In the spring of 1857 I was in England. On the 23d of May, Lowell wrote to me,
"We are going to start a new magazine here in October…. The magazine is to be free without being fanatical, and we hope to unite in it all available talent of all modes of opinion. The magazine is to have opinions of its own and not be afraid to speak them. I think we shall be scholarly and gentlemanlike."
The publishers, as I soon learned, wished to obtain contributions for the new magazine from writers in England; and as I was about to return to America in the summer, I was asked to bring home such manuscripts as might be sent to me by their writers, who should receive instructions to forward them to me. Accordingly when I left England in July, I had several manuscripts in my charge. No one of them, so far as I remember, was written by a writer of such distinction that his name is familiar to the present generation; but the work of an author not yet eminent and perhaps never to be so is generally as precious to him as to the writer in highest repute.
At the end of the voyage in New York I saw all my luggage safely on the pier, and delivered it over to the driver of the hotel wagon with directions to bring it to the hotel to which I was going for the night; and I was dismayed when, on the arrival of the wagon at the hotel, the trunk containing the precious manuscripts, and much else of value, did not appear with the other pieces. The driver admitted that he had seen it on the pier, and thinking that he had overlooked it, returned to seek for it, but it was not to de found. An active search was made that day and the next in other hotels, and in the offices of the express companies. Advertisements of the loss, with offers of reward for the return of the trunk, were put into the newspapers. Handbills of the same character were printed and sent to the police stations; but all to no avail. "The whole affair of the lost trunk,'' wrote Lowell to me toward the end of August, "is as melancholy as it is mysterious.'' But it had its compensations.
As the weeks went on, and the character of the new magazine defined itself with increasing distinctness, the publishers began to recognize that the accident relieved them from what might have been an embarrassment. It had intervened to save the editors from the ungracious duty of rejecting well-intended but unsatisfactory material. Another result not less fortunate was the recognition of the error of soliciting numerous contributions from foreign writers. The Atlantic was to depend for its success upon American writers. It was a curious fact, however, that the leading article in the first number was the sketch of an English author, Douglas Jerrold, who is hardly to be reckoned among the immortals, by an English writer - James Hannay – ''who occupied," said Allibone in his invaluable dictionary, "a distinguished position as a writer of fiction;" but of whose numerous works not one is known to the readers of to day. This article had escaped the ill-luck of being in my trunk.
In August Lowell wrote, –
''This reading endless manuscripts is hard work, and takes a great deal of time; but I have resolved that nothing shall go in which I have not first read. I wish to have nothing go in that will merely do, but I fear I cannot keep so high a standard. It is astonishing how much there is that heaps just short of the line of good, and drops into the limbo of indifferent. However, Number One will be clever: Emerson, ‘Illusions;’ Prescott, ‘Battle of Lepanto;’ Holmes, ‘Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table;' Motley, 'Florentine Mosaics;' Mrs. Stove, 'A Stowery; ' Hannay, ' Reminiscences of Jerrold,' very good. I know that that is pretty well; but I tremble for Number Two. The names of the authors, you understand, are a secret.''
His question in regard to the second number did not last long, and two months later he wrote: –
"The second number of Maga. will be out tomorrow, and it is a very good one – better than the first, which is what I wished, and I hope Number Three will be better yet. The song I wish the young lady to sing is, ‘Mamma, I'm young, but I'm growin' yet.'”
No magazine could have had a more brilliant and prosperous start, or one which gave better promise for continued success. At the outset it depended largely for its cordial reception by the public upon the contributions of writers already eminent, the great writers of the middle of the century. As one by one these lights were extinguished, their places were not supplied by any of equal luster. But while the higher ranks of literature, especially poetry, were thus depleted, there was a rapid increase of capable writers of abundant knowledge, and of trained faculty of thought and of expression, and of manifest talent. A democracy was substituting itself for the older aristocracy and with the usual result: the general level was raised, while but few conspicuous elevations lifted themselves above its surface.