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Second New Book by Lause Looks Eastward to the New York Bohemians

The counter-culture scene in New York in the 1850s meant Pfaff's Saloon and a group of people trying to emulate the Bohemians of Europe. UC Professor of History Mark Lause discusses their impact on pre-Civil War sentiment in America in another new book, "The Antebellum Crisis & America's First Bohemians."

Date: 3/9/2010 12:00:00 AM
By: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825

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UC Professor of History Mark Lause is in the unusual position of having two historical texts published almost simultaneously. In addition to his book “Race & Radicalism in the Union Army,” he has also authored “The Antebellum Crisis & America’s First Bohemians.”
Henry Clapp
Editor Henry Clapp, a Bohemian of the 1850s

In an unusual twist, both books originated from the same source – a previous Lause book on antebellum land reform and the impact of the Fourierism movement in the 1840s. Figures from that book are followed up on in each of the new books, even though one documents life on America’s western frontier of the time and the other deals with life in New York.

The “Bohemians” book looks at a group of intellectuals who would gather in the 1850s at a place called Pfaff’s Saloon, located at Broadway near Bleecker Street in Manhattan.

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“I wasn’t interested in doing this as a sort of literary history. I was interested in where this fit in terms of the sectional conflict, where it fit with the political turmoil and social upheaval that were taking place in the 1850s,” says Lause. “So that’s sort of the backdrop.”

The figures in the Pfaff’s crowd included Walt Whitman and a number of other unconventional thinkers. Many had spent time in the Old World societies of Paris and London and tried to bring that feeling to life in New York. Consciously counter-culture in their approach, they included a number of women, which in itself was unusual at the time, and the group featured a number of individuals getting by as newspaper writers.
Ada Clare
Writer Ada Clare, a member of the Bohemian scene of the 1850s

“This group is more akin to those 19th century European people, in that they were writers and they were making a living pretty much hand-to-mouth in a lot of cases. They were being paid by the word,” Lause says. “So we don’t really have all of their best material and it’s not easy to identify, as they didn’t necessarily get a byline for what they were writing.”

Still, the record is rich with writings from the group that reflect the mindset of progressive thinkers in New York in the years leading up to the Civil War.

For more on this book, check out this Q&A piece with Lause that ran in the Columbus Dispatch.