150 Years Of The Atlantic December 2006

American Icons

This is the eleventh in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Mark Bowden, an Atlantic national correspondent.

No one in their right mind wants to be profiled by a good writer. It’s like playing Russian roulette with your character. Just as a mirror, photo, or honest sketch inevitably shows us things about ourselves that we don’t like, how much more telling is a portrait in words, the subtlest of tools, aiming not only at surface but at essence? And no matter how skilled and well-intentioned, the writer will fail. Getting the subject wrong is guaranteed, because the essence of anyone is evanescent, a mystery even to himself. The egotistical will be disappointed, the modest appalled.

When I was a newspaper reporter, and much younger, I wrote plenty of bad ones. It is a standard assignment: profile the prominent figure passing through town. The challenge is usually perceived as an effort to wrangle access, an audience or an interview, and the forgettable story that typically follows consists of a faithful account of that brief encounter. This is still what passes for a profile in most magazines. It took me a while to learn that the encounter and interview were often the least valuable aspects of the story. What mattered far more was observation, research, and above all, insight. Personality and character are revealed less in words than in action. In some of the best profiles ever written the writer never talked to his subject.

That’s true of at least two of the writers below: Robert A. Caro, whose bit here about young Lyndon Baines Johnson is just a snippet from one of the best (though still-unfinished) biographies ever written of an American president; and Norman Mailer, who has said that after his friend Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe, the subject of his profile, he hoped the playwright would invite him to dinner—“so that I could steal her”; the invitation never came. What matters most about any profile is not the subject per se but the way that subject is perceived by others, and ultimately by the writer. When you get the combination of a great subject and a great writer, the product isn’t just journalism or history—it’s art. —MARK BOWDEN

For the full text of these articles, visit www.theatlantic.com/ideastour.

August 1862
By Ralph Waldo Emerson

Three months after Thoreau’s death, from tuberculosis, The Atlantic published a tribute to him by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. The essay, offering an honest portrait of a difficult and unconventional but brilliant man, had previously been presented as the eulogy at Thoreau’s funeral.

He was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on the 12th of July, 1817. He was graduated at Harvard College in 1837, but without any literary distinction. An iconoclast in literature, he seldom thanked colleges for their service to him, holding them in small esteem, whilst yet his debt to them was important. After leaving the University, he joined his brother in teaching [at] a private school, which he soon renounced. His father was a manufacturer of lead-pencils, and Henry applied himself for a time to this craft, believing he could make a better pencil than was then in use. After completing his experiments, he exhibited his work to chemists and artists in Boston, and having obtained their certificates to its excellence and to its equality with the best London manufacture, he returned home contented. His friends congratulated him that he had now opened his way to fortune. But he replied, that he should never make another pencil. “Why should I? I would not do again what I have done once” …

At this time, a strong, healthy youth, fresh from college, whilst all his companions were choosing their profession, or eager to begin some lucrative employment, it was inevitable that his thoughts should be exercised on the same question, and it required rare decision to refuse all the accustomed paths, and keep his solitary freedom at the cost of disappointing the natural expectations of his family and friends … But Thoreau never faltered. He was a born protestant. He declined to give up his large ambition of knowledge and action for any narrow craft or profession, aiming at a much more comprehensive calling, the art of living well …

He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. He chose, wisely, no doubt, for himself, to be the bachelor of thought and Nature …

No truer American existed than Thoreau. His preference of his country and condition was genuine, and his aversation from English and European manners and tastes almost reached contempt. He listened impatiently to news or bon mots gleaned from London circles; and though he tried to be civil, these anecdotes fatigued him. The men were all imitating each other, and on a small mould. Why can they not live as far apart as possible, and each be a man by himself? What he sought was the most energetic nature; and he wished to go to Oregon, not to London …

He understood the matter in hand at a glance, and saw the limitations and poverty of those he talked with, so that nothing seemed concealed from such terrible eyes. I have repeatedly known young men of sensibility converted in a moment to the belief that this man was the man they were in search of, the man of men, who could tell them all they should do.

Vol. 10, No. 58, pp. 239–249

December 1904

By Henry James Sr.

In a piece originally written in the late 1860s, but published in The Atlantic many years later, Henry James Sr.—the father of Henry James the novelist and William James the philosopher-psychologist—sought to explain just what it was about Emerson’s unassuming personality that carried such magnetism.

It is now full thirty years ago that I made Mr. Emerson’s acquaintance. He had come at the time to New York to read a course of lectures. These I diligently attended, and I saw much of him also in private. He at once captivated my imagination, and I have been ever since his loving bondman. I tried assiduously during the early days of our intimacy to solve intellectually the mystery of his immense fascination; but I did not succeed. I could very well see what the charm was not. It did not the least consist, for example, in any intellectual mastery he exhibited; for what he mainly held to be true I could not help regarding as false, and what he mainly held to be false I regarded as true. Still less did any conventional graces or accomplishments account for the spell he wrought; for no man was more austere than he in manners, or less addicted to the arts of pleasing … But what the magic actually was, I could not at all divine, save that it was intensely personal, attaching much more to what he was in himself, or by nature, than to what he was in aspiration, or by culture. I often found myself, in fact, thinking: if this man were only a woman, I should be sure to fall in love with him …

It was utterly impossible to listen to Mr. Emerson’s lectures, without being perpetually haunted as to your intellect by the subtlest and most searching aroma of personality … His demeanour upon the platform … was modesty itself: not the mere absence of display, but the presence of a positive personal grace. His deferential entrance upon the scene, his look of inquiry at the desk and the chair, his resolute rummaging among his embarrassed papers, the air of sudden recollection with which he would plunge into his pockets for what he must have known had never been put there, his uncertainty and irresolution as he rose to speak, his deep, relieved inspiration as he got well from under the burning-glass of his auditors’ eyes, and addressed himself at length to their docile ears instead: no maiden ever appealed more potently to your enamoured and admiring sympathy. And then when he looked over the heads of his audience into the dim mysterious distance, and his weird monotone began to reverberate in your bosom’s depths, and his words flowed on, now with a river’s volume, grand, majestic, free, and anon diminished themselves to the fitful cadence of a brook, impeded in its course, and returning in melodious coquetry upon itself, and you saw the clear eye eloquent with nature’s purity, and beheld the musing countenance turned within, as it were, and hearkening to the rumour of a far-off but oncoming world: how intensely personal, how exquisitely characteristic, it all was! …

I find in no man, especially no man equally famous, anything like the exquisite, unaffected, perfectly unconscious deference he pays to every other man’s freedom … He seems to me absolutely void of covetousness; entertains no clandestine designs upon any one; would not if he could impose his sway upon you; is destitute of all persuasive arts; has no resources either of flattery or command; is so ignorant, indeed, of all our accustomed devices in this sort, and so estranged from our ordinary corrupt manners in general, as to appear to most people utterly inexpansive; and yet he draws all men unto him, is sure of their spontaneous homage.

Vol. 94, No. 566, pp. 740–745

Robert Frost, Man and Myth
November 1966
By James Dickey

In the course of reviewing a new Robert Frost biography, the poet James Dickey (whose best-selling novel, Deliverance, would be published four years later) dismantled the myth of Frost as kindly farmer-poet.

Belovèd” is a term that must always be mistrusted when applied to artists, and particularly to poets. Poets are likely to be belovèd for only a few of the right reasons, and for almost all the wrong ones: for saying things we want to hear, for furnishing us with an image of ourselves that we enjoy believing in, even for living for a long time in the public eye and pronouncing sagely on current affairs. Robert Frost has been long admired for all these things, and is consequently one of the most misread writers in the whole of American literature …

Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874. [In a new biography by Lawrance Thompson], we watch him live through the decline and death of his alcoholic, ambitious father, follow him as he is shunted around New England as a poor relation, supported by his gentle, mystical mother’s pathetically inept attempts to be a teacher. We see him develop, as compensation, a fanatical and paranoiac self-esteem with its attendant devils of humiliation, jealousy, and frustration. He considers suicide, tries poultry farming, loses a child, settles on poetry as a way of salvation—something, at last, that he can do, at least to some extent—borrows money and fails to pay it back, perseveres with a great deal of tenacity and courage but also with a sullen self-righteousness with which one can have but very little sympathy.

He wanted, and from his early days … to be “great,” distinctive, different, a law unto himself, admired but not restricted by those who admired him. He did well in high school when he found that good marks earned him a distinction he had never had before, but he was continually hampered by his arrogance and his jealousy of others, and after graduation seems to have been able to do little else but insult the people who tried to help him and accept and quit one humiliating job after another with as bad grace as possible.

During all this time, however, his writing developed, and in a remarkably straight line …

The persona of the Frost Story was made year by year, poem by poem, of elements of the actual life Frost lived, reinterpreted by the exigencies of the persona. He had, for example, some knowledge of farming, though he was never a farmer by anything but default. Physically he was a lazy man, which is perhaps why images of work figure so strongly in his poems. Through these figures in his most famous pieces, probably his best poems—haying, apple-picking, mowing, cleaning springs, and mending walls—he indulged in what with him was the only effective mode of self-defense he had been able to devise: the capacity to claim competence at the menial tasks he habitually shirked, and to assert, from that claim, authority, “earned truth,” and a wisdom elusive, personal, and yet final …

What he accomplished, in the end, was what he became. Not what he became as a public figure, forgotten as quickly as other public figures are, but what he became as a poet …

His poems were a tremendous physical feat, a lifelong muscular striving after survival. Though [he was] tragically hard on the people who loved him, put up with him, and suffered because of him, Frost’s courage and stubbornness are plain, and they are impressive. But no one who reads this book will ever again believe in the Frost Story, the Frost myth, which includes the premises that Frost the man was kindly, forbearing, energetic, hardworking, good-neighborly, or anything but the small-minded, vindictive, ill-tempered, egotistic, cruel, and unforgiving man he was until the world deigned to accept at face value his estimate of himself.

Vol. 218, No. 5, pp. 53–56

Marilyn Monroe
August 1973
By Norman Mailer

In an excerpt from his then-forthcoming biography of Monroe, Norman Mailer offered a look at Monroe’s ill-starred marriage to the playwright Arthur Miller, the insecurities that plagued her, and her longing to be more than a sex goddess.

How beautiful they look in their wedding pictures. Staid Arthur Miller has been a scandal to his friends … for he and Marilyn sit in entwinement for hours. Like Hindu sculpture, their hands go over one another’s torsos, limbs, and outright privates in next to full view of company …

But … like everything else in Marilyn’s life, she lived in the continuing condition of a half-lie, which she imposed upon everyone as an absolute truth—it was that Miller adored her out of measure. Like a goddess. Since Miller was also a man with such separate needs as the imperative to write well … this half-lie or half-truth that he adored her without limit had to collapse … Now there was an absolute denial, equally ill-founded. He did not love her at all. He wished only to use her …

She, with her profound distrust of everyone about her, begins to suspect him. Has he married her because he can’t write anymore? Is his secret ambition to become a Hollywood producer? …

She has lived with the beautiful idea that some day she and Arthur would make a film that would bestow upon her public identity a soul. Her existence as a sex queen will be reincarnated in a woman. It is not that her sex will disappear so much as that the sex queen will become an angel of sex …

It was as if she wanted to become the angel of American life; as if, beneath every remaining timidity and infirmity, she felt that she deserved it. Perhaps she did. Are there ten women’s lives so Napoleonic as her own?

Vol. 232, No. 2, pp. 33–53

The Years of Lyndon Johnson
April 1982
By Robert A. Caro

In 1982, the Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Robert A. Caro profiled former President Lyndon Johnson as an uncannily driven twenty-eight-year-old first-time candidate for Congress.

All his adult life, because of the agonies of his youth, the insecurity and shame of growing up poor in the Hill Country, [Johnson] had grasped frantically at every chance to escape that past, no matter how slender. In Washington, and before that, teaching school in Houston and Cotulla, he had worked so feverishly, driven himself so furiously—had whipped himself into the frantic effort that journalists and biographers would describe as the result of “energy” when what lay behind it was really desperation and fear. He wanted, he told aides, to do “everything—everything—possible to succeed, to earn respect, to “be somebody.” As one said, “There was a feeling—if you did everything, you would win.”

The feeling had been reinforced by experience. In each of his jobs, he had done “everything”—had lashed himself into an effort in which, an aide says, “hours made no difference, days made no difference, nights made no difference,” into an effort in which he worked weekday and weekend, day and night. And he had “won,” had made the most of each of those slender chances …

The men who knew Johnson best—who knew best how utterly unsparing of himself he was willing to be—had felt at the start of the campaign that, as [his aide] Gene Latimer put it, “No matter what anyone said, we felt he had a chance, because we knew he would work harder than anyone else.” But even these men had not known how hard he would work …

At the end of a long day of campaigning, the sun would be disappearing behind the hills; the first stars might be out. Or perhaps darkness would already have fallen—the black darkness of Hill Country, unbroken for miles by a single light. Keach [his driver] might have pointed the car back toward Austin; if it was dark, the city would be a glow on the horizon as he sped through the black hills, so tired that he could hardly keep awake, and could think only of falling into his bed. And then Johnson, sitting beside him, rechecking in the fading sunlight or in the light from the dashboard the list of names he had been handed that morning, would realize that somehow they had missed one, that one farm back there in the hills behind them had not been visited. “If that happened,” Keach recalls, “we would go back, no matter how hungry and tired we were, no matter how far it was. Sometimes I could hardly believe we were going back, but we always did.” He would turn the car; they would be heading away from the glow in the sky, back into the hills, back along the highway looking for the mailbox, then along the path the mailbox marked, jouncing through the ruts in the dark. Keach knew how tired his Chief was. But his Chief was portraying a candidate with youth and energy—it was important that voters not see his tiredness. “He would be very fatigued, very,” Keach says. “But he never let a voter see the fatigue.” When they reached the farm at the end of the path, all the farmer would see, in the last rays of daylight or in the glow of a kerosene lamp, as Lyndon Johnson strode toward him, was a face—young, eager, enthusiastic—all alight to see him …

Lyndon Johnson had determined, many years before, the emotion that would govern his life—the emotion that, with “inflexible will,” would be the only emotion that he would allow to govern his life. “It is ambition,” he had written in an editorial in his college newspaper, “that makes of a creature a real man.” Pride, embarrassment, gloating: such emotions could only hinder his progress along the road he saw so clearly before him. They were luxuries in which he would not indulge himself.

Vol. 249, No. 4, pp. 34–89

American Everyman
November 2004
By Walter Kirn

Two years ago, the novelist and critic Walter Kirn considered Warren Buffett as American symbol.

The popular business media have for some time now been missing the big story when it comes to the country’s second richest man. Buffett’s fortune … has become the least interesting thing about him. It’s Buffett the symbol that matters now, Buffett the folk hero …

There is a line of self-made, iconoclastic, pragmatic, larger-than-life American Everymen that begins in the popular mind with Benjamin Franklin, and runs through Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and Harry Truman, but also shows up in such far-flung characters as Walt Whitman, Henry Ford, and Ernest Hemingway. They are the fresh-air paragons of democratic self-invention—the anti-phonies who tell it like it is and, with their grassroots words and ways, rebuke the pretentious sophistication of Europeanized elites …

Warren Buffett, as much as anyone else alive right now, belongs to this indispensable tradition …

Biographers and magazine writers love to detail Buffett’s austerity—his middle-class house, his bare-bones corporate headquarters, his decision to stay put in Omaha—but they make a mistake when they accuse him of modesty. In a man worth tens of billions of dollars, self-deprecation is a boast.

Vol. 294, No. 4, pp. 104–112

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