Flashbacks December 2005

Birthplace of a Magazine

A look back at reflections on The Atlantic's early years in Boston

At the end of 2005, The Atlantic Monthly will move from Boston to Washington, D.C.—commencing a new chapter in its history. As the magazine looks ahead to a new era in the nation's capital, now seems an appropriate time to cast a nostalgic eye backwards at the magazine's Boston beginnings.

In 1857, when the magazine was founded by Francis H. Underwood and a group of writers including Ralph Waldo Emerson, H. W. Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Boston was a burgeoning literary center. The new magazine combined a humanist spirit with the energy of the growing publishing industry and the passion of the anti-slavery movement. In the early years, the writers and readers of The Atlantic were almost all New Englanders; later the editors began to look further afield for its audience and contributors. But for nearly 150 years, The Atlantic maintained an intimate relationship with its birth city and home. "[One] reason for our longevity," wrote the Atlantic's ninth editor, Edward Weeks1—with characteristic native pride—"is that we have always been printed in Boston. Boston has been our vantage point, and I think the country respects us for the Yankee humor and integrity which flow in our veins."

Herewith, a look back at some reflections on the magazine's first home.

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From the archives:

The Atlantic Monthly First Published: November 1, 1857
On the genesis of The Atlantic. By the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

In "The 'Literary Centre'" (September 1903), M.A. DeWolfe Howe discussed Boston's emergence in the nineteenth century, as the literary capital of America. Howe wrote, "The assertion that Boston was the literary center during the period in which American literature acquired a shelf of its own in the library of the race is hardly open to dispute." He traced this development in part to the city's founding as a Puritan stronghold—paving the way for a preoccupation with philosophy and matters of the spirit. Over time, he explained, Unitarianism distinguished itself from Calvinism, and Transcendentalism from Unitarianism—developments that were accompanied by much philosophizing and debate.

The very nature of [such religious controversies] which meant so much to so large a portion of the community bespoke the presence of a class to which the things of the mind and the spirit were of high importance—from which the evolution of a smaller "literary class" was easily possible.

The evolution of that literary class brought with it new cultural institutions with names like the Anthology Club, the Athenaeum, and the North American Review. Of perhaps greatest importance, Howe suggested, was the 1857 founding of The Atlantic Monthly, which he viewed as a centerpiece of Boston literary culture. James Russell Lowell was The Atlantic's first editor, Howe noted, and he had not needed to look far to find good writing: "It was from the writers of the immediate vicinity that the magazine won its early distinction. The editor had but to stretch out his hand to seize an embarrassment of riches."

Howe surveyed some of The Atlantic's early contributors, and observed that of all of them, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote a popular feature called "The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table" (consisting of discussion among various fictional personalities set around the breakfast table of a Boston boarding house), "stands obviously possessed of the strongest local flavor." After all, Howe noted, "Dr. Holmes himself maintained that 'identification with a locality is a surer passport to immortality than cosmopolitanism is.'"

As prominent literary lights, many of The Atlantic's early contributors had participated in national lecture tours before the magazine's founding. For those around the country who admired these authors and had gone to see them speak in person, "to find them assembled in the pages of The Atlantic was ... like a reunion of honored friends." Howe noted that the magazine's authors themselves seemed to revel in one another's company as well.

From all the records of this "harvest-time" of letters, one carries away a vivid impression of a happy family. Its members rejoiced like brothers in the successes won by each in turn. Working apart yet side by side they met like brothers for relaxation and play.

Along with the magazine, intellectual gatherings like the Saturday Club and the Examiner's Club brought these litérateurs into regular conversation. Howe wrote that this group was a "happy family of which the Saturday Club was the accepted meeting-place, the Atlantic the recognized organ, and the considerable contribution of these Boston writers of the nineteenth century to American literature the permanent memorial."

Six years later, in "The Autocrat and his Fellow-Boarders" (August 1909), Samuel McChord Crothers paid homage to "The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table," Holmes's beloved Atlantic serial. With this feature, Crothers wrote, "Dr. Holmes hit upon a character and a situation distinctly American."

Let Philosophy come down from the heights, and take up her abode in a Boston boarding-house. Let there be a nervous landlady anxious to please, and an opinionated old gentleman ready to be displeased, and a poet, and a philosopher, and a timid school-mistress, and a Divinity student who wants to know, and an angular female in black bombazine, and a young fellow named John who cares for none of these things.

For Crothers, this boarding house, in which each character was given his or her say on whatever issue was being discussed, stood for democratic intellectualism. "In America," he wrote, "we do not think of ourselves as in an intellectual realm where every man's house is his castle. We are all boarders together. There are no gradations of rank, nobody sits below the salt."

Though the issues discussed were of universal importance, the local Boston setting loomed large. "An interesting personality is always interested in the place where he happens to be," Crothers wrote. "All the specimens of human nature [Holmes] needed for his study could be found on Boston Common." Indeed, it was in the April 1858 installment of the "Autocrat" that Boston was first referred to as "the hub of the universe." Crothers quoted from that famous passage at length: "Boston is just like other places of its size, only perhaps, considering its excellent fish market, paid fire department, superior monthly publications and correct habit of spelling the English language, it has some right to look down on the mob of cities." This sense of superiority, Crothers argued, is characteristic of Boston's inhabitants; the Bostonian, he explained, considers himself apart from the rest of the world and regards his own moral and intellectual journey as special—"somewhat stimulated by the keen winds from off Massachusetts Bay." This attitude, he wrote, "furnished Dr. Holmes with his best material."

Three decades later, in "The Genesis of Boston" (October 1935), S. Foster Damon, a writer, poet, composer, professor of English and expert on William Blake, pointed to Bostonians' ethos of hard work and devotion to the betterment of community and self as a source of Boston's early literary prominence. This work ethic derived, he suggested, from the city founders' aspiration to become a "City of Saints":

The Calvinistic theology strove for the perfect community by developing a democracy which gave the fullest opportunity to the individual, who was to use his powers for the community. Rising from the place in which one was born socially to the place for which one was fitted mentally was considered right and even divinely ordained.

This meritocratic spirit, he wrote, along with the Puritan commitment to education and to books, "preordained" that Boston would be "a literary city." Indeed, by the end of the seventeenth century, he pointed out, Boston had already laid the groundwork to become one of the most educated locales in the country. It was during this century that Harvard College was established and the Massachusetts School Act of 1647 ensured that each sizable township would have a primary school. "By 1700," he wrote, "Boston was, next to London, the chief literary centre of the British Empire."

He noted that in the nineteenth century, the well-educated class had become somewhat elitist. Damon referred to this aristocratic group—which included many of The Atlantic's editors and contributors—as the "Brahmin caste" and gave a piercing sketch of this subset of Boston community:

They repeated family jokes and preserved family feuds ... were given to introspection; were quite unpretentious and purse-proud; were thrifty sometimes to the point of avarice, and yet handsomely generous in behalf of any good cause or any good friend.... They disapproved of dressiness; but there were many who achieved a striking picturesqueness in their clothes... They were unadaptable: when abroad they dressed and acted as though they were still in Massachusetts... They encouraged talent, disliked genius in the making, adored it when it was proved, and boasted of it when it was established.

Despite their snobbery, however, these citizens were devoted to their hometown and maintained a tradition of commitment to the preservation of its character and landmarks. He concluded:

They adored their sun-faded city, and kept it a town of rose brick rising gently to the golden bubble of the State House dome... Resenting all criticism from outside, they scolded together constantly because the place was not perfect; and one distinguished citizen concluded a commination with the sad confession: 'I'd move away—but where could one move to?'

Kathryn Crim

ENDNOTES:

1. "The Peripatetic Reviewer," by Edward Weeks, The Atlantic Monthly (June, 1957).

Recollections of an Atlantic Editorship
By William Dean Howells

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