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Whitman at Pfaff's: Personal Space, a Public Place, and the Boundary-Breaking Poems of Leaves of Grass (1860)

Karbiener, Karen. "Whitman at Pfaff's: Personal Space, a Public Place, and the Boundary-Breaking Poems of Leaves of Grass (1860)." Literature of New York. Ed. Sabrina Fuchs-Abrams. Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars, 2009. 1-38.
literary criticism

Karbiener discusses the imagery concerning urban public space in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. She “attempts to construct the ambiance of Pfaff’s” and seeks to establish its importance in Whitman’s work. She argues that this space, which included Pfaff’s at its center, affected a shift from the more public edition of 1856 to the more personal 1860 edition. This shift seems ironic given Pfaff’s roles as a space of camaraderie; however, Karbiener argues that although Whitman’s fellow Bohemians at Pfaff’s were often cordial to Whitman himself, they were not always welcoming of his work. In essence, Pfaff’s essentially enabled Whitman’s “intimacy and connectivity” as displayed in poems like “Calamus 29.”

Karbiener stresses the role of place in Whitman’s creative process, specifically how Pfaff’s “encouraged and even enabled” the “intimacy and connectivity” found in some of the Calamus poems. She connects Whitman’s fondness for Pfaff’s to his personal struggles for literary fame and popular acceptance, arguing that the bar’s Bohemians, even though they were critical of Whitman’s style, served to comfort the lonely writer through uncertain and disappointing years. The article provides a detailed analysis of the architecture at Pfaff’s and seeks to connect its different spaces to the experiments in structure Whitman included in Leaves of Grass (1860). Indeed, Karbiener contends that Pfaff’s odd divisions of rooms may have inspired Whitman’s notion of poetic individuality.

People Mentioned in this Work

Bloom, Nathaniel

Includes description of Bloom as "direct, plain-spoken, natural-hearted, gentle-tempered, but awful when roused."

The Fred Gray Association

Mentions the "Fred Gray Association" as perhaps New York's first gay society.

Gray, John Frederick

Notes how Gray related the horrific details of Antietam to Whitman in September 1862, after which Whitman decided to go to the front.

Mallen, Edward

Discusses Mallen as an artist who sketched Whitman at Pfaff's.

Swinton, John

Mentions letter to Whitman from John Swinton in which Swinton indicates that the Bohemian crowd at Pfaff's often treated Whitman poorly.

Vedder, Elihu

Vedder is cited as saying that in the 1850s Whitman "had not become famous yet, and I then regarded many of the [Bohemian] boys as his superiors, as they did themselves."