Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians

 by Justin Martin, Da Capo

HENRY CLAPP JR., an itinerant journalist and lecturer from Massachusetts, had the good fortune to visit Paris in 1849. He was just in time to experience the bohemian café society chronicled by Henry Murger, whose sketches inspired a play, Scènes de la vie de Bohème, which in turn begat Puccini’s La Bohème. Clapp decided to create a bohemian scene in New York, and he chose Pfaff ’s Lager Bier Saloon in the basement at 647 Broadway, near Bleecker Street. The saloon, run by a genial Swiss immigrant, reminded Clapp of bohemian gathering places in Europe, with good beer, coffee and food. (Today the site is a women’s shoe store.)

Clapp assembled a dazzling and eclectic group of young artists from New York’s burgeoning theater and publishing scenes. The group included Fitz-James O’Brien, an Irish-born writer and pioneer of fantasy fiction; Artemus Ward (born Charles Farrar Brown), Abraham Lincoln’s favorite humorist; Fitz Hugh Ludlow, author of the hugely successful book, The Hasheesh Eater; the legendary Adah Isaacs Menken, the sex symbol and popular theater box office draw; Ada Clare, an actress and early feminist writer; and Walt Whitman, then an unassuming poet from Brooklyn. Edwin Booth, America’s greatest tragedian, and a teenage newspaper apprentice named Tomas Nast, who later became the country’s best-known political cartoonist, were peripheral members. Clapp was “the King of Bohemia,” Ada Clare “the Queen.”

Justin Martin, author of a 2011 biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, has found a wonderful subject in America’s first bohemians, and in Rebel Souls he tells their story with a witty style worthy of his protagonists. The group’s members had little in common besides talent, audacity and a propensity for flaunting Victorian mores. That included welcoming women into their social sessions, even though, writes Martin, “American society was extremely segregated by gender.” And Pfaff ’s “was a place where gay men could meet in an era when such matters were not so clearly defined.”

The Pfaffians met five or six nights a week and formed “what today is called a counterculture,” writes Martin. They drank and chewed or smoked hashish; some had children out of wedlock. The group members championed satirical journalism, wrote fiction and poetry that defend convention and often mocked the stuffiness of the Northeastern cultural establishment. Clapp made them famous—or notorious—by publishing their work in his Saturday Press, which, in its “brief, impecunious existence” from 1858-60 and then again from 1865-66, was one of the country’s most culturally important publications. It introduced many of the period’s brightest young writers to a national audience. In a two-week span in 1865, Clapp printed Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” and Mark Twain’s first national success, the story later known as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

Most of the group died young. Fitz-James O’Brien was 32 when he succumbed from a Civil War wound. Artemus Ward died of tuberculosis at age 32. Ada Clare was 39 when she died, incredibly, from rabies after a dog bite. After years of drug use, Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s body gave out at age 34. Menken, who lived the most spectacular life of all the bohemians, died in Paris, age 33, of unknown causes after completing a tour of Britain and France, during which she had charmed Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle (who based the character of Irene Adler in “A Scandal in Bohemia” on her) and Alexandre Dumas. Clapp died penniless in 1875 at age 60, suffering from alcoholism and mental illness. Whitman, the most obscure member of the group when it was formed, is the only one of the artists whose work is remembered today. Still, as Martin notes, their “animating spirit lives on.”


Originally published in the February 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.