Big Grove celebrates Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday

A presentation on Walt Whitman’s favorite bar in New York, Pfaff’s, examined how a barroom atmosphere can contribute to the creative process.


Michael Guhin

Attendees of the Walt Whitman and Pfaff’s Beer Cellar event listen to a presentation about Walt Whitman’s life on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. The presentation featured aspects of Whitman’s life and his relationship with drinking. (Michael Guhin/The Daily Iowan)

Lauren Arzbaecher, Arts Reporter

How would you celebrate your 200th birthday? For famed poet Walt Whitman, the bicentennial festivities in Iowa City spanned an entire week and wound to a close in the friendly confines of a barroom.

As part of the “History at the Grove” series, Big Grove Brewery & Taproom hosted a presentation on June 19 that encompassed Whitman’s experiences at Pfaff’s, his favorite bar in New York. The presentation explored what other artists Whitman met at the bar and how the creative community there may have influenced his life and writing.

The event was part of the “Whitman at 200” symposium going on throughout the week, which included discussion panels, numerous speakers, and a reading at Prairie Lights. Additionally, a Whitman exhibit is on display in the Main Library Gallery until early August. While this week has been the finale for the Whitman celebrations, preparations have long been in the works.

“We have been working on events for the Whitman bicentennial for several months, so it’s really great to see it all come to fruition,” said Maya Guadagni, communications assistant for the Main Library.

Stephanie Blalock, a digital humanities librarian and longtime researcher and writer on Whitman, gave the presentation at Big Grove. Though Blalock is certainly well-versed on Whitman’s life and writings now, she wasn’t always enamored with the poet.

“I didn’t really fall in love with Whitman until graduate school,” she said. “For me, what really spoke to me from the very beginning was Whitman’s fiction. I like his fiction because I was fascinated by the fact that it appeared in newspapers and magazines in the 19th century.”

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Whitman’s writing has appropriately earned him a spot among the most legendary poets of all time, but the general public doesn’t know much about his life and creative process. Part of that creativity was stirred by the bar community at Pfaff’s, a haven for artists of all kinds.

“One practical reason that artists and writers were attracted to Pfaff’s, at least in the anecdotes about it, was the fact that coffee and beer were inexpensive there,” Blalock said. “At the same time, there was this international atmosphere about Pfaff’s. They could just come, sit, talk to one another in the space, and listen to all of these conversations going on around them, possibly in many languages.”

There is one direct mention of Pfaff’s in Whitman’s writing, in an unpublished notebook entry from which Blalock shared a photograph during the presentation. Though there is clear evidence that Whitman attended Pfaff’s regularly, the extent to which he participated in the revelry is still unclear.

“It’s debatable as to how much Whitman drank and partook in the festivities there,” Blalock said. “For some, he was a full on participant, reading his poetry out loud. For others, he was more a person who sat back in the corner and watched the action that was going around him, and possibly some of that atmosphere is absorbed into the poetry.”

The influence of a barroom atmosphere was mirrored in those gathered at Big Grove, its own creative community. The experiences of the poet at Pfaff’s was a charming addition to the Whitman story for many of those in attendance, including English student Kylie Moss.

“There’s something really wonderful about a bunch of these sort of mythic creatives gathering in a room together and feeding off of each other’s creative spirit,” Moss said. “I love that Whitman wasn’t meeting these people in some soft café or high-end restaurant but in this dark bar full of drunk bohemians. It‘s very him.”