Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Poet among the Bohemians: The Garden of History.


            Before the counterculture, before hippies, before Beatniks, the social rebels who turned their back on conventional society -- regular hours, regular jobs, family life, the rules and respectability of the middle class -- were known as Bohemians. The word was coined in Europe to describe the denizens of quarters given over to students and non-students, from various lands who gathered in university cities. They drank, caroused, witticized, rioted occasionally, had love affairs, and some produced 'works' of various sorts. Some would no doubt give up the wild-life to return to families or conventional occupations. Beginning in the latter Middle Ages, collections of such folk gathered in university towns like Bologne, then moved on to Paris. Some portion of the poor students who flocked to take classes from famous lecturers hailed from the land of Bohemia (now the Czech republic), somehow providing a name to the entire population. 
            Hence we get "La Boehme," a romantic tale of artsy types who spent the occasional piece of good fortune at the cafe, fell in love (Act I), parted through misunderstandings or jealousy (Act II), and perished romantically from tuberculosis and poverty in Act III.
            Published last year, Justin Martin's "Rebel Souls," subtitled "Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians," traces the earliest seeds of an urban counterculture in the self-consciously "unconventional" gathering of artsy types, hard drinkers, publicity seekers, and other aspiring escapees from the provinces at a special table in the  basement cafe-restaurant-nightclub called "Pfaff's" on Broadway in the mid-1850s.
            Bohemianism was brought to American, and to Pfaffs, by Henry Clapp, scion of a Puritan New England family who goes to Paris a teetotaler and returns to America an onephile who has learned how to live from the French and wants absolutely nothing to do any more with the strictures of strait-laced Boston. Fast-growing, melting-pot Manhattan proves more his style. He discovers the Broadway cafe run by an easygoing, lager-loving Charlie Pfaff, one of the German immigrants who in this period introduced lager beer, which in combination with refrigeration, weaned Americans away from the room-temperature brews, ales and stouts favored by their English ancestors.
            Members of Clapp's "Bohemian Club" sat at his table, told stories, delivered complex toasts, tossed out hidden and not so hidden insults to one another, grew witty, or high-spirited, or morose and sometimes offered critiques of others' productions.
            A Clapp bon mot: Author William Dean Howells finally meets his idol, Nathaniel Hawthorne, but each is too shy to say much. "Oh," says Clapp, "a couple of shysters."
            Broadway, as we learn from "Rebel Souls," was America's first urban playground boulevard. Its hotels boasted indoor plumbing. It had scores of theaters in the era when live entertainment was everything, from 'legitimate' theater to minstrel shows in black-face. It had 'concert saloons' with scantily clad waitresses. It had the department stores that coaxed Mary Todd Lincoln into spending wildly beyond her $20,000 budget for a facelift at the White House. Located near Bleeker Street, the city's newspaper row, Pfaff's lured a late-night newsie clientele along with the struggling artists and denizens of the Bleeker Street's cheap love nests employed by bourgeoisie sinners. 
            The Bohemian maintstays of Clapp's Bohemian Club illustrate some enduring types of the American demi-monde. Fitz-James O'Brien: the talented writer who burns up his gift in alcoholic fume. Thomas Nast,the pioneering newspaper cartoonist and satirist of political boss-ism and corruption. The experimental drug explorer of inner worlds Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who at age 21 published the scandalous best-seller "The Hasheesh Eater," but never managed a second act. The brooding stage actor Edwin Booth, son of a legendary American actor in the Booth family, "crazy" Junius Brutus Booth (who pioneered the 'blood and thunder' school of acting) and brother to the infamous Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.
            The women in the circle (in contrast to most establishments of the time women were welcome at Pfaff's), included two 'celebrities,' actress-writer Ada Clare, and one of the first of America's international celebrities, "the wildest, most brazen and most colorful" of Bohemians, Adah Isaacs Menken. Born of mixed race parentage she was teen chorus girl and circus rider who reached stardom when a stage vehicle was created for her, a bizarre theater piece set in an exotic setting in which Menken was tied to a horse lying on her back in a sheer, flesh-colored body stocking
as he animal raced around a 'special effect' stage sets. In the dim lighting, Martin suggests, audiences could convince themselves she was naked. "Menken's fearlessness was a plus," he writes. Famous for being the notorious "naked lady," her star burned bright and expired soon -- like the James Deans, Jim Morrisons and Marilyn Monroes whose fame followed a similar trajectory.
            The other superstar in the crowd was Artemus Ward (Charlie Brown), who toured internationally with a humorous lecture called "The Babes in the Wood."  Dressed in old man's clothes with a mournful expression. He blended verbal faux pas,
stricken silence, pregnant pauses and blurted nonsequitors while never getting around to the hypothetical "babes." Mark Twain close observed this act and concluded "it was all in the pauses." The audience would laugh and Ward would look flustered, as if he didn't understand why.A look of reproach: why is everyone laughing? He practiced eveyr 'um' and 'ah,' timed his pauses, for a show that depended on an intense rapport with the audience and his magnetic voice, clear as a bell throughout the auditorium.
            One of the most original figures in "Rebel Souls," he invented stand-up comedy.
            Looking for local star power, Clapp recruited Walt Whitman, who at age 39 had published his great work "Leaves of Grass" three years before, the masterpiece that would change the course of poetry, though it was little read at the time. While it sold few copies, "Leaves" drew praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Clapp, a talented editor, also founded a weekly journal that promoted Whitman's work relentlessly.
            Though he sometimes read a poem at the Bohemian Club, Whitman did not hold court or exchange witticisms with the kind of people he called "the talkers." Whitman wrote much, but spoke little -- "never a great discusser" is his own self-characterization." My greatest pleasure at Pfaff's was to look on -- to see, talk little, absorb," he wrote later. Whitman's type (like Ward's) is the one of a kind genius. 
           Whitman wrote, and largely invented, the style of free verse that still dominates Western poetry almost two hundred years later. His verse follows the voice rhythms of natural speech. It's the music of ordinary speech spoken extraordinarily well. He uses syntax, instead of rhyme, for closure and repetition. The verse swings, relying on breath, parallelism, and the full range of vernacular expression. The content of poetic discourse -- what Harold Bloom has lately termed 'the American sublime' -- was expanded by "Leaves of Grass" in a single step to the full range of human of activity and sensation in lived experience.
            Poems are written from the point of view of an 'I' who is both the poet, and some assumed persona, and then some-floating observer who switches character, and even gender as needs be.
            His book is the "most democratic" work in the world, wrote Thoreau, who tellingly objected to the frank sensuality of parts of it. Most 19th century Americans did. Emerson recognized "Leaves" as the voice of an America that could not be contained by the point of view of Concord and Boston or any single perspective. "I am large...[as Whitman wrote in 'Leaves'] I contain multitudes."
            And he wanted to be loved as the poet who kept Americans together at a time when the United States was flying apart. That didn't happen; none of it. His big book of wholly new poems didn't sell. He was working once more as a newspaperman (the Brooklyn Daily Times) when he began going to Pfaff's.
          And he spent time in Pfaff's because its open, tolerant, atmosphere proved inviting to another class people Whitman was attracted, beyond the intellectuals who liked the sound of their own voices -- young, working class men who enjoyed the company of other men.
              "Rebel Souls" centers on a period, and on a few major figures of that period, when rapid urban development began to change the character of the country. Urban expansion created a space for life styles that are common today, but were new back then. Gatherings of artsy types, often with unconventional personal lives, some seeking fame or attention, some merely seeking like-minded companionship, are too routine today to believe that they ever needed to be invented, pioneered anywhere. But they were, as "Rebel Souls" tells us -- at a basement beer hall on Broadway in Lower Manhattan. Where else?