The enduring image of Walt Whitman is as a bearded old sage living out his years in his Camden home. And yet, he was still a relatively unknown writer into his 40s, living with his mother in Brooklyn and wandering Manhattan’s streets at night. During this time, he went underground (literally) to Pfaff’s, a below street-level saloon catering to artists and writers at Broadway and Bleecker. For four years (1858-62), he was a regular there, along with Adah Isaacs Menken, Thomas Nast, Ada Clare and Fitz Hugh “Hasheesh Eater” Ludlow, all of whom pushed the Downtown borders as the punks would do more than a century later. Once the Civil War started, Whitman left NYC and became the poet we know today. But his transformation took place in Manhattan. On the anniversary of Whitman’s death (March 26), we offer this reflection.
“I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”-“Song of Myself”-Walt Whitman
It is only natural to believe that anyone born in a previous generation from your own could not possibly have been hip. It wasn’t all that long ago that the Rat Pack, the Lettermen and Perry Como were the cat’s pajamas. The Beatles put an end to that, of course.
And yet, from generation to generation, large groups of Americans have been hip. That is, they have embraced the free spirit of bohemianism, flaunted the status quo and let their freak flags fly, even if the remained unknown to the wider world. And this has been going on since before the Civil War.
Take Walt Whitman (1819-1892), arguably our first authentic poetic “voice,” free spirit, pantheist, hipster and spiritual forebear (along with William Blake) to Allen Ginsberg, the Beat Generation’s poetic voice. As a young college student, Ginsberg not only had a mystical experience in which Blake spoke to him, he later had a vision of Walt Whitman hanging out in a supermarket.
Whitman was part of a vibrant circle of bohemians who frequented a New York saloon called Pfaff’s during the years 1858-1862. Pfaff’s, located on Broadway near Bleecker Street, was modeled on the beer cellars of Europe, a large windowless firetrap of a room that catered to an artistic and literary clientele. According to Justin Martin’s book Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians, this interlude was not just a footnote on the great poet’s life. It was a formative four-year experience.
At the time, Whitman was nearing middle age, not widely known, and living with his mother in Brooklyn. He’d self-published two early editions of Leaves of Grass, that, despite a rave from America’s then preeminent literary figure Ralph Waldo Emerson, sold poorly. During the four years that Whitman was a near nightly fixture at Pfaff’s, he expanded his vision and focused his prodigious energies into his verse. A clear line of demarcation can be seen in the later “complete” editions of Leaves of Grass, because Whitman’s greatest poems were written after his association with Pfaff’s and the bohemian clientele he found there.
Though not surprising, Whitman’s connection to America’s first circle of bohemians has gone largely unrecognized until Martin’s colorful account of the Pfaff’s circle. Other members of this hip cognoscenti included Fitz Hugh Ludlow, a proto-hippie who wrote The Hasheesh Eater; Adah Isaacs Menken, whom Martin describes as a “sepia-tone Marilyn Monroe” and whose performances in Mazeppa, a bawdy drama involving horses, earned her the nickname ‘the Naked Lady’; humorist Artemus Ward, who some have called America’s first standup comic; soon to be famous cartoonist Thomas Nast; Ada Clare, the so-called ‘Queen of Bohemia,’ and various other now largely forgotten artists, writers and hangers on. Also among the denizens were the famous acting siblings, drunken Edwin Booth and his tormented little brother, John Wilkes Booth.
Ada Clare, from NY Public Library collection
Adah Menken on stage in Mazeppa, “a ‘risque equestrian drama’.
Before Walt Whitman, there was Henry Clapp, a Nantucket-born scion of a strict puritanical family who, in one of the most unlikely transformations in American letters, became known as the “King of Bohemia”. Once out of school, Clapp left Nantucket for Boston, moved to Lynn, which was then a haven of radical views and labor uprisings, to edit a newspaper. After he was thrown in jail for calling a judge a “lummox,” Clapp’s star was in ascension. He began lecturing widely on the lyceum circuit about abolition and pacifism.
Clapp’s road to Damascus moment occurred in Paris, where he repaired in 1849. He arrived at an auspicious time. In 1849, Paris was home to 4,500 cafes. In one, the legendary Café Momus, an impoverished hack writer name Henri Murger began to look around at all the misfits, artists and theatrical hangers on who comprised the clientele. He began writing sketches of these people and turned them into a five-act play, called La vie de Boheme, which was the Hair of its day (and later inspired Puccini’s opera La Boheme as well as Rent). Voila. The term “bohemian” was born and Clapp was there to see it in the delivery room. He decided to clone the same baby in New York. Once he came upon Pfaff’s, an otherwise seedy, dingy but capacious room below street level on Broadway, he had his incubator.
Fitz Hugh Ludlow, author of The Hasheesh Eater
Fitz Hugh Ludlow
Fitz Hugh Ludlow, via creative commons
Clapp absorbed the bohemian roots along the Left Bank and then brought the spirit back with him to America to recreate in NYC. He wandered in to Pfaff’s one night, and realized the long dimly-lit room was perfect. It was surely not lost on him, or the other denizens, that one had to climb down steps to enter Pfaff’s, thus reinforcing the sense of being “underground,” among the coolest of the cool, like the underground press, underground music, underground comix, underground literature, underground theater of the 1950s and 1960s. Is it any coincidence that the coolest clubs, bars and record shop require you to walk up or down a flight of stairs?
Though Clapp was the driving force of America’s bohemian scene, Whitman was the star, “conferring legitimacy” on the enterprise, according to Martin. Between 1858 and 1862, Whitman was a familiar face at Pfaff’s. It was here that he could allow his gayness out of the closet and let down his hair among kindred spirits.
Clapp also founded an influential journal, Saturday Press, to spread his gospel of hip. Though his weekly was always on financial thin ice, it carried far more weight in shaping public discourse than its circulation would suggest, putting New York on the cultural map, stealing Boston’s thunder, and making Whitman a widely known poet.
The Civil War scattered the Pfaff’s bohemians to the winds like spores spreading the hipster gospel across the land. With Lincoln’s assassination, the first wave of adherents lost their fighting spirit. Nearly all but Whitman died young. Still, their legacy was passed along to future waves of bohemians, including the beatniks, the hippies, the punks and anyone who flaunts the status quo today.