Biography is, both etymologically and in its conventional forms, the writing of a life. But what is the role of place within that? And...

Biography is, both etymologically and in its conventional forms, the writing of a life. But what is the role of place within that? And how do the stories of lives- some of them well known, others less so- realign when we see them through the lens of a particular place? That’s Justin Martin‘s way in to the stories of Walt Whitman, Artemus Ward, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Adah Menken and Edwin Booth, among others: their convergence, many an evening, at Pfaff’s basement saloon in mid-19th century Manhattan.

Don’t let the name-check in the title fool you. Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians (Da Capo Press, 2014) is just as much about the other bohemians as it is about Whitman, and the Whitman we find here may not be the Whitman we thought we knew. He’s younger- his fate yet to be determined- and he’s paling around with a cast of characters equally compelling.
When he went to Paris in 1849, Henry Clapp Jr. was so impressed with the local artsy-types that he decided to export their way of life to America, to consciously found a group of bohemians back in New York. And it’s the saloon where they congregated that first drew Martin to his story. Though his characters fan out across the country over the course of the narrative, they came from Pfaff’s and they seem to carry it with them wherever they go.Place plays a fundamental role in life and should, by extension, feature within the subsequent tellings of a life as well, but it’s a factor that is, all too often, unexamined at this level- the level of where one eats and drinks and hangs out. Places are ever-changing, Manhattan real estate most especially. But, as Rebel Souls proves, biography can play a provocative role in preserving their mystique and also their impact– recapturing the barroom beneath the city streets, the chatter swirling around the budding poet, the raucous laughter of his companions, the ice cubes clinking in the glass. The knowledge that this is where they came from, that this is where they were off-stage or on break, not only offers fresh insight into the things they were able to create, but it also reveals tantalizing dimensions of who they might have been.
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