Before the Beats, before Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and before the members of the Algonquin Round Table, writers, artists and performers were invited to sit at the long table at Pfaff’s, a Civil War-era New York saloon.
The content creators who gathered at 647 Broadway provided a template of an alternative artistic lifestyle embraced by many since, although 1920s Algonquin regulars Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker might have been too well-dressed for Pfaff’s.
As detailed in “Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians,” by Justin Martin, the idea was that artists — instead of gathering in genteel salons, perhaps subsidized by wealthy patrons — could assemble in saloons, seek affirmation from their peers and trust in their art to sustain them.
“They didn’t worry about being presentable,” Martin said recently. “They set in motion a style that was provocative, risk-taking and controversial as opposed to being safe and respectable.”
The most accomplished of the Pfaff’s alumni was Whitman, who would inspire Beat poet Allen Ginsberg a century later.
But there also was humorist Artemus Ward, whom Martin considers an early standup comedy pioneer, and Fitz Hugh Ludlow, author of “The Hasheesh Eater.”
One of the best-selling books of 1857, that volume alerted Americans to the consciousness-altering properties of what previously, according to Martin, had been considered a medicinal agent for arthritis sufferers.
These artists found audiences at a time when it seemed the center was not holding.
“The 1850s were similar to the 1960s in that American society was in disarray,” said Martin, who grew up in the Kansas City area.
“The union was starting to fragment.”
While Martin documents Ludlow’s apparent insights gained from hashish use, he also notes that Ludlow’s later use of opium probably contributed to his death at age 34.
He also demonstrates that the Pfaff’s artists, when they were done visiting, actually created art.
The fellowship enjoyed at the long table had positive effects on their work, Martin said. In 1860, Whitman published an expanded edition of “Leaves of Grass” with more than 100 new poems, many of them a result of his time at Pfaff’s.
“They benefited from the feedback, rather than if they had stayed in isolation,” Martin said.
Martin speaks at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. For more information, go to KCLibrary.org.