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

“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.

Published September 16, 2014




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