Brain Pickings

Walt Whitman, Bohemian Dandy: The Story of America’s First Gay Bar and Its Creative Coterie

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“A failed romance. A restless sense of longing… These are raw ingredients that get mulled, weighed, processed — and ultimately transformed into art.”

Beneath 647 Broadway in Manhattan, now occupied by a Soho shoe boutique, was once Pfaff’s famous saloon, both a literal basement and a figurative cultural underground. Pfaff’s, pronounced fafs, was the favorite hangout of New York’s Bohemian artists and was later anointed as America’s first gay bar. Its token denizen was none other than Walt Whitman, for whom the Pfaff’s coterie became the fertile personal micro-culture that fueled the lifelong rewriting of his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, which he had self-published three years before he arrived at Pfaff’s. In his old age, Whitman lamented to his biographer: “Pfaff’s ‘Bohemia’ was never reported, and more the sorrow.”

In Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians (public library), writer Justin Martin sets out to mend that sorrow and assuage his own lament that “history is not a meritocracy,” shedding light on the untold story of the Pfaff’s set and its ample reverberations through the last 150 years of creative culture.

Illustration by Allen Crawford from 'Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself.' Click image for more.

But what made Pfaff’s invaluable to Whitman wasn’t only that it provided an extraordinary creative environment and much-needed support for the aspiring writer, as his grand ambitions to become the era’s greatest poet were deflated by an initial critical reception of derision and dismissal when Leaves of Grass was first published. The saloon was also a safe haven for him to explore his identity as a queer man in mid-19th-century America — a place whose patronage consisted of “assorted rebels and societal outliers, including plenty of gay men.” Whitman, as Martin describes him, was somewhat of an endearing dandy:

When he started frequenting the saloon, Whitman was thirty-nine years old. He stood roughly six feet, tall for the era, but weighed less than two hundred pounds. He wasn’t yet the beefy, shaggy poet of legend. His hair was cut short, a salt-and-pepper mix of brown and gray. His beard was trimmed. Only later would he put on weight, the wages of stress and illness and advancing age. Only later would he grow his hair long and let his beard go thick and bushy.

But he was already an eccentric dresser. Whitman favored workingmen’s garb, such as his wideawake, a type of broad-brimmed felt sombrero. He liked to wear it well back on his head, tilted at a rakish angle. His trousers were always tucked into cowhide boots. He wore rough-hewn shirts of unbleached linen, open at the collar, revealing a shock of chest hair. Whitman had a rosy complexion, almost baby-like, and quite incongruous for a big man. Because he was meticulous about hygiene, he always smelled of soap and cologne. His manner of dress often struck people as more like a costume. Or maybe it was a kind of armor, protecting the vulnerable man underneath.

Walt Whitman c. 1852 (Photograph courtesy of the Walt Whitman Archives)

Indeed, Whitman’s shell was decidedly deliberate — both in his personal and literary styles. Martin finds a similar stylistic “costume” in Whitman’s use of language:

As a poet, Whitman is celebrated for language that moves — soaring, swooping, singing — but his manner of speaking offered such a contrast: slow . . . deliberate . . . earthbound. He pronounced “poems” as “pomes,” drawling it out, his eyelids drooping. That was another of his characteristics—those drooping eyelids, which lent a kind of impassivity to many of his facial expressions.

It wasn’t as if his mind were slow; clearly, it was quite the opposite, but maybe all the connections and contradictions lighting up his synapses were best worked out on the page. At any rate, he steered clear of the “rubbing and drubbing,” as he called those infamous verbal battles. “My own greatest pleasure at Pfaff’s was to look on — to see, talk little, absorb,” he would recall. “I never was a great discusser, anyway — never.”

But perhaps what most mesmerized Whitman’s gaze at Pfaff’s, a place full of “quick, quirk, and queer conceit” per one patron’s account, was the undeniable sense of having found his tribe. Of course, as Martin points out, the actual term gay meant “lighthearted” and “cheerful” in the 1850s, and the word homosexual was still three decades from entering the popular lexicon. So while the saloon wasn’t a “gay bar” in the linguistic sense, it very much was semantically — it had two separate rooms to cater to its diverse clientele, one of which was occupied by a standby circle of gay men.

In that regard, rather than calling it a “semi-gay bar,” Martin proposes “semi-adhesive” — “adhesiveness” being a term from phrenology, that popular 19th-century pseudoscience that enchanted Whitman at least as much as it did George Eliot. Symbolized by two women embracing, “adhesiveness” — as opposed to “amativeness,” romantic love between a man and a woman — connotes, as Martin explains, a “capacity for intense and meaningful same-sex relationships.”

When Whitman first began visiting Pfaff’s, Martin writes, he was in an “adhesive,” serious relationship with a young man named Fred Vaughan, nearly two decades the poet’s junior. The two lived together on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn and would often sit at the same table in Pfaff’s larger room. Vaughan was among the first people Whitman showed his coveted, now-famous letter of encouragement from Emerson.

Their romance, however, met its end shortly after the two started frequenting Pfaff’s. Martin considers the likeliest reason — a heartbreaking notion that makes one appreciate anew today’s triumph of equality in the dignity of love:

Vaughan had reached an age when he was expected to find a proper mate, that is, a woman.

Vaughan ended up getting married and settled into a rather conventional life. He worked a series of jobs such as insurance salesman and elevator operator and with his wife raised four sons. He also became a terrible alcoholic. In the early 1870s, after roughly a decade of silence, Vaughan reconnected with Whitman, writing him several letters, one of which includes the following heart-rending passage: “I never stole, robbed, cheated, nor defrauded any person out of anything, and yet I feel that I have not been honest to myself — my family nor my friends.” In the letters, Vaughan never spells out the source of his anguish. Perhaps it was the result of living in a state that felt unnatural to him. One letter includes, “My love my Walt is with you always.”

Walt Whitman with Peter Doyle, a streetcar conductor Whitman met in 1865, embarking upon a decades-long romance that lasted until the poet's death in 1892. (Photograph courtesy of Ohio Wesleyan University, Bayley Collection)

Pfaff’s offered Whitman a stage for exploring other romantic possibilities. He began spending more time in the company of young men, whom he called “my darlings and gossips” and “my darling, dearest boys.” Martin reflects on the relationship between language and identity:

It’s striking how different Whitman’s manner was with this group of men. One can scarcely imagine him using words such as darling or gossip at the long table in that vaulted room. As everyone does, Whitman revealed different sides of himself to different kinds of people. The two sections of Pfaff’s appear to have served separate social needs for Whitman — as a poet and as a gay man.

This integration was precisely what rendered Pfaff’s so instrumental in Whitman’s evolution as an artist — more than a mere playground for desire, the saloon became a laboratory for exorcising the emotional excess central to all great art. Martin captures this beautifully:

A failed romance. A restless sense of longing. As it’s always been, these are raw ingredients that get mulled, weighed, processed — and ultimately transformed into art.

Rebel Souls is an enormously absorbing read in its entirety, exploring the blossoming of Whitman’s literary legacy, the tantalizing group of artists, writers, and performers who populated Pfaff’s and influenced one another, and how they made their way West to meet Mark Twain’s Bohemians of Silicon Valley. Complement it with Allen Crawford’s exquisite, obsessive word-by-word illustrations for Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Whitman’s own raunchy ode to New York.

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Petunia, I Love You: A Forgotten 1965 Children’s Book Treasure

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A sweet and irreverent reminder that kindness is the most potent antidote to evil.

Given my inexhaustible affection for vintage children’s books, I was instantly smitten by the 1965 gem Petunia, I Love You (public library) by Roger Duvoisin, part of his altogether delightful Petunia series — the story of the conniving Raccoon, who sets out to make Petunia the goose, “so handsome and so fat,” his dinner, but ends up making a good friend instead. Tucked into the vibrantly illustrated tale is a sweet, irreverent reminder that the unlikeliest, most rewarding of friendships are free to blossom as soon as we dissolve the shackles of our own agendas and that selfless kindness, which needs neither forgiveness nor permission, is the greatest antidote to evil, something with which both Tolstoy and Gandhi would concur.

When he first lays out on Petunia, Raccoon instantly knows that the plump goose eclipses him in strength considerably — “a blow from her wing had put to flight bigger animas than he” — so he turns to deception instead.

Enlisting his smarmy charm, he approaches Petunia, taking her for a farm fool:

“Dear Petunia,” said the Raccoon, who had thought of a wicked scheme, “you are so pretty. I love you, Petunia.
It would make me so happy just to have your company for a little walk in the forest.
Today, I am going to see my old aunt. Won’t you come along?”

“You are so polite and kind, Raccoon,” said Petunia.
“It would be rude of me to refuse. pray, lead the way.”

“To your honor, dear Petunia, I’ll walk behind you.”

But Petunia is no boob. She insists they walk side by side to “make the conversation more pleasant.” Reluctantly, Raccoon goes along with the request, deciding to trap her once they get to the forest.

And yet ruse after ruse, Petunia manages to outwit the exasperated Raccoon, who proceeds to fall into a creek, get stuck in a hole, endure an attack by bees, and barely escape getting squashed by a giant rock — all calculated “accidents” of his own invention, aimed at Petunia but incurred by Raccoon himself.

All throughout his failed assassination attempts, Petunia calmly helps Raccoon out of his own traps, unfazed by the series of disaster scenarios.

Once they return to the farm, Raccoon is so tired and hungry that he is ready to eat anything at all. Suddenly, he smells strawberry jam in a metal box behind the barn and rustles into it, only to find himself a captive of the farmer’s trap. Just as the farmer approaches, with the unequivocal mission of doom, Petunia releases the lock and Raccoon runs for dear life as his savior follows in effortless flight.

Shaken by his near-death experience and the kindness of his inadvertent friend, Raccoon confesses his original “wicked scheme,” apologizing sincerely and vowing to be Petunia’s “truest friend, for ever and ever.”

He walks her back to the farm gate and, as they part, he once again says, “Petunia, I love you” — only this time, it beams from the heart.

Sadly, Petunia, I Love You rests in the cultural burial ground of out-of-print treasures, but used copies can still be found. For a vintage picture-book aesthetic similar to Duvoisin’s, see the wonderful work of husband-and-wife creative powerhouse Alice and Martin Provensen.

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The Life of the Mind: Hannah Arendt on Thinking vs. Knowing and the Crucial Difference Between Truth and Meaning

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“To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions [would be to] lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

In 1973, Hannah Arendt became the first woman to speak at the prestigious Gifford Lectures — an annual series established in 1888 aiming “to promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term,” bridging science, philosophy, and spirituality, an ancient quest of enduring urgency to this day. Over the years, the Gifford Lectures have drawn such celebrated minds as William James, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Iris Murdoch, and Carl Sagan, whose 1985 lecture was later published as the spectacular posthumous volume Varieties of Scientific Experience. Arendt’s own lecture was later expanded and published as The Life of the Mind (public library), an immeasurably stimulating exploration of thinking — a process we take for so obvious and granted as to be of no interest, yet one bridled with complexities and paradoxes that often keep us from seeing the true nature of reality. With extraordinary intellectual elegance, Arendt draws “a distinguishing line between truth and meaning, between knowing and thinking,” and makes a powerful case for the importance of that line in the human experience.

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

Arendt considers how thinking links the vita activa, or active life, and the vita contemplativa, or contemplative mind, touching on Montaigne’s dual meaning of meditation, and traces the evolution of this relationship as society moved from religious to scientific dogma:

Thinking aims at and ends in contemplation, and contemplation is not an activity but a passivity; it is the point where mental activity comes to rest. According to traditions of Christian time, when philosophy had become the handmaiden of theology, thinking became meditation, and meditation again ended in contemplation, a kind of blessed state of the soul where the mind was no longer stretching out to know the truth but, in anticipation of a future state, received it temporarily in intuition… With the rise of the modern age, thinking became chiefly the handmaiden of science, of organized knowledge; and even though thinking then grew extremely active, following modernity’s crucial conviction that I can know only what I myself make, it was Mathematics, the non-empirical science par excellence, wherein the mind appears to play only with itself, that turned out to be the Science of sciences, delivering the key to those laws of nature and the universe that are concealed by appearances.

The disciplines called metaphysics or philosophy, Arendt notes, came to inhabit the world beyond sense-perceptions and appearances, while science claimed the world of common-sense reasoning and perceptions validated by empirical means. The latter is plagued by “the scandal of reason” — the idea that “our mind is not capable of certain and verifiable knowledge regarding matters and questions that it nevertheless cannot help thinking about.” (Four decades later, Sam Harris would capture this beautifully: “There is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.”) But Arendt is most intensely concerned with the world we inhabit when we surrender to thought:

What are we “doing” when we do nothing but think? Where are we when we, normally always surrounded by our fellow-men, are together with no one but ourselves?

Illustration by Jean-François Martin from 'The Memory Elephant' by Sophie Strady. Click image for details.

To begin solving this riddle, Arendt turns to Kant’s famous distinction between Verstand, or intellect, which seeks to grasp what the senses perceive, and Vernunft, or reason, which is concerned with the higher-order desire for understanding the deeper meaning behind such sensory input; while intellect is driven by cognition, reason is concerned with the unknowable. He memorably wrote:

The aim of metaphysics… is to extend, albeit only negatively, our use of reason beyond the limitations of the sensorily given world, that is, to eliminate the obstacles by which reason hinders itself.

Arendt unpacks Kant’s legacy and its enduring paradox, which plays out just as vibrantly in our ever-timely struggle to differentiate between wisdom and knowledge:

The great obstacle that reason (Vernunft) puts in its own way arises from the side of the intellect (Verstand) and the entirely justified criteria it has established for its own purposes, that is, for quenching our thirst, and meeting our need, for knowledge and cognition… The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning. And truth and meaning are not the same. The basic fallacy, taking precedence over all specific metaphysical fallacies, is to interpret meaning on the model of truth.

Hannah Arendt c. 1966 (Photograph courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Bluecher Literary Trust)

This vital distinction between truth and meaning is also found in the fault line between science and common sense. Arendt considers how science’s over-reliance on Verstand might give rise to the very reductionism that becomes science’s greatest obstacle to tussling with the unknowable:

Something very similar seems, at first glance, to be true of the modern scientist who constantly destroys authentic semblances without, however, destroying his own sensation of reality, telling him, as it tells us, that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. It was thinking that enabled men to penetrate the appearances and unmask them as semblances, albeit authentic ones; common-sense reasoning would never have dared to upset so radically all the plausibilities of our sensory apparatus… Thinking, no doubt, plays an enormous role in every scientific enterprise, but it is the role of a means to an end; the end is determined by a decision about what is worthwhile knowing, and this decision cannot be scientific.

This sounds remarkably like the notion of moral wisdom — the necessarily subjective values-based framework that, by its very nature, transcends the realm of science and absolute truth, rising to the level of relative meaning. Adding to history’s finest definitions of science, Arendt writes:

The end is cognition or knowledge, which, having been obtained, clearly belongs to the world of appearances; once established as truth, it becomes part and parcel of the world. Cognition and the thirst for knowledge never leave the world of appearances altogether; if the scientists withdraw from it in order to “think,” it is only in order to find better, more promising approaches, called methods, toward it. Science in this respect is but an enormously refined prolongation of common-sense reasoning in which sense illusions are constantly dissipated just as errors in science are corrected. The criterion in both cases is evidence, which as such is inherent in a world of appearances. And since it is in the very nature of appearances to reveal and to conceal, every correction and every dis-illusion “is the loss of one evidence only because it is the acquisition of another evidence, in the words of Merleau-Ponty. Nothing, even in science’s own understanding of the scientific enterprise, guarantees that the new evidence will prove to be more reliable than the discarded evidence.

And therein lies the paradox of science — the idea that its aim is to dispel ignorance with knowledge, but it is also, at its best, driven wholly by ignorance. In a sentiment that Carl Sagan would come to echo twelve years later in his own Gifford lecture“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.” — Arendt writes:

The very concept of an unlimited progress, which accompanied the rise of modern science, and has remained its dominant inspiring principle, is the best documentation of the fact that all science still moves within the realm of common sense experience, subject to corrigible error and deception. When the experience of constant correction in scientific research is generalized, it leads into the curious “better and better,” “truer and truer,” that is, into the boundlessness of progress with its inherent admission that the good and the true are unattainable. If they were ever attained, the thirst for knowledge would be quenched and the search for cognition would come to an end.

Illustration from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc. Click image for details.

In considering this “illusion of a never-ending process — the process of progress,” she returns to Kant’s crucial distinction between reason and intellect:

The questions raised by our thirst for knowledge arise from our curiosity about the world, our desire to investigate whatever is given to our sensory apparatus… The questions raised by the desire to know are in principle all answerable by common-sense experience and common-sense reasoning; they are exposed to corrigible error and illusion in the same way as sense perceptions and experiences. Even the relentlessness of modern science’s Progress, which constantly corrects itself by discarding the answers and reformulating the questions, does not contradict science’s basic goal — to see and to know the world as it is given to the senses — and its concept of truth is derived from the common-sense experience of irrefutable evidence, which dispels error and illusion. But the questions raised by thinking and which it is in reason’s very nature to raise — questions of meaning — are all unanswerable by common sense and the refinement of it we call science. The quest for meaning is “meaningless” to common sense and common-sense reasoning because it is the sixth sense’s function to fit us into the world of appearances and make us at home in the world given by our five senses; there we are and no questions asked.

This disconnect between the common-sense criteria of science and the quest for meaning, Arendt argues, reverts to the original question of thinking and the limitations of “truth”:

To expect truth to come from thinking signifies that we mistake the need to think with the urge to know. Thinking can and must be employed in the attempt to know, but in the exercise of this function it is never itself; it is but the handmaiden of an altogether different enterprise.

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

Arendt’s most poignant point explores what that enterprise might be, speaking to the power of asking good questions and the idea that getting lost is how we find meaning:

By posing the unanswerable questions of meaning, men establish themselves as question-asking beings. Behind all the cognitive questions for which men find answers, there lurk the unanswerable ones that seem entirely idle and have always been denounced as such. It is more than likely that men, if they were ever to lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions, would lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded… While our thirst for knowledge may be unquenchable because of the immensity of the unknown, the activity itself leaves behind a growing treasure of knowledge that is retained and kept in store by every civilization as part and parcel of its world. The loss of this accumulation and of the technical expertise required to conserve and increase it inevitably spells the end of this particular world.

The Life of the Mind is an absolutely remarkable feat of intellectual grace in its entirety. Complement it with the art of reflection and fruitful curiosity, then revisit these animated thoughts on wisdom in the age of information.

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