I would like to take you back to a certain time in the young life of our republic—a time that was filled with a deep sense of foreboding, a grim expectation that our national life was about to change radically, and a giddy appreciation nonetheless of the possibilities held out by the rapid advance of human knowledge. It was a time that has perhaps more than a little in common with the times we inhabit now.
The year was 1857. Railroads did not yet cross the North American continent, but everyone knew that one day soon they would. The publication of Darwin's Origin of Species was two years away, but loud rumblings in the halls of science had already warned the keepers of religious faith that serious challenges lay ahead. The largest wave of immigration in the nation's history was pouring through the cities of the eastern seaboard. Though he would become President in four years, Abraham Lincoln in 1857 was no more widely known nationally than any former one-term Congressman is today. But the clouds of secession had begun to gather, and few believed that North and South, still joined by weak bonds of vexing compromise, would not soon be torn asunder.
Among educated people throughout the United States the issue of slavery was obviously one of great moment. But so, too, was another matter, and in the baldest terms it might be said to have involved an attempt to define and create a distinctly American voice: to project an American stance, to promote something that might be called the American Idea.
It was this concern that brought a handful of men together, at about three in the afternoon on a bright April day, at Boston's Parker House Hotel. At a moment in our history when New England was America's literary Olympus, the men gathered that afternoon could be said to occupy the summit. They included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and several other gentlemen with three names and impeccable Brahmin breeding—men from the sort of families, as Holmes once noted wryly, that had not been perceptibly affected by the consequences of Adam's fall. By the time these gentlemen had supped their fill, plans for a new magazine were well in hand. As one of the participants wrote to a friend the next day, "The time occupied was longer by about four hours and thirty minutes than I am in the habit of consuming in that kind of occupation, but it was the richest time intellectually that I have ever had." Soon the new magazine acquired an editor, James Russell Lowell, and a name—The Atlantic Monthly.
The first issue of The Atlantic Monthly appeared in November of 1857, and the magazine, which billed itself as a "journal of literature, politics, science, and the arts," was an immediate success. Lowell unswervingly trained his attention on American writers, providing a home both for the younger American talents, whom he cultivated, and for the established ones. The magazine thrived. Within two years the circulation of The Atlantic Monthly had risen above 30,000. The number of paid subscribers today is roughly 460,000; newsstand sales average more than 50,000 copies a month. All told, we estimate, at least 1.2 million people, not including the mail carriers, put their hands on each issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
We would like to think that the magazine our readers are getting today is, at least in its tone—in its stance toward the world—similar to the magazine that James Russell Lowell and his friends first brought forth. The Atlantic Monthly's Declaration of Purpose, which was printed in its first issue, went like this: "In politics, The Atlantic Monthly will be the organ of no party or clique, but will honestly endeavor to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea. It will deal frankly with persons and with parties, endeavoring always to keep in view that moral element which transcends all persons and parties, and which alone makes the basis of a true and lasting prosperity. It will not rank itself with any sect of anties: but with that body of men which is in favor of Freedom, National Progress, and Honor, whether public or private."
One thing that The Atlantic Monthly is not is an antiquarian enterprise, a museum piece. In 1995, we won the prestigious National Magazine Award for Reporting and were nominated for National Magazine Awards in the General Excellence category—the magazine industry's top honor—and in the fiction category. In May of 1993, we won that coveted National Magazine Award for General Excellence. In 1988, we won three National Magazine Awards, more than any magazine had ever won before in a single year. Our staff is young—on average, about 35. Our editorial gaze is fixed not on the past (though we respect it) but on the beauties and horrors, the steps forward and back, of the modern world in all its awesome range.
And yet, as those of us who work at The Atlantic Monthly go about our daily chores, we do find ourselves looking from time to time at where the magazine used to be. The very mien of our offices encourages us to reflect. We have been great savers in our history, and when faced with the choice of framing some piece of paper or throwing it out, we almost always opt for the frame. A walk down our hallways is a pleasant way to pass the time. There is a letter on one wall from Madame Chiang Kai-shek, dated "Nanking, 1937," politely informing our subscription department that the Chiangs would be moving again, and asking could we please have her copy of the magazine sent to their new home in Shanghai. Nowhere in the letter does Madame Chiang mention that the reason for the change of address was that Japanese armies were chasing the Nationalist Chinese government from one provisional capital to another. Elsewhere on the walls are shelves of leather-bound volumes of The Atlantic Monthly dating back to 1857, handwritten drafts of poetry by Robert Frost and Rabindranath Tagore and others, yellowing photographs of society belles and dashing aviators who had some connection with the magazine, now forgotten. We have a letter from Admiral Peary to one of the editors stating that Peary would soon have an article to us about his discovery of the North Pole. The recent disclosure that Peary may in fact have faked that discovery has prompted us to hang his letter in the fact-checking department.
But the most resonant memorabilia on our walls are the formal photographic portraits of the ten past editors, all but one of them now dead, who stare down over our shoulders with sepia glares as we, the quick, stare in turn at the electric-green glare of our word processors. There is Lowell, of course (editor from 1857 to 1861), an ardent abolitionist and a man who in most of his opinions was far ahead of his time, though it was with the greatest reluctance that he was prevailed upon to publish an article that answered with a resounding "yes" the question posed by its title: "Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?" (February, 1859). There is James T. Fields (1861 to 1871), who occupies a place of honor and affection in the heart of every writer for deciding that articles should be paid for when they were accepted rather than when they were printed. There is William Dean Howells (1871 to 1881), the first of the editors to look to the western states for writers. A man given to gambling on the work of unknowns, Howells once gave Bret Harte a check for $10,000 for anything he might produce in the next twelve months, whether the output be great or meagre, or indeed nonexistent.