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The Antebellum Crisis and America's First Bohemians

Mark Lause

Publication Year: 2009

Cultural politics and American bohemians in pre–Civil War New York

Amid the social and political tensions plaguing the United States in the years leading up to the Civil War, the North experienced a boom of cultural activity. Young transient writers, artists, and musicians settled in northern cities in pursuit of fame and fortune. Calling themselves “bohemians” after the misidentified homeland of the Roma immigrants to France, they established a coffeehouse society to share their thoughts and creative visions. Popularized by the press, bohemians became known for romantic, unorthodox notions of literature and the arts that transformed nineteenth–century artistic culture.

Bohemian influence reached well beyond the arts, however. Building on midcentury abolitionist, socialist, and free labor sentiments, bohemians also flirted with political radicalism and social revolution. Advocating free love, free men, and free labor, bohemian ideas had a profound effect on the debate that raged among the splintered political factions in the North, including the fledgling Republican Party from which President Lincoln was ultimately elected in 1860.

Focusing on the overlapping nature of culture and politics, historian Mark A. Lause delves into the world of antebellum bohemians and the newspapermen who surrounded them, including Ada Clare, Henry Clapp, and Charles Pfaff, and explores the origins and influence of bohemianism in 1850s New York. Against the backdrop of the looming Civil War, The Antebellum Crisis and America’s First Bohemians combines solid research with engaging storytelling to offer readers new insights into the forces that shaped events in the prewar years.

Published by: The Kent State University Press

Series: Civil War in the North Series


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p. v

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pp. vii-x

Just back from Paris, the Yankee writer Henry Clapp proposed to experience an American metropolis with his newly honed European sensibilities. His “New Portrait of Paris” began with his observation of Broadway’s “immense tide of people . . . from every quarter of the globe. The scene carried me back to Paris, where, during the previous three years, I had so often been amazed...

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Chapter 1. The King of Bohemia: Henry Clapp, American Cosmopolite

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pp. 1-20

“No man was better known in the newspaper and artistic world a few years ago than the eccentric and gifted King of the Bohemians—Henry Clapp, Jr.” So began his obituary in the New York Times. The first consciously bohemian figure in American life offered Old World standards to the New, inspiring many of the city’s most creative minds “to drop in after theatre hours at Pfaff ’s...

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Chapter 2. A Scandal in Bohemia: Free Love and the Antebellum American Culture Wars

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pp. 21-43

In 1855, the horrified New York Times exposed the existence of “a Secret Society, or League” among the local radicals. On their behalf, Henry Clapp acknowledged the presence of “a complicated secret institution . . . composed of reformatory men and women in various parts of the world, whose collective aim is the ‘examination of all questions within the scope of human concern.’”

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Chapter 3. Utopia on Broadway: Charles Pfaff’s Saloon and the Power of the Pen

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pp. 44-63

Frank S. Chanfrau, one of the regulars at Charlie Pfaff ’s saloon had been born in a wooden tenement on the Bowery, worked his way west as a ship carpenter, and discovered his remarkable gifts of mimicry. In 1848, in “A Glance at New York,” he brought to life the character of “Mose,” who swaggered onto the stage and delivered lines in the distinctive language of the...

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Chapter 4. Liberty and Coercion: Red Republicans, Black Republicans, and the Republic of Letters

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pp. 64-84

The New York Tribune printed a dramatic account of the execution of John Brown. As the old man went to the gallows, he saw a slave woman along the route, lifting her baby to witness his passage. Touched, the old man stopped and tenderly kissed the infant. Fearful about sending any of its regular representatives, who might be recognized and arrested in Virginia, the Tribune had...

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Chapter 5. Representing Alienation: The Republican Civilization and Its Discontents

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pp. 85-103

Notwithstanding such a succinct presentation of historical materialism, one could scarcely find a greater paragon of Republican respectability than “Officer Mac.” The founder of the lost children’s bureau of the police department, he organized a campaign to protect war veterans and their families from being defrauded, providing an example of an effective citizenship initiative praised...

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Conclusion: Iconoclasts in Iconic Times

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pp. 104-126

If truth be the first casualty of war, those who seek their livelihood in the pursuit of truth would be advised to consider rethinking their careers. Henry Clapp resisted the dynamics of the escalating sectional tensions so persistently that Edward House complained of the “unusual carelessness and recklessness” of his “ancient” friend. “Nobody knows more surely than yourself the difference...


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pp. 127-161

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 163-173


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pp. 175-181

E-ISBN-13: 9781612775111
E-ISBN-10: 161277511X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781606350331

Page Count: 192
Illustrations: (To view these images, please refer to print version)
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Civil War in the North Series
Series Editor Byline: Lesley J. Gordon See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 794700964
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Antebellum Crisis and America's First Bohemians

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Arts and society -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Bohemianism -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 19th century.
  • New York (N.Y.) -- History -- 1775-1865.
  • New York (N.Y.) -- Intellectual life -- 19th century.
  • New York (N.Y.) -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • Social movements in art.
  • Social movements in literature.
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