REBEL SOULS: WALT WHITMAN AND AMERICA’S FIRST BOHEMIANS
By Justin Martin
Da Capo Press. 339 pages. £18.99/$27.99. ISBN 978-0-306-82226-1
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Many years ago I attended an event celebrating the links between Walt Whitman and some of his 19th Century admirers in Lancashire, England. During the discussions I happened to mention that Whitman had frequented Pfaff’s saloon on Broadway in New York and mixed with the bohemian crowd gathered there. An academic from a local university immediately pounced on me and remarked that “if” Whitman had indeed been a regular in Pfaff’s it obviously had little or no effect on his life or writing so wasn’t a subject worth considering. I couldn’t help having the feeling that this person thought that poets all led quiet lives devoted to producing poems for scholars to study, rather like the man himself (he was a minor poet as well as a lecturer) who wrote carefully and with an eye to attracting praise from his fellow-academics. He was a pleasant-enough man, and I rather liked him, so it didn’t seem worthwhile arguing and I let the matter drop.
Of course, it may have been a fact that at the time I’m talking about (the mid-1970s) not too much was known in England about the bohemian side of Whitman’s activities. But it was familiar territory for anyone interested in the history of American Bohemianism. Albert Parry’s ground-breaking Garrets and Pretenders: A History of Bohemianism in America, originally published in 1933, and with an easily-available reprint from Dover Publications in 1960, had a chapter about Whitman at Pfaff’s. And the fact that he had functioned as a journalist should, perhaps, have given a lead in terms of suggesting that Whitman would have known and mixed with many of the people who came together at Pfaff’s. In any case, Henry Clapp, the instigator of the bohemian gatherings there, was one of the earliest advocates of Whitman as a poet.
Things have changed somewhat since the 1970s and there is now a fair amount of material around to locate Whitman among the bohemians. Recent publications include Mark A. Lause’s The Antebellum Crisis & America’s First Bohemians (Kent State University Press, 2009); Joanna Levin’s Bohemia in America, 1858-1920 (Stanford University Press, 2010); and Whitman Among the Bohemians, edited by Joanna Levin and Edward Whitley (University of Iowa Press, 2014). To which we can add Justin Martin’s Rebel Souls.
To understand the importance of Pfaff’s as the focus of attention for what are referred to as “America’s First Bohemians,” it’s necessary to look in a little detail at the life of Henry Clapp, the man who started it all. There had been individuals who could be described as bohemians, had the term been in use in America before 1850 (Edgar Allan Poe, for example), but it was Clapp who brought together writers, artists, actors, and others, to become identified as a group seemingly representing certain characteristics that outsiders would label, often dismissively, bohemian. Clapp, born in Nantucket in 1814, had something of a checkered career as, among other things, a journalist (he had even been imprisoned at one point for insulting a judge) before going to Paris in 1849 to attend a three-day world peace congress. Finding it so interesting and attractive he stayed on for another three years, and his experiences in the French capital were to change his life. The 1840s in France were years of turmoil in many ways, both politically and artistically, and Clapp appears to have been fascinated by the atmosphere of personal freedom when compared to what he had experienced in the United States. Clapp had been brought up in a fairly restrictive, almost puritanical way, but in Paris he soon learned to adapt to café life, and to drink and mix with friendly women.
While Clapp was in Paris Henry Murger’s bohemian sketches that had been published in an obscure magazine, Le Corsaire-Satan, were transformed into a play with the help of Theodore Barriere. Few people, apart from fellow bohemians, had paid much attention to the sketches, but the play was an instant hit. It was followed by Murger’s novel, Scenes de la vie de Boheme, which just collected the sketches and loosely linked them. It’s impossible to know whether or not Clapp saw the play, but he certainly was aware of the bohemian life of the Latin Quarter. When he returned to America in 1853 he earned a living as a journalist and translator, and he began to think of finding a suitable location for like-minded people to socialise. Around 1856 he spotted a basement saloon called Pfaff’s which was on Broadway, “a few doors north of Bleecker Street.” Its owner, Charles Pfaff, was friendly, liked the idea of his saloon becoming a centre for writers, artists, and performers of various kinds, and agreed to Clapp and his friends having a corner which would be reserved for them. Clapp, of course, would preside at the head of the table. He would soon be called “The King of Bohemia.”
Justin Martin says that Clapp’s “first recruit was Fitz James O’Brien, a friend and fellow-journalist.” O’Brien was a bohemian by nature. Born in Ireland he had moved to London and squandered a large inheritance. He left England suddenly when the husband of a woman he was having an affair with came back from India. When he arrived in New York he lived the high life at first, but soon switched to living in run-down rooming houses. A drinker, he often got involved in brawls and was thrown into jail. To raise money he churned out bits of fiction, poetry, criticism, and straightforward reporting for a range of publications. A friend said that “Haste is evident in all that he wrote,” because he couldn’t be bothered to work on things if he could sell them immediately. He wrote a play which ran successfully in New York for a time, and a number of short stories, some of which are still reprinted in fantasy and horror anthologies. Perhaps the most-famous one is “The Diamond Lens,” in which a man looks through a microscopic lens and sees a beautiful woman in a droplet of water. He falls in love with her but knows she’ll soon disappear.
More recruits to bohemia turned up at Pfaff’s, including the journalist Charles Halpine, George Arnold, a poet who made a living of sorts “writing poems for newspapers, a career that’s unimaginable today,” and Thomas Nast who was later to become famous as “the preeminent political cartoonist of nineteenth-century America.” Not all bohemians were fated to be failures or soon forgotten. But Martin, listing a cast of “poets, playwrights, painters, and sculptors,” refers to the one thing they had in common – “crushing poverty.” And he adds that New York was similar to Paris in that both cities “lured in far more artists and writers than could possibly be supported.”
Walt Whitman discovered Pfaff’s, or more likely heard about it from fellow-journalists, “sometime in 1858.” He was 39 and struggling to establish a reputation as a poet, but mostly without success, though he did have some self-published work to his credit. Martin says that Clapp was “thrilled to have Whitman, even a reticent Whitman, at his table.” The poet said very little and largely kept clear of the verbal competitiveness that the others indulged in. In later years he recollected: “My own greatest pleasure at Pfaff’s was to look on – to see, talk little, absorb. I never was a great discourser, anyway – never.” Clapp was keen to have him there, nonetheless, because he considered that he could see what others could not – that Whitman was a major poet and was controversial. As for Whitman himself, it’s Martin’s contention that, being among the bohemians “goaded him on. Soon he was writing fresh poems.” It was true that, in time, Whitman often left the alcove where the bohemians sat and moved among the general clientele in Pfaff’s. It fitted in with his celebrations of ordinary people, workingmen, who didn’t expect him to compete against them with clever quips and repartee. And “Pfaff’s was a place where gay men could meet, in an era when such matters were not so clearly defined and delineated.” Whitman referred to a group of young men he mixed with as “my darlings and gossips,” and “my darling, dearest boys.”
Fitz Hugh Ludlow arrived at Pfaff’s with some success behind him. His The Hasheesh Eater had been “a literary sensation” in 1857 as it charted his experiments with drugs “at a time when tired old rules and failed authority were being questioned.” He was young, just twenty-one when he was welcomed by Clapp, and despite his book selling well he was “a dirt-poor celebrity – a not-so-unusual combination in nineteenth-century America.” So, he tried to place criticism and stories in magazines and newspapers, but the “pressure of the New York literary game was immense.” And Ludlow may have claimed that he’d given up using hashish but he’d started using something even more likely to make demands on his energies and general disposition – opium. He never did have any success as a writer after The Hasheesh Eater. His wife ran off with the painter Albert Bierstadt, with whom he was supposed to collaborate on a book about travelling across America, and he eventually succumbed to tuberculosis and died in 1870 in Geneva.
One thing about Pfaff’s, or at least the group that clustered around Clapp, was that women were welcome if they had talent of one kind or another. Ada Clare turned up with aims to avoid a future of “a series of little acts, a dead level of vapid monotony,” and ambitions to be an actress. She did get some roles but failed to make an impression due to being unable to project enough to engage the audience. But she did start to place essays and poems in a Sunday newspaper. At Pfaff’s she soon achieved the title of “The Queen of Bohemia,” partly because she could hold her own in conversation with the men, partly because she was pretty, and partly because she was not afraid to admit that she was an unmarried mother, thanks to an affair with the composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk. She clearly had some skills as a writer and contributed well-written articles to magazines and newspapers, even if she was limited as an actress, and she should have had a novel, Aphodel, published in 1860. But the publisher went bankrupt and the “original handwritten manuscript, proofs, plates” somehow disappeared. A later Clare novel, Only a Woman’s Heart, loosely based on her liaison with Gottschalk, did appear but largely raised a negative critical response. She became disillusioned with writing and tried to return to the stage, though again without achieving any prominent roles. Her ending was tragic. Visiting a friend she picked up a small dog and was bitten on the face. She soon started to show signs of insanity. The dog had rabies. Clare was thirty-nine when she died in 1874.
Martin names several other women who were seen in Pfaff’s, among them the journalist Jenny Danforth, Dora Shaw, an actress and poet, and Marie Stevens Case, a novelist and translator from the French. But the most famous, and the one who is sometimes still written about today, was Adah Isaacs Menken. Her fame may rest on her performances in a play called Mazeppa: or the Wild Horse of Tartary where in one scene she wore a flesh-coloured body-stocking that accented her buxom shape, and was tied spread-eagled on the back of a horse while it galloped around the stage and, in some lavish productions, up what was supposed to be a mountain. All this was a travesty of a Cossack story, Byron’s poem about it, and a stage adaptation by Henry Milner. The person on the horse had been a man in all these versions, but a woman, especially in a sheer body-stocking, pulled in audiences. Menken toured with Mazeppa across America and in Europe where she met Charles Dickens and tried to interest him in her poetry. He described her as “a sensitive poet who, unfortunately, cannot write.” Menken wanted to act in other plays besides Mazeppa, but often had difficulties remembering her lines. When she starred in Les pirates de la Savanne in Paris the problem was accented by the fact that she couldn’t speak French, so the playwrights re-wrote the script to make Menken’s character into a mute whose tongue had been cut out by Indians. They also added a scene where Menken was stripped, or at least reduced to a body stocking, and strapped to the back of a horse. It was obvious that she never would get away from that part. The play ran for 150 sold-out performances, according to Martin. Menken cultivated a friendship with Alexandre Dumas and never denied rumours about a possible sexual aspect to it. But in 1868 she started to suffer from “a mysterious ailment” and withdrew from public performances of any kind. She passed away in that same year. Martin says: “In true Bohemian fashion, Menken died penniless in Paris. She was thirty-three years old, according to the best estimate.” And, again in true Bohemian fashion, she was buried in Paris, in Montparnasse cemetery.
What of Henry Clapp? He never rated highly as a writer, but he did establish a magazine, The Saturday Press, which published many of the people who came to Pfaff’s. And Clapp used his publication to promote the work of Walt Whitman. Also, because of the way that other magazines and newspapers across America often reprinted items from The Saturday Press, he did help to spread the word about Whitman and several more of his authors to wider audiences. Clapp additionally continued to push the idea of bohemianism, though in the post-Civil War period it was harder to convince readers that it was something that offered an alternative to conventional living. A more-serious mood had taken over and with westward expansion gathering speed, “Go west, young man” may have seemed a more-enticing prospect than joining the bohemians at Pfaff’s. Clapp’s publication had its ups and downs and eventually closed its pages for good. Clapp scuffled, scrounging money from old friends, drinking hard, and ending his days in poverty. He died in 1875 in an asylum, which is where alcoholics were often sent in those days. He was sixty.
There were others from the Pfaff’s crowd who died young. George Arnold, known as the “Poet of Beer,” died when he was thirty-one, though from unknown causes. Charles Halpine died from an overdose of chloroform, a “drug he was using recreationally.” Fitz-James O’Brien had only just turned thirty when he died, but in his case that was due to complications resulting from a wound he received while fighting with the Union army. Actor Edwin Booth hung on until he was almost sixty, and became very successful, which is more than be said for his younger brother, John Wilkes Booth, who was killed in a gunfight with police after he’d assassinated Abraham Lincoln. To counterbalance the early deaths it’s necessary to mention William Winter, a one-time regular at Pfaff’s, who became drama critic for The New York Tribune and held the job for forty-four years. He also wrote several books. Thomas Aldrich, who had assisted Clapp with The Saturday Press, published several volumes of poetry, and was appointed editor of the prestigious publication, The Atlantic Monthly, though Martin tells us that “he continued to smoke a little clay pipe, a vestige of his wild youth.” Clapp had brought the clay pipe habit with him from Paris and Aldrich copied him.
I suppose it’s only fair to ask what the bohemians left behind in terms of any successful, or long-lasting work ? It never bothers me that a lot of writing doesn’t stay the pace. Many novels, stories, and poems fall by the wayside, as does most criticism and commentary. Of Pfaff’s bohemians it’s obvious that Walt Whitman was the one major poet who could be found there, though there were quite a few minor ones. I’ve mentioned earlier that some of Fitz James O’Brien’s stories are still in print and worth reading. Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater is also available. I recall that it had some currency in the 1960s when there was an upsurge of interest in earlier accounts of experiences with drugs of various kinds. Ada Clare’s novel, Only a Woman’s Heart, can be found in reprint form, though reading it may be to satisfy one’s curiosity rather than for its literary qualities. The same might be said for Adah Isaacs Menken’s Infelicia, her posthumously-published collection of poems, though Martin does add that “her works are composed in free verse and contain assorted experimental touches.” That’s perhaps not too bad a list from any group, bearing in mind that a lot of the writers at Pfaff’s were journalists, and/or contributors to often short-lived magazines and newspapers, and ephemera was their stock-in-trade. There may well be worthwhile things buried in long-forgotten publications. I’m also reminded of something that John Clellon Holmes said when considering the literary aspects of the Beat Generation, “probably all that will last out of our Beat years are a rash of vaporous anecdotes, and the few solid works that were produced.”