been called “the mod­ern Walt Whit­man”), that fol­lowed. As Martin states in his first pages, “Ev­ery­one from Lady Gaga to George Car­lin to Dave Eg­gers owes a debt to th­ese orig­i­nals.”

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