Walt Whitman and the Bohemians

David S. Reynolds

Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians. Justin Martin. Boston: De Capo, 2014. 339 pp. $29.24 hardcover.

Whitman among the Bohemians. Edited by Joanna Levin and Edward Whitley. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014. 276 pp. $42.04 paperback.

In 1858, three years after the appearance of the first edition of his landmark poetry volume Leaves of Grass, the thirty-nine-year-old Brooklynite Walt Whitman started frequenting Pfaff’s Restaurant and Lager Bier Saloon across the East River in Manhattan. Located below a hotel lobby at 647 Broadway, just north of Bleecker, Pfaff’s was approached through a sidewalk hatch that opened onto metal stairs leading down to a gas-lit room. A table that sat thirty ran through the room, which was lined on one side with wine casks. At the head of the table was Henry Clapp Jr, a short, raspy-voiced raconteur who had made Pfaff’s a place of merriment and repartee for creative types—poets, novelists, journalists, actors, and others—who comprised America’s first bohemians.

For Whitman, Pfaff’s, where he went almost every night, provided diversion, stimulation, and camaraderie at a time when his spirits were low because of the tepid early response to Leaves of Grass. Whitman found support among the Pfaffians, several of whom, notably Clapp, promoted his poetry in articles, poems, and reviews. “Henry Clapp,” Whitman later recalled, “stepped out from the crowd of hooters—was my friend: a much needed ally” (Martin 261). Between Clapp and several other Whitman aficionados, the New York bohemians proved to be important catalysts in Whitman’s transition from obscurity to fame.

Justin Martin’s Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians and the essay collection Whitman among the Bohemians, edited by Joanna Levin and Edward Whitley, both start with the premise that Whitman’s experience among the bohemians is an unduly neglected topic. Actually, there have been a number of previous studies, including Albert Parry’s Garrets and Pretenders, Emily Hahn’s Romantic Rebels, and Mark Lause’s The Antebellum Crisis and America’s First Bohemians, as well as assorted articles and book chapters.

But Rebel Souls and Whitman among the Bohemians bring fresh perspectives to Whitman and his contexts, albeit differently. Martin’s book is a vivid group biography that traces chronologically the interweaving stories of the Pfaffians, centering on Whitman, Clapp, and four other members of the group: the author Fitz Hugh Ludlow, the poets/actresses Ada Clare and Adah Isaacs Menken, and the humorist Charles Brown (aka Artemus Ward). Martin recounts the rise and fall of American bohemianism: its roots in the Parisian counterculture that the American-born Clapp witnessed when he lived for three years on the Left Bank; its flowering in New York between 1858 and 1863, when the underground saloon sparkled with wit, and publications like the Saturday Press and Vanity Fair disseminated unconventional writings, including some by Whitman; its brief spread to the American West and to Europe; and its rapid collapse after the Civil War, marked by depression, addiction, and untimely deaths among members of the group.

In contrast, the twelve essays in Levin and Whitley’s volume range among loosely related topics: the Brooklyn saloon culture that prepared Whitman for Pfaff’s, people that he befriended in Pfaff’s, the bohemians’ representation of him in journalism and illustrations, his relation to the theater, the homosocial Pfaff’s environment that helped nurture his “Calamus” poems, and the role played by the group in ushering him into the literary canon.

Rebel Souls provides lively, comprehensive biographical and historical information, while Whitman among the Bohemians offers provocative analyses of specific themes. Taken together, the books add significantly to our knowledge of nineteenth-century American literature and culture.

One of the most interesting aspects of the American bohemians was their ambiguous positioning on mainstream mores, economics, and social issues. On the one hand, the bohemians ostentatiously flouted convention. Henry Clapp had been raised in a pious Massachusetts household, had edited a temperance newspaper, and in Paris had refused to accept a drink, announcing, “I’m a teetotaler” (Martin 10). But once he was immersed in the circles of Paris’s students, artists, and courtesans, he became a proselytizer for a countercultural lifestyle. When he returned to New York, where he was known as the King of Bohemia, he led conversations at Pffaff’s that alternated between serious discussions and alcohol-lubricated sarcasm, word games, and spontaneous performances. “There was as good talk around that table as took place anywhere in the world,” Whitman said. “What wit, humor, repartee, word wars, and sometimes bad blood!” (Martin 32, 46). Whitman drafted part of a poem in which he described “The vault at Pfaffs where the drinker and laugher meet to eat and drink and carouse, / While on the walk immediately overhead, pass the myriad feet of Broadway.” Re-creating the spirit of the pub, Whitman wrote, “Bandy the jests! Toss the theme from one to another!”

Just as this frothy conversational flow stood in opposition to the grandiloquence and formality of the era’s official discourse, so the sexual experimentation of the Pfaff’s group challenged Victorian prudery. Whitman, known for the sexual candor of his poetry, shocked the moral censors of the day with his heterosexual “Children of Adam” poems, although it is his “Calamus” sequence, which pushed then-accepted comradely love toward homoerotic passion that seems especially forward-looking today. In this regard, it’s notable that Pfaff’s was the setting for his relationships with the stage driver Fred Vaughan and, later, with a number of young men known as the Fred Gray Association, as explored in an essay by Stephanie M. Blalock in Levin and Whitley’s volume. We may never know for certain whether Whitman had sex with men; he vigorously denied that he did when approached on the subject by the British author John Addington Symonds. Nor can we be sure about the nature of the same-sex dalliances of his friend Adah Isaacs Menken, who once wrote to a female correspondent, “Do you believe that women often love each other with as much fervor and excitement as they do men? . . . I have had my passionate attachments among women, which sweep like whirlwinds over me” (Martin 151–52). But Whitman and Menken clearly made significant strides toward open sexual expression. Martin does an especially effective job of describing the unconventionality of Menken, who was married five times (once for only three days), took a male role on stage, and in her signature performance in the melodrama Mazeppa titillated thousands of theatergoers as the “Naked Lady,” wearing a body suit as she was strapped face-up on the back of a horse.

Also adventurous was Ada Clare, the Queen of Bohemia. Born to a wealthy family on a South Carolina cotton plantation, she was raised to be a Southern belle but as a teen decided, in her words, “to find a sphere for myself” in order to avoid a traditional life that would be only “a series of little acts, a dead level of vapid monotony” (Martin 65). She moved to New York, where she failed to make a mark as a writer or an actress. A scintillating conversationalist, she was a sparkplug among the bohemians, and she challenged the prevailing sexual standards of the day. She had an affair with the darkly handsome pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who was thought to be the father of her child, which she raised out of wedlock. She liked to raise eyebrows by introducing herself as “Miss Ada Clare and Son.” As a journalist, she castigated the “sentimentalism of the blabbiest sort” that she saw in a popular novel (Levin 75), and she lamented that many housewives were trapped in “monotonous, leaden respectability and much lazy peace” (Levin 85). However, as Joanna Levin demonstrates in her essay “‘Freedom for Women from Conventional Lies’: The ‘Queen of Bohemia’ and the Feminist Feuilleton,” Clare did not completely renounce the era’s cult of domesticity. While she attacked passivity and obedience, she extolled love, generosity, and spiritual elevation. Fusing nonconformity and true womanhood, she provided, in Levin’s words, “a fraught but progressive encounter between feminism and sentimental convention, bohemianism and genteel tradition” (93).

This oscillation between subversiveness and conventionality is one of the most intriguing characteristics of the New York bohemians; it was visible not only in their attitudes toward gender but also in their views of economics, politics, and social reform. The group seemed to have shared the ambivalence that Whitman once expressed when he told a friend, “Be radical, be radical, be radical—be not too damned radical!” Though they thumbed their noses at mainstream values, the bohemians to some degree shared these values and fed off them. Some of the most thought-provoking essays in Whitman among the Bohemians are those that show the group incorporating bourgeois mores they pretended to reject. Take Henry Clapp and the newspaper he edited, the Saturday Press. As Leif Eckstrom argues in his fine essay “On Puffing: the Saturday Press and the Circulation of Symbolic Capital,” Clapp declared that he wanted to topple “the whole system of Puffing”—the shady system of paid reviews, self-reviews, and exchanges of favors that was then widespread in periodicals (Levin 53). But Clapp, as Eckstrom shows, indulged in plenty of puffing and self-interested favoritism. Indeed, for nearly a year the Saturday Press was financially dependent on Thayer and Eldridge, Whitman’s Boston publisher, who succumbed to Clapp’s arm-twisting by paying him to promote Whitman, not just in ads but in other ways as well. Erickson concludes that Clapp’s “editorial and promotional practices did not markedly differ from the market-driven publishing practices he criticized” (Levin 56). Clapp printed reviews, poems, essays, and parodies by or about Whitman—anything to bring attention to Leaves of Grass. All told, as Amanda Gailey tells us in “Whitman and the King of Bohemia: The Poet in The Saturday Press,” some seventy-two Whitman-related pieces appeared in Clapp’s paper during its short run (Levin 24).

Then there was the elephant in the room: slavery. For all their posturing against institutions, the bohemians had little important to say about the most oppressive institution of their day. A striking absence in both Whitman among the Bohemians and Rebels Souls is any serious discussion of politics and social reform. Martin concedes that the bohemians viewed politics with “sly cynicism.” He explains, “Every aspect of American society seemed so eroded, so diminished: drinking, carousing, and trading witty barbs in a subterranean bar—what else even made sense?” (Martin 50).

For many Pfaffians, political engagement was drowned in sybaritic excess. Small wonder, given their proclivities, that members of the group fell into addiction and mental illness. Clapp, after a failed effort to revive the defunct Saturday Press after the Civil War, became an alcoholic who spent time in asylums and on the streets, where he was seen selling his clothes to buy liquor. A similar fate met other Pfaffians. Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who had risen to fame in 1857 as the author of the Hasheesh Eater, a surrealistic record of his drug-induced visions, became an opium addict. Charles Brown, after his wildly successful run onstage and in print as the funnyman Artemus Ward, drank heavily, deteriorated, and died at thirty-four. Charles Halpine, the author of a humor book that Lincoln loved, succumbed at thirty-nine to an overdose of chloroform. Actress and sex symbol Adah Isaacs Menken, after a failed suicide attempt in which she swallowed an apothecary drug, died penniless in Paris, leaving behind a poetry volume, aptly titled Infelicia, about her personal despair. The actress Ada Clare got along by taking bit parts until she went mad and died at thirty-nine after being bitten by a rabid dog. (Whitman said, “Poor, poor Ada Clare—I have been inexpressibly shocked by the horrible & sudden close of her gay, easy, sunny free, loose, but not ungood life.”) (Martin 259). As the New York Times noted, “Death has gathered the greater number of jovial wits that wasted life under the Broadway sidewalk” (Martin 256).

Whitman was most often portrayed by the Pfaff group as a decadent rebel. This was a misrepresentation. Actually, he never drank heavily; he would sit for hours nursing a beer while those around him got blindly drunk. Nor did he think much of the literary talents of his fellow Pfaffians. To one of them, the minor poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich, he said dismissively, “I like your tinkles” (Martin 45). Of another versifier, William Winter, he remarked, “Willy is a young Longfellow” (a poet snidely known in Pfaff’s as “Longwindedfellow”). As Karen Karbinier points out in her essay “Bridging Brooklyn and Bohemia,” Whitman was “never entirely comfortable” with the bohemians (Levin 2). The distance between him and them became apparent when one of the group, Edmund Clarence Stedman, wrote about him in his 1885 volume Poets of America, which was largely responsible for placing Whitman among the leading lights of American literature. Stedman presented Whitman as an aesthete completely removed from popular culture. Assigning Whitman firmly to the arty side of the bohemian-vs.-bourgeois opposition, Stedman used Whitman as a vehicle for what Mary Loeffelhoz calls “the successful marketing of opposition” (“Stedman, Whitman, and the Transatlantic Canonization of American Poetry,” Levin 216). Loeffelhoz explains, “Stedman’s hyperliterary, formalist, nearly decadent Whitman is less the American Adam than the American Swinburne” (221).

Stedman’s praise of Whitman’s aesthetics anticipated the incorporation of Whitman into the canon by the New Critics, who dominated academic criticism from the 1940s through the 1960s and whose formalist emphasis still holds sway in some circles. But one also sees the damage done to Whitman by the purely aesthetic approach. Whitman saw himself as a poet with a vital social mission. He wanted to heal his fractured, venal, strife-ridden nation through poetry that proclaimed universal comradeship and all-embracing democracy. “The proof of the poet,” he wrote in the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, “is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.”

The bohemians never truly absorbed him, nor he them. They burned out, and their works largely disappeared, whereas he lives on, in part because he avoided the solipsism and self-indulgent decadence that spelled their downfall.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter