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At 39, Walt Whitman was broke, unemployed, and living with his mom

Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians is published by Da Capo Press.
Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians is published by Da Capo Press.

In Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians, author Justin Martin tells the story of how a subterranean New York City saloon helped alter the course of Whitman's life. Located on Broadway near Bleecker Street, Pfaff's Saloon is where Henry Clapp, fresh off a three-year stint in Paris during the height of the Bohemian craze, established his long table.

Similar to the Algonquin Roundtable, Clapp's table was a place where some of NYC's most talented — and unconventional — writers and artists congregated to discuss their work. Artemus Ward, whom Martin calls America's first stand-up comic, had a place there, as did the scandalous Adah Isaacs Menken and the perpetually stoned Fitz Hugh Ludlow.

Most of Clapp's Bohemian coterie died young, without ever having achieved artistic success. To this day, many of their names remain lost within the archives of America's would-be, poverty-stricken artists. Many of them, that is, except for Walt Whitman.

Walt Whitman is one of the most beloved poets in the American canon. With poems like "I Hear America Singing" and "1861," Whitman managed to capture in verse the quintessential spirit of American democracy. But though he's revered today, there was a time when neither the poet nor his lines were so warmly received. In fact, for much of his adult career, Whitman was a pariah of sorts, living and writing on the margins of polite American literary society.

At 39, Whitman was unemployed, broke, and living with his mother and siblings in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn. His now-famous Leaves of Grass had gone through two publishings, both met with critical and commercial scorn. But all of that changed when Whitman met Clapp, who promptly took a liking to the poet. That relationship, as Martin argues in Rebel Souls, proved pivotal to Whitman. Taking his place at Clapp's long table gave the downtrodden Whitman a renewed artistic vision and identity. In fact, it was during his Pfaff's period that he penned much of the third edition of Leaves of Grass — the edition that secured his place in American literary history.

I recently caught up with Martin to interview him about American Bohemianism, Henry Clapp, and Walt Whitman.

Whitman gif

Walt Whitman, ca. 1865. (Thiophene_Guy/flickr)

Brandon Ambrosino: It seems like a good time for a book about Bohemian culture.

Justin Martin: Certainly now's a good time for the book! People are disillusioned with various American institutions, government and otherwise. So they say, "I'm going to do my own thing, chart my own course," which is a very Bohemian thing. I think that there's something enduring about Bohemians.

BA: Where does the word "Bohemian" come from?

JM: Parisians began applying "Bohemian" to the Romani people, who were winnowing across Europe into France during the 19th century. We now know they're from the Indian continent, but at the time, they thought they were coming from Egypt. In England, they called them "gypsy." In France, they called them Bohemian.

This was a time when French society was under siege — the failed Revolution in 1848, all kinds of chaos in French society. Typically Parisians of conservative politics — the establishment party — started calling the Romani people Bohemian. But they were pretty indiscriminate, lobbing the label around. They applied it to scruffy, impoverished students, and also applied it to flamboyant artists. French artists were the ones who took this, appropriated it, and made it their own. This was perfect, because in French society, you have the bourgeoisie, who were cautious and smug and prosperous. And then you had the perfect opposite: Bohemians.

BA: How does Bohemianism get from Paris to New York?

JM: Henry Clapp had actually been a temperance lecturer in New England. He went to Paris to attend a three-day peace conference, and while there, he fell off the teetotaler wagon into Bohemia. He intended to stay for three days, but ended up staying for three years. He got completely absorbed in Bohemian café society: he started drinking whiskey and chasing women.

This was always a lifestyle, but it wasn't always called that. But the French had codified the lifestyle: sitting around in cafes, being unconventional, burning a flame for art. Clapp was very attracted to that, being a lapsed teetotaler and stick in the mud. So he decides he'll take this term, this lifestyle, and after three years, return to America. But instead of going back to New England, which he found stultifying, he'd go to New York City and try to set up a Bohemian circle.

BA: You mention how pivotal the play La Vie de Boheme was in 1850s France. Do you think Clapp was influenced by it?

JM: It's conceivable that he saw it, but I found no evidence from Clapp's own account that he ever saw the play. But it happens that he was in Paris in 1849, the year La Vie de Boheme was a huge sensation in Paris, the play people were buzzing about, and excited about. It explained to French society the exciting, interesting, decadent lives of its Bohemian residents. Just a sensational play.

The play itself, as you might imagine, was based on fact that Bohemianism was already thriving, but the play kicked it out to a whole next level. It made the city all the more Bohemian-mad. Of course, Clapp was there in 1849, so he experienced the city in its full Bohemian flower.

BA: So Clapp becomes obsessed with Bohemianism, and he moves to New York City to start his own ragtag group of Bohemians — around a dinner table at Pfaff's saloon. What was that like?

JM: There was a sense of competition at the long table, with everyone trying to curry the favor of Henry Clapp, the king of Bohemia. This was the precursor of the Algonquin round table. You had a lot of people trading barbs, trying to win a battle of wit. I think one of the great models in art is co-opitition: cooperation and competition. I think Pfaff's is a wonderful example of co-opitition. You had a group of people who were competitive, but at the same time, they goaded one another along.

Creating art is such a solitary profession, so the fact that they could meet in a saloon, even if it was an uneasy atmosphere at times, was helpful. Along with trading barbs, they traded information, inspired one another, pushed one another to do their best, to share contacts, provide guidance. The long table was certainly a place where they'd be tweaking each other's work, managing hookups, reading their poems, and getting feedback from the group. So it was a really good example of co-opitition.

Everybody wanted to be there — Pfaff's was a badge of honor. There were only so many spots at that table, and there would always be more applicants than spots. There were regulars who curried the favor of Clapp. People were very eager to make the cut, become regulars. They wanted to become Pfaff's Bohemians. Just like groups today where people are interested in reading about it, people were excited to be part of a center, to have people looking on and saying, "Wow, they're part of this interesting, curious, cutting-edge group."

Whitman at Pfaff's Saloon

Pfaff's, New York City, with Walt Whitman seated in the foreground, 1857. (Wikimedia Commons)

BA: Everyone wanted to be there, sure, but you also talk about how Walt Whitman wanted it more than anyone else. Why was that?

JM: Whitman traveled six miles round trip by foot, and sometimes stagecoach, just to get there. And there was good reason — the man was perfect for it! For a gay poet, I mean, the long table was a place he could sit with fellow artists and gain an artistic identity, gain lots of feedback, criticism, contacts. But the other larger room at Pfaff's was the meeting place of all kinds of people — the unconventionals of 1850s society, including gay men. So half the time, Whitman was sitting at the long table with fellow artists. The other half, he was mingling in the main room, meeting gay men. Pfaff's was tailor-made for him.

Not only was Pfaff's good for him, but his travels to and from the saloon were good for him, too. Walking the streets of Manhattan late at night — this is a gender-divided society, so you're likely to encounter mostly men late at night. Certainly Whitman knew the right places outside of Pfaff's to be walking around to encounter other gay men. He had to get to the ferry to travel back to Brooklyn, so he certainly met men down by the water. The saloon itself was great for him, but his travels home were certainly an opportunity for some early 19th-century cruising.

BA: Some scholars don't label Whitman as gay. Do you think it's historically accurate to call him homosexual?

JM: I think it's absolutely fair to describe him as gay in our current understanding of that term. The first thing I'd say is that his poetry tells you everything you need to know. There are sexual poems he writes about women where you feel very little heat being generated. But any poems about men, whether romantic or erotic poems — that's where his passion lay.

In his lifetime, he lived with three men with romantic relationships. I think for way too long there's been all sorts of 19th-century versus current times relativism, which made people shy or concerned about calling him gay. But I think the evidence in his poetry and life is unequivocal.

It's hard to reconstruct some of those relationships and know exactly, because there was a paucity of terminology. For instance, "homosexual" didn't really come into play. But they understood what the relationship was. People seemed to recognize what it was when he was with another man.

BA: How did Clapp receive Whitman?

JM: Clapp took a particular shine to Whitman. He recognized him as a singular talent. A lot of people around the table were jealous. They said Whitman didn't deserve it. One person around table called him "odoriferous."

When he started going to Pfaff's, he was an unemployed poet living at home with his mother, and several siblings with their kids, all crowded together in a basement apartment in Brooklyn. He was very adrift at that point. He published two previous editions of Leaves of Grass that were critical and commercial failures. Joining Pfaff's when he was so adrift gave him a needed artistic identity at a time when that was in question, and it put him in the company of artists who goaded him on.

He actually wrote 146 poems during that period. It was one of the most productive times of his career. He wrote lots of poems with controversial themes. Those poems become the core of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, which put him on the slow road to  poetic immortality.

Whitman profile

Whitman portrait. (Popperfoto/Getty)

BA: If Clapp liked him, Emerson hated him.

JM: Whitman's relationship with Emerson was already tense because of earlier editions of Leaves of Grass. Emerson thought he had one more crack at convincing Whitman to expurgate the bawdy sections of Leaves of Grass, so he met with him and spent two hours on a long walk with him trying to get him to remove the new passagesEmerson thought it had too much bawdy, risqué poetry. But Whitman ignored Emerson's counsel. Emerson would later say that Whitman was alright until he became Bohemian. Before them, he sort of had hopes that this bold, young poet with an experimental versifying style could maybe be his protégé. But once Whitman took the Bohemian term, that wasn't possible.

BA: Why do you think Whitman is the enduring poet that he is? What is it about his verse that ensures his place in the American poetic canon?

JM: Whitman is a complete artist. There are so many things I could cite. First, he's just a spectacularly good poet. On top of that, he's accessible: anyone can read his poetry and enjoy it. And it holds up after 150 years. It's still easy to read, yet incredibly complex and moving. He was a formal innovator, the person who gets credit for inventing free verse, bringing idiom and slang into poetry.

There was a grand mandate he saw for himself: to try and capture the diversity and complexity and multiplicity of America. He was in the right place at the right time, from the standpoint that he wrote Leaves of Grass as a living document that included Civil War poems, and the assassination of Lincoln, which was one of the most momentous events of American history. But there were also poems about lesser things, like aging, poems that were relevant to the 19th century.

The final thing I would say is there are untold millions of gay people who have read Whitman's poetry at those times they've faced real discrimination, and it's been so heartening to them. To have a person recognize, in such dignified and humane terms, the naturalness of being gay — this was a man who in the 1850s and 60s was writing poetry about being gay being a natural thing. I can only imagine millions of people in high school and college found a kindred spirit in Walt Whitman as a fellow gay man. In general, his attitude of sexuality and the body was universal, as well. A lot of people of all sexualities are able to find a kindred spirit in him.

BA: Is Pfaff's still standing today in New York City?

JM: You can actually find the address, and the building from the 1850s, which is unusual because there are so many New York addresses from that era that you couldn't find. But what you'll find now is a women's shoe store. But 150 years' worth of people renovating, and with the shoes piled up high, you could see not a trace of the fact that this was the room where Whitman once gathered.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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