User menu


The Saturday Press

On October 23, 1858, Henry Clapp, Jr., published the inaugural issue of The Saturday Press. It sold for five cents a copy (a year’s subscription cost two dollars) and was dedicated to providing what Clapp called "Literary, Artistic, Dramatic, and Musical Intelligence." In his first editorial for the Press, Clapp said that the primary goal of the new literary weekly was "to furnish its readers with as great a variety as possible of interesting facts, leaving him [sic] the privilege of making his own comments." Eight years later, in one of the final issues of the Press on January 27, 1866, Clapp restated his vision for the journal, saying that his ideal literary periodical would be "critical without being pedantic, dignified without being stupid, sprightly without being superficial, humorous without being vulgar, [and] witty without being pharisaical."

True to Clapp’s expectations, readers of The Saturday Press took "the privilege of making [their] own comments" about the periodical--some readers indeed found it to be critical, dignified, and full of wit, while others judged it pedantic, vulgar, and even stupid. One of the Press’s most ardent defenders was William Dean Howells, who, before becoming the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, was a young and relatively unknown writer from Ohio who considered The Saturday Press his lifeline to the New York literary scene. Howells said that the Press "embodied the new literary life of the city. It was clever, and full of the wit that tries its teeth upon everything. It attacked all literary shams but its own, and made itself felt and feared. The young writers throughout the country were ambitious to be seen in it, and they gave their best to it. . . . It is not too much to say that it was very nearly as well for one to be accepted by the Press as to be accepted by the Atlantic, and for the time there was no other literary comparison" (Howells, Literary Friends and Acquaintances, 70).

As part of his efforts to secure the best writing he could for the Press, Henry Clapp made a conscious effort to include works by women writers. When the editors of The Nation published an issue that included only the works of male authors, Clapp opined that the journal be called the "Stag-Nation," a witticism suggesting that the sexism of The Nation’s editorial staff directly affected their magazine’s quality. Clapp not only published women writers, he also gave a weekly column to Ada Clare titled "Thoughts and Things" that she used to discuss a range of topics from women’s rights to the status of the American theater.

Of all the regular features that accompanied the fiction, poetry, and commentary in The Saturday Press, the one that gave Clapp the greatest sense of pride and accomplishment was the weekly list of new books that he personally compiled. In a March 10, 1860 editorial, Clapp wrote regarding this list of new books, "We cannot call too particular attention to our weekly List of New Books and Books in Press. It is compiled from the best authorities, and is far more complete, and much better classified, than any List of the kind ever attempted in this country." Lest the effort of such a bibliographic endeavor be lost on his readers, Clapp continued, "The labor bestowed upon this department is greater than would be required to compile an octavo volume (or to write one, for that matter) of five hundred pages."

The Hartford Courant was especially kind in its assessment of Clapp’s efforts, calling the Press, "a vigorous, original, lively, and independent literary weekly. It is distinguished above any paper in the United States for its fresh and accurate literary intelligence, the independence and vigor of its leading articles, the choiceness of its miscellaneous matter, and, especially, for its complete weekly List of New Books and Books in Press. To the scholar, the literary man, and the man of taste, in all matters of art and literature, we consider this paper almost a necessity." It might seem odd that a Bohemian would be such an exacting bibliophile (and Clapp was the universally recognized "King of Bohemia"), but for Clapp this weekly list of new books was, in many ways, the benchmark for quality that defined The Saturday Press. Clapp took the air of authority that he cultivated as the unchallenged expert on recent literary publications and used it to benefit the writers he supported in the pages of The Saturday Press, and no one benefited from this support more than Walt Whitman. It is difficult to overstate the boon that regular publication in The Saturday Press was for Whitman’s career. Between December 24, 1859 and December 15, 1860, Clapp published eleven of Whitman’s poems and printed over twenty reviews of Leaves of Grass.

Despite all the attention he gave to Whitman’s poetry, however, Clapp insisted that The Saturday Press was no place for "puffery" (the nineteenth-century’s preferred term for the promotional hype of a recent publication). In an anti-puffing statement titled "No Puffing" that occasionally appeared on the front page of The Saturday Press, Clapp discouraged the common practice of receiving advertising dollars from a book publisher in exchange for a favorable review of one of the publisher’s books. "Advertisers will please bear in mind," he wrote, "that no arrangements whatever can be made with them for editorial notices."

This commitment to editorial independence is consonant with the Bohemian ethos that accompanied the Press. Unfortunately, however, just as the Bohemians were forced to embrace a life of poverty as a consequence of their unwillingness to compromise on personal independence so, too, did The Saturday Press encounter frequent financial problems because of Clapp’s refusal to exchange advertising revenue for editorial puffery. Poor management practices and a lack of hard-nosed business skills also contributed to the economic troubles that constantly dogged the Press. By December of 1860, The Saturday Press had run completely out of money and had to cease publication altogether.

The demise of The Saturday Press corresponded with the fracturing of the Bohemian group at Pfaff’s as well. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Fitz James O’Brien left New York to fight (and die) for the Union Army and Whitman moved to Washington, D.C. to volunteer as a nurse in Army hospitals. Henry Clapp and Ada Clare stayed in New York and continued to work in publishing and writing sporadically, as did others of the Pfaff’s crowd, for such publications as the New York Leader. On August 5, 1865, Clapp gathered together enough funds to resume publication of The Saturday Press, with William Winter serving as Assistant Editor. Clapp wrote, glibly, in an editorial for this first issue in 1865, "This paper was stopped in 1860 for want of means; it is now started again for the same reason."

Despite Clapp’s enthusiasm at the prospect of reliving the antebellum glory days of The Saturday Press, the postbellum Press was a pale imitation of its former self. William Dean Howells commented, "when the Press was revived [in 1865], . . . it was without any of the old bohemian characteristics except that of not paying for its material" (Howells, Literary Friends and Acquaintances, 73). Clapp tried to create a buzz for the paper in a September 2, 1865 article titled "What the New York Papers Say," wherein he reprinted five modest notices from local papers about the revival of The Saturday Press. The lukewarm reviews of these few New York papers was a far cry from the exuberant praise Clapp had collected from over thirty literary journals from across the nation in his April 21, 1860 list of "Opinions of the Press." In less than one year--on June 2, 1866--The Saturday Press permanently closed its doors.

Towards the end of his life, Whitman remarked to his companion Horace Traubel about the important, though often overlooked, story of The Saturday Press. "Somebody some day will tell that story to our literary historians," he said, "for the Press cut a significant figure in the periodical literature of its time" (qtd. in Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, 2:375).