Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Pfaff's Restaurant
Author:
Yannella, Donald
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In the age before air conditioning many an oyster bar, beer hall, or restaurant was in a basement or cellar. And so was Pfaff's, the Bohemian gathering place Whitman visited frequently in New York between 1859 and 1862, when he departed for Washington. The restaurant, its regulars, and the depth and importance of their influence on him remain uncertain, principally because of scanty and contradictory evidence. An undisputed fact is that Whitman's reputation was enhanced by his relations with Henry Clapp, king of the Pfaffian Bohemians; the first version of "Out of the Cradle" appeared in Clapp's weekly Saturday Press and Whitman was one of the journal's main subjects. While some of the Pfaff's crowd lionized Whitman, some challenged him in print. The point is that they gave him recognition and publicity.

Located at 647 Broadway, two buildings north of Bleeker Street and on the west side of the thoroughfare, Charles Ignatius Pfaff's restaurant was in New York's popular "Left Bank" entertainment district which included theaters, restaurants, music halls, and saloons stretching to Spring Street in lower Manhattan. The Bohemians were nonconforming, frequently intellectual, engaged in the arts, and in opposition to bourgeois conventions. Among the most visible were King Clapp and the queen, Ada Clare, Fitz-James O'Brien, George Arnold, William Winter, Elihu Vedder, and, among the more "genteel," E.C. Stedman. They gathered in the smoke-filled, badly ventilated, and reeking cellar, the insiders often seated at a long table almost, it seems, to attract the visitors and tourists such as Howells who did not like the scene. (The often reproduced picture in his Literary Friends and Acquaintance, by the way, was made thirty years after the fact, and in it Whitman appears more a version of an 1890s gentleman than the free and imposing figure he had cut in the 1860s.) Whitman appears to have sat most often at one of the smaller tables, as he does in the picture, whether because he preferred to listen and observe—remain somewhat detached—or because of his reluctance or inability to compete in the snappy and witty conversations. He offers a vivid impression of the gathering place in "The Two Vaults," an unfinished poem. But one of the best signals of his involvement was his bringing the staid Ralph Waldo Emerson for a visit to the vault, this despite his minimizing his connection with the place and the gang.

The greatest benefit Whitman enjoyed from the Pfaff's connection, aside from the good fellowship and fun, was the constant focus offered by the Saturday Press, especially in 1860, which gave him visibility. Pfaff's and its habitués offered an unconventional life style—for instance, they were among the many period groups that promoted free love—and validated and encouraged many of Whitman's predilections.

Bibliography

Howells, William Dean. Literary Friends and Acquaintance. New York: Harper, 1900.

Hyman, Martin D. "'Where the Drinkers and Laughers Meet': Pfaff's: Whitman's Literary Lair." Seaport 26 (1992): 56–61.

Lalor, Gene. "Whitman among the New York Literary Bohemians: 1859–1862." Walt Whitman Review 25 (1979): 131–145.

Parry, Albert. Garrets and Pretenders: A History of Bohemianism in America. 1933. New York: Dover, 1960.

Stansell, Christine. "Whitman at Pfaff's: Commercial Culture, Literary Life and New York Bohemia at Mid-Century." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 10 (1993): 107–126.


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