In an Underground Bar With America’s First Bohemians

Rebel Souls tells how Walt Whitman and a cast of colorful characters helped define American culture from a dark, 19th century basement bar in Manhattan.

Almost anyone who enjoys a drink, be it alcoholic or caffeinated, enjoys a good gathering place in which to savor that beverage. From the ubiquity of Starbucks to the charm of your local java shop, from Norm’s spot at the bar at Cheers to the fabled Dylan Thomas booth at The White Horse Tavern, watering holes serve a distinct purpose in American society.

Sure, sometimes you may just be stopping in for a coffee on the way to work or pulling up a seat at the bar to unwind during happy hour while catching a few minutes of the game. However, take a gander around and you’ll see that these shops are also bastions of creativity, debate, and thoughtfulness that show no signs of losing patronage. Just try to find an available power outlet for your laptop or attempt to find two consecutive open barstools at 6PM, if you’re unconvinced. Folks like to imbibe and are loyal to those places that treat them well.

As Justin Martin, author of previous biographies on Frederik Law Olmstead, Alan Greenspan, and Ralph Nader, quickly illustrates with his deeply authoritative and meticulously researched Rebel Souls, this maxim proved to be just as true in 19th century America as it is today.

In the 1850s, as the still nascent United States inched ever closer to an impending Civil War, an interesting scene was burgeoning in lower Manhattan. Fueled and inspired by time spent in the legendarily vibrant coffeehouses of Paris, young Henry Clapp, Jr. settled into Pfaff’s Saloon at 647 Broadway and began to hold court with a roving group of artists, writers, and other assorted deep thinkers.

In heavy contrast to the country club-like gatherings favored by the blue bloods of the time, the folks at who assembled at Pfaff’s were a bit of a raggedy bunch: artistic outsiders who were often marginalized or looked down upon by the more established order of American society. Free thinking and whimsical impulsiveness hadn’t yet found its’ way towards the mainstream, so Clapp’s enclave was a safe haven and a creative boon for those who sought it out.

Among those who did included America’s father of stand-up comedy: Artemus Ward (aka “Charlie Brown”), America’s first stoner cowboy: Fitz High Ludlow, best known for his groundbreaking work, The Hasheesh Eater, and America’s first sex symbol: the unabashedly far-out Adah Isaacs Menken. There were others who frequented the unadorned underground hideout in the hopes of engaging in free-flowing banter, intellectual debate, or as a novelty for the times, same-sex romantic mingling. However, the most famous of the Phaff regulars was none other than America’s poet, Walt Whitman, who began descending the subterranean steps as a struggling poetic hopeful, still living with his mother in Brooklyn, in search of cerebral stimulation and an audience for which his writing would resonate.

The thesis of Martin’s work is that Pfaff’s served as the staging ground for the American Bohemian movement that, according to Martin in the book’s introduction, can still be felt today in the shape of modern-day trailblazers Lady Gaga, George Carlin, and Dave Eggers. It’s a bit of a bold assertion, and a bit of a random one at that, as Martin also readily admits that few people, himself included, had heard of the gatherings at Pfaff’s. And, while Martin gives readers plenty of engaging and descriptive tales of Pfaff culture — Whitman’s almost non-existent taste for alcohol, Clapp’s excoriating rants against the Boston-based establishment, Edwin Booth’s (brother of John Wilkes) acting prowess — he goes light on just what it is that makes this cast of characters so distinctly “bohemian”.

Sure, they ruffled feathers, sought out unconventional outlets, and lived freely, but by the book’s conclusion, it’s still a little unclear as to what everyone represented as a whole. Was it really a conscious movement or just more a matter of convenience and circumstance that brought all involved together?

The book works better as an entertaining historical feature that documents some wildly raucous characters. As publisher of the roguish Saturday Post, Clapp, Jr. was a bit of a muckraker, constantly engaging in petty and personal verbal warfare with the more highbrow New England-based Atlantic. Ward sauntered into New York City from Cleveland and feverishly perfected his deadpan and droll comic delivery, which quickly made him generously liked across the United States and soon put him in the path of another burgeoning writer with comedic tendencies who went by the name of Mark Twain.

Proving his skill for scrupulous research, Martin also offers forth detailed and lengthy passages on Ludlow’s ill-timed journey out West with the famed landscape artist Albert Bierstadt, the constant familial drama within the Booth family, and the inner demons that both motivated and ultimately plagued the never-dull Mencken. Even some commonplace Abraham Lincoln anecdotes figure prominently into the story.

Whitman, though, seems to be casting the biggest shadow in the book, and if there’s a fault with Martin’s work, it’s that at times, the focus on the poet can be overwhelming. Whitman may have been the most recognizable of the Pfaff regulars, but that doesn’t mean he was the most interesting. Too often, the book gets bogged down with excess detail of Whitman’s publishing squabbles over Leaves of Grass, his attempts at making financial strides, or his time spent as an Army hospital volunteer during the war.

Sure, Whitman’s name appears in the sub-title, his picture graces the cover, and Martin states in the introduction that his “goal is to provide fresh context for Whitman’s life and career”. However, there’s already been more than enough written on his life’s endeavors. Martin may have been better served by digging deeper into the concept of bohemia rather than rehashing the ins and outs of Whitman’s life accomplishments.

The Whitman-centric focus aside, though, Rebel Souls is an ambitious and engaging achievement that sheds light on a fascinating and influential slice of Americana. In a sense, these “Pfaffians” were ahead of the curve, as their progressive viewpoints and non-normative actions still resonate today. Clapp’s vision was realized in that dark basement hangout on Broadway where legendary minds mingled, bonded, and hashed out theories deep into the night. History recognizes them as trailblazers, but at the time, they just liked to get together and share a drink. Like the theme song for the famous television show, Cheers, tells us: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” The folks at Pfaff’s realized this long before we all did, and that is the central takeaway of Martin’s book.

RATING 6 / 10