The Future of the American Idea

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The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea

Essay Contest
Readers are invited to submit their own essays on the American idea and the challenges it faces. We will publish the best of these essays in a future issue of the magazine.

Atlantic Lore
Scandals, intriguing facts, greatest hits, and more.

On learning of plans for a new American magazine, the scholar Charles Eliot Norton wrote in June 1857 to its first editor, his friend James Russell Lowell. He wanted to offer help but also to supply an inoculating dose of reality, to caution that “such things are never permanent in our country. They burn brightly for a little while, and then burn out.” He continued, referring to the 18th-century British editor Edward Cave by his pen name, Sylvanus Urban:

It would be a great thing for us if any undertaking of this kind could live long enough to get affections and associations connected with it, whose steady glow should take the place of, and more than supply, the shine of novelty, and the dazzle of a first go-off. I wish we had a Sylvanus Urban a hundred and fifty years old. I wish, indeed, we had anything so old in America; would give a thousand of our new lamps for the one old, battered, but true magical light.

With this issue, Lowell’s magazine turns 150—declining, with respect, the “battered,” still aspiring to the magical. What, beyond the patient commitment of its owners, can account for this longevity? Consider The Atlantic’s passage: through a permanent revolution in technology, from the telephone, to the practical fountain pen, to the radio, to the note pad, to the television, to the Internet; through financial crises, beginning in 1857 with what The Atlantic called a national “flurry” over credit (or liquidity, to use the present flurry’s term); through national arguments over slavery, suffrage, evolution, immigration, prohibition, anticommunism, civil rights, feminism, gay rights, evolution and immigration (again); through the international contests of ideology that defined the last century and into the new contest that so far is shaping this one. How has The Atlantic endured? More to the point, why?

We may be able to spot a clue in the arguments. Unlike other publications, The Atlantic wasn’t created to track a particular identity found on a map—Hollywood’s glamour, New York’s sophistication, Washington’s power, Silicon Valley’s imagination. It wasn’t yoked from birth to a particular industry or technology, like the automobile or the computer. The Atlantic was created in Boston by writers who saw themselves as the country’s intellectual leaders, and so its scope from the start was national, if rather theoretical. It was founded on an encompassing abstraction, expressed in the words that appeared in the first issue and that appear again on the cover of this one: In politics, it would “honestly endeavor to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea.” That sounds pretty good. But those first conductors—among them Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—did not explain what they meant, not exactly. What or which “American idea”? The answer must have seemed obvious to them: In literature, they wanted to provide a platform for an emerging American voice; in politics, they had a cause—abolition—that gave granite definition to the American idea as equality, at least among men. One can easily imagine that beyond abolition, agreement would quickly break down. Only reluctantly did Lowell finally agree, in 1859, to publish an essay called “Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?”

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