Clapp, Margaret Antoinette

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CLAPP, Margaret Antoinette

Born 11 April 1910, East Orange, New Jersey; died 3 May 1974, Tyringham, Massachusetts

Daughter of Alfred Chapin and Anna Roth Clapp

Margaret Antoinette Clapp, who was for many years president of Wellesley College, is primarily known as an educator. In 1948, however, she won a Pulitzer Prize for Forgotten First Citizen: John Bigelow (1947), a biography of the versatile 19th-century New Yorker who early on found that one career could not absorb all his emotions or energies. Thus Bigelow pursued such diverse careers as practicing law, editing the New York Evening Post with William Cullen Bryant, taking part in Democratic and Republican party politics, and serving as minister to France during the Civil War. He had a lifetime interest in progressive change and was involved in prison reform, abolition, and urban reform. He ended his career as a founder of the New York Public Library.

Clapp wrote with a keen eye for character and was sensitive to the changing aspirations of a man who "never did completely fulfill the worldly promise he showed as a young man." In Clapp's view, the crucial event in Bigelow's life was his discovery, at age thirty-seven, of Swedenborgian philosophy. This discovery coincided with a critical time of questioning in Bigelow's personal life. Under Swedenborg's influence, Bigelow increasingly turned his attention to public service.

In Forgotten First Citizen, Clapp focuses primarily on the public, rather than the private, figure. She argues that the "public arena of disinterested service" was the focus of Bigelow's life. Although Clapp draws on Bigelow's extensive journals, she does not trace the actual development of his thought. Instead, she stresses the practical consequences of his theories.

Clapp had a firm grasp of the internal workings of the American political system and of the role that the political publicist plays in American life. Her grasp of political reality and her perceptive approach to the life of public service gave strength and focus to her portrait of Bigelow. With clarity and understanding she portrayed the growth of the private individual's commitment to public interest. She noted that both Bigelow and Bryant viewed the primary role of the newspaper to be the formation of public opinion. Both men stressed the influence the press could have in shaping the quality of life in democratic America.

Clapp saw Bigelow as a man of "singularly balanced qualities of mind and spirit." He was, she contended, a man of idealism and practicality, of realism and integrity. Though he had a clear sense of the power of money, he was not committed to obtaining wealth. In the end, it was Bigelow's long-term, clear-headed commitment to public welfare in New York City that won him the city's high praise as "first citizen."

Clapp edited The Modern University in 1950, and in it she shares with Bigelow a concern for educating American society. In the one chapter Clapp herself wrote, she focuses on the post-World War II demand for the democratization of higher education. She clearly evaluates the immediate opportunities and problems associated with that dream, and discusses the difficulty of financing such a commitment. She stresses the need to balance enthusiasm for scientific research with a concern for education as the transmission of culture.

As an educator, Clapp was responsive to the difficult task Bigelow set for himself, the task of educating the American society of his day to issues of public concern. As she reveals in The Modern University, Clapp shared Bigelow's concern for determining long range goals and devising practical day-to-day actions to translate vision into reality. Clapp's most important biographical achievement lies in taking a relatively minor figure in the American political scene and demonstrating convincingly the impact that such a man can have in shaping the quality of American life.


Reference Works:

CB (1948).

Other reference:

NYT (22 June 1947, 4 May 1974). NYHTB (22 July 1947). Saturday Review of Literature (26 July 1947).