by Justin Martin
(Da Capo Press, $27.99)
Reviewed by Larry Cox
Justin Martin has blown the dust off of the New York City of the pre-Civil War era. He’s magically made both the period and the people who inhabited it relevant, stirring and captivating with his true account of a New York City bar and its clientele.
Pfaff’s Saloon was located in the basement of a building on Broadway just a few doors north of Bleecker Street. During the 1850s, Walt Whitman and his “circle of Bohemians” found comfort and inspiration in its permissive atmosphere. Evenings often included the company of such free thinkers and individualists as Mark Twain, Ada Clare, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the bar’s owner, Henry Clapp Jr.
Most of us were introduced to Walt Whitman in high-school literature classes, where he often was presented as a dull poet. In reality, Whitman helped define American letters.
He was born in Long Island in 1819, took up journalism in 1848 and began writing his masterpiece, “Leaves of Grass,” during the early 1850s. The first edition, a mere folio of 95 pages, was not successful. A second larger and expanded edition also failed. Whitman then went to Boston, where he worked with publishers on a third edition expanded to include 100 new poems. Ralph Waldo Emerson considered several of them so risque that he advised the writer to delete them. Whitman refused.
Even though his 1860 edition was controversial, it also was an American and even international masterpiece. For example, Vincent Van Gogh painted his “Starry Night” after reading “Leaves of Grass” in translation. Whitman’s fame continued to grow following the Civil War, and he entertained such literary heavyweights as Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at his home in Camden, N.J.
Here’s a prediction: If you read this book, your next move likely will be to locate and re-read “Leaves of Grass.” Make certain it’s the celebrated third edition.