Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Clapp, Henry (1814–1875)
Author:
Stansell, Christine
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Journalist, editor, and reformer, Clapp was born in Nantucket, a bastion of Quaker reform sensibility, and entered the abolitionist cause in the 1830s as a lecturer. He continued his reform activities as the editor of a temperance newspaper and subsequently as secretary to the American champion of Fourierist socialism, Albert Brisbane. Although not much is known about Clapp in the 1850s, the decade before he met Whitman, he appears to have developed his reform attachments in relation to free-love doctrine. Free love was a politics associated with Fourierism which upheld the sanctity of sexual love outside marriage and spurned the coerciveness of unions legitimated by church and state. In 1855 Clapp was among those arrested in New York City while attending a meeting of the Free Love League, a discussion group of men and women led by the anarchist and sex radical Stephen Pearl Andrews. In 1858 he appeared at a gathering of prominent reformers in Rutland, Vermont, who met to discuss free love, women's rights, and other reforms. Quite possibly it was Clapp who introduced Whitman to free-love thought.

Whitman probably met Clapp in 1859, when he began to frequent Pfaff's saloon, the bohemian meeting place in Manhattan which Clapp also frequented. The place was a daily rendezvous for journalists of scant means but high literary ambitions. The two were close in age and congenial in their political sympathies. Whitman's career was at a low ebb, and he found in Clapp critical literary support as he prepared the third edition of Leaves of Grass for publication. In 1858 Clapp had founded a literary journal, the Saturday Press, which was dedicated to publishing new and unknown American writers and to flouting convention and the reigning literary establishment. Clapp's chief contribution to Whitman's eventual success lay in his comprehension of how publicity, even scandal, could obviate the need for the critical and moral approval which Whitman had thus far failed to secure, especially from the Boston literati. Clapp encouraged Whitman's own incipient tendencies toward self-promotion, sensing their value in an increasingly commercial literary market. The Saturday Press made it a point to stir up weekly any and all praise or condemnation of the poet. Whitman remembered that "Henry was right: better to have people stirred against you if they can't be stirred for you—better than not to stir them at all" (Traubel 237). Twenty items on Whitman and/or Leaves of Grass appeared throughout 1860, including reviews from other journals, both negative and positive, advertisements and parodies of Whitman's style.

Clapp's journal folded in 1860. He worked as a journalist and theater critic in New York until his death.

Bibliography

Howells, William Dean. Literary Friends and Acquaintance. 1900. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1968.

Lalor, Eugene. "The Literary Bohemians of New York City in the Mid-Nineteenth Century." Diss. St. John's U, 1977.

Parry, Albert. Garrets and Pretenders: A History of Bohemianism in America. New York: Covici, Friede, 1933.

Stansell, Christine. "Whitman at Pfaff's: Commercial Culture, Literary Life and New York Bohemia at Mid-Century." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 10 (1993): 107–126.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906.

Winter, William. Old Friends, Being Literary Recollections of Other Days. New York: Moffat, Yard, 1909.


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