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  • The Southern Origins of Bohemian New York:Edward Howland, Ada Clare and Edgar Allan Poe

The first Americans to identify as artistic bohemians gathered at a Manhattan beer cellar in the 1850s. They counted Walt Whitman as one of their number, and considered Edgar Allan Poe a bohemian avant la lettre. But New York’s first bohemians were not displaced Parisians living in a section of the Latin Quarter magically transplanted to the United States. Rather, bohemianism in the United States has roots in Charleston, South Carolina—the hometown of both Ada Clare (the “Queen of Bohemia” and host of a weekly literary salon) and Edward Howland (the financial backer for the bohemians’ literary weekly, the New York Saturday Press), as well as the setting of Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” (1843), which influenced the first literary representation of American bohemianism in Fitz-James O’Brien’s short story “The Bohemian” (1855). Charleston’s cotton plantations provided Howland and Clare with the money to fund the institutions that were essential for bohemianism to flourish: the periodical and the salon. With Poe at the imaginative center of American bohemia and Clare and Howland at its financial center, US bohemianism emerges as a complex network of people, money, and ideas circulating between the North and the South as well as New York and Paris.

One of the most often recounted stories about the bohemians of antebellum New York recalls a commotion that purportedly took place in the fall of 1861 at Charles Pfaff’s Manhattan beer cellar. As the story goes, Pfaff’s regular Walt Whitman read aloud his pro-Union poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!” only to have fellow bohemian George Arnold raise his glass of wine and toast to the success of “the Southern rebellion.” According to one account: “Walt warned George to be more guarded in his sentiments. George fired up more and more. Walt passed his ‘mawler’ toward George’s ear. George passed a bottle of claret toward the top-knot of the poet’s head.” Tensions escalated. [End Page 35] Restaurant owner Charles Pfaff, a German immigrant often mocked for his thick accent, “made a jump and gave a yell of ‘Oh! mine gots, mens, what’s you do for dis?’” while the “King of Bohemia,” Henry Clapp Jr., “broke his black pipe while pulling at Arnold’s coot-tail.” Ned Wilkins, another of Whitman’s friends, “lost the power of his lungs for five minutes after tugging at the brawny arm of Walt”; and, in the words of the storyteller, “we all received a beautiful mixture of rum, claret, and coffee on the knees of our trousers.”1

Biographers and critics have been drawn to this story (which Whitman claimed was “the silliest compound of nonsense, lies & rot”)2 for obvious reasons: it provides a rare glimpse into Whitman’s passionate, even visceral, commitment to defending the Union cause; it illustrates the anything-goes atmosphere of the bohemian beer cellar; and it demonstrates how the violence that plagued the United States in the first half of the 1860s had spread beyond the Civil War battlefields and penetrated into even the most remote and seemingly apolitical corners of the nation. The story also gives the lie to the myth that New York’s first bohemians were displaced Parisians living in a section of the Latin Quarter magically transplanted to the United States—a myth that, until relatively recently, literary historians have been content to rehearse. David Reynolds’s assessment from the mid-1990s that the antebellum bohemians, “unable to cope with the national crisis, . . . were playing a desperate game of evasion,” has since been revised in Mark Lause’s argument that radical political movements on the eve of the Civil War were “inexorably intertwined with the personnel, practice, and persuasion of bohemian life.”3 Amanda Gailey and Robert Scholnick have also recently shown how the periodicals that served as the voice of bohemian New York—Vanity Fair and the Saturday Press—were bound up in the conflict between the North and the South in ways that make a Southern presence integral to the history of the United States’ first bohemians.4

That Southern presence manifests itself in three key figures associated with the origins of bohemian New York: Edward Howland, Ada Clare, and Edgar Allan Poe. Poe may have died almost a decade before the birth of the New York bohemian scene, but his sacrifice of wealth, status, and personal wellbeing in the pursuit of art provided the habitués of Pfaff’s with raw materials for what would become a homegrown bohemian legend. Bohemianism in the United States has roots in Charleston, South Carolina, the hometown of both Clare and Howland as well as the setting of Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” (1843), which influenced the first literary representation of American bohemianism in Fitz-James O’Brien’s “The Bohemian” (1855). The cotton plantations of Charleston provided Howland and Clare with the money to fund the institutions that Pierre Bourdieu argues were essential for bohemianism to flourish: the periodical and the salon.5 Howland gave a portion of his own fortune to [End Page 36] fund the Saturday Press, the literary weekly that served as the bohemians’ house organ during the late 1850s and early 1860s, and Clare used her sizable inheritance to recreate the bohemian salons she had witnessed firsthand in Paris. For both Charlestonians the source of their money was the same: cotton harvested by African American slaves.

These Southerners help to complicate the received notion that American bohemianism was, in William Dean Howells’s words, “transplanted from the mother asphalt of Paris” to the rapidly growing urban culture of antebellum New York.6 Instead, with Poe at the imaginative center of American bohemia and Clare and Howland at its financial center, US bohemianism emerges as a complex network of people, money, and ideas circulating between the North and the South as well as New York and Paris. Bohemia’s migration from Paris to New York depended on Southern people, money, and ideas that have been overlooked, forgotten, or deliberately obscured—including the African American slaves who populated Poe’s Southern fiction and harvested the cotton that fed Howland’s and Clare’s bank accounts. For Howland and Clare, a pattern emerges wherein a Southern presence is rendered invisible in order to present New York and Paris as the bohemian capitals of the nineteenth century; that Southern presence, however, reemerges in subtle yet instructive ways. For Poe, the process by which “The Gold-Bug” became O’Brien’s “The Bohemian” functions as something of a gloss on Howland’s and Clare’s patronage of the bohemian scene: the African American character from “The Gold-Bug” is written out of “The Bohemian” (while nevertheless retaining a ghostly presence in the story’s morality tale) just as South Carolina plantations are omitted from the financial origins of bohemian New York. “The Gold-Bug,” then, is the purloined letter of American bohemia, the secret history of slavery hidden in plain sight on the streets of New York.

Edward Howland and Ada Clare

When Henry Clapp Jr. returned from Europe in the winter of 1853 with hopes of reproducing la vie bohème of Paris’s Latin Quarter under the sidewalks of Manhattan, he found a home at Charles Pfaff’s German beer cellar, which was mere blocks from both the theater and the publishing districts of mid-century New York.7 When he wanted to start a literary weekly patterned after Parisian periodicals such as Le Figaro, Clapp found his financial angel in Edward Howland, the son of a prominent cotton merchant from Charleston, South Carolina, who had moved his family to New York City a decade earlier. After graduating from Harvard and “representing his [End Page 37] father in the cotton business for seven years,” Howland turned his attention to a literary career.8 By 1858, the twenty-six-year-old Howland “had spent many years and a fortune” collecting what A. L. Rawson called a “choice library” of rare books, which he sold “so Clapp could have the money to launch the Saturday Press.”9 William Winter, who frequented Pfaff’s beer cellar in his twenties, recalled that, in addition to providing the initial capital for the Saturday Press, Howland wrote unpaid contributions in an effort to keep the paper financially solvent.10 Howland also met his wife, Marie, through his associations at Pfaff’s, and his lifelong involvement in the radical social politics that Clapp and other bohemians espoused suggests the sincerity of his investments in the first bohemian movement.11

Nevertheless, at least one contemporary observer of bohemian New York characterized Howland as less Clapp’s collaborator than his target. Thomas Butler Gunn, a British writer living in the city, wrote in his diary soon after the first issue of the Saturday Press appeared in the fall of 1858: “The paper will last just as long as the milch-cow Howland sinks money in it. And—God save the mark!—before the ineffable trash appeared, if they didn’t talk of it’s [sic] going to be equal in merit to the Atlantic Mag[azine], in point of literary production!”12 Whether Howland was a trust-fund baby exploited by Clapp or a radical activist who sacrificed his bourgeoisie status to bohemian ideals, what emerges from these accounts of the birth of the Saturday Press is a story about the antebellum literary marketplace that ignores the Southern origins of bohemian New York. The image of Howland liquidating his “choice library” of rare books to pay for an ephemeral weekly like the Saturday Press becomes a parable of the vagaries of the literary marketplace: while rare books carry the prestige of both their age and their content, a new periodical could just as easily become “ineffable trash” as it could a cultural tastemaker on the scale of the Atlantic.13

Both versions of this story—reflecting, on the one hand, the (negative) ephemerality of print in an overcrowded public sphere, or, on the other, the (positive) power of a single periodical to influence national taste—depend on the transfiguration of Howland’s rare books into a mass-market periodical through the liquidating power of capital. Neither version, however, captures the reality that these books were purchased with money from cotton harvested by slaves. That chattel slavery funded the liberatory project of bohemianism casts a dark shadow on the freedom of expression that project provided to its participants; but given that virtually every institution in the antebellum United States both North and South was implicated in the slave trade, this realization serves less as an indictment of bohemian New York than as a reminder of what Houston A. Baker Jr. and Dana D. Nelson call “the nuanced inseparability of North and South.” Critiquing the illusion of “The South” as a “territory that [End Page 38] contains white racism,” Baker and Nelson characterize the persistent desire to seal off the slaveholding South from the industrial North as a fantasy of “‘white geographical innocence.’”14 For the bohemians of antebellum New York, this became a fantasy of white transatlantic innocence that allowed them to believe they had transplanted the liberating power of a European subculture to the United States without implicating it in the national—and not merely Southern—legacy of slavery.

When we identify the origin of bohemian New York as Henry Clapp bringing the radical spirit of Parisian literary weeklies from Paris to New York and not Edward Howland donating the earnings from his family’s cotton plantations, we effectively write the South out of the transatlantic circuit that connects the cultural capitals of the Old World and the New. Ignoring the Southern origins of bohemian New York makes Howland’s books—and not the labor of African American men and women—the starting point of a narrative that defines bohemianism as a refuge for art against marketplace injustices. One example that illustrates this point comes from the story that scholars tell about the Saturday Press reviving Walt Whitman’s anemic career in 1860: The first two editions of Leaves of Grass in 1855 and 1856 sold poorly, but with the constant support of the bohemians writing for the Saturday Press, the third edition quickly sold out its first print run and put Whitman back on track to becoming America’s “good, gray poet.” In this version of the story, Howland’s valuable collection of rare books directly contributed to the success of that most valuable of books—our quintessentially American poem, Leaves of Grass.

This image of books creating more books presents literature as an autonomous and self-contained realm. Art and literature become laws unto themselves—“foreign,” in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, “to the ordinary logic of the ordinary economy.”15 For Bourdieu, the bohemians of nineteenth-century France helped perpetuate a worldview that made art and literature function outside the demands of commerce and society, and it is tempting to see in Bourdieu’s French bohemians a model for those in the antebellum United States.16 But when the birth of the Saturday Press and the fate of Leaves of Grass are intimately linked to the labor of slaves on cotton plantations in the American South, it becomes difficult to claim that art and literature can exist in a world apart. In this sense, then, attention to the Southern origins of bohemian New York provides an important critique of Bourdieu’s foundational theory of bohemianism.

For Bourdieu, periodicals like Clapp’s Saturday Press are a necessary feature of the bohemian experience; another necessity is the salon. The primary salon of the New York bohemians—Ada Clare’s West Forty-Second Street brownstone—owed its existence to cotton money. Ada Clare was born Ada Agnes [End Page 39] Jane McElhenney in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1834. As the daughter and granddaughter of some of “the richest cotton planters in the Sea Islands,” she was expected to marry well and continue the family’s aristocratic traditions by becoming a plantation mistress in her own right.17 Instead, in 1854, she stole the money that her grandfather had collected for a monument to John C. Calhoun and ran off to New York to pursue a career as an actor. Despite finding early success with prominent theater managers such as Laura Keene and Lester Wallack, Clare struggled to make ends meet and asked that she be given her inheritance on her twenty-first birthday.18 While waiting for the money to come through she adopted the name of a character from Dickens’s Bleak House (1852–53) whose future similarly depended on a delayed family inheritance: Ada Clare. As an American incarnation of the fictional British character, she took the role of a sympathetic, beautiful young woman whose future hung in the balance because of an antiquated legal system and the legacies of past family conflicts. The pseudonym connected her to British literary culture while hiding her Southern name. But Clare’s Southern fortune echoed every time she said or wrote her pseudonym, and the difficulties she faced in claiming her inheritance silently conjured the slaves whose work had amassed it.

Clare left New York as soon as she received her inheritance and went to Paris to experience French bohemianism firsthand. Unlike Henry Clapp, who resided with the writers and artists of the Latin Quarter, Clare lived a fashionable life in elegant neighborhoods. On one occasion, she met a woman with “a very large fortune” whom she described as “the highest type of a Bohémienne”: “She was extremely hospitable, and entertained much company, but selected them with utter disregard to the mandates of society. Any entertaining person . . . whether he were artist, poet, banker, statesman, or man of leisure, was equally welcome.”19 The virtues that Clare locates in this idealized bohémienne—an “utter disregard [for] the mandates of society” and a staunch determination to live “in her own way”—are consistent with those she espoused in columns advocating for gender equality and railing against social norms.20 In many ways, Clare modeled her own project as a bohemian writer and salon host on a woman whose freedom was enabled by “a very large fortune,” even though the source of that fortune (like Clare’s own) receives little attention.

In 1859, Clare moved into an expensive three-story brownstone at 86 West Forty-Second Street in Manhattan and began hosting a Sunday night salon that rivaled Pfaff’s bar as the intellectual and cultural center of bohemian New York. If Pfaff’s downtown bar played the part of the café in the Latin Quarter, Clare’s gatherings in the upscale brownstone filled the role of the aristocratic Parisian salon. Given Clare’s plantation origins, her experience in Paris would not have represented the first time she observed a wealthy woman presiding [End Page 40] over a social gathering with elegance, largess, and grace. Clare’s biographer, Gloria Goldblatt, notes that when Clare led her brownstone salon “she was as much the hospitable gracious hostess as if she had stayed in Charleston, and was entertaining the planter aristocracy.”21 And that aristocratic upbringing echoed when the Pfaff’s bohemians regularly referred to Clare as “Her majesty, the Queen of Bohemia.”22

Clare’s reign as the queen of bohemian New York thus began in the plantation culture of Charleston as much as in the salons of Paris. And despite her efforts to style herself a displaced Parisian living in New York, one moment in particular from Clare’s 1860 Saturday Press column about the bohémienne she met in Paris betrays the legacy of the plantation mistress whose angelic poise starkly contrasts the cruelty of the cotton fields: “And thou, loveliest image of womanly grace, if thou art not the type of the Bohemian, thou shalt be to me the type of all that is noble among women; for thou hast taught me . . . one woman can spread forth the white wings of an angel, and rising above them all, draw up to her own ardent height those who assemble around her.”23 Given that the balance of the column is a manifesto-like defense of bohemian culture, it is more than a little startling to find Clare referring to this Parisian bohémienne as the “loveliest image of womanly grace,” as a “type of all that is noble among women,” and, most strikingly, as a beneficent figure with “the white wings of an angel.” Joanna Levin reads this curious eruption of domestic discourse as Clare’s attempt to create a “new metacultural figure” that includes “feminism and sentimental convention, bohemianism and the genteel tradition.”24 We could add to this “metacultural figure” the sentimental image of the plantation mistress as the “angel in the house,” which Marli F. Weiner characterizes as the deceptively smiling face of plantation violence and John T. Matthews similarly identifies as one of many “forms of fetishistic evasion” of the nation’s slaveholding legacy that “work by hiding Southern plantation economy in plain sight.”25 Just as Ada Clare’s pseudonym from Bleak House hid her Southern heritage behind a British name that silently evoked her family inheritance, her manifesto on the ideal bohémienne summons a Charleston parlor within a Parisian salon.

As with the revelation that cotton money funded the Saturday Press, the point is not just that the salon culture of bohemian New York had its roots in the invisible toil of slaves in South Carolina. Once we realize that bohemianism was not a neat transplant from Paris to New York, we can appreciate the insight from Houston Baker and Dana Nelson “that as a nation, we are always already in ‘The South,’ that it is unequivocally and intricately lodged in us, a first principle of our being in the world.”26 Running parallel to Levin’s notion of bohemia as an “expansive cultural geography,”27 this version of “The South” [End Page 41] is less an actual geography than a symbolic one that defines both national and transatlantic culture. For Baker and Nelson, “The South” is the entire nexus of relationships that, for centuries, connected Europe, Africa, and the Americas. And Clare’s salon, with its equal parts New York, Paris, and Charleston, condenses that long history within the walls of a single Manhattan brownstone.

Edgar Allan Poe

Charles Baudelaire was the most famous nineteenth-century writer to claim Edgar Allan Poe as a bohemian, but he was not the first.28 That honor goes to Fitz-James O’Brien, an Irish-American writer who penned the first literary representation of bohemianism in the US. In the 1855 short story “The Bohemian,” one of O’Brien’s characters laments the poverty-stricken career of “poor Poe . . . who was a Bohemian.”29 When Poe died in 1849, Parisian bohemianism was already more than a decade old, but Henri Murger’s bohemian stories would not be published in book form until 1851, and English translations would not appear in an American publication until 1853.30 During Poe’s lifetime, bohemianism had not yet made its way to the United States, meaning that his poverty, alcoholism, conflicts with the marketplace, and commitment to literary art were not seen in relation to a larger effort to bring a Parisian counterculture across the Atlantic. O’Brien and many of the other writers who gathered at Charles Pfaff’s beer cellar in downtown Manhattan, however, considered Poe the original American bohemian. Eliza Richards has recently found that the Pfaff’s group published numerous parodies and homages of “The Raven” in the Saturday Press, “giving Poe’s voice an afterlife that allowed it to intermingle and inform the works of this new generation of writers.”31 New York bohemians such as William North, George Arnold, Ada Clare, Charles Gardette, and William Winter, among others, paid homage to Poe—either by adopting his style, writing commemorative verses in his honor, or claiming that their works were actually his.32

None of the bohemians embraced Poe more eagerly than O’Brien, who patterned many of his poems and tales after Poe’s.33 Early in his career, O’Brien wrote a poem in imitation of “Shadow: A Parable” that, in a playful hoax that would have made Poe proud, he claimed to have found in an unpublished magazine predating Poe’s original. The poem, according to O’Brien, “recall[s] Poe’s artifices so powerfully, that we cannot avoid the conclusion that he must have seen it some where . . . and we must in justice say that he has immeasurably surpassed his original.”34 O’Brien’s fantastic assertion that Poe had not only read but improved upon a poem written three years after his death makes [End Page 42] essentially the same gesture as appropriating Poe for bohemian New York: had Poe lived to see the movement take root in the US, he would have been the greatest bohemian of all.

O’Brien’s Poe-inspired 1855 story “The Bohemian” begins with a character named Philip Bran introducing himself as a disciple of the Latin Quarter: “Have you read Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème? . . . Well, then, you can comprehend my life. I am clever, learned, witty, and tolerably good looking. I can write brilliant magazine articles, . . . I can compose songs, make comedies, and captivate women” (58). Unlike the characters in Murger’s stories, however, this bohemian does not sacrifice personal well-being in pursuit of his art. Instead, he proposes a scheme that involves mesmerizing the narrator’s fiancée in order to draw out from her the location of a hidden treasure on Coney Island. At this moment in the story O’Brien invokes the legacy of the bohemian Poe: “This island and its vicinity abound in concealed treasure. . . . Captain Kyd [sic] and other buccaneers have made numberless caches containing their splendid spoils, which a violent death prevented their ever reclaiming. Poor Poe, you know, who was a Bohemian, like myself, made a story on the tradition, but, poor fellow! he only dug up his treasure on paper” (62). The “story on the tradition” of Captain Kidd’s buried treasure is Poe’s 1843 tale “The Gold-Bug,” which, like O’Brien’s “The Bohemian,” unfolds from the perspective of a naïve and trusting narrator who finds himself drafted into helping a more intelligent and dynamic man search for the treasure.

The throwaway remark in “The Bohemian” that the “poor fellow” Edgar Allan Poe “only dug up his treasure on paper”—an allusion to the meager fortune Poe made over the course of his career as a writer—actually stands at the center of O’Brien’s rewriting of “The Gold-Bug.” “The Bohemian” focuses on the risks posed to the artists and writers who worked in the United States’ expanding culture industry, where riches “on paper” (books, periodicals, works of art) were difficult to come by. For example, when Bran uses his mesmeric powers on the narrator’s fiancée, she produces a sketch of the location of the buried treasure that is not only a functional map but also an exquisite piece of art: “Its vividness, its desolation, its evident truth, were so singularly given that I could scarcely believe my senses,” says the narrator (66). After the fiancée renders this exceptional artwork, she collapses from exhaustion and later dies without having profited from her artistic labor: Bran ultimately takes all the treasure for himself. While Poe only hints at the possibility that the narrator of “The Gold-Bug” will die before he can enjoy the fruits of his creativity, O’Brien makes it clear that regardless of the skill and sacrifice that go into producing art, someone other than the artist herself will ultimately profit—a dynamic of exploitation fundamental to O’Brien’s story. Two additional moments at the [End Page 43] edges of the narrative illustrate how workers in the culture industry are insufficiently compensated for their labors. The fiancée’s father is a struggling writer, and the narrator himself tries to supplement his income by writing historical fiction for Harper’s Magazine (55). The conclusion we are to draw is obvious: if writing literature could really pay the bills, the narrator would have turned the bohemian away and gone back to making money as a writer. It is precisely because writing doesn’t pay that he takes Bran up on his offer, only to watch his life fall apart as a result, leaving him just like “poor Poe.”

“The Gold-Bug” is set on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina (Works, 3:806). O’Brien, however, moves Captain Kidd’s treasure to Coney Island and locates most of the action in “The Bohemian” in New York City, which allows him to emphasize the exploitative nature of the Manhattan culture industry. Nevertheless, traces of the South remain in O’Brien’s story and in his efforts to claim Poe as the United States’ original bohemian. Poe’s relationship to the South was then, and still remains, a matter of debate,35 as does the question of whether other bohemians shared Whitman’s assessment of Poe as “Southern from top to toe.”36 As David Faflik writes, it is perhaps more fruitful to view Poe as a product of his boundary-crossing migrations than of his Southern origins: “Born in Boston [of Southern parents], raised in Britain and Virginia, a resident thereafter of Richmond, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York, Poe seems to have known nothing but borders.”37 Following Poe’s own transatlantic and intra-national movements, “The Gold-Bug” traveled from South Carolina to New York by way of Paris in order to become O’Brien’s “The Bohemian.” Much in the way Edward Howland’s and Ada Clare’s notion of bohemia as a movement from Europe to the US ignores (or obscures) both slavery and the South, O’Brien’s use of “The Gold-Bug” as the source text for the first US literary representation of bohemianism overlooks the Southern and slaveholding elements of Poe’s story in order to focus on “poor Poe” and his struggles as a writer. For bohemians in Europe and America alike, the greatest tragedy was the unjust marketplace for cultural goods. Reorienting American bohemia to its Southern origins—and, specifically, to the cotton fields tended by African American slaves—offers a useful corrective to that myopic view.

“The Gold-Bug” features one African American character: a minstrel figure named Jupiter played mostly for laughs. He assists the story’s two white characters—the narrator and his friend, William Legrand—and then recedes into the background as Legrand provides a lengthy explanation of the process that led to the location of the treasure. Jupiter’s near-invisibility in the final pages of the tale plays an important role in the conclusion’s particularly unnerving effect. When Legrand suggests to the narrator that Captain Kidd would most likely have killed his accomplices in order to take their share of the [End Page 44] treasure (“Perhaps a couple of blows with a mattock were sufficient, while his coadjutors were busy in the pit; perhaps it required a dozen—who shall tell?”), readers hold their breath at the possibility that the narrator could meet a similar fate. Legrand’s last ominous words—“who shall tell?”—leave unspoken the implied threat that, once the narrator is dead, he’ll never be able to tell how many blows it took to kill him (Works, 3:844). But for readers attentive enough to recall that Jupiter, who hasn’t been heard from in pages, remains close by, the threat resonates on a different frequency. We can imagine Legrand asking the narrator, “Who shall tell that I killed you? Certainly not Jupiter. No one would believe him. No one would value his testimony in a court of law.”

With this cliffhanger ending, “The Gold-Bug” stops short of being a morality tale. Poe famously wanted his conclusions to have a stunning, disorienting effect,38 and in order to achieve that effect in this tale, he does not allow readers to see the treasure hunters’ fate. Ironically, though, the precise phrase that takes us to the threshold of the narrator’s potential tragedy—“who shall tell?”—implicitly directs us toward a morality tale that the plot only vaguely hints at: the tale of Jupiter’s subhuman status. Jupiter will never be able to tell of the injustice done to the narrator, nor will he tell of the injustice done to him as a slave. Indeed, Jupiter cannot even comprehend the injustice he suffers. We know from the outset that he has long since been manumitted, but either through ignorance or desperation, he refuses to leave his master (Works, 3:806).

While “The Gold-Bug” stops at the brink of tragedy, “The Bohemian” plays out the consequences of the narrator’s choices and delivers the moral that writers and artists should be paid fairly to prevent con men and crooks from taking advantage of them. (O’Brien was not above such moralizing: he famously stood in front of the Harper’s offices with a sign around his neck that said, “One of Harper’s authors. I am starving.”)39 When “The Gold-Bug” moves to New York and becomes “The Bohemian,” the tragic poverty of a writer supplants the exploitation of an African American slave. O’Brien, like Howland and Clare, hides the Southern origins of bohemian New York in plain sight with his reference to “poor Poe” and his “story on the tradition” of South Carolina treasure. But just as the cotton-funded treasures of Howland and Clare peek out from behind their rare books and stories of Parisian salons, so too do traces of the South remain in a story that would otherwise make New York the origin point for US bohemianism.

When we neglect both the South and the history of slavery in the stories we tell about bohemia’s migration from Paris to New York, we tend to follow European thinkers like Walter Benjamin in registering our concern for the tenuous economic status of bohemian writers and artists.40 This is not to say that “poor Poe” and his bohemian descendants did not deserve to be treated [End Page 45] fairly in the literary marketplace, but rather to suggest how much richer the story of American bohemianism becomes when we follow its Southern routes to the deeper structures of injustice that connect underpaid writers and artists to African American slaves. A critical understanding of the relationship between bohemian New York and American slavery speaks to the decades-old concern that Benjamin himself articulated when he said of the bohemians of early-nineteenth-century Paris, “To the uncertainty of their economic position corresponded the uncertainty of their political function.”41 Benjamin’s concern, like Marx’s before him, centers on whether or not the bohemians’ critique of the capitalist market for cultural goods could contribute to a broader critique of unjust social and economic practices.42 O’Brien, Howland, and Clare never explicitly connected the rise of American bohemia to the history of American slavery, but in preserving the traces of bohemia’s passage through the South in their lives and their works they allow us to retell the origins of bohemian New York within a context that redirects the hardships of struggling writers toward the exploitation of African American slaves.

Edward Whitley
Lehigh University
Edward Whitley

Edward Whitley is Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He is the author of American Bards: Walt Whitman and Other Unlikely Candidates for National Poet (2016) and, with Joanna Levin, the coeditor of both Whitman among the Bohemians (2014) and Walt Whitman in Context (forthcoming). He and Robert Weidman are directors of The Vault at Pfaff’s: An Archive of Art and Literature by the Bohemians of Antebellum New York (


. A version of this essay appears in The Bohemian South, ed. Shawn Bingham and Lindsey Freeman. Copyright 2017 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher,

1. Jay Charlton, “Bohemians in America,” in Pen Pictures of Modern Authors, ed. William Shephard (New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1882), 166.

2. Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller, vol. 6 of The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1977), 40.

3. David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Knopf, 1995), 378; Mark A. Lause, The Antebellum Crisis and America’s First book (Kent: Kent State Univ. Press, 2010), viii.

4. Amanda Gailey, “Walt Whitman and the King of Bohemia: The Poet in the Saturday Press,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 25 (Spring 2008): 143–66; Robert J. Scholnick, “‘An Unusually Active Market for Calamus’: Whitman, Vanity Fair, and the Fate of Humor in a Time of War, 1860–1863,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 19 (Winter 2002): 148–81.

5. Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1996), 53.

6. William Dean Howells, “First Impressions of Literary New York,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1 June 1895, 63.

7. Stephanie M. Blalock, “GO TO PFAFF’S!”: The History of a Restaurant and Lager Beer Saloon (Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh Univ. Press, 2014), 14–18, The Vault at Pfaff’s, [End Page 46]

8. “Obituary: Edward Howland,” New York Times, 22 January 1891, 4, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

9. A. L. Rawson, “A Bygone Bohemia,” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, 1 January 1896, 106. See also G. J. M., “Bohemianism: The American Authors Who Met in a Cellar,” Brooklyn Eagle, 25 May 1884, 9, and “General Gossip of Authors and Writers,” Current Literature, 1 January 1888, 476–80.

10. William Winter, Old Friends; Being Literary Recollections of Other Days (New York: Moffat, Yard, 1909), 137, 294–95.

11. “Obituary: Edward Howland.”

12. Thomas Butler Gunn, Diaries, 10:18, Missouri History Museum, The entry is dated 23 November 1858. My thanks to Robert Weidman for research assistance.

13. My thanks to Anna Brickhouse for this observation.

14. Houston A. Baker Jr. and Dana D. Nelson, preface to “Violence, the Body and ‘The South,’” special issue, American Literature 73 (June 2001): 231, 234.

15. Bourdieu, Rules of Art, 81.

16. Indeed, Justin Martin has recently written that “the Pfaff’s Bohemians were part of the transition from art as a genteel profession to art as a soul-deep calling.” See Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians (New York: Da Capo Press, 2014), 2.

17. Rawson, “Bygone Bohemia,” 100.

18. Gloria Goldblatt, Ada Clare, Queen of Bohemia: Her Life and Times (Goldblatt, 2015), 13, The Vault at Pfaff’s,

19. Ada Clare, “Thoughts and Things,” New-York Saturday Press, 11 February 1860, 2, The Vault at Pfaff’s,

20. See Joanna Levin, “‘Freedom for Women from Conventional Lies’: Ada Clare and the Feminist Feuilleton,” in Whitman among the Bohemians, ed. Joanna Levin and Edward Whitley (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 2014), 75–97.

21. Goldblatt, Ada Clare, 61.

22. Getty Gay, “The Royal Bohemian Supper,” New York Saturday Press, 31 December 1859, 2, The Vault at Pfaff’s,

23. Clare, “Thoughts and Things,” 2.

24. Levin, “‘Freedom for Women from Conventional Lies,’” 93.

25. See Marli F. Weiner, Mistresses and Slaves: Plantation Women in South Carolina, 1830–80 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1998), 53, 67, 108, 124; and John T. Matthews, “Southern Literary Studies,” in A Companion to American Literary Studies, ed. Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine (New York: Blackwell, 2011), 303–4.

26. Baker and Nelson, preface to “Violence,” 243.

27. Joanna Levin, Bohemia in America, 1858–1920 (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2010), 5.

28. Charles Baudelaire, “Further Notes on Edgar Poe,” in The Painter of Modern Life, and Other Essays, ed. and trans. Jonathan Mayne (New York: Da Capo Press, 1964), 94.

29. Fitz-James O’Brien, “The Bohemian,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1 July 1855; rpt. in Wayne R. Kime, ed., Behind the Curtain: Selected Fiction of Fitz-James [End Page 47] O’Brien, 1853–1860 (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 2011), 53–72. Subsequent citations are to the Kime edition.

30. Henry Murger, Scènes de la Vie de Bohème (Paris: Michel Lévy Freres, 1851); Charles Astor Bristed, “The Gypsies of Art: Translated for The Knickerbocker from Henry Murger’s ‘Scenes de La Boheme,’” Knickerbocker 41, no. 3 (1853): 217.

31. Eliza Richards, “Poe’s Lyrical Media: The Raven’s Returns,” in Poe and the Remapping of Antebellum Print Culture, ed. J. Gerald Kennedy and Jerome McGann (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 2012), 216.

32. The New York Atlas published Ada Clare’s Poe-like story “What Sequel?” on 15 March 1857. Similarly Poe-inspired was William North’s “The Living Corpse,” published initially in Putnam’s Monthly on 1 January 1853 and reprinted in the Saturday Press on 23 October 1858. William Winter’s “Edgar Poe,” published in Wanderers: The Poems of William Winter (New York: MacMillan, 1892), 170–71, was written for the dedication of a Poe monument in Baltimore in November 1875. Charles D. Gardette published “The Fire-Fiend. A Nightmare” in the New York Saturday Press on 19 November 1859 and attributed the work to Poe. Similarly, Thomas Olive Mabbott attributed the George Arnold poem “Drinking Wine” to Poe in 1939.

33. Francis Wolle, in his biography Fitz-James O’Brien: A Literary Bohemian of the Eighteen-Fifties (Boulder: Univ. of Colorado Press, 1944), identifies numerous parallels between works by O’Brien and Poe (39–40, 44–45, 58, 63, 81, 152, 162–63).

34. Fitz-James O’Brien, “Fragments from an Unpublished Magazine,” American Whig Review 16 (December 1852): 566.

35. Poe’s relationship to the South is discussed in David Leverenz, “Poe and Gentry Virginia,” in The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995), 210–36; Richard Gray, Southern Aberrations: Writers of the American South and the Problems of Regionalism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 2000); J. Gerald Kennedy and Liliane Weissberg, eds., Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001); Scott Peeples, The Afterlife of Edgar Allan Poe (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2004); and John D. Kerkering, “Poe and Southern Poetry,” in The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth- Century Poetry, ed. Kerry Larson (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011), 193–207. My thanks to Scott Peeples, David Faflik, Erin Forbes, Hal Bush, Jess Bowers, Lydia Fash, and Paula Bernatt Bennett for these recommendations.

36. Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. 4, ed. Sculley Bradley (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), 23.

37. David Faflik, “South of the ‘Border,’ or Poe’s Pym: A Case Study in Region, Race, and American Literary History,” Mississippi Quarterly 57 (2004): 269.

38. See Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition” (ER, 13–25).

39. “Some Recollections of Two Publishers,” Publisher’s Weekly, 5 October 1889, 514.

40. Walter Benjamin, “Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” Perspecta 12 (1969): 70.

41. Benjamin, “Paris,” 170. [End Page 48]

42. An overview of Marx’s commentary on the bohemians can be found in Daniel Cottom, International Bohemia: Scenes of Nineteenth-Century Life (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 9, 85–86, 97, 109. Indeed, some of the antebellum bohemians made an effort to critique the exploitation of labor and even implicated themselves in the process. Henry Clapp criticized those “who always stand ready to profit by other people’s labors” in “A Night with a Mosquito” (Saturday Press, 30 October 1858, 4, The Vault at Pfaff’s,, and Walt Whitman tacitly implicated the bohemians’ work ethic, noting that the artist’s privilege to “loaf” is predicated on exploitation of other laborers, including African American slaves: “Give us the facilities of loafing, and you are welcome to all the benefits of your tariff system, your manufacturing privileges, and your cotton trade.” See “Sun-Down Papers,” in Walt Whitman’s Selected Journalism, ed. Douglas A. Noverr and Jason Stacy (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 2014), 182. I thank the anonymous peer reviewer for Poe Studies for bringing these texts to my attention. [End Page 49]

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