review: rebel souls: walt whitman and america’s first bohemians

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via WBUR’s The ArtEry:

One could argue that bohemianism in America has its roots in Massachusetts. Clapp, a Nantucket native, born in 1814, whose family tree on both sides reached back several generations, is known as “The King of Bohemia.” After moving to Boston and working as a whale oil salesman, Clapp found his life’s calling of journalism after a neighbor asked for help putting together a death notice for the local paper. He worked for publications in Nantucket, New Bedford and Lynn, until he was sentenced to 60 days for libeling a justice of the peace. Clapp had already been well on his way to becoming a radical by then and in his 30s began giving lectures around New England, despite having, what Martin calls, a “shrill voice [that] was once described as sounding ‘like snapping glass under your heel.’”

…Martin gives us a different side of Whitman: A struggling poet trying to find his place both in the world and among a coterie of noisy fellow travelers. These fellow artists were some of the most interesting characters to haunt American letters and stages in the days just before, during and just after the war. Actor Edwin Booth, comic-writer Artemus Ward, author and drug imbiber Fitz Hugh Ludlow, and provocateur/actress Adah Menken are among them. Martin places them at Clapp’s raucous table at Pfaff’s just as fame is dawning for each, and then follows them through varied careers. Many would contribute to Clapp’s influential journal, The Saturday Press, and along the way they rub elbows with the likes of Mark Twain, President Lincoln and other artists, leaders and writers of the day.

Review by John Winters.

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