THE Atlantic Monthly began publication 140 years ago, in November of 1857. Edward Sorel's drawing commemorates a dinner gathering not long afterward of three of the magazine's founders—Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell (the first editor), and James T. Fields (the second editor)—with the young William Dean Howells (the third editor). A reader looking back at the magazine's past, as we here have been doing in recent weeks, would identify many shifting preoccupations and many evolving emphases, but that reader would also notice a pair of durable questions braided through the length of the magazine's life: Into what kind of world are we headed? How should we steer our course?
In issues from the nineteenth century one finds contributors gamely looking ahead and wondering about such things as the following: What are the implications, for science and for society, if Charles Darwin's theories turn out to be correct? Will the vote be the best guarantor in the long run of civil rights for blacks? What will happen if America fails to become a maritime power? Is it possible to conceive of a role for government in the management of industry and in safeguarding the welfare of workers? Should we attempt to preserve vast tracts of wilderness untouched? What unanticipated effects will this expanding thing called leisure time have on the American psyche?
Thinking important questions through in advance of urgent necessity has never been more important, or harder to do, than it is today. We have lost the margin for error once provided by ampler space and time. Social and technological developments now take hold more quickly; we have enormous scope for making grave mistakes fast, with a mere tweak of GDP here or of DNA there. At the same time, the venues for considered reflection, for calm assessment, and for reacquaintance with admirable aspects of the human spirit seem to be shrinking.
These thoughts arise from reacquainting ourselves with our history—a natural anniversary pastime. But anniversaries can also be forward-looking occasions. To mark its 140th, The Atlantic this month offers an expanded issue, and inaugurates a series of articles about the twenty-first century.