Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians by Justin Martin

Ever heard of Pfaff's Restaurant and Lager Beer Saloon? I had not before reading Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians by Justin Martin. When we visited manhattan, we may have passed right by the historic saloon's basement location on Broadway without knowing. Pfaff's (with a silent P) is where a literary circle met nightly in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Most of the authors, actors, and painters who hung out at Pfaff's have been forgotten, but they epitomize figures of tragic starving artists. Most died young with only one or two moments of fame, but they were joined by poet Walt Whitman, who became a primary character in the story of American literature.

Roughly half of Rebel Souls is about the time the circle met in the basement around a big table ruled by Henry Clapp, Jr., the King of Bohemia, a former temperance advocate turned whisky drinker and literary magazine editor. About a quarter to a third of the book focuses on Whitman. The second half of the book recounts the lives of circle after they ventured away, some participating in the Civil War.

Among those forgotten soon after their deaths:

  • Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who wrote The Hasheesh Eater, which detailed his college experiments with drugs, and who later accompanied painter Albert Bierstadt on a western painting expedition. (Bierstadt stole Ludlow's wife.)
  • Ada Clare, an actress and unwed mother who also wrote poetry and essays for Clapp's Saturday Press magazine.
  • Fitz-James O'Brien, a journalist and cartoonist who died a lingering death after a battle injury as a Union soldier.
  • Adah Isacs Menken, another actress, who seems to have foreshadowed Marilyn Monroe by a century.
Late on the scene were Artemus Ward, who essentially became America's first stand-up comic, and Edwin Booth, the Shakespearean actor whose brother assassinated the president.

Rebel Souls is rich with biographical profiles and historical incidents and will please readers interested in 19th century America. It may also connect with people who lived through the 1960s.

Martin, Justin. Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians. Da Capo Press, 2014. 339p. ISBN 9780306822261.

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