How American Bohemia Was Born in a Basement Saloon

How American Bohemia Was Born in a Basement Saloon

by Justin Martin
Wall Street Journal online, September 5, 2014

Bohemian. This one word evokes a jumble of associations: freedom, nonconformity, artistic creativity, sexual openness, an appetite for booze and drugs, poverty, and patchouli. But the history surrounding the word is anything but loose. Not only is it possible to accurately date the birth of American Bohemia, but one can pinpoint the exact address where the movement took root. There’s even a single individual responsible for importing Bohemia into the United States: Henry Clapp, Jr.

Clapp was a successful nineteenth century lecturer on social issues such as abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and temperance, often sharing the stage with such eminent figures as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. In 1849, Clapp went to Paris to attend a three-day world peace conference. His timing was perfect: the city’s Left Bank was in full Bohemian frenzy. (Bohemian, by the way, was originally coined by the French as a kind of catch-all term for gypsies— \mistakenly believed to hail from the Central European kingdom of Bohemia—but also for artists, impoverished students, and assorted eccentrics.)

Clapp—to this point a teetotaler—fell off the wagon and into Parisian Bohemia. He started hanging out in cafes, drinking strong coffee and stronger whisky. “Temperance secured for us all the right not to drink,” was his sly explanation. “Meanwhile, it left the right to drink intact.” Originally, Clapp had planned to stay in Paris for a few days. He wound up staying for three years. When he returned to America, he was hell-bent on re-creating la vie Boheme that had transformed him so completely.

By the mid 1850s, Clapp had found a fitting venue for his experiment. Pfaff’s was a subterranean saloon (as in, below street level) located at 647 Broadway in Manhattan. The ale was cheap, the coffee thick, but most significantly, Pfaff’s had a libertine atmosphere that reminded Clapp of Paris. He began assembling a circle of scruffy artists. This was quite a departure in nineteenth century America when artists, or at least the successful ones, tended to be genteel sorts. (Think Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—his name alone sounds so formal and stuffy.)  As Clapp’s circle grew, the saloon’s proprietor set aside a separate room featuring a long table that could seat about thirty people.

Among the regulars (maybe irregulars is a better word) at that long table were such eccentric but talented artists as Walt Whitman, Artemus Ward, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, and Adah Isaacs Menken. Whitman, middle-aged and still far from famous, was unemployed and living at home with his mother. Ward was America’s first stand-up comedian. Abraham Lincoln was a huge fan of his routines. Ludlow was a psychedelic pioneer and author of the Hasheesh Eater, one of the best-selling books of 1857. As for Menken, she was an actress who gained notoriety for the play Mazeppa, where she appeared in drag as a Tartar warrior. In the climactic scene, the warrior’s enemies tear off his tunic, revealing the actress in a sheer, flesh-colored body stocking. An advertisement for the production promised that Menken’s curvy figure “would have made St. Anthony lift his eyes from his prayer book.”

Thanks to this colorful crew, Bohemianism achieved a kind of zeitgeist moment in America. Newspapers dispatched writers to Pfaff’s saloon to provide first-hand accounts of the scene. “This little room is the rallying-place,” a Boston Saturday Express reporter wrote after entering the inner sanctum, providing a breathless, mixed-metaphor-filled account: “This is the anvil from which fly the brightest scintillations of the hour; this is the womb of the best things that society has heard for many-a-day; this is the trysting-place of the most careless, witty, and jovial spirits of New York,  journalists, artists, and poets.”

Ultimately, Walt Whitman would outstrip his fellow Bohemians. Between roughly 1858 and 1862, however, he was a true Pfaff’s habitue, spending nearly ever evening at the saloon. Time spent in Clapp’s free-spirited circle sparked a creative rebirth for Whitman. During the Pfaff’s years, he wrote more than 100 new poems, many dealing with bold and controversial themes such as romance between men. These formed the core of the landmark 1860 edition of his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass. Not everyone was pleased by the poet’s new direction, though. The upright Ralph Waldo Emerson stated that he had “great hopes of Whitman until he became Bohemian.”

Alas, like so many artistic movements—everything from fauvism to punk rock—Bohemianism’s moment was all too brief. The Pfaff’s crowd burned brightly then flamed out spectacularly. Nearly everyone in the circle including Ward, Ludlow, and Menken died before age 40, often under tragic circumstances. The New York Times was amazed by the toll: “Death has gathered the greater number of the jovial wits that wasted life under the Broadway sidewalk.” Whitman was one of the notable few that managed to live on into old age, a kind of witness to a mostly forgotten artistic scene.

Today, Pfaff’s saloon is long gone. A women’s shoe store now occupies 647 Broadway, boxes of pumps and stilleto heels are stacked in the basement where Whitman, Ward, Menken, and the rest of the once met. But their anarchic spirit lives on.

You can find enclaves of modern-day Bohemians in places such as Portland, Austin, Cambridge, and Asheville, NC—perhaps one even crashed on your couch recently. Remember to thank Henry Clapp Jr., the lapsed temperance lecturer who brought Bohemianism to America in the first place.

Justin Martin is the author of  Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians (Da Capo Press). He lives in New York City and has written highly acclaimed biographies of Alan Greenspan, Ralph Nader, and Frederick Law Olmsted.