Sunday, March 2, 2014

115. Greenwich Village, Bohemians, Walt Whitman and how gay was he?

      I have just begun reading John Strausbaugh’s comprehensive and well-researched book The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues; A History of Greenwich Village (HarperCollins, 2013), which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the Village and its colorful past.  It will be a long read (553 pages + end matter!).  I’ve only reached the mid-nineteenth century, but it has inspired this post, and I hope it will inspire many others.  Much of what follows I owe to this source.

Greenwich Village

     I always assumed that the name was somehow related to Greenwich in England, a district of southeast London where the Royal Observatory is located, and the modern prime meridian was first established in 1851, creating zero degrees longitude, by which mariners calculate their east-west position at sea.  (Confused?  So am I.)  All of which is mercifully irrelevant.  According to Strausbaugh, a Dutchman named Yellis de Mandeville, who lived near the village of Greenwijck on Long Island, bought some land in what is now Greenwich Village and named it Greenwijck.  This was of course too much for the English, who by the 1720s had Anglicized it as “Greenwich.”  And since all settlements outside the city were called villages, the area came to be known as Greenwich Village.

     In the eighteenth century the Village was still wild countryside where hunters went to shoot woodcock, snipe, and rabbits.  Wealthy New Yorkers bought estates there and lived comfortably until the 1820s, when the city’s relentless march northward overtook the area.  In 1822 an especially virulent summer epidemic of yellow fever drove many city residents, businesses, and government offices from the crowded, filthy, ill-drained city at the southern tip of Manhattan up to the healthier, well-drained soil of Greenwich Village.   A boom in building followed, and when the epidemic ended, many residents chose to stay, commuting daily by stage to the business district far to the south.  But the new buildings went up along the Village’s existing paths and lanes, thus perpetuating the area’s haphazard street plan where, one short block from where I live, West 4th Street intersects West 11th in defiance of all logic, reason, and common sense.  When the grid plan of the city fathers, forcing all of Manhattan into rigid rectangular lots, reached the Village, it had to accept and tolerate the neighborhood’s crazy labyrinth of streets, which baffles and infuriates newcomers to this day.  So already the Village was an exception to the rule, a law unto itself, a curious backwater destined to become a bedroom community free of industry, a charming neighborhood, quiet and – to use that trite and dreadful word – quaint.


     The term “bohemian” was apparently first applied to impoverished young writers, artists, and intellectuals in Paris’s Latin Quarter by a journalist named Felix Pyat in 1834.  Prior to the French Revolution of 1789 writers and artists had for the most part depended on patronage from the nobility and the Church, which obviously imposed severe limits on their works and the ideas behind them; individualism and revolt were out, deference and conformity were in.  Yes, there were a few free spirits like Caravaggio and François Villon, the first an accused murderer and the second a thief, but these were rare exceptions.  Mozart and Haydn and Bach, Racine and Molière and Shakespeare, all had to tow the line. 

File:Murger Boheme couverture light.jpeg    But by the nineteenth century, when the rising middle class finally got there (they had been “rising” for centuries), writers and artists experienced a new freedom, but with it the need to please these arrivistes or enjoy the charms of poverty and near starvation.  This was the Romantic age, which glorified the artist as a tortured genius, finer and braver than the triumphant but often ill-informed and insensitive bourgeoisie.  These hungry and often antisocial rebels clustered together on the Left Bank and formed a nonconformist society of their own, a society that was portrayed in Henry Murger’s play Scènes de la vie de Bohème, which, when first produced in Paris in 1849, was an enormous success. 

     All the Western world became fascinated by these new young bohemians, and Murger’s 1851 book of the same title became an international best seller.  Puccini’s La Bohème, first  performed in Italy in 1896, was based on Murger’s book and perpetuated its idealized sketch of bohemian life.  In the first act, when the quartet of free-living young men are confronted by the landlord who wants his rent, and avoid coughing it up by getting the landlord drunk, I have always had issues with the story.  No Paris or New York landlord worthy of the name would have let himself be stymied so easily; within minutes he would have the minions of the Law there, and the non-rent-paying tenants would have found themselves duly dumped on the street.  But then, why let a touch of reality spoil a charming and much-acclaimed opera?

Pfaff’s and the Queen of Bohemia

Pfaff's, with Whitman seated in the foreground.
Presumably as imagined later by an artist.
     Bohemia came to these fair shores in the 1850s, and settled down – or let’s say surfaced and congregated – right here in the Village in a basement restaurant-saloon called Pfaff’s, under a delicatessen and shoe store at 645-647 Broadway, near Bleecker Street.  Broadway by then was the city’s main artery, its chief shopping district and entertainment zone and, after dark, its most notorious red-light district.  Just the place, then, for a hangout for a clutch of impoverished poets, journalists, artists, and a few actresses of dubious repute.  Presided over by a German Swiss named Charles Pfaff, it offered fine beers and wines, and real silver and chinaware, to the regular customers who sat at small tables in front, while a long table in back was reserved for the city’s first bohemian crowd.  The genial host welcomed them all, and no doubt realized that the free-living bunch in back would attract the curious eager to get a glimpse of bohemians.  And the ill-paid journalists and illustrators of the time appreciated the host’s letting them linger over their beers and run up substantial tabs. 

     Another opinion was voiced by the New York Times, a staunch upholder of integrity in a city that often had little of it.  A “Bohemian,” it opined in January 1858, was not quite, but close to, a loafer.  He has either written a flop of a play, painted a picture that didn’t sell, published an unreadable book, or composed an unsung opera.  Bohemians despised anything low or mean or inelegant, it granted, but they were not useful members of society.  There spoke the work-ethic of America, which would last as long as bohemia existed, each in a sense feeding off the other in a curious state of  symbiosis.  A work-ethic needs loafers it can despise and feel superior to; bohemia needs diligent, rent-paying, nose-to-the-grindstone types to rebel against.  No one can rebel against a vacuum.

File:Ada Clare.jpg
Ada Clare
     And who were these bohemians?  From 1859 on, a self-published, little-known poet who was also a self-proclaimed loafer, Walt Whitman.  But more of him anon.  The queen of the roost was Ada Clare, born Jane McElhenny into a well-to-do Charleston family in 1836.  Losing both parents as a child, she was raised by a grandfather who brought her to the North.  Breaking free from Southern gentility, she changed her name and went on the stage in New York and got her first poems published there.  (One explanation of the new name: a take-off of the Southern lady’s frequent utterance, “I declare,” as in, “Ah declare, General Beauregard, it’s time to open fire on Fort Sumtah.”)  She also fell in love with a famous pianist and composer named Louis Gottschalk, a notorious seducer by whom she had a son out of wedlock.  Far from hiding the fact in shame, as was considered appropriate in that Victorian age, she proclaimed it in calling cards announcing, “Miss Ada Clare and Son,” thus no doubt becoming the city’s first liberated woman, years before the celebrated shenanigans of Victoria Woodhull (see posts #39 and #40), who was christened Mrs. Satan.   

     In 1858, after travels with her son (and the calling card) abroad, including a look at bohemian Paris, Ada Clare returned to New York and was welcomed by the Pfaff regulars as the Queen of Bohemia.  Her complexion was pale, her eyes blue, and her hair short, blond, and wavy, and parted on the side like a boy’s.  Whitman called her “a perfect beauty” and credited her with intellect and cultivation.  Certainly her presence, plus that of several other single, unchaperoned women, gave Pfaff’s the requisite risqué atmosphere, so necessary to any authentic bohemian hangout.  (In those days any unchaperoned women seen in public were assumed to be prostitutes.)  In France Ada Clare might have been the hostess of a salon frequented by intellectuals and statesmen (albeit minus their wives, if such they had), but in New York the one immediate opportunity was Pfaff’s.

     A personal note:  I know how special and liberating such an atmosphere can be, having sampled it here in the Village at the famous San Remo, on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, circa 1959 and 1961-65, and again at the Co-Existence Bagel Shop in North Beach, San Francisco, in 1960-61, when I was hovering on the fringe of bohemia and observing with fascination and wariness its mix of beatniks, hustlers, drunks, and leeches, plus a few real artists and poets and liberated women – a group I loved to rub easy elbows with, up to a point, but that I was too square, too bourgeois, too concerned with my financial well-being, to embrace wholeheartedly.  But, as I once heard author Jean Houston say, “Groups are juicy.”  Yes they are, some of them, though others can be stultifying.  The ones at the Sam Remo and the Co-Existence Bagel Shop were fun, and gave you the feeling that you were in just the right place at just the right time, though I wouldn’t quite call them creative.  A human amusement park would be more to the point, a scene not to be missed, but not to be lingered in too long.  Knowing when to quit is half of successful living.  (And the other half?  At the moment, I haven’t a clue.)

     Ada Clare gave acting a try, but excelled mostly in sharp-tongued literary and theater criticism, dismissing works she deemed inferior with scorn.  At her home in the uptown wilds of West 42nd Street, she is said to have held Sunday evening soirées for men who had distinguished themselves in the arts, war, and philanthropy, and for women who were beautiful and brilliant.  If so, she came close after all to emulating the grandes horizontales of France, the cocottes who offered charm and intelligence as well as delights  of the flesh.

Walt Whitman, and how gay was he?
File:Walt Whitman, steel engraving, July 1854.jpg
One of the roughs.
    In 1855 Whitman had published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, unsigned, but with an engraving of himself, bearded, in a loose open shirt and what look like dungarees, head tilted under a wide-brimmed hat, with one hand on his hip and the other in his pocket, the whole pose loose, casual, relaxed.  This was not at all the image of the poet of that time. 

     If Americans had an image of the poet – and most of them were too busy to bother with such nonsense – it was probably a Byronic look such as McDonald Clarke (see post #85) had effected: clean-shaven with an open collar, tousled hair, hatless, rather handsome features, preferably with a hint of elegance and sensitivity.  This was the Romantic poet, well-groomed or not (one was, after all, a rebel), not dainty but not rough.  And a bit of inner torment was requisite, as seen in that quintessential Romantic, the poet Hoffmann, the protagonist of Offenbach’s opera Tales of Hoffmann: a tormented genius plagued by an evil nemesis and doomed repeatedly in love, foundering at last in drink.  Whatever the variation, the Romantic was a man apart, out of the mainstream, a visionary misunderstood by others, a rebel, an outcast. 

File:McDonald Clarke - Appleton's cyclopaedia.jpg
McDonald Clarke, definitely not
one of the roughs.

     But Whitman presents himself differently.  The engraving in the unsigned first edition suggests a man of the people, very working class, and in the opening poem of the volume, now called “A Song of Myself,” he reveals  himself as “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual.”  And the poetry itself is healthy, robust, expansive, all-embracing.  This is a poet speaking for America who hopes that America will listen.  No inner torment here, no broodings of an outcast. 

     Of course Walt Whitman was homosexual; no one doubts that today.  But was he in his own time “out”?  That is a question not so easily answered.  I am annoyed by current gay biographers who simply assume that every contact Whitman had with younger men was sexual; it strikes me as a projection of modern attitudes onto an earlier age when homosexuality (the word had yet to be invented) was universally condemned as a crime against nature.  For many years I inclined to the opinion of an earlier biographer whose name escapes me, but who suggested that Whitman may not have had sexual experience: “For his work to be complete, maybe his life had to be incomplete.”  This made sense to me, since many an author has recounted experiences that he (or she) can have known only in fantasy.  Stendhal comes at once to mind, but the supreme example surely is Shakespeare.  So why not Whitman?

     Certainly what we know of him poses contradictions.  The Calamus section of Leaves of Grass, which first  appeared in the 1860 edition, celebrates “manly attachment,” “the need of comrades,” “athletic love,” and declares that he will unbare his broad breast, having long enough “stifled and choked.”  Here now is a hint of inner torment.  And he goes further:

    Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you,
    With the comrade’s long-dwelling kiss or the new husband’s kiss,
    For I am the new husband and the comrade.

Which, for mid-nineteenth-century America, was pretty daring.  Let’s face it, whether fantasy or not, the Calamus poems are “hot.”  In fact, they’re torrid.

File:Symonds, John Addington.jpg
John Addington Symonds.  An 1889
photo autographed to Walt Whitman.
     What complicates things is the correspondence between Whitman and the English man of letters John Addington Symonds, a married homosexual who had fathered four daughters.  Symonds discovered Whitman’s poetry in 1865, was overwhelmed by the Calamus poems, and wrote Whitman an admiring letter in 1871, thus initiating an intermittent correspondence that would last many years.  In subsequent letters he addressed Whitman as “My dear Master,” yet skirted around the subject of his own homosexuality while pressing Whitman to say more about the male bonding of Calamus.  After years of beating around the sexual bush, in August 1890 Symonds wrote Whitman asking pointedly about the homosexual content of the Calamus poems.  Whitman’s response was an angry and defensive denial, spiced up with the preposterous claim that he had fathered six illegitimate children, confirming evidence of which, needless to say, has never come to light.  Whitman’s heated reply has provided fuel and fodder to all those determined to establish the poet’s heterosexuality or, failing that, his bisexuality, and has certainly added greatly to the enigma of his sex life.

     Here is where I find John Strausbaugh’s account convincing.  Whitman began frequenting Pfaff’s in 1859, eager to get attention for himself and a forthcoming third edition – the one with the Calamus poems – of Leaves of Grass.  The first edition, generally ignored, had garnered a few reviews that dismissed it as “stupid filth,” “twaddle,” and “a muck of abomination,” and one that, long before the Calamus poems had appeared, denounced the poet for “the horrible sin not to be named among Christians,” which the critic discreetly phrased in Latin.  The second edition of 1856 had been received with silence.  At Pfaff’s the poet, then forty, enjoyed the high spirits of the younger crowd, who, as Strausbaugh tells it, accepted him and were no more bothered by his homosexuality than they were by Ada Clare’s status as an unwed mother.  In other words, at least to a small circle of fellow bohemians, Walt Whitman was definitely “out.”

File:Walt Whitman edit 2.jpg
The good gray poet, albeit closeted, in 1887.  A favorite
 photo of his, a copy of which he sent to Tennyson in England.

     And what about the famous 1890 letter of denial that Whitman sent to Symonds?  By that time Whitman had achieved a modest amount of recognition and was surrounded by a coterie of younger admirers.  Given the attitudes of the age, he chose to protect his reputation as the “good gray poet” by denying his homosexuality flat out.  It’s too easy today to criticize this surrender, so in contrast with the boldness of the Calamus poems, but Whitman was living in another time.  Having been discreetly, to a small circle, “out,” he went back “in.”  And Symonds’s hesitation over time to deal with homosexuality directly and in a personal way should likewise be viewed with understanding.  Only five years later, in 1895, Oscar Wilde would be arrested and tried for “gross indecency,” convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison, the judge lamenting that this, the maximum sentence allowed, was totally inadequate for such a case. 


     The outbreak of the Civil War broke up the bohemian crowd at Pfaff’s.  Some of them joined the Army, and Whitman went to Washington to do volunteer work with the wounded in the hospitals. 

     Ada Clare’s years at Pfaff’s may well have been her best.  Subsequently she traveled, wrote, and acted, but her novel Only a Woman’s Heart (1866), relating her affair with Gottschalk, garnered harsh reviews, some of them from vengeful writers whom she had once savaged in reviews of her own.  After that she gave up writing and devoted herself to acting in a provincial stock company.  In 1874 she was bitten by a rabid dog, collapsed on a stage in Rochester, was brought back to New York by friends and installed on Bleecker Street in the Village, where she died a horrible death of rabies.  Informed, Whitman mourned the loss of a “gay, easy, sunny, free, loose, but not ungood life.”

     After the war Pfaff and others tried to revive the bohemian scene in the rathskeller, but it never quite came off.  Instead, the place became a respectable lager beer saloon, just one of many in the city.  Pfaff closed it, then in 1870 opened another uptown on 24th Street near Broadway.  In the mid-1870s Whitman visited him there and they reminisced over brim-full wine glasses about the old times and friends now mostly deceased.  Pfaff closed the new place in 1887 and died a few years later.

     Trees:  An article in the Times a week ago celebrated the wintry beauty of elm trees in Central Park, each branch and twig delicately lined with snow.  “A tabernacle in the air,” it proclaimed.  Yes, the bare skeletons of trees in winter, with or without snow, are a marvel to behold, and most of us don’t bother to behold.  I have already celebrated the beauty and wonder of trees in post #71, “The Magnificence and Insolence of Trees,” and urge all residents of the winter-besieged North to look about themselves in awe at the wonder of trees. 

File:Bare Tree 2.jpg

     Coming soon:  Fires and firemen in the city (my 2½ fires, why New Yorkers shrug off fire alarms, and the volunteer fire companies of yore).  After that:  How New Yorkers have fun (the options are endless and sometimes crazy).

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder


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