Animating the Best of The Atlantic's Archives

Some of the most notable and enduring works from the magazine’s past come to life in a new series of videos.

Caitlin Cadieux / The Atlantic

Art came to The Atlantic only belatedly. The magazine’s first issue, published in November 1857, comprised 128 pages of text without any visual accompaniment except for a small portrait of John Winthrop, a 17th-century governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, on the front. Aside from the occasional small sketch or header in this vein, no illustrations really graced the magazine’s pages or its covers until the 1940s. Photography began making inroads later that decade, and the first Atlantic videos debuted more than half a century after that.

All of this is to say that, during the magazine’s earlier years, some of its most illustrious writers saw their stories published without any art to complement them. While that’s no longer the case today, in recent months The Atlantic’s animators have started bringing their artistic talents and vision to some of the most enduring pieces in the magazine’s archives. Pairing words from the past with modern technologies, platforms, and insights, they’ve created visual interpretations with historical gravity and contemporary resonance—and not a small amount of flair.

“Strivings of the Negro People” by W. E. B. Du Bois (August 1897)
Animated by Tynesha Foreman

In the midst of the long regressive period between the end of Reconstruction and the dawn of the modern civil-rights movement, W. E. B. Du Bois considered the estrangement and prejudice African Americans faced in an 1897 article for The Atlantic. “Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?” he asks. “The ‘shades of the prison-house’ closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night.” Describing the internal conflict experienced by black Americans surrounded by racism and segregation, Du Bois introduced for the first time the term double-consciousness, or “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

In her stop-motion animation, Tynesha Foreman draws on the artistic styles of both Kara Walker and Lotte Reiniger to illustrate this sense of African American identity and division through black-and-white silhouetted shadow puppets. Her animated figures navigate a surreal granular space, moving through racist interactions, moments of self-reflection and self-contradiction, and even through time. In one powerful sequence, a quick series of cuts reveals black men in different eras: one laboring in a field; one standing against a city skyline; one raising his hands in reaction to the offscreen approach of a police car. “Years have passed away, 10, 20, 30,” the narrator reads from Du Bois’s article as time jumps forward in the video, “and yet … the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land.”

“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost (August 1915)
Animated by Jackie Lay

Before he joined the American literary pantheon as one of the 20th century’s most widely read and beloved poets, Robert Frost submitted his work to The Atlantic—and was rejected. As our former poetry editor Peter Davison recalled in 1996, Frost sent some of his poetry to Ellery Sedgwick, then the editor in chief of the magazine, in 1912. Sedgwick responded with a personal but dismissive reply: “We are sorry that we have no place in The Atlantic Monthly for your vigorous verse.” It was only after Frost published his first two collections of verse in England that Sedgwick reconsidered his rejection, and offered to purchase several of Frost’s poems. In August 1915, three of these appeared in the magazine.

One of the poems Sedgwick printed in that issue was “The Road Not Taken,” which would become one of Frost’s best known, and most misunderstood, works. In it, Frost’s speaker recalls a moment when he came to a fork in the road and had to make a choice between two paths. The famous last lines are often read as a celebration of individualism and nonconformity:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

But in her animation, Jackie Lay depicts the true meaning of Frost’s verse. In the setting of a colorful and heavily textured forest, full of filtered light, she shows an indecisive traveler considering two roads which are, as the poem describes, “worn … really about the same / And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” Rising pipe smoke gives way to daydreams and visions: of the traveler dividing himself in two to take both roads and fading ghostlike into the future; of him telling the story “ages and ages hence.” In this way, Lay shows the poem’s final stanza not as a celebration of an unconventional choice, but rather as a narrative the traveler is already constructing about his own life, justifying a choice with a rationale that doesn’t truly exist in the moment he makes it.

“Put Your Husband in the Kitchen” by Helen Keller (August 1932)
Animated by Caitlin Cadieux

In the early years of the Great Depression, Helen Keller offered Atlantic readers a satirical piece of business advice: “Put Your Husband in the Kitchen.” “The average woman is not very familiar with the complexities of economics,” Keller writes, “but it seems to me that she has ordered her household economy upon a more solid basis than that upon which men have arranged the affairs of their larger world.” Men, she argues, turned the advent of labor-saving machinery into an economic crisis breeding “overproduction, unemployment, and widespread suffering,” while women used it to increase efficiency and save labor. Keller suggests that men could learn something about economics from spending time working inside the home—and she goes on to write out a hypothetical scenario in which a husband does just that.

To capture the visual style of the 1930s, Caitlin Cadieux watched old PSAs, early Walt Disney animations, and Betty Boop cartoons. She used traditional cel animation with the help of a digital paint program, creating watercolor backgrounds and overlaying dozens of figure drawings for each second of animation. The result is nostalgic, fun, and captures both the aesthetic of Keller’s era and the sardonic feminism of the original article.

To read more about Caitlin’s animating process, subscribe to The Masthead.

“Atomic War or Peace” by Albert Einstein (November 1947)
Animated by Atthar Mirza

In 1939, Albert Einstein signed a letter warning President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Germany was attempting to build atomic bombs and urging him to devote resources to doing the same. Almost a decade later, after the United States had successfully developed the technology and, soon afterward, deployed it in its war against Japan, The Atlantic printed Einstein’s thoughts on how to maintain peace in the young atomic age. Though calling the Truman administration’s decision to use the bomb “morally justified” in the article, he also expressed misgivings with the United States’ handling of the weapon after the war. “To keep a stockpile of atomic bombs without promising not to initiate its use is exploiting the possession of bombs for political ends,” he cautions. “It may be that the United States hopes in this way to frighten the Soviet Union into accepting supranational control of atomic energy. But the creation of fear only heightens antagonism and increases the danger of war.”

Atthar Mirza’s interpretation of the piece draws on the avant-garde artistic movement of futurism that originated in Italy earlier in the 20th century to capture the look of Einstein’s era. His animation scrolls continually downward like a falling bomb, navigating the politicization of the new weapons, the rapid buildup of the American nuclear arsenal, and the surging threat of the Soviet Union to reach a final image with dark significance in the present day: a nuclear warhead sitting poised and ready for launch over a shaded map of North Korea. But no bomb explodes and no mushroom cloud appears; Einstein’s words of advice, now decades old, remain hopeful for a future devoid of atomic detonations.