Born into an anti-slavery family of eight children, Howells aided his family by setting type in his journalist father's printing office.
David Edward Cronin, "A Few Impressions of Walt Whitman." The Conservator. June 1896 (7:57).
"Several times afterward I saw Walt Whitman riding beside drivers on Broadway stages, and I always took a good look at him, because I understood he was studying life,' and this seemed to be detecting him in the act. In the spring and fall of 1857 I frequently saw Whitman in Pfaff's restaurant, on Broadway, near Bond Street. Sometimes I sat near him at table and heard him talk. As I took one or more meals at Pfaff's almost every day, for months, in that and the following year, I came to know, by sight and name, all the habitues of the place--the coterie of literary men, newspaper reporters, artists, who helped to make the place somewhat famous. As a group, they probably approached nearer the descriptions given of the better class of Parisian Bohemians than any similar gathering ever seen in a New York cafÃ©. Whitman was by no means so well known then as some of the other writers I met there; as, for example, George Arnold, Fitz James O'Brien, Henry D. Clapp, William Winter, 'Doesticks' Thompson and Charles Dawson Shanley. It was Whitman's imposing personality and unconventional attire that made him the most noticeable figure of the whole group. But, though a frequenter, he could scarcely be considered an habitue of the place. That is, he was not one of the everlasting sitters, some of whom did their writing there. He came, not every day, but occasionally; always appeared to treat his friends in a cordial, yet dignified way; did not seem to linger, and was prone to go off to ride on a Broadway bus. My impressions of Whitman then, considering him as a poet, were derived from the remarks of two of my intimate companions, my seniors by several years. One was a writer, belonging to a literary family: the other, an artist and a scholar--somewhat cynical, as became a thorough New Yorker and man of the world, yet, as I believe, fair and even generous as a critic. From my literary friend, I received the impression that Whitman was a mere eccentricity--a volunteer fireman of ordinary attainments, trying to write verses. My artist friend gave me a different view. He described Whitman as a printer, a self-educated man with literary ambitions; the owner of a newspaper somewhere on Long Island, a worker who was not to be confounded with the loquacious sitters who spent the whole day and part of the night at Pfaff's. This artist had read some of Whitman’s verse and understood it. In short, he gave me the impression that Whitman was a man to respect, not to deride" (50-51).
Oscar Lovell Triggs, "Walt Whitman: A Character Study." The Conservator. September-October 1898 (9:100).
"A warm, magnetic personality penetrates Leaves of Grass, felt through the poem as sunlight through vapor. It is this presence that gives the poems significance. Indeed the opinion may come to prevail that the life was greater than the literature. 'In Walt Whitman,' said Robert Buchanan, 'I see more than the maker of poems. I see a personality worthy to rank even above that of Socrates.' And it has always been true that those who derided his poetry held it an honor to revere the man. One of the old Pfaff group used to say that Whitman would have served the world better had he stuck to the printer's case and left poetry alone; but as to the man--he was large of heart, large of soul, and large of nature. It may be deemed more important, therefore, that Whitman should come to be known for his expansive personality rather than for any particular literary gift. Let the doubt stand for the moment in order to emphasize the query as to the character of the man. Curiously, it will be found that the book presupposes the man, and that the man--his features, walk, speech, touch, the glance of the eye, his mind and spirit--enters into and completes the book. His influence, in short, is mesmeric; that is, he does not affect men by his thought or conduct, but seizes them directly by his living personality. . . . The contemporary descriptions are numerous. One of the earliest recorded comments is that of Thoreau, in 1856, undoubtedly made as much with reference to the physical as the spiritual impression: 'He occasionally suggests something a little more than human.' William Dean Howells saw him in the autumn of 1860, and thus describes the event: 'Whitman was often at Pfaff's, and the night of my visit he was the chief fact of my experience. I did not know he was there till I was on my way out, for he did not sit at the table under the pavement, but at the head of one farther in the room. There, as I passed, some friendly fellow stopped me and named me to him, and I remember how he leaned back in his chair, and reached out his great hand to me, as if he were going to give it me for good
and all. He had a fine head, with a cloud of Jovian hair upon it, and a branching beard and mustache, and gentle eyes that looked most kindly into mine, and seemed to wish the liking which I instantly gave him, though we hardly passed a word, and our acquaintance was summed up in that glance and the grasp of his mighty fist upon my hand'" (166-67).
The Vault at Pfaff's
27 Memorial Drive West, Bethlehem, PA 18015