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Rebel Souls

Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians

By Justin Martin

In the shadow of the Civil War, a circle of radicals in a rowdy saloon changed American society and helped set Walt Whitman on the path to poetic immortality.

Rebel Souls is the first book ever written about the colorful group of artists— regulars at Pfaff's Saloon in Manhattan—rightly considered America's original Bohemians. Besides a young Whitman, the circle included actor Edwin Booth; trailblazing stand–up comic Artemus Ward; psychedelic drug pioneer and author Fitz Hugh Ludlow; and brazen performer Adah Menken, famous for her Naked Lady routine. Central to their times, the artists managed to forge connections with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, and even Abraham Lincoln. This vibrant tale, packed with original research, offers the pleasures of a great group biography like The Banquet Years or The Metaphysical Club. Justin Martin shows how this first bohemian culture—imported from Paris to a dingy Broadway saloon—seeded and nurtured an American tradition of rebel art that thrives to this day.

Justin Martin, author of highly praised biographies of Alan Greenspan and Ralph Nader, lives in Forest Hills Gardens, New York, an enclave of New York City designed by Olmsted's son.

New York Press, 9/9/14
“Martin takes us into the scintillating world of Pfaff's saloon in the 19th century…What happened in Pfaff's saloon in the 1850s is stuff of literary legend…The Greenwich Village saloon was finally paid the homage it deserves with the release of Rebel Souls.”

Los Angeles Review of Books, 9/11/14
“[A] compelling, insightful group biography…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…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...Martin's done a remarkable job bringing ‘those times, that place' very much alive through his painstaking research…Pfaff's rebel souls, Martin makes plain, are all around us.”


Kirkus Reviews, BEA & ALA Book Guide, 5/15/14
“[An] entertaining cultural history…The author's solid research into the connections of these curiously varied men and women makes this a wonderful story of one of the world's odd little cultural cliques.”

Publishers Weekly, 6/30/14
“An engaging history of a literary underground…Though Walt Whitman is the best-known of the group, readers may find themselves drawn to his lesser-known comrades…Martin's writing rises to the occasion…A worthwhile read…Introduces armchair literary historians to a dazzling cast of eccentrics.”

Booklist, starred review, 8/1/14
“This is popular history the way it should be, well-researched and authoritative yet demotic in idiom and unpretentious in presentation, a darn good read.”

Washington Independent Review of Books, 10/23/14
“[A] well-researched, sometimes breezy history of Clapp's circle.”

Bedford + Bowery, 10/20/14
“Recounts the tempestuous careers of each of these seminal mavericks, portraying Pfaff's as the glue that held them together. Until they all fell apart…Martin's description of Whitman as the “ultimate Broadway rambler” is fascinating…Rebel Souls is a riveting reminder that nearly 100 years before the Beat Generation, bohemia was already passé.”

Columbus Dispatch, 10/28/14
“Brightly written, and funny and heartbreaking by turns…Thomas Aldrich, a poet that was in the circle, included in his poem ‘At the Café' the line, ‘We were all very merry at Pfaff's.' Let us be grateful that Rebel Souls has brought a touch of the merriment back.”

Betsy Reads Books, 10/31/14
“Meticulously researched and absolutely fascinating. This book featuring this quirky cast of characters with Whitman at the center really brings the bohemian group of American romantic artists to life.”

Wall Street Journal, 9/6/14
“Elaine's, the Algonquin Hotel, the White Horse and Cedar taverns: These and a few other Manhattan establishments have become legendary as places for writers and artists…On the evidence of Justin Martin's Rebel Souls, the long-defunct watering hole Pfaff's deserves similar fame…[Martin] is a fluent, companionable writer, and he manages to weave his many biographical strands into an engaging narrative—no mean feat…The experience of reading Rebel Souls is a bit like hovering on the sidewalk near the entrance to Pfaff's, listening to the sounds of jollity and vehemence wash up from the basement below. Mr. Martin does a fine job of making us feel that we're back on antebellum Broadway.”

EDGE, 8/29/14
“Martin's sharp and elegiac prose follows the lives of the Bohemians, many who meet tragic ends. Their stories are grandly entertaining to read, and Martin rescues a large chunk of our cultural history.”

The ARTery, 9/4/14
“It's rare for a book to conjure the feeling of being in a bar with one's rowdiest and most interesting friends. Rebel Souls…does just that.”

Times Literary Supplement, 11/14/14
“Martin convincingly shows that although only Whitman attained literary longevity, Manhattan's bohemians nevertheless succeeded in pioneering a mode of existence which still reverberates today.”

HeartsAndMindsBooks.com, 11/19/14
“[Martin] is a fine historian and great writer…This is a wonderful book about bohemian culture, a fascinating history that reverberates yet today. Thanks to Mr. Martin for his painstaking research and the obvious care of his subject that come out so nicely in his writing.”

Santa Fe New Mexican, 12/12/14
Rebel Souls illuminates an intriguing but poorly documented page in American cultural history.”

Kansas City Star, 12/14/14
“A convincing case that Walt Whitman's drinking buddies were an 1800s version of the Beats and that all their bending elbows actually improved their work.”

Curled Up with a Good Book, 1/17/15
“[A] biography of the man and his eclectic counter-culture, a model for artistic, intellectual non-conformity well into the twentieth century.”

Sullivan Street Press, 1/17/15
“Whitman is that iconic American poet but [Martin has] really humanized him in [his] book.”

The Journal, 10/29/14
“Martin brings the legendary group to life, painting a vibrant portrait of the radical artists who frequented Pfaff's saloon…Rebel Souls is a curious beast of a book: it is in part American history circa 1850's, part biography and, to a lesser degree, part a critical examination of Whitman's poems…Historically accurate and painstakingly researched…It is easy to get lost in this book: the descriptions mixed with remarkably well retained dialogue are occasionally so powerful that they transport the reader to their own seat in Henry Clapp's circle…An invigorating read.”

New York Times, 11/16/14
“Long before New York artists and writers convened regularly at the Algonquin and, later, Elaine's, an eclectic group distinguished largely by crushing poverty and creative potential gravitated to a subterranean saloon—decidedly not a salon—named Pfaff's. In Rebel Souls, Justin Martin invites readers to belly up to this forgotten basement bar…Almost every page provides an intoxicating high without the hangover.”

Vox.com,11/12/14
“The story of how a subterranean New York City saloon helped alter the course of Whitman's life.”

Roanoke Times, 9/11/14
“Rebel Souls is at once a recreation of New York during the mid-19th century and a group biography of people who changed the way Americans viewed art, politics and themselves…A muralesque portrait of a group of intentional misfits who would, in the middle of the 19th century, help transform American literature, theater and journalism and forever alter the way we look at ourselves and our society.”

Brain Pickings, 9/16/14
“Shed[s] light on the untold story of the Pfaff's set and its ample reverberations through the last 150 years of creative culture…Rebel Souls is an enormously absorbing read in its entirety, exploring the blossoming of Whitman's literary legacy, the tantalizing group of artists, writers, and performers who populated Pfaff's and influenced one another, and how they made their way West to meet Mark Twain's Bohemians of Silicon Valley.”

Washington Post, 9/21/14
“Rife with...scintillating anecdotes...This period in Whitman's development is often skated over in biographies of the Good Gray Poet, and Martin has done us a favor by bringing it, along with a host of other artistic connections, amusingly and indelibly back to life."

Neworld Review, September 2014
“A highly informative look at the very first attempt here in America where novelists, poets, actors, dancers, visual artists and journalists, came together and tried to create a society…Martin does an excellent job in Rebel Souls, in drawing insightful portraits of some of the main characters like Whitman, which is the heart of his book.”

Buffalo News, 10/5/14
“What a cable TV series this would make.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer, 10/1/14
“Engaging…The idea of the artist as outsider or rebel (at least the American version of it)—and, indeed, the thing that, a century later, would be called a counterculture—can be traced to Clapp and Pfaff's. Martin's book is a lively and intelligent entree into that heretofore mostly forgotten world.”

Queerty.com, 10/5/14
“A vibrant and well-researched tale that shows how this first bohemian culture seeded and nurtured an American tradition of rebel art that continues to this day.”

Decatur Tribune, 10/8/14
“Martin has blown the dust off of the New York City of the pre-Civil War era. He's magically made both the period and the people who inhabited it relevant, stirring and captivating with his true account of a New York City bar and its clientele.”

Boston Globe, 9/21/14
“Whitman now is a central figure in the American canon, but his Pfaff's pals are all but forgotten. In Rebel Souls, biographer Justin Martin brings them wonderfully to life in his enjoyable romp through the milieu. Whitman is the emotional core of the book — Martin's passages on Whitman's romantic travails and his experiences tending to wounded soldiers during the Civil War are unforgettably moving. But the other members of the Pfaff's coterie almost steal the show.”

Cape Cod Times, 9/14/14
“The book is a veritable who's who of the 19th-century's movers and shakers.”

New York Journal of Books, 9/18/14
“Martin's historical scope and elegiac prose, laced through with parlance of the period, is not only grandly entertaining to read, it rescues this bit of cultural history and gives Whitman a more human dimension past the iconic image.”

Hudson Valley News, 9/17/14
“Anyone who loves history, and particularly literary history, will want to read this book.”

Waterbury Republican-American, 9/21/14
“Fascinating and eye-opening.”

Choice, February 2015
“In this captivating study, Martin transports the reader to the 1850s inside smoky Pfaff's saloon—the meeting place of the US's first Bohemians…Thanks to meticulous research, Martin was able to re-create the Bohemian scene, and Whitman's place in it, in vivid detail. This book is a lively and entertaining read for students of American literature, history, and culture…Summing Up: Essential. All readers.”

Mark Twain Forum, 1/21/15
“[A] well-written account of the New York Bohemians who gravitated around Pfaff's Saloon on Broadway…A lively tale, informative and well-told.”

Internet Review of Books, 1/27/15
“Does a great service in shining light on the younger man who still had a lot of hard-dues-paying years before he sauntered into legend and the ages…A valuable—and very readable—addition to the body of critical work about America's greatest poet.”

New Books in Biography, 3/10/15
“Places are ever-changing, Manhattan real estate most especially. But, as Rebel Souls proves, biography can play a provocative role in preserving their mystique and also their impact.”

Named outstanding biography published in the past year by The Victorian Society New York

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