It’s a daunting challenge, research-wise. My subjects were a group of wild, decadent, and very talented artists, properly considered America’s first Bohemians. During the 1850s, they hung out at Pfaff’s saloon in New York City. They lived loose, unconventional lives, which makes them rich subjects. But they lived those lives 150 years ago. It required a ton of research, but it was also truly rewarding to bring this mostly forgotten but vitally important artists circle back to life. I often felt like a time-traveling cat herder.
Your book has quite a cast of characters. Provide modern analogies for a few of them.
Well, there’s a young Walt Whitman before he was famous. Think early Bob Dylan: prickly, iconoclastic, but undeniably a genius. Actress Adah Isaacs Menken is like Marilyn Monroe: sexy, tough as nails, but also deeply vulnerable. Actor Edwin Booth is Joaquin Phoenix: gifted, brooding, and bedeviled by substance abuse problems.
Then you’ve got Fitz Hugh Ludlow, author of The Hashish Eater, a massive bestseller in 1857. He’s straight out of one of those stoner buddy films. He was high all the time, but he’d use all these big words like “barathrum” and “omphalopsychite.” There’s just something about potheads and five-dollar words. Ludlow was like a 19th century Wayne, as in, Wayne and Garth.
Did these artists get into fights in at Pfaff’s saloon?
Absolutely. The equation is pretty straightforward: alcohol plus delicate artists’ egos equals fights. One night, Whitman got into an altercation with a fellow poet who was part of this circle. The man reached across a table, grabbed hold of Whitman’s beard, and wouldn’t let go. Walt’s fellow Bohos came to his aid, but in the ensuing struggle, everyone’s clothes wound up splattered with wine and coffee.
Did some of these artists sleep together?
Again, absolutely—alcohol plus artists. Adah Isaacs Menken, for example, had a several night stand with Artemus Ward, a comedian that was part of the Pfaff’s set. Sexy person/funny person—it’s always a winning formula for hookups. “We ‘went it’ pretty rapid for a few days here,” is how she described their fling.
What’s something that’s unlikely to be noticed about your book?
I’m glad you asked. My book is inspired by Cabaret. I love the play Cabaret, which I saw on Broadway a few weeks back, starring Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams. I especially love the movie, directed by Bob Fosse, with Liza Minnelli and Joel Gray, and I’m also partial to the original source material, the book Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. I’m kind of a Cabaret junkie.
The story, for the uninitiated, is about German artists hanging out in a cabaret during the 1930s while fascism is on the rise. My book is about American Bohemians hanging out in a saloon during the 1850s while North-South tensions that will lead to the Civil War are on the rise. So there are some clear narrative similarities.
Could your book be turned into a Broadway musical?
The idea of Walt Whitman suddenly breaking into song is both cheesy and unsettling. But anything’s possible.
Where did you get your book’s title?
It’s from a song by Bad Company called (ahem) “Bad Company.” The song starts out with this sultry, rolling piano, and features the line “Rebel souls, deserters we are called…”
I have a soft spot for Bad Company. It reminds me of growing up in Kansas City, circa the late ‘70s, when the cool kids walked on the backs of their over-long bell bottoms until they were all frayed. Back then, these rock band belt buckles were in vogue, at least in the Midwest where I grew up. To me, the Bad Company belt buckle seemed very hip, kind of menacing. I had a Led Zeppelin belt buckle and a black Led Zeppelin t-shirt. I wore them together, which must have been some kind of terrible fashion faux pas.
Is music important to you when you write?
Incredibly. There’s a scene in the book Silence of the Lambs, where, while incarcerated, Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter requests Bach’s Goldberg Variations, specifically the Glenn Gould performance. He uses the music to steady and focus his mind, so that he’s able to attack his guards (he even eats one guard’s nose) before escaping prison.
I use music to focus my mind, but for good not evil—I’d like to think—for writing rather than prison escape and cannibalism. While writing Rebel Souls, I listened to Nick Cave and Songs: Ohia (great band, terrible name). I also listened to a lot of Opeth, a Swedish metal band that does these amazingly fluid transitions from slow to fast playing, from a demonic mood to an angelic one. Faulkner once said that if he ever wrote a perfect sentence he’d die then and there. Writing the way Opeth plays is my die-happy-now standard.
Let’s get back to your book. What if the characters came back to life in current times?
Well, the Pfaff’s Bohemians were incredibly modern in their outlook. So I think they would be better suited for resurrection than, say, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or Genghis Kahn. But I envision some tough adjustments, particularly for Artemus Ward. He was a pioneer, America’s very first stand-up comic. Lincoln loved Ward’s routines. But if Ward came back to life today, he’d find it so jarring. He would have missed out on the past 150 years of comedic evolution. I picture Ward watching a modern comic like Amy Schumer or Louis CK and recognizing their talent while lacking the context to get their jokes—a kind of comedian’s hell. But Ward was a quick study. He’d simply have to embark on a crash course in humor, starting at about, oh, Buster Keaton and moving forward.
What about Whitman? What if he came back to life?
Whitman had such an open spirit. Were he to come back to life, I think he’d fare better than any other member of his Pfaff’s set. He was also secretly fame-obsessed, a very modern attribute. I imagine this hirsute old guy wearing a black felt hat and unbleached linen shirt suddenly appearing in my office. Poof! I’d show him how to use a computer. I’d expect him to be kind of wonderstruck by this unfamiliar, modern device. But he’d figure it out quickly. Within minutes, he’d be Google-ing his own name to see how many hits he received and what came up.
Would he be happy with the results?
Well, he’d love that there’s a bridge named after him. That would strike him as both permanent and poetic. As for the Walt Whitman rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike…
JUSTIN MARTIN is the author of Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, Greenspan: The Man Behind Money and Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon. Martin is a former staff writer at Fortune magazine. His articles have appeared in various magazines such as Newsweek, Money, and Conde Nast Traveler. He lives in Forest Hills Gardens, New York. His new book, Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians, publishes this month from De Capo Press.