Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Bohemians in America

Creator: Jay Charlton

Date:

Publication information: Danbury News [1882 or before].

Source: Our transcription is based on William Shepard, ed., Pen Pictures of Modern Authors (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1882), 161–168.

Whitman Archive ID: med.00575

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Nic Swiercek, and Shea Montgomerey



BOHEMIANS IN AMERICA.

In the fall of 1858 a little, thin, wiry man, with a grim, weird face, and a snap of the terrier about him, made himself conspicuous among the undergraduates in literature in New York. He was assertive, quirkish, and odd, full of French jerks and Yankee quips. His face was small, hard, and cold, covered over with a forbidding beard of a dark-reddish color. He was a native of Nantucket and a graduate of Paris Bohemianism, and when he talked it was like snapping glass under your heel. He had the greatest sort of contempt for any writer who would use a word of two or more syllables when the same meaning could be conveyed in one syllable. This man's name was Henry Clapp, Jr. He believed it to be his destiny to establish a new sort of literature in New York, something that would become national, and that would cut off from all newspaper and magazine articles the long Norman words, and keep all utterances confined to the short, expressive Saxon. With this object in view he drew around him many of the promising literary men of the day. Pfaff's restaurant on Broadway, a few doors east of where it now is, near the Grand Central Hotel, was selected as the headquarters where the genial company met, and very soon "Pfaff's" had a national reputation. There was a long table under the sidewalk at which about thirty persons could seat themselves comfortably. A look in any evening after six o'clock would discover at that table Henry Clapp, Walt Whitman, Fitz James O'Brien, Ned Wilkins, George Arnold, Sheppard, Gardette, William Winter, and several others whose names I now forget. After dinner, which was always as good as one at Delmonico's, clay pipes and literary criticism were in order. Whitman generally had a half-written "yawp"—that's what he called a short poem—to submit to us. His small blue eyes would beam with good-nature, and his big, shaggy head and beard would assert themselves with a strength and grandeur that became a great poet. Walt liked to be considered a poet, but his "yawps" were wretched failures, and every publisher refused to print them until Clapp started his weekly Press in 1859. It was a bright paper, but of short duration. It was started without a dollar and died without a cent. William Winter was its literary critic. He was assisted by Clapp, Ada Clare, Ned Wilkins, and George Arnold, with three quarts of beer, which Clapp carried into the sanctum at No. 8 Spruce Street every afternoon in a tin pail. Turning to me in Pfaff's one cold night, while "spiced rum" seemed in great demand, Walt Whitman said, "The reason I like to drive a stage-coach on Broadway, I feel that the strength of the horses passes into my veins, my muscles, and after that I can give strength to my poetry." Walt had a great admiration for everything big, whether animate or inanimate. He thought he could write great poems if he were on the top of the Sierras or among the great trees of California. The way he came to consider himself a poet was due to a prose sketch he wrote, describing a death in a school-room. The piece was vividly written and widely copied. That was when he and Joe Otterson (to be remembered as the "Bayard" of Wilkes' Spirit of the Times) were setting type in a New York printing-office. Walt was elated at the success of his sketch. Joe told Walt that both should go to Fowler's and have their heads phrenologically examined. They went. Fowler told Walt that his love of approbation made him a laughing-stock. Fowler told Joe that he was as stubborn as a jackass, and he dismissed them both as a pair of donkeys. But Joe was no donkey, and he has served journalism well. Walt went to New Orleans, was a reporter and failed. Joe went on the Tribune, and was a success as night editor. He now oscillates between a fat berth in the custom-house and the newspapers about Printing House Square. I once saw Joe mad. When he was doing the theatres for the Spirit, it was his custom to drop into Pfaff's occasionally with Ada Clifton on his arm. Somebody put it in the papers that Joe and Ada were affianced, and gave as one of the reasons, that Joe had lately had a new coat of dye put on his head and whiskers. He came into Pfaff's with a scowl on his brow, and after denouncing all the scribes round the festive board in a volley of invectives, he left "Bohemia," to scourge its votaries for years afterward with a pen " dipped in gall."

When Fitz-Greene Halleck came up from the state of Connecticut once or twice in the year, it was his wont to call in and see the "young fellows," as he called us. Some called him Bozzaris, and some, for short, would hail him as Marco. He laughed and took everything good-humoredly. He was pleasant and jovial as a young man of twenty. He liked a hot whiskey punch, very hot. Sitting by his side one evening that he surprised us with a visit, he ordered a hot whiskey. He would take a sip or two and then say, "Young man, this is rather cold; I want it hotter." Before he finished his punch he had it made "hotter" three times. He said to us, "When I die I shall have no literary reputation to leave behind me. What I have written has been for pastime, not for fame or money." I said, "Your Marco Bozzaris will live." His answer was, "It may, till something better takes its place. I wrote that poem with blood at fever-heat, and gave it three sittings." It was the general expression of hope round the table, after several rounds of drinks, that Astor would open his heart and increase Mar-co's pension from the paltry $500 which he received, to at least $5000 a year. But Halleck would laugh, shake his head, and declare himself entirely happy and satisfied. He said that Walt Whitman ought to write his "yawps" seated on an elephant, in order to add to their strength and heaviness. Walt's poetry Halleck considered no poetry at all. Yet there was and still is enough of the poetic fibre in Walt Whitman's poetry to make a half-dozen of poetic fledglings. The trouble with Walt, he lacks art and simple dignity of expression. His Pegasus is a mad bull, dashing furiously into swamps, ditches, and dung-hills, and then frightening literature by shaking his muddy horns at it. He is a man possessing a large heart, a large soul, and a large nature, but he would have served the world better had he stuck to the printer's case and left poetry alone.

At the outbreak of the Southern rebellion Walt Whitman and George Arnold came to an unpleasantness while enjoying their usual after-dinner punch. They were sitting opposite each other at the table. George was for rebellion and Walt was opposed. George was full of "treasonism" and Walt was full of "patriotism." Words grew hot. Walt warned George to be more guarded in his sentiments. George fired up more and more. Walt passed his "mawler" toward George's ear. George passed a bottle of claret toward the top-knot of the poet's head. Pfaff made a jump and gave a yell of "Oh ! mine gots, mens, what's you do for dis?" Clapp broke his black pipe while pulling at Arnold's coat-tail; Ned Wilkins lost the power of his lungs for five minutes after tugging at the brawny arm of Walt ; and we all received a beautiful mixture of rum, claret, and coffee on the knees of our trousers. Everything was soon amicably settled, and Walt and George shook hands, and wondered much that they were so foolish. In those days Walt dressed somewhat in the fashion of a brigand. He had a big collar to his shirt which never knew starch. That collar was rolled away back and down on his neck, which was bare nearly to the breast, which was very hairy. A black neckerchief, tied sailor-fashion, fell loosely under his collar. He wore a close-fitting monkey-jacket, which gave him a piratical cast; and a great big black slouch hat, with an immense brim and an immense crown, covered the poet's head. He gave me his picture once. I think it was taken in his shirt-sleeves. I gave it, two days afterward, to James T. Brady, while Charles G. Halpine and I were lunching with him at lower Delmonico's. Brady was the best Bohemian I ever knew. He was a genius; he loved genius. He despised wealth, and he hated work. He seemed always to be forced into work to save his friends, not to earn a livelihood. But a truce here. His memory is sacred to me. William Winter came from the Cambridge (Mass.) Chronicle in 1859. He wrote his poem of the "Ruined Man" while sipping a glass of mulberry wine down-stairs in a saloon in Sudbury Street, Boston. He had only twenty-five cents in his pocket to face the world. So he

"Drank to the woman who wrought his woe,
In the diamond morn of long ago."

Winter is considered not only one of the best dramatic writers in the country, but one of the sweetest poets—one of the few poets who know what poetry is and can write it. He can make a better after-dinner speech than any other man in New York. He is humorous, witty, and full of amusement. At Pfaff's he would have his companions almost rolling under the table with laughter, when the fit was on him to make "a few remarks."


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