Visitors to literary shrines in Manhattan would do well to pay a visit to one of a number of locations associated with America’s Good Gray Poet, Walt Whitman. Short of paying a visit to the Brooklyn sites associated with the 19th century literary luminary, however, such locations as the former site of the underground bohemian bar Pfaff’s, or the offices of the publication which early on promoted Whitman’s work (through the auspices of Pfaff buddy Henry Clapp), is well worth a mention.
Much is made of the self-promoting acumen of Walt Whitman. And to be sure, Whitman’s canniness when it came to getting his name before the public is well documented. However, the role of his ‘Bohemian’ friends and colleagues among the New York City penny-newspaper crowd was also a significant factor in getting the Good Gray Poet’s name before the public as a literary figure.
That crowd, centered on the underground bar “Pfaff’s Saloon,” included poets, singers, philosophers and entertainers – and a key group of newspaper fellows who made it a point to promote Whitman when he was little more than a playful and laconic figure on the fringes of literary society.
The names associated with the Pfaff’s crowd were legend. Lola Montez, Horatio Alger, John Burroughs, Edwin Booth (brother of John Wilkes Booth). Ralph Waldo Emerson.
According to critic Albert Parry, the Pfaff’s group came along at a critical juncture. They “burst forth in the wake of the sluggish and ponderous Knickerbocker school,” he wrote, adding that the Bohemians “stormed the prim fastness of literary Boston. Rebellion against the slow waters and mild breezes emanating from the ancient seat of American culture was the main raison d'etre of New York's first Bohemians … (They) were the first writers to insist on transferring contemporary life and literature from the prison of salons to the freer air of saloons.
The Pfaff bunch, in fact, had lionized the recently deceased Edgar Allen Poe -- whose dissipation and demise due to alcohol and madness suited their notion of the Poete Maudit – prior to their association with Whitman. According to one Pfaff commentator, several of the group were inspired or influenced by Poe, and critics point to that fact. Eugene T. Lalor describes Poe as "the spiritual guide of Bohemia.” David S. Reynolds names him their "patron saint." And Louis M. Starr suggests that the first Bohemian movement in America at Pfaff’s "resurrected Poe because he “had lived dissolutely, died spectacularly, and hated Boston.”
According to critic Albert Parry, the Pfaff’s group helped enthrone Whitman. And key among them in that role was a literary hopeful by the name of Henry Clapp.
On October 23, 1858, Henry Clapp, Jr., published the inaugural issue of The Saturday Press at 9 Spruce Street, currently the site of Pace University, and a few blocks from South Street Seaport, at the foot of Brooklyn Bridge. The literary magazine sold for five cents a copy and was dedicated to providing what Clapp called "Literary, Artistic, Dramatic, and Musical Intelligence." In his first editorial for the Press, Clapp said that the primary goal of the new literary weekly was "to furnish its readers with as great a variety as possible of interesting facts, leaving him [sic] the privilege of making his own comments
Clapp is credited with having persistently and regularly championed the poetry in Leaves of Grass in the pages of The Saturday Press. According to Paul Zweig, Clapp's influence helped make Whitman known and "located him on the margin of literary respectability." Clapp published reviews of Whitman's work, referred his work to other editors, and "nursed controversies and kept Whitman in the public eye as a radical new voice."
Here’s what Whitman said to his own memoirist, Horace Traubel, regarding the importance of Henry Clapp and The Saturday Press on his success. "Somebody some day will tell that story to our literary historians," he said, "for the Press cut a significant figure in the periodical literature of its time."