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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.

BP

Incomparable Things Said Incomparably Well: Emerson’s Extraordinary Letter of Appreciation to Young Walt Whitman

“I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion.”

For years, I’ve had the regular practice of sending notes of appreciation to strangers — writers, artists, varied creators — whose work has moved me in some way, beamed some light into my day. It’s so wonderfully vitalizing for us ordinary mortals to send and receive such little reminders of one another’s humanity — especially in a culture where it’s easier to be a critic than a celebrator. But there is something particularly magical and generous about an established cultural icon taking a moment to send a note of appreciation to an emerging talent who one day becomes a celebrated icon in turn — infinitely heartening gestures like Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan and Charles Dickens’s flattering letter to George Eliot. But perhaps the most exquisite one of all took place between two of the greatest literary legends our world has ever known.

On July 4, 1855, Walt Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass — the monumental tome, inspired by an 1844 essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson titled The Poet, that would one day establish him as America’s greatest poet. But despite Whitman’s massive expectations for the book, sales were paltry and the few reviews that rolled in were unfavorable.

Illustration by Allen Crawford from Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself

Everything changed on July 21 that year when Whitman received an extraordinary letter of praise from none other than Emerson himself, who was not only the muse for the volume but also, by that point, America’s most significant literary tastemaker. The missive, found in the formidable but enchanting volume The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson (public library), is nothing short of spectacular — both in its beauty of language and its generosity of spirit:

Dear Sir,

I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile & stingy Nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our Western wits fat and mean. I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, & which large perception only can inspire.

I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying & encouraging.

I did not know until I, last night, saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name real & available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, & have felt much like striking my tasks, & visiting New York to pay my respects.

R.W. Emerson

But, after all, can one expect anything less of modern history’s greatest champion of friendship?

For another masterwork of generosity in the gift of appreciation, see Charles Bukowski’s letter of gratitude to his first patron — the man who helped Buk quit his soul-sucking job to become a full-time writer.

BP

O Captain! My Captain! David Foster Wallace, Robin Williams, Walt Whitman, and the Unholy Ghost of Suicide

“My Captain does not answer … he has no pulse nor will.”

In the introduction to Quack This Way — the remarkable record of Bryan Garner’s wide-ranging conversation with David Foster Wallace — Garner makes a passing mention of the email address Wallace used in their correspondence: ocapmycap@… The email provider following the @ symbol changed over the years, but Wallace kept his moniker — one that takes on a special, wistful meaning in light of his subsequent suicide.

It was an allusion to Walt Whitman’s 1865 elegy “O Captain! My Captain!,” a mourning poem for Abraham Lincoln titled after its piercing refrain:

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

The recurrence of Whitman’s grim refrain in the context of Robin Williams’s suicide is strange and poignant happenstance. Among Williams’s most beloved films is the 1989 classic Dead Poets Society, in which Whitman’s poem serves as a centerpiece — Williams’s character instructs his students to call him “O Captain! My Captain” — and it appears in one of the film’s most memorable scenes:

Williams, of course, didn’t write the film, nor the scene — but he did carry both, and as he once observed in a 1992 Playboy interview, “characters are just a free way of talking as yourself.”

As soon as one fully grasps the soul-ravaging depths of depression, a tragic parallel between Williams’s death and Lincoln’s emerges, lending Whitman’s eulogy double poignancy — Lincoln was assassinated by antagonists he had dedicated his life to fighting, and Williams died by the claw of the ghastly inner monster that severe depression lodges in the human spirit, losing a long fight with the unholy ghost.

(In the same interview, Williams also stated: “Some issues are deeply personal. I get near them and think, I’m not ready to deal with that yet. When you’re comfortable with it, you can be free about it. If not, it’s open-heart surgery.” In yet another eerie parallel, Williams underwent actual open-heart surgery seventeen years later — a procedure that, according to the prestigious Cleveland Clinic Foundation and a multitude of medical authorities, puts patients at a significant risk for postoperative depression. Mental health, of course, is a complex ecosystem in which myriad physiological, psychological, and social factors interact, but this detail gives one pause nonetheless.)

Ultimately, what drives a person to take his or her own life is a matter of intensely private unknowns and unknowables. Whitman’s words ring:

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will…

Suicide, lest we forget, is a social malady — please join me in supporting the pulse and will of life with a donation to the Suicide Prevention Hotline.

BP

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Reimagined in Beautiful Illustrations by Artist Allen Crawford

“He exalted the nature around and within us. His work is an expression of primal joy: He celebrated our animal senses, and the pleasures of being alive.”

Visual artists have long been drawn to the literary classics, producing such masterful homages as William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost and for Dante’s Divine Comedy, Picasso’s drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, Matisse’s etchings for Ulysses, John Vernon Lord’s illustrations for Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, The Divine Comedy in 1957, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo and Juliet in 1975.

In Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself (public library), artist Allen Crawford brings Whitman’s undying text to new life in gorgeous hand-lettering and illustrations, transforming the 60-page poem originally published in 1855 as the centerpiece of Leaves of Grass into a breathtaking 256-page piece of art. His elegant, lyrical play of text size and orientation layers over Whitman’s poem a kind of visual rhythm that not only harmonizes with the original verses but enriches them and gives them uncommon dimension.

Crawford, who lives in the outskirts of Philadelphia where Whitman settled at the end of his life, writes in the foreword:

Whitman wanted to create a new form of verse, one that was indigenous to America. He wanted to break free not only in form but also in content: He sought complete candor, not allegory or symbolism. His sensibility was American: exuberant, rough, and wild. He reveled in the vitality and sublimity of the physical. He exalted the nature around and within us. His work is an expression of primal joy: He celebrated our animal senses, and the pleasures of being alive.

[…]

With this book, I’ve tried to make the vigor of “Song of Myself” tangible. I’ve attempted to liberate the words from their blocks of verse, and allow the lines to flow freely about the page, like a stream or a bustling city crowd. The text and imagery in this book are intended to be in keeping with Whitman’s unfurnished sensibility.

[…]

I found that in order to add anything at all to Whitman’s panorama of people and places, I had to add a dimension of my own. Events in my daily life affected my approach to each spread, and the Philadelphia of today seeped into the Philadelphia of Whitman’s day. Thus, you’ll find a variety of contemporary or near-contemporary images in this book. Not doing so would have been a disservice to Whitman’s work, which attempts to create a new form of verse for The Here and The Now.

Crawford, who lists among his inspirations artist Matt Kish’s illustrations for Moby-Dick and Heart of Darkness, labored over Whitman’s magnum opus in his basement for a year, working well into the night and spending 8–10 hours on each illustrated spread for a total of 2,560 hours by his own rough estimate. On particularly cold winter days, he logged his hours clad in multiple layers of house robes and a Russian fur hat.

Especially enchanting is Crawford’s heavy use of science-inspired imagery in his contemporary version of the illuminated manuscript, a medieval medium of religion.

All 256 pages between the beautifully fabric-bound covers of Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself are imbued with pure magic, the kind that takes you by the soul-strings and plays you like a billowing ballad.

Illustrations courtesy of Tin House Books; photographs my own

BP

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