IN LOWER MANHATTAN, artists, writers, actors, boozers, braggarts, wits, political activists, journalists, drug adventurers, and assorted hangers-on congregate at a raucous, welcoming watering hole. But they aren’t today’s slam poets, ’90s performance artists, late-’60s hippies, early ’60s folkies, ’50s Beats or Abstract Expressionists, or ’20s Algonquin Round Tablers, though they blazed trails for those and many other seekers. Think further back, much further back, to when America was little more than a half-century old. We are in the 1850s at Pfaff’s, a sawdust-floored, gaslight-glowing basement saloon on Broadway near Bleecker, a dim hatchway’s descent beneath the Coleman House Hotel.

Among those at a long table in a distinct low-vaulted space near a wall of wine casks and a malodorous privy, you’ll find, when he isn’t visiting the enticing less-schooled young men elsewhere in the tavern, a reserved, narrowly celebrated but impoverished poet, Walt Whitman; Artemus Ward, a journalist with a dry comedic bent; Fitz Hugh Ludlow, psychedelic pioneer and author of The Hasheesh Eater; the journalist, writer, and proto-feminist Ada Clare (uncharacteristically for its time, Pfaff’s welcomed women customers); Fitz-James O’Brien, a dissolute, witty writer long in thirst and short in temper; and Adah Isaacs Menken, a mercurial actress and budding sex symbol of mysterious origins. Presiding is one Henry Clapp, Jr., a New England–born former teetotaler who fell hard for Bohemian culture during a spell in Paris and resolutely set out to import it to New York, where he joined forces with proprietor Herr Charles Ignatius Pfaff, Swiss-born, of German descent, who arrived among a wave of immigrants earlier in the decade.

These and peripheral characters people Justin Martin’s compelling, insightful group biography Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians.The versatile Martin, author of biographies of Frederick Law Olmsted, Alan Greenspan, and Ralph Nader, vividly describes not only Pfaff’s heyday, but also how Clapp’s coterie, once it was dispersed by the chaos, duties, and opportunities brought by the Civil War, came to define an unmistakably American species of rebel artist, particularly through the enduring, transcendent voice of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Like so many American cultural moments, this Yankee Bohemia comprised a gritty authenticity consciously catalyzed. Clapp’s zealotry resulted from a profound seduction and conversion. A native of Nantucket whose God-fearing family traced its New England roots to 1630, Clapp had the schooling, but not the constitution, for a life at sea. After nauseated teen training voyages to Quebec and down to Rio, he moved to Boston and practiced a landlubber’s trade in whale oil. Writing a short death notice about a friend of his landlady turned his head toward journalism, though, and under the guidance of the politically radical owner of the Lynn Pioneer, he brought colorful detail to routine items and came to show opinionated bite too. Although he shared reformers’ broad egalitarian and abolitionist goals, he was put off by their quibbling dogma. He felt most at home among the liquor-shunning Washingtonians, named after the great general and first president.

Then came a trip to Paris for a three-day peace conference. Intrigued by the café society and artists’ circles of the Latin Quarter, Clapp stayed on, and several months later was swept up in the cultural fever induced by the play La vie de Bohème, a collaboration between the sickly novelist and poet Henri Murger, the playwright Théodore Barrière, and the composer Pierre-Julien Nargeot. (The homage to art, café life, cultural rebellion, love, and tragic early demise would soar again when Puccini adapted it for opera in 1896, and it vibrantly echoed a century after that as the basis for the musical Rent.) Clapp, who had come to France with no French, learned to speak fluently, started drinking whiskey, smoking a clay pipe, and enjoying the company of a much younger woman named Octavie. Soon he was presiding over his own café table. Clapp’s three days in Paris turned into three years. And when he returned to America in 1853, it was with the express intention of recreating la vie Bohème in New York.

Clapp was no mere wannabe. He was a gifted, confident, bilious journalist, and he founded his own American Bohemian organ, The Saturday Press. It was a counterpart to the establishment Atlantic Monthly, as Pfaff’s was the unruly opposite of the polite literary culture embodied by New York’s Calliopean Society or Boston’s stuffy Saturday Club.

Out of a decrepit office on New York’s Spruce Street, the Press, robust of talent and chronically wanting of coin, became, in 1858, a year after the Atlantic’s founding, American Bohemia’s emissary, and Pfaff was the shaggy empire’s king. Editorial meetings on Spruce were fueled with a bucket of Pfaff’s brew, but sometimes the confabs were held at the saloon itself in accordance with Clapp’s submission guidelines: “firm but courteous in accepting drinks and declining articles.” The paper’s essays, criticism, poetry, and occasional fiction were anything but predictable, except in their praise of irreverence. O’Brien, during his brief stint at the paper, reviewed his own play, A Gentleman from Ireland, which was in revival. He panned it.

“The ending of the first act is weak and nonsensical,” he wrote. “There is no characterization in it from beginning to end, and everybody talks like everybody else.” O’Brien approved of Hamlet, but from a Pfaffian point of view. Had the prince not had the misfortune of privilege, he “would most undoubtedly have been a Bohemian,” O’Brien argues, noting the dour Dane’s debauchery and his “stupendous contempt for all kinds of sham and humbug.”

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In an 1860 issue of The Saturday Press, Ada Clare, the Pfaffians’ comely queen, defined the Bohemian as a “Cosmopolite, with a general sympathy for the fine arts […] not, like the creature of society, a victim of rules and customs.” In her regular column, the defiant single mother was a feminist before those clearly existed. She decried bonnets, hoop skirts, and heels as fashions men used to slow and subjugate women. Why, she asked in another piece, were men awarded acclaim for active virtue while women were lauded for passive chastity? The latter suggested women needed to be contained, and that notion led to unfortunate male delusions. “The great body of men persist in believing, against all record and the witness of their own eyes, that the woman who can accept one man can accept all men,” she wrote. Brought up a Southern belle, she railed against the frail, thin, delicate body image of women portrayed and encouraged by novelists. And she wrote about working mothers’ difficulty in finding childcare.

With a circulation that maxed out at around 5,000, The Saturday Press had a hugely disproportionate influence due to “exchange lists,” informal, credited syndication networks that carried the Bohemian mystique across the country. And across the continent too it carried the first published lines in several years by Whitman, “A Child’s Reminiscence,” later rechristened “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Martin persuasively hears in the work a darker, more mature Whitman, drawing on his listlessness and “the blackness that moved through those gatherings in Pfaff’s basement.” And it brought the attention of the scrappy young Boston publishers Thayer & Eldridge, offering to produce what would become, in 1860, the third edition of Leaves. This was a profound junction in Whitman’s life and work, as Martin points out. On one hand was the conservative literary counsel of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wanted Whitman to tidy up the wild lyric Leaves. On the other were Clapp’s admonitions to maintain the poems’ savage unruliness and grow the unkempt garden ever higher. Whitman, of course, chose the latter (this new edition was 456 pages, with 146 poems, 114 more than Leaves’s lean previous incarnation), and Clapp and his newspaper amplified Whitman’s voice to a shocked but intrigued world.

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Martin sets himself an ambitious task, and rises to it in the structure and reach of his telling. In 1860, the war scatters his protagonists, whose fates he follows for the latter two-thirds of Rebel Souls like a literary LoJack.

War brings opportunities to those who would distract us from it. One such was the mysterious Adah Menken, a publicist’s dream and a biographer’s nightmare because she spun so many myths around her origins. Best bet is that she was born of mixed race near Lake Pontchartrain in what is now New Orleans. A teenage chorus girl, then a bareback horse rider with a Texas circus, she was the wife first of a New Orleans minstrel-group member and later of a wealthy Jewish Texas orchestra conductor. (Ever the quick-study chameleon, she was soon writing drab but passionate Judaic poetry.) She left the marriage for a return to the stage, taking her second husband’s name with her.

Indifferent to learning her lines, Menken compensated with charisma, sex appeal, and fearlessness, all of which, along with her equestrian skills, were incorporated into her scantily clad role in the novelty play Mazeppa, which made her a 19th-century superstar.

Like Menken’s, Ward’s career blossomed during the war. At Pfaff’s, Ward, né Charlie Brown, of Waterford, Maine, had been a print humor columnist, but he’d since developed Artemus Ward as a performance persona, a “send-up of popular lecturers of the day,” including Emerson. Ward’s “lecture tour,” a straight-faced, halting, mildly pretentious voyage in rhetorical circles, soon had audiences in stitches. The oddly parallel war-propelled stardom of Menken and Ward briefly thrust them together as a couple.

Fitz Hugh Ludlow, the psychotropically inclined wordsmith, accompanied the painter Albert Bierstadt on a trip cross-country to contextualize the artist’s sprawling new landscape work, an opportunity won at the expense of Ludlow’s marriage, as Bierstadt would semi-discreetly woo Ludlow’s wife Rosalie away from him. A continent away from Pfaff’s, Ludlow connected with San Francisco’s Bohemia, where Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, and a thin, gray-eyed, curly redhead named Mark Twain wrote for the Golden Era, a sort of pioneers’ Saturday Press that combined Bohemian fare with practical items like mining-claim listings, recipes, and blunt obituaries (“James A. Rogers, blew his brains out, September 2nd. Cause: discouraged”).

Whitman, famously, went to Washington, where he worked as a clerk and ministered to wounded soldiers. His proximity to grievous injury, illness, and death; to Lincoln; and to a new great love, Peter Doyle (a “hearty full-blooded everyday divinely generous working man,” Whitman called him), deepened Whitman’s already considerable empathy and sense of his near-prophetic role as the bard of epic national events. The Booths — an acclaimed but alcoholic-rife, dysfunctional clan of American theater royals — orbit eerily around the Pfaffians throughout Martin’s account, in part because Clapp kept careful critical track of their performances. And as John Wilkes Booth fired from a derringer his hateful, fateful shot at Ford’s Theatre, Doyle saw and heard it and would recall it for Whitman. When Clapp briefly brought The Saturday Press back to life, it included Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”

If the war and its aftermath spread the Pfaff set’s talents across the country and in some cases to Europe as well, that era also collected a dismal toll on the group. O’Brien, who’d once brawled senselessly and boisterously in Manhattan, was wounded during a courageous charge in battle, his scapula shattered by a Confederate’s bullet near Bloomery Gap in what is now West Virginia. He died soon after at 33. Ludlow, at 34, succumbed to the opium habit he’d picked up in San Francisco. Menken, in Paris performing another seductive swashbuckling role, died at 33, her demise as mysterious as her birth: tuberculosis? appendicitis? an abscess? cancer? injuries from an equestrian accident? That same year, 1866, Ward’s crazed performance schedule and carousing during a tour in England helped bring about tuberculosis. He died in Southampton at 33. Ada Clare, who’d begun a theatrical career, succumbed in 1874, to — of all things — rabies from a freakish dog bite. She was 39. Clapp, older than his Bohemian minions, lived to be 60, but spent his last years penniless in an asylum.

Whitman was the exception. He was greatly weakened by a stroke, at 53, in Washington, but lived on, with his brother George’s family and then by himself, until 1892, in Camden, New Jersey. He saw, as Martin notes, “the presidencies of Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Harrison. […] the last bare-knuckle prizefight and the first five-and-dime […] the advent of electric bulbs and Coca-Cola, standardized time zones and the Brooklyn Bridge.” His final visit to Pfaff’s was in 1881. It had moved to West 24th Street and “grown respectable,” writes Martin. Pfaff still owned it, and the two sat for an hour “sipping wine and reminiscing.” “Ah, the friends and names and frequenters,” Whitman marveled, “those times, that place.”

Martin’s done a remarkable job bringing “those times, that place” very much alive through his painstaking research in archives at Brown, Columbia, Harvard, St. John’s, Union College, the Library of Congress, and the online Vault at Pfaff’s, overseen by Lehigh University. To Justin Kaplan’s brilliant bedrock Whitman biography, David Reynolds’s close cultural analysis of Whitman’s verse, and insightful explorations of the poet’s sexuality by Gary Schmidgall and others, Martin brings a vivid portrait of the group that provided such fertile stimulation and encouragement when many of Whitman’s Leaves were still seeds.

Moreover, Martin calls to our attention how present, still, are the ghosts of the 19th-century American counterculture Clapp so vigorously nourished. After reading Martin’s book, you might, when watching Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, spy the shadow of Artemus Ward. When reading about the latest bizarre or salacious scoop about Gaga, Britney, Miley, or Beyoncé, you might hear the coquettish laughter and spy the teasing thigh of Adah Menken. When reading Maureen Dowd or Gail Collins, you might glimpse the sad, knowing smile of Ada Clare. How many drug-addled misfit wonders trace the sparkling downward spiral of Ludlow? How many boisterous, gifted man-child charmers have perched at O’Brien’s spot near the bar tap? And how many overwhelmed, enthralled poets have looked about an ugly, majestic, clanging, jittery, and unsure America and wondered just how they would ever find the words to describe it?

Pfaff’s rebel souls, Martin makes plain, are all around us.

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Alexander C. Kafka has written about books and the arts for The American Prospect, The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, The Oxford American, and many other publications. His screenplay Specimen Days, which he later adapted for the stage, concerns Walt Whitman’s later years.