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Winter, William (1836-1917)

Biographer, Essayist, Poet

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). His arrival coincided with the beginning of the flourishing of Pfaff’s. In late 1859, Winter became a so-called "sub-editor" for the Saturday Press (Lause 79). For the Saturday Press, Winter reviewed theatrical performances in the column, "Dramatic Feuilleton," which was previously written by James Fitz O'Brien. Winter became a regular at Pfaff’s during this period, where he, along with the other Bohemians, went "precisely to escape the tedious presence of the general public" (Whitley 104). It was also here he met Whitman and its other frequenters whom he later described in Old Friends (1909). He also wrote introductions and brief biographies for the editions of the collected works of Pfaff’s regulars like Fitz James O’Brien, John Brougham, and George Arnold. According to scholar Joanna Levin, Winter's memoirs display the "spectacular design of the Bohemian's self-staging" (19).

Winter was very much connected to the Bohemian circle who gathered at Pfaff's. Several contemporaries recognized his presence there including the author of Henry Clapp's obituary in the New York Times, who included Winter among the "Knights of the Round Table" of the "lions of Bohemia" (NYT, April 26, 1890, 2). Scholars, too, have confirmed his involvement at Pfaff's with Tice Miller describing him as a "regular" at the establishment and Mark Lause noting that Winter was one of the men at Pfaff's who was quite willing to join in tormenting Walt Whitman over his Leaves of Grass (Miller 16; Lause 53). In fact, according to Miller, by December 1859, Winter was accepted by most Pfaffians, with the notable exception of Walt Whitman who "found his friendship and talents distasteful" (70).

In 1860, Winter married Scottish novelist Elizabeth Campbell; the couple raised their five children in Staten Island, New York. Winter moved on to work as a dramatic and literary critic for the Albion and Harper’s Weekly, as well as Horace Greeley’s Tribune, where he built a national reputation as a stage historian and theater critic (W. Eaton, “William Winter”). After the Civil War several Pfaffians, including "William Winter and Thomas Bailey Aldrich turned their backs upon Bohemianism and embraced standards of taste we call 'The Genteel Tradition'" (Miller 17). From 1856-1870, Winter served as the managing editor of the New York Weekly Review, to which he also contributed several pieces ("William Winter," 19). In the 1880s he began publishing biographies of thespians like the Jefferson family and Edwin Booth. Winter opposed the modernist theater of playwrights like Ibsen, and maintained that drama should be a moral force. He encouraged actors and writers to acknowledge the "use of a power manifestly greater in modern society than it ever was before in the history of civilization... and, if possible, to exert a beneficial influence on the mind of the rising generation, -- the generation that will support the Drama, determine its spirit, and shape its destiny" (xxv). Winter died in July 1917. He was memoralized in a New York Times obituary as being "perhaps the only American author who may truly be said to have built up a great reputation as a critical essayist on theatrical performances and the history of the stage" ("William Winter," 19).