In his earlier work, Emerson had emphasized the importance of great American writers who could offer insight into national life and introduce readers to new moral truths. “We love the poet, the inventor, who in any form, whether in an ode or in an action or in looks and behavior has yielded us a new thought,” he wrote in 1844. “He unlocks our chains, and admits us to a new scene.” He saw the same potential in The Atlantic. He backed Lowell for the role of founding editor, believing that he would act as an effective guide for the publication rather than pander to its readers.
He also supported the choice to exclude bylines from early issues of The Atlantic, explaining, “The names of contributors will be given out when the names are worth more than the articles.” In fact, the magazine included the work of some of the nation’s most notable literary figures, many of them connected to Emerson through his work and his carefully cultivated intellectual circles.
As his influence had grown as a writer and lecturer, Emerson had helped inspire and support some of the 19th century’s best-known American writers. Primary among these young protégés was Henry David Thoreau, whom Emerson befriended in the late 1830s. He introduced Thoreau to transcendentalist ideas, encouraged him to begin writing journal entries and essays, and provided him land with which to conduct his experiment in simple living. In 1840, Emerson urged another friend and protégé, the journalist and women’s-rights activist Margaret Fuller, to publish Thoreau’s first essay in the Transcendental Club’s magazine, The Dial (a publication that Emerson also helped establish). Following Thoreau’s early death, in 1862, Emerson helped champion Walden and secure the book and its author vaunted positions in the pantheon of American literature.
In 1842, Emerson gave a lecture appealing for a distinctly American writer who could give voice to the yet “unsung” nation. In attendance was a 22-year-old Walt Whitman, who was determined to answer his call. “I was simmering, simmering, simmering,” Whitman later said. “Emerson brought me to a boil.”
In 1855, Whitman paid for his first collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass, to be printed at a local shop, and sent one of the first copies to Emerson. Emerson responded soon after with a laudatory letter. “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed,” he wrote.
Inspired by the positive response, Whitman passed Emerson’s letter on to an editor at the New York Tribune and quickly paid to produce a second edition of Leaves of Grass. He printed a phrase from Emerson’s letter on the book’s spine: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”
Read more: Walt Whitman’s “An American Primer”
Early issues of The Atlantic featured Whitman’s poetry and Thoreau’s essays, along with short stories from Louisa May Alcott, the daughter of Emerson’s close friend Bronson Alcott; Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emerson’s neighbor in Concord, Massachusetts; and Henry James, a friend of Emerson’s by way of his father. The community he had created would help establish the new magazine, and further his vision for a generation of American writers who could put the spirit of the young country into words.