September 18, 2014
(+++) DISTINCTLY AMERICAN HISTORIES
Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians. By Justin Martin. Da Capo. $27.99.
Thomas Jefferson: President and Philosopher. By Jon Meacham. Crown. $19.99.
Enthusiasts for the byways of American history will enjoy Justin Martin’s exploration of the crowd that used to hang out at Pfaff’s Saloon in New York City – an establishment that was the first gathering place of Bohemian-style thinkers and possibly the young nation’s first gay bar. Henry Clapp Jr., a little-known name today, brought together a poetic and philosophical group that included Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain and such lesser lights as Artemus Ward, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Fitz-James O’Brien, Adah Menken and Ada Clare. The gatherings in the late 1850s, as the forces built that would lead to the Civil War, featured discussions of literature and art, daily living and work, and the meaning of life – the same sorts of concerns that would engage the Bohemians of a century later. Pfaff’s was the headquarters of the artists’ own journal, Saturday Press, which published both Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! and Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. It was a place where Whitman, a homosexual, felt comfortable, catering as it did to people of all tastes and what were then considered eccentricities. Martin writes about Pfaff’s and its coterie with skill and attentiveness, although his style is on the dry side and sometimes unintentionally humorous, or simply grammatically challenged: “Emerging from the lake, Ludlow’s hair and beard were thickly caked with salt… No other Mormon Ludlow had encountered wore their hair in this fashion.” The Pfaff’s story is the heart of Rebel Souls, but halfway through the book, the focus changes – because the Civil War begins, which meant, writes Martin, that “most of these artists would manage to carve out their own unique places in a nation at war. To do so would require leaving New York City and the cloistered safety of Pfaff’s, though the group members would return to their favorite haunt whenever they passed back through Manhattan.” The book becomes somewhat less interesting as it follows the individual tales of the Pfaff’s Bohemians, and the book’s title seems a bit of a gaffe, since “rebel” comes to refer to the Confederates and is never applied to the Pfaff’s group. The focus on Whitman makes the book somewhat less interesting than it could be, since Whitman’s work is well-known and the poet has been so often collected, discussed and analyzed. On the other hand, Whitman did one thing that other Pfaff’s regulars did not: he lived a long time. Martin chronicles the early demise of most of the proto-Bohemians in a matter-of-fact way, much as he details John Wilkes Booth’s approach to and assassination of Abraham Lincoln. There are many small items of interest in Rebel Souls, but the book never quite catches fire as the portrait of an era, or of an unusual group, or of the special place that Martin asserts Pfaff’s to be. It comes across as an extended exploration of a historical footnote – of interest primarily to readers whose fascination with Whitman extends to a desire to explore some of his formative interests in the years before he wrote Leaves of Grass.
The exploration of Thomas Jefferson by Jon Meacham is more involving in Thomas Jefferson: President and Philosopher, even though this is a simplification of Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power and is intended to attract younger readers through its ample illustrations. Actually, the book so effectively strips away many of the details of Jefferson’s life that it makes the third U.S. president a more compelling figure: Meacham focuses reader attention on the ways in which Jefferson was absolutely crucial to the establishment of a new nation, and the quotations he offers from Jefferson’s extensive writings help make this consummate statesman and intellectual come vibrantly alive: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” John Adams was “always an honest man, often a great one, but sometimes absolutely mad.” “I know well that no man will ever bring out of that office [of the presidency] the reputation which carries him into it.” It is fascinating to contrast Jefferson’s approach to the presidency with that of modern presidents: “Jefferson governed personally. …Making speeches at other politicians was not the best way to earn their loyalty or their help. Inviting them to dinner was much more effective.” And it is equally fascinating to note ways Jefferson acted that would provoke howls of anger and significant political opposition today: “Nothing in the Constitution gave the president power to sign treaties such as this one [for the Louisiana Purchase]. …A slower or less courageous politician might have bungled the purchase; one who was too idealistic might have lost it by insisting on a constitutional amendment. Jefferson, however, was neither slow nor weak nor too idealistic.” What Jefferson was, however, was highly intelligent as well as highly practical, a combination that served him in good stead in founding the University of Virginia – one of his enduring legacies. Meacham’s simplified biography gives somewhat short shrift to Jefferson’s other legacies, especially those unrelated to politics, but it is, after all, a simplification; and young readers intrigued by elements at which the book only hints, or to which it gives only passing mention, will have many other places to go for additional information – inspired, perhaps, by the “Revolutionary War Times” appendix to Thomas Jefferson: President and Philosopher, or by another of the several back-of-the-book items included here, from Jefferson’s family tree to a recipe he wrote for macaroni.