Born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Thomas Bailey Aldrich moved with his father to New Orleans, Louisiana at the age of three. He remained there until age thirteen, when his father's impending death prompted Aldrich's return to New Hampshire and his mother's household (Parker). At age sixteen, Aldrich started working as a clerk for his uncle, Charles Frost: "While working over the books of the firm, his mind was often busy with themes outside of the commission house, all leading towards a literary career" (Hemstreet 218).
Though many details about his early life are in dispute, scholars agree that Arnold was born in New York City and that his father may have been the Reverend George B. Arnold. The family relocated to Illinois and then to Monmouth County, New Jersey where Arnold enjoyed a country upbringing. Though he apprenticed himself to a portrait painter in New York in 1852, Arnold soon determined that literature would be his true calling.
Born in Massachusetts to a family of merchants and seamen, Clapp traveled to Paris to translate the socialist writings of Fourier. In Paris, Clapp abandoned his ardent sympathy for the temperance movement and embraced the leisurely café life of the city. Upon returning to New York in 1850, he sought to recreate this atmosphere, spending hours at Charlie Pfaff's beer cellar, drawing a crowd of journalists, painters, actors, and poets to cultivate an American Bohemia in which participants admired and discussed the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, and Washington Irving (Martin 15-7).
Ada Clare (whose given name was Jane McIlheny) was born in South Carolina. As Thomas Gunn, a contemporary of Clare, describes she "made an attempt – several attempts – to become a tragic actress, but despite any amount of puffery on the part of fellows who knew her (or wanted to know her in a scriptural sense) failed. She had money and aspired for 'fame' only" (Gunn vol. 11, 160). She received a small inheritance upon her parents' deaths, which she used to travel to Paris.
Edward Howland was born in Charleston, South Carolina and was educated at Harvard. He is remembered as an "elegant scholar" who sold "his choice library he had spent many years and a fortune to collect" to help Henry Clapp launch the Saturday Press (Rawson 106). Howland was in charge of the business side of the publication (Miller 26) and is also listed among the “friendly contributors” who “were glad to furnish articles for nothing, being friendly toward the establishment of an absolutely independent critical paper” (Winter 294).
Born in County Cork and raised primarily in Limerick, Ireland, Fitz-James O'Brien moved to New York City in 1852. Descending from an Anglo-Irish landholding family, O'Brien received his inheritance (estimated at £8000) at about the age of 21. Between 1849 and 1851, it is believed that O'Brien edited a failed literary magazine called The Parlour Magazine of the Literature of All Nations and squandered his inheritance (Wolle 21). Leaving England almost penniless, O'Brien immigrated to America and made the U.S.
Charles Pfaff's obituary in the New York Times characterizes him as the proprietor of the famous Bohemian "chop house" at 647 Broadway that flourished between 1860 and 1875 ("In and About the City," 2). Born in Baden, Switzerland likely in 1819, Pfaff first arrived in New York in the early 1850s "part of a wave of German immigrants" (Blalock; Martin 18). According to scholar Justin Martin, "Herr Pfaff was a round little man with shaggy eyebrows and chubby fingers. His Old World manner and thickly accented English gave him a courtly and discreet air" (18).
Charles Dawson Shanly emigrated to New York City from Ireland via Canada and was working as the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Public Works in 1857. In New York City during the late 1850s and 1860s, Shanly was productive as a journalist and editor at such publications as Vanity Fair, Mrs. Grundy, the New York Leader, the Atlantic Monthly, and the New York Saturday Press.
Henry Wheeler Shaw was one of the "brightest and most popular humorous men of the day" (J. Derby 239). He was best known as a talented "humorist, a homespun philospher [sic], and a conscious literary artist. One of his chief strengths was originality; in such a graphic epigram as ’when a feller gits a goin down hil, it dus seem as tho evry thing had bin greased for the okashun,’ even the deliberate misspellings fade into the background behind the compelling image" (Kesterson). At age seventeen, Shaw began a ten year exploration of western portions of the United States.
Richard Henry Stoddard's early years were rather Dickensian. After his sea-captain father was lost at sea, Stoddard endured a life of poverty that led him to move with his mother to New York City in 1835. There he worked at a number of odd jobs before being employed, at age eleven, in an iron foundry. An autodidact who read voraciously in his youth, Stoddard published his first book of poems, Footprints (1849), after befriending Bayard Taylor--who introduced Stoddard to his future wife, Elizabeth Drew Barstow, herself an author of both fiction of poetry.
While there is scant evidence that Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) ever visited Pfaff's bar (only one source suggests that he did [Rawson 99]), he was connected to the Pfaff's bohemians in a number of ways.
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.
The unofficial biographer of the Pfaff’s crowd, William Winter was born in coastal Massachusetts, and his mother died when he was young. Winter attended school in Boston; he also went to Harvard Law School but decided not to practice ("William Winter, 19). By 1854 he had already published a collection of verse and worked as a reviewer for the Boston Transcript; he befriended Pfaffian Thomas Bailey Aldrich after reviewing a volume of his poetry. He relocated to New York in 1856 "because he believed [the city] offered the best field for writers" (Levin 153).