With this issue The Atlantic Monthly begins a year-long celebration of our upcoming 150th anniversary.
The Atlantic Monthly First Published: November 1, 1857
On the genesis of The Atlantic. By the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities
Fifteen decades is a long time
America has changed profoundly in the course of fifteen decades. In certain obvious ways The Atlantic has changed as well. It is no longer a pamphlet-sized magazine with a dull brown cover. Its readership, rather than consisting of a few tens of thousands primarily in the Northeast, now numbers 1.5 million across the country. The first issue, which featured an engraving of John Winthrop on the cover, was more literary than the magazine you are holding in your hands or viewing on a screen, though the bent toward public-affairs commentary and on-the-scene reporting was present from the start. James Russell Lowell's "The Election in November" (1860) and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Chiefly About War Matters" (1862) are part of the genetic heritage of modern journalism.
But if some things about The Atlantic Monthly have changed in 150 years, the most important things have not.
First, the founders of the magazine understood that breaking news was not always worth paying attention to, and in fact could distract the public from important stories that needed to be told—and that took more time to tell. One of our early contributors, Henry David Thoreau, noting the impact of the telegraph, warned that soon we would be hearing minute-by-minute updates on Princess Adelaide's whooping cough. This concern is all the more relevant in our own era of round-the-clock cable and Internet news. Nobody in America complains, "I'm not getting my news bites fast enough!" People do complain that they're not getting the full truth. They do complain that the foam of headlines, and of what Philip K. Dick might have called "pre-news," conceals vast shoals of reality.
Second, from the outset the magazine's vantage point had no roots in political ideology. The Atlantic would be a forum, not a pulpit. It would cover potentially anything and be open to the sharpest thinking and reporting, no matter how contrarian. There is of course nothing wrong with partisan newspapers and magazines—they are one of the glories of the free press in America. But The Atlantic was designed to be something else.
Flashbacks: "Mark Twain in The Atlantic Monthly" (June 25, 2001)
The story of Twain's association with The Atlantic, and a sampling of his writings.
Third, the magazine has always tried to be entertaining as well as informative. From the beginning it has set aside a place for a special kind of humor, a kind that may be gentle, cerebral, or utterly off the wall, but is rarely broad. Mark Twain once said that he liked writing humor for The Atlantic because the editors allowed him to be funny without asking him to paint himself in stripes and stand on his head. Garrison Keillor (whose poetic parodies are published in this issue) and Christopher Buckley carry on this tradition.
Finally, the founders of The Atlantic believed in what they called "the American idea." This was not some saccharine notion of American exceptionalism or a hyper-patriotic American boosterism. It was a recognition that America was an experiment, based on certain principles—an experiment that could fail, but would if successful offer a rare kind of hope. It could be easily contaminated—by ignorance, venality, selfishness, hatred, hubris. The founders were realists: the biggest threat of all, the slave system, was at the peak of its power, and the challenge of race, they knew, was destined to become the nation's central concern.
What is "the American idea"? It is the fractious, maddening approach to the conduct of human affairs that values equality despite its elusiveness, that values democracy despite its debasement, that values pluralism despite its messiness, that values the institutions of civic culture despite their flaws, and that values public life as something higher and greater than the sum of all our private lives. The founders of the magazine valued these things—and they valued the immense amount of effort it takes to preserve them from generation to generation.
That is the tie that binds fifteen decades. In the years before the Civil War it was not certain that the American idea would have a future. It still isn't.