Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s
First Bohemians by Justin Martin, Da Capo Press, 352 pages
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.”