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Whitman, Walt (1819-1892)

Essayist, Journalist, Poet

Born on Long Island and raised in Brooklyn, Walt Whitman spent his childhood and early adulthood amid the sights and sounds of New York City and its environs. As a young man Whitman worked as a journeyman printer for several New York newspapers, before ultimately becoming a journalist and editor in his own right. Before committing himself to poetry, Whitman also worked intermittently as a schoolteacher, a carpenter, and a writer of sensational prose fiction. In 1855, Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass, the book of poems that defined his career as a poet; he hoped that Leaves of Grass would take the literary world by storm. While there was a flurry of attention that surrounded the initial publication of his book--including positive appraisals by such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Eliot Norton--Whitman did not achieve the immediate fame that he had hoped for. When he released a second and expanded edition of Leaves of Grass the following year that similarly did not catapult him to immediate literary stardom, he withdrew from the public eye for a number of years before releasing the third edition of Leaves of Grass in 1860.

It is during this period of Whitman's life that he began frequenting Pfaff's bar and fraternizing with bohemians such as Henry Clapp, George Arnold, and Ada Clare. If the literary mainstream failed to recognize Whitman's genius, the Pfaff's bohemians made up for that lack tenfold. In the pages of the Saturday Press Whitman was lionized as "The New Nebuchadnezzar" of American poetry (May 26, 1860) and made the focus of more media attention than any other writer mentioned in the Press. This critical appraisal from the bohemian group wasn't unanimous, however. Reminiscing about his time at Pfaff's, artist Elihu Vedder recalls that it was, "[t]here I saw Walt Whitman; he had not become famous yet, and I then regarded many of the Boys as his superiors, as they did themselves" (Digressions 226). Moreover, Thomas Gunn, an occasional visitor to Pfaff's, noted that Whitman had somewhat of a reputation for being miserly among the Bohemians as he was "voted mean as he never stands drinks or pays for his own if it's possible to avoid it" (vol. 13, 121).

In one of his many accounts of the time he spent at Pfaff's Whitman said, "I used to go to Pfaff's nearly every night. . . after taking a bath and finishing the work of the day. When it began to grow dark, Pfaff would politely invite everybody who happened to be sitting in the cave he had under the sidewalk to some other part of the restaurant. There was a long table extending the length of this cave; and as soon as the Bohemians put in an appearance, Henry Clapp would take a seat at the head of the table. I think there was as good talk around that table as took place anywhere in the world. Clapp was a very witty man" ("A Visit to Walt Whitman" 10).

According to A. L. Rawson, "Walt Whitman was a caller [at Pfaff's] before and after the war, and no one was ever welcomed more heartily. Clapp once said: 'Here we have the poet of two hemispheres--for his humanity is too big for one'; and another time: 'Walt, your barbaric yawps have become musical in six languages'; and again 'Come, Whitman, you savage, open a page of nature for us'; and the poet would talk--oh, so earnestly and well! It was the general conviction of the coterie that Whitman had torn off the conventional gewgaws from human nature and glorified man. Whitman was impulsive and prompt in his kindness. He one day met an outcast young woman far down Broadway and walked with her all the long way up to Forty-second Street to commend her to Ada Clare's good graces, on the idea that she was the friend and patron of all sorts of misfortunes" (106).

Whitman, like several other bohemians, experimented with the boundaries of human sexuality while at Pfaff's. As Ed Folsom and Ken Price write in their biography of Whitman, "It was at Pfaff's, too, that Whitman joined the 'Fred Gray Association,' a loose confederation of young men who seemed anxious to explore new possibilities of male-male affection" (Re-Scripting 62).

Whitman left New York and Pfaff's in 1862 to work in the hospitals of the Union Army in Washington, D.C., during the U.S. Civil War. He lived in Washington in the years following the War and eventually settled across the river from Philadelphia in Camden, New Jersey, where he spent his twilight years receiving visits from fans and admirers of his poetry. On an August day in 1881, however, Whitman returned to Pfaff's--now relocated uptown on twenty-fourth street--to visit with Charles Pfaff and reminisce about the bohemian days. When Whitman arrived at Pfaff's he said that the proprietor "quickly appear'd on the scene to welcome me and bring up the news, and, first opening a big fat bottle of the best wine in the cellar, talk about ante-bellum times, '59 and '60, and the jovial suppers at his then Broadway place, near Bleecker Street" (Specimen Days and Collect 188).