Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is only the best known of Martin’s (Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, 2011, etc.) gallery of the 19th-century bohemians who haunted Pfaff’s Saloon in New York City.
The leader of this boisterous set was Henry Clapp (1814-1875), an irreverent moral relativist who thrilled in playing off his coterie of writers and artists for the best put-downs and bons mots. Clapp’s attitude sprang from his experiences in Paris’ Latin Quarter, where he met the true bohemians who formed the basis of La Vie de Bohème. They sat in Café Momus discussing, rather than producing, their art and drinking strong coffee and stronger alcohol. Mostly, they had no money, no prospects, multiple romances and lots of talk. Ultimately, these circumstances brought Clapp back to the saloon on the corner of Broadway and Bleeker Street to interact with the fascinating crowd he met there night after night. Though Whitman was often there, he was not always with Clapp’s crowd. He also spent time with new friends in the larger room, where one’s sexuality was not a matter of discussion. Many of the figures in Martin’s entertaining cultural history failed miserably, and many died young. Some like actor Edwin Booth (brother to John Wilkes) and humor writer Artemus Ward, left their marks, while others faded away. As they spread across America and the Atlantic, they met writers as diverse as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. Clapp vigorously promoted Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and gave Twain his first national break in the Saturday Press. Martin truly opens up the characters of these creative, sensitive men, examining their lives before the Civil War and the ways in which they reacted to it.
The author’s solid research into the connections of these curiously varied men and women makes this a wonderful story of one of the world’s odd little cultural cliques.