American Literature Whitman’s Bohemian New York City
Edward Whitley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0035


Walt Whitman (b. 1819–d. 1892) was born on Long Island and raised in Brooklyn. After early careers as a printer, journalist, and fiction writer, Whitman published a book of poems, Leaves of Grass, which is considered one of the most important works in American literature. The first two editions of Leaves of Grass (published in 1855 and 1856) were modest critical and commercial successes, leaving a dejected Whitman to question his decision to pursue poetry. In 1857 he began working as a journalist for the Brooklyn Daily Times, a job that gave him the opportunity to cover cultural and political events in Manhattan (Whitman 1966). It was at this time that he began meeting with a group of self-styled bohemian writers, artists, and actors who gathered nightly at the underground beer cellar owned by German immigrant Charles Ignatius Pfaff on the corner of Broadway and Bleecker near Washington Square Park. Both Henry Clapp Jr. (the “King of Bohemia”) and Ada Clare (the “Queen of Bohemia”) had lived in Paris and had witnessed firsthand the bohemians of the Latin Quarter who had appropriated the identity popularly associated with the Romani people (“Gypsies”) as rootless nomads whose unconventional lifestyle was taken as a model for revolution from social restraint. These Parisian writers and artists used the name of the Romani homeland—Bohemia—to describe their self-imposed exile from bourgeois culture. Whitman was drawn to the New York bohemians, and many of them were drawn to him. When a third edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1860, it was heavily promoted by many of the bohemian writers and artists who contributed to the literary weeklies Vanity Fair and New York Saturday Press. Whitman’s poetry was given a new lease on life. Bohemia did not last long, however, as the Civil War and the early deaths of a number of the principal bohemians brought the party to an end. Scholars have long known that the bohemians of antebellum New York played a key role in Whitman’s life at a pivotal moment of his career, but it has only been in the early 21st century—with the publication of books by Lause, Martin, Levin, Blalock, and Levin and Whitley, and the resources available at Vault at Pfaff’s (see Archives) —that scholars have begun in earnest to move forward with our understanding of the bohemians’ importance to American literary history.

General Overviews

Stansell 1993 provides an excellent short introduction to Whitman’s bohemian New York, as does Karbiener 2009. Martin 2014 explores more extensively the lives of a core group of the bohemians and has the added benefit of a longer historical timeframe (he follows the bohemians through the end of the Civil War). Blalock 2014 provides extensive biographical information about Charles Pfaff and the eponymously named restaurant that hosted the antebellum bohemians, along with details about the bohemian experience itself. Lause 2009 focuses on those bohemians who were most invested in the radical politics of the antebellum period and has an excellent biographical chapter on Henry Clapp Jr. (the “King of Bohemia”). Gailey 2008 and Scholnick 2002 detail Whitman’s relationship to the two literary weeklies that were most central to the bohemian experience: the New York Saturday Press and Vanity Fair, respectively. Levin and Whitley 2014 collects a dozen essays that cover a range of Whitman’s experiences with bohemian literary editors, theater critics, artists, women writers, male lovers, and others. Scholars looking for an initial grounding in Whitman’s bohemian period should begin with Stansell, Martin, Levin and Whitley, and the Pfaff’s chapter in Levin 2009 (cited under American Bohemianism).

  • Blalock, Stephanie. “GO TO PFAFF’S!”: The History of a Restaurant and Lager Beer Saloon. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 2014.

    Part biography of Charles Pfaff, part overview of the antebellum bohemian movement in New York City, this history argues that the unique environment of Pfaff’s restaurant made significant contributions to the emergence of bohemianism in the United States. Digital edition published online.

  • Gailey, Amanda. “Walt Whitman and the King of Bohemia: The Poet in the Saturday Press.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 25.4 (2008): 143–166.

    DOI: 10.13008/2153-3695.1848

    Details how the New York Saturday Press supported Whitman around the time of the publication of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. Argues that support of Whitman in the Saturday Press led him to be received as a factional northern poet in the lead-up to the Civil War.

  • Karbiener, Karen. “Whitman at Pfaff’s: Personal Space, a Public Place, and the Boundary-Breaking Poems of Leaves of Grass (1860).” In Literature of New York. Edited by Sabrina Fuchs-Abrams, 1–38. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2009.

    Argues that Whitman’s experiences at Pfaff’s helped him to rethink the poetic project that began with the first two editions of Leaves of Grass (in 1855 and 1856) as he prepared the third edition for publication in 1860.

  • Lause, Mark. The Antebellum Crisis and America’s First Bohemians. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2009.

    First book-length study of the antebellum bohemians, with chapters on Henry Clapp Jr. (the “King of Bohemia”), the free-love movement, Charles Pfaff’s saloon, abolitionism, Fourierism, and radical politics. Focuses more on the radical social activists who were connected to the Pfaff’s scene than on literary writers and artists.

  • Levin, Joanna, and Edward Whitley, eds. Whitman Among the Bohemians. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014.

    Twelve essays cover such topics as the publishing practices of the Saturday Press and Vanity Fair, bohemians’ reception of the 1860 Leaves of Grass, and Whitman’s relationships with women such as Ada Clare and Ada Isaacs Menken and men such as Fred Gray and Edmund Clarence Stedman.

  • Martin, Justin. Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians. New York: Da Capo, 2014.

    Group biography of the bohemians from the mid-1850s until just after the end of the Civil War focuses on the intertwined lives of Edwin Booth (who was tangentially related to the Pfaff’s scene), Henry Clapp Jr., Ada Clare, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Adah Isaacs Menken, Fitz-James O’Brien, Artemus Ward, and Walt Whitman.

  • Scholnick, Robert J. “‘An Unusually Active Market for Calamus’: Whitman, Vanity Fair, and the Fate of Humor in a Time of War, 1860–1863.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 19.3–4 (Winter/Spring 2002): 148–181.

    DOI: 10.13008/2153-3695.1681

    Details more than twenty references to Whitman in Vanity Fair, a literary weekly many of the Pfaff’s bohemians contributed to, around the time of the publication of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. Contextualizes Whitman’s reception in Vanity Fair within the weekly’s larger goal to use satire as a political tool.

  • Stansell, Christine. “Whitman at Pfaff’s: Commercial Culture, Literary Life and New York Bohemia at Mid-Century.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 10.3 (Winter 1993): 107–126.

    DOI: 10.13008/2153-3695.1368

    Provides historical context about the Pfaff’s scene and makes a number of arguments about how bohemianism contributed to Whitman’s understanding of celebrity culture, market economics, and the business of letters.

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