The American Idea: The Best of The Atlantic Monthly [Click the title
to buy this book]
by Robert Vare
From Rolling Stone to the New Yorker to The New York Times Magazine, veteran journalist Robert Vare has served as an editor at some of this country’s most respected publications, making a name for himself as a nurturer of talent and a champion of serious magazine journalism. Most recently he has come to roost at The Atlantic, where, since 2000, he has drawn to the magazine such writers as Mark Bowden, Walter Kirn, and Jeffrey Rosen, and ushered a slew of memorable narratives into print.
In 2006, taking note of The Atlantic’s impending 150th anniversary, Vare began to formulate the idea of assembling an anniversary anthology that would pay tribute to the magazine’s venerable legacy and showcase some of its most important contributions to American thought and culture. He spent the following year and a half immersing himself in The Atlantic’s archives, reading up on Atlantic history, and—with the help of a number of current and former Atlantic staff members (especially former fact checker Daniel Smith)—researching the stories behind some of The Atlantic’s most intriguing writings.
The result is The American Idea: The Best of The Atlantic Monthly, a nearly 700-page cornucopia of essays, short fiction, and poems by an array of authors whose names—from Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway to Martin Luther King—read like a Who’s Who of American history and literature. Taking his cue from the founders’ assertion that they would dedicate their magazine to exploring “The American idea,” Vare organizes the anthology’s selections into groupings centered around issues like race, the environment, and national identity, that have been of perennial concern to this country. Many of the pieces, more than merely reflecting the preoccupations of their time, played roles in actively shaping events—as in John Muir’s “The American Forests,” which helped inspire the creation of the U.S. Forest Service, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling’s “Broken Windows,” which altered the crime-fighting strategies of police departments around the country, and Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think,” which, in 1945, sketched the outlines of what we now recognize as the Internet.
Taken together, the works assembled here tell the story of a magazine that has remained unfailingly broadminded in its outlook, literary in its style, and visionary in its aspirations. Perhaps the quality of these writings may go some way toward explaining why, in a business where (as Vare notes in his introduction) “the average life expectancy of a new magazine is something closer to 150 days,” The Atlantic continues to soldier on, 150 years after its founding.
I spoke with Robert Vare in early October.
As you explain in your introduction, the term "The American Idea," which the magazine's founders said they would dedicate their new magazine to exploring, is a concept they never clearly defined. Can you talk a little bit about how you’ve interpreted the term and used it to shape this collection?
It’s pretty interesting and also a little bewildering to me that they never really bothered to define it in the mission statement. And as far as I know, they never referred to it again in any of their public statements or journals. To me it signified a certain confidence on their part that they thought their readers would instinctively understand what they meant, even though the expression “The American Idea” wasn’t widely in use. This was just a few years before the Civil War—a time when the country was racked by sectional tensions. So issues of national identity were very much on people’s minds.
As I set out to put this book together, I asked, “What might they have meant?—Political democracy? Personal freedom? Social Justice? Economic Opportunity?” I think they were talking about a blend of all those things, because those are all values that are referred to in the Declaration of Independence. In the end, what I think they were saying is that this magazine would concern itself with the profound issues of American national life—with what it means to be American, with what constitutes the national interest, and with the question of America’s proper role in the world.
Do you think they meant it in a literary sense as well—in the same spirit that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The American Scholar” argued for the importance of America’s developing its own literature on its own soil?
Absolutely. Just as Emerson’s essay, which Holmes called our “intellectual Declaration of Independence,” made a case for a truly indigenous literature, distinct from the old European ways of writing and thinking, the Atlantic’s founders were saying, “There is such a thing as American society, and there is such a thing as American culture, and we need to concern ourselves with them.” They wanted the magazine to have a voice that was distinctly American.
As you looked back over the magazine’s many years of publication, what kinds of trends did you discern, in terms of the magazine’s preoccupations, strengths, and weaknesses during different eras?
Flashbacks: "Howells Rediscovered"
A collection of articles by and about The Atlantic's third editor, William Dean Howells, celebrates his contributions to the magazine and American literature.
Basically, I have a theory about magazines—that they fundamentally reflect the sensibilities of their editors-in-chief, and that the great magazines have always reflected the curiosities, interests, and idiosyncrasies of these very strong-minded editors like Harold Ross at The New Yorker, Harold Hayes at Esquire, and Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone. The magazine becomes very much a personal laboratory for these editors’ interests and enthusiasms. I wasn’t able to do an in-depth study of what each editor brought to the magazine, because I didn’t have time, but it was clear that James Russell Lowell brought a tremendous passion for good writing—as well as a cause. The anti-slavery cause meant everything to him, and that made the first years of The Atlantic incredibly exciting. A little later there was William Dean Howells, who brought Mark Twain and Henry James into the magazine and set a standard for fiction writing. I was also very impressed by Edward Weeks, who was editor in the mid-20th century. He obviously loved writers, both fiction and non-fiction. His memoirs are full of glorious anecdotes about them. I think that appreciation of great writers and great writing really comes through in the kinds of pieces the magazine published during his tenure. And I am knocked out by the early years of the Bill Whitworth era. I didn’t realize until I started putting this collection together how many truly brilliant pieces he published in the first five years he was here.
Which pieces are you thinking of?
It was a glorious, glorious era. In just one issue he had both Tracy Kidder’s “Soul of a New Machine” [published in two installments in the July and August, 1981 issues] and V.S. Naipaul’s “Among the Believers.” He ran five parts of Robert Caro’s first installment of the Lyndon Johnson biography, and “What’s It About?” –a brilliant piece by Thomas Powers on the Cold War. He also ran a ground-breaking two-part article by Nicholas Lemann on the origins of the underclass, and a classic of American Road literature, William Least Heat-Moon’s “Blue Highways.” Extraordinary stuff. There were so many in maybe five years. It was just an incredible period. Really an explosion of great journalism.
Oh—and I should also mention that great piece by Wilson and Kelling, “Broken Windows,” which introduced the concept of community policing and was so influential in changing the way police departments around the country fight crime. And the piece that was supposedly something of an embarrassment to Whitworth because he thought it was too gossipy—the William Greider piece on David Stockman’s growing disillusionment with Reaganomics. It was the first time that I know of that any cabinet officer had been so openly critical of his boss’s policies while still serving in his administration.
Bill Whitworth was squeamish about that one?
That’s what I heard. The piece got tremendous attention in the national media, and Bill apparently felt that maybe it was getting attention for the wrong reasons—not because a great idea was being advanced, but because one of Reagan’s cabinet officers was saying negative things about him. From what I understand, Bill Whitworth was slightly vexed about it, and about all the attention that it got—which shows you what an unusual editor he was.