At the time of its first issue in November 1857, the magazine, then The Atlantic Monthly, billed itself as a “journal of literature, politics, science, and the arts.” Since then, the magazine has hosted significant debates around the American idea—from slavery to women’s issues to war and the presidency— put forth by some of the most prominent writers of the last two centuries.
As our former editor Cullen Murphy describes, when Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and “several other gentlemen with three names and impeccable Brahmin breeding,” gathered to create the magazine, they might not have anticipated that the list of Atlantic luminaries would continue to grow for more than a century.
While the magazine started by publishing some of the great authors and poets of the time, much changed in those early years, notably the aspirations of its writers. Charles Eliot Norton, one of the magazine’s earliest contributors, seemed a bit disappointed that as these literary giants aged, “their places were not supplied by any of equal luster.” What he did admit, however, was that these newer writers signified a shift in the pages of the magazine that nodded to America’s democracy. “But while the higher ranks of literature, especially poetry, were thus depleted, there was a rapid increase of capable writers of abundant knowledge, and of trained faculty of thought and of expression, and of manifest talent,” he said. The nation was in the thick of moral and intellectual change, and more and more The Atlantic’s writers were tasked with elevating the political and social affairs of men alongside their imaginative works.