Interviews November 2007

The Story of a Magazine

Veteran editor Robert Vare talks about why he loves magazine journalism, what makes The Atlantic distinctive, and the challenges of whittling down a "best of" collection of Atlantic writings

How did you make your selections for the anthology? Did you start with a pool of favorites that you were determined to include?

I started by getting suggestions from people who were really well versed in the archives—from you and from Cullen Murphy and from past editors like Bill Whitworth and Robert Manning, and from the long-time fiction editor, Mike Curtis. So I did start to develop a pool. But very quickly it became way too large – almost 200 pieces.  I knew that I wouldn’t have room for all of them, so it became a balancing act. I wanted to have fiction and poetry, as well as articles and essays. And I wanted to have pieces that fit the different thematic categories that began to emerge. I also very much wanted to have certain writers represented. How can you have an Atlantic anthology without at least one piece by Mark Twain, or Ralph Waldo Emerson, or Nathaniel Hawthorne? So I read all the contributions by those must-have writers, and then I picked the ones not just that I liked best but that seemed to me to have an inarguable historical significance and undeniable appeal to contemporary readers.

Did you discover any new favorites that you hadn’t been familiar with before?

Very much so. One would have to be Emerson’s eulogy for his good friend Thoreau. I didn’t know about that piece, believe it or not.  And I am in love with that essay as a piece of portraiture! I think it serves as a model for the modern profile. Emerson obviously knew Thoreau very well over the course of decades. And it’s so modern in the way he talks about him, not only in terms of his virtues, but also in terms of his failings.  There’s just something very moving about his portrait.

Another piece I wasn’t familiar with before was Nora Johnson’s “The Captivity of Marriage.” I was completely charmed by the wit and elegance of the writing, and by the fact that it talked so frankly about the frustrations that many women had but rarely expressed about family life. This was a pioneering piece of feminist writing that came out in The Atlantic two full years before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

Another hidden gem that I had been unaware of was James Mann’s “Who Was Deep Throat?”, which is just a fantastically prophetic piece. Thirteen years before we learned who Deep Throat really was, Mann made the case that it had to be the FBI’s number three man, W. Mark Felt. And of course, he turned out to be right about what had been one of journalism’s biggest mysteries.

Were there any pieces you were sorry to have to leave out for space reasons or because they didn’t fit into one of the thematic groupings?

One piece that I didn’t have room for, but that I wish I had was “One Woman’s Abortion,” by “Mrs. X.”   I was surprised and delighted to come across that one. Here it was 1965, a time when abortion was illegal, and there’s this very thoughtful woman talking in the most matter-of-fact and yet poignant terms about her abortion in The Atlantic. It was very powerful. I do cite her in the introduction because she allowed me to reveal her name for the first time.

What led you to organize the book thematically instead of chronologically?

That was something I knew I wanted to do right from the beginning.  I had made a study of other magazine anthologies, and I was surprised by how many of them adhere to a strict chronological structure.  A lot of them just feature one piece from each year, or present groups of articles by decade, and I thought that seemed like one of the least interesting possible approaches to organizing the material.

Organizing the material by themes on the other hand – that is, by subject, genres, and ideas that have loomed large for the magazine over the years – seemed to me a much more dynamic way of doing it. It became a kind of narrative device for telling the story of the magazine and the parallel story of the country that it’s been covering for the last century-and-a-half. And by giving readers a chance to immerse themselves in one subject at a time, it gives them an opportunity to see the differences between what a writer like Frederick Douglass had to say about race in 1866 versus what Martin Luther King had to say about it a hundred years later. Or between what Henry Demarest Lloyd had to say about John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil company in 1881 versus what Eric Schlosser had to say about McDonald’s in 2001. That was the approach I had in mind from the beginning.  I hope it works, and that it makes for a more interesting experience for the reader.

You give each article in the collection a lot of context with a lengthy headnote. Did any of the backstories you turned up in the course of researching these especially surprise you?

I should say right off that these headnotes were an enormous undertaking, and I had a tremendous amount of help with the research and writing of them from a team of former and current Atlantic staffers. I had originally envisioned maybe five or six sentences each, but when I realized that some of these pieces had such amazing stories behind them, some of them grew to more than 500 words. I would have to say that in every single case I learned something interesting in working on a headnote. Take the 1927 publication of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Fifty Grand.” That story had been rejected by six other very well respected magazines before The Atlantic finally took it on. Hemingway later referred to this as the turning point for his career in America.

There’s also the fascinating backstory for Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He wrote the piece in response to reading a newspaper advertisement that had been signed by seven ministers, urging him to abandon his nonviolent but disruptive demonstrations and to go slow and work through the courts. He was so infuriated by this that he began to scribble a response right on the newspaper itself. And when he ran out of space there, he borrowed scraps of paper, and when he ran out of that, he even wrote part of it on toilet paper. He smuggled all these papers out through people who were visiting him in his cell. They were subsequently reassembled and typed in a motel a few blocks away by his aides. I thought that was just a fantastic story, given the profound impact the essay had on the civil-rights movement.

I’ve always wondered about this—was The Atlantic the first publication to print the letter, or was it one of several outlets for it?

The Atlantic was one of several. But it was the most prominent one—and it was from there that it started to get picked up in a lot of newspapers around the country and in Sunday sermons. People had read it in The Atlantic, and that seems to have made a difference.

Presented by

Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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