cover image Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians

Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians

Justin Martin. Da Capo, $27.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-306-82226-1

Martin (Genius of Place) offers an engaging history of a literary underground—a bohemian group headed by Henry Clapp Jr.—that actually gathered underground, sitting around a long table in a vaulted room at Pfaff’s saloon in New York City. Though Walt Whitman is the best-known of the group, readers may find themselves drawn to his lesser-known comrades: Fitz Hugh Ludlow, author of The Hashish Eater; actress Ada Clare; Adah Isaac Menken, who achieved considerable fame on stage, tied naked to a horse in the opera Mazeppa; and Charlie Brown (aka Artemus Ward), who was considered “America’s first stand-up comedian.” Martin’s writing rises to the occasion; readers will long to have heard Ward’s act, to have seen a production of Mazeppa, or to have read selections from Ludlow’s book and Clare’s columns in the Saturday Press. The main focus of the book is Whitman—his participation in circle, his efforts to publish Leaves of Grass, his ministering to wounded soldiers, and his infatuation with Peter Doyle. Highlights include Ludlow’s travels with artist Albert Bierstadt and a brief appearance by Mark Twain. Despite the author’s evident passion and considerable research, the narrative suffers from occasional choppiness and repetition. But it’s still a worthwhile read despite these minor flaws and introduces armchair literary historians to a dazzling cast of eccentrics. 16 pages of b&w photos. Agent: Don Fehr, Trident Media Group. (Sept.)