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Clapp, Henry Jr. (1814-1875)

Editor, Journalist, Poet, Reformer, Translator

Born in Massachusetts to a family of merchants and seamen, Clapp traveled to Paris to translate the socialist writings of Fourier. In Paris, Clapp abandoned his ardent sympathy for the temperance movement and embraced the leisurely café life of the city. Upon returning to New York in 1850, he sought to recreate this atmosphere, spending hours at Charlie Pfaff's beer cellar, drawing a crowd of journalists, painters, actors, and poets to cultivate an American Bohemia in which participants admired and discussed the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, and Washington Irving (Martin 15-7). Junius H. Browne notes that "[Clapp] was nearly twice as old as most of his companions; was witty, skeptical, cynical, daring, and had a certain kind of magnetism that drew and held men, though he was neither person nor manner, what would be called attractive" (152). Clapp, sometimes referred to as the "King of Bohemia," was often telling stories and jokes and displaying a facility for word play and puns, as Thomas Gunn, who socialized with the Bohemian crowd at Pfaff's, noted saying, "Clapp puns a good deal, and if permitted, always tries to ride roughshod over others" (vol. 10, 16).

Clapp is best known as the tireless editor, instigator, and fundraiser for the Saturday Press, a short-lived but influential literary journal which showcased fiction, poetry, literary criticism, and social commentary by many of Pfaff's bohemians. William Dean Howells contended that the Saturday Press "embodied the new literary life of the city" ("First Impressions" 63). Its first issue was published on October 23, 1858 (Martin 79). Gunn characterized the Press writing "Clapp generally does an impudent, flippant, Frenchy tainted editorial in paragraphs of one sentence each, the rest is Ada Clare, Getty Gay, Banks (and brays) Arnold &c &c. Wilkin's provides a 'feulleton', brilliant, cool, impudent and amusing, reading like a translation from the French, and all the rest of the writers imitate him. The paper is a mere swindle on advertisers, principally publishers, the circulation being nominal" (vol. 11, 162). Scholar Mark Lause presents another view arguing that "in promoting what it saw as the best in its field, the Press became an advocate for good journalism and publishing" and received praise from many of its contemporary newspapers (78). The Civil War took a toll on the paper, and after the war, Clapp attempted to reestablish the Saturday Press, only to find that "the Bourgeois press was even more hostile toward Bohemianism than before," and the paper was shut down for good (Levin 68). Afterwards Clapp became a "'casual writer for City journals'" but no longer held any real journalistic standing (Lause 116).

Howells characterizes Clapp as an editor who was "kind to some neglected talents, and befriended them with a vigor and a zeal," which included Walt Whitman, who owed a great debt to the patronage of Clapp ("First Impressions" 65). Clapp was dedicated to establishing Whitman's career by keeping his work before the public in the pages of the Press. To this end, Clapp published eleven of Whitman's poems and printed over twenty reviews of Leaves of Grass in addition to publishing eight poems written as parodies or homages to Whitman's distinct style. Clapp also gave ample advertising space to Thayer and Eldridge, the Boston-based publishing firm that had recently released the third (1860) edition of Leaves of Grass. Clapp remained a tireless champion of Whitman's work; Whitman would later muse that his own history could not be written without including Henry Clapp, Jr (Lause 53).

By 1870, he had begun to take some solace in drink, and during his final years, he spent "an untold number of stints in asylums." Scholar Justin Martin noted though that "still, as Clapp made his shambling rounds, [around New York City,] he was sometimes spotted by one member or another from the old Pfaff's set" (260). Clapp died on April 10, 1875 in a sad state, which Whitman described saying, "'he died in a gutter—drink—drink—took him down, down'" (Martin 161; Lause 116). The author of his obituary in the New York Times defined his legacy arguing that "no man was better known in the newspaper and artistic world a few years ago than than the eccentric and gifted King of the Bohemians" ("Obituary" 7).