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Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians
By Justin Martin
Merloyd Lawrence Books / Da Capo Press / Perseus
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Many people of course know about Greenwich Village's reputation in the 20th century as a New York hotbed for the era's underground culture and subversive arts; but did you know that this neighborhood's history of doing so actually goes back to the Victorian Age and beyond? That's the subject of Justin Martin's delightful new book, Rebel Souls; or to be more precise, much like its inspiration The Devil in the White City, this actually combines two related stories at once, not just about the formation of America's very first generation of "bohemian" artists (an archetype that wasn't even invented until the mid-1800s; before then artists were thought of much more like carpenters or furniture makers), but also about one of the most famous of those bohemians, revered poet and "America's transgressive forefather" Walt Whitman, whose life intersected with the smoky basements of Greenwich Village for just a small but hugely pivotal time in his career, between his first edition of the seminal Leaves of Grass (largely panned and that sold less than 50 copies) and the third edition (a cult hit among college students which finally started the national conversation about Whitman and his work).
Martin takes us into the Village's Pfaff's Saloon in this engaging book, to show exactly how all these elements came together for the first time -- the European refugee who brought the very idea of "Bohemianism" to New York, the good-natured bar owner who let all the artists drink on enormous tabs just because he liked having them around, the journalists who eventually established the artists' and bar's reputation, and the tiny number of openly gay men in Victorian New York, who inspired people like Whitman to come around on a regular basis in the first place. In fact, that's pretty much the biggest revelation of this whole book, is just how wild and countercultural a small section of New York City was even back in the mid-1800s, a part of history that was squelched by the Modernists who came after them and that we've now largely lost to the ages; but it allowed gay artists like Whitman to essentially go cruising in a horse-and-buggy age, and created an atmosphere where poets like him could even write about the experiences (even if in a highly codified way, through such words as "comrade" when wanting to refer to a lover, and by titling an entire chapter of romantic poems after an obscure flower whose blooms just happen to look like erect penises).
It's fascinating to see how some of the brightest lights of that circle went on to become nationally famous (Artemus Ward was one of the biggest hits of his times, for example, and eventually brought the bohemian aesthetic to the west coast and the attention of a young Mark Twain), while others who were initially much more famous just literally disappeared from the national consciousness within a few years after their deaths; and it's also fascinating to see just how quickly that entire scene fell apart with the outbreak of the Civil War, in which the artists of Pfaff's dispersed to all kinds of far-flung locations and new activities, emerging on the other side to a national audience that no longer wanted the dark comedy and transgressive musings that the bohemians got famous for dishing out. Written at a brisk pace and with clean, plain language, this is an "NPR-worthy" nonfiction book if ever there was one, a strong recommendation to anyone who wants to know more about Whitman, Greenwich Village, the arts, Victoriana, or simply about the small hidden parts of American history that have been deliberately suppressed by the conservatives who are usually in charge of writing the history books.
Out of 10: 9.5