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Changing with the Times

From the time James's first published short story appeared in The Atlantic ("The Story of a Year," March 1865), William Dean Howells and subsequent Atlantic editors championed James's literary talents. This support was critical for James, as his difficult fiction demanded more attention of readers than the popular illustrated periodicals of the day were willing to court. Several of James's novels were serialized in The Atlantic—including The Portrait of a Lady, the first installment of which appeared in November, 1880. Howells, generally a heavy-handed editor, restrained himself from making substantial changes to James's work. On one occasion, however, the author's brother, the psychologist William James, identified unconscious sexual symbolisms "so shocking as to make the 'reader's flesh creep'" and asked Howells to remove them.

In 1907, upon his retirement from Atlantic editorship, Howells wrote an essay in which he congratulated himself for his role in catapulting James to stardom:

My desert in valuing him is so great that I can freely confess the fact that two of his stories and one of his criticisms appeared in the magazine some years before my time, though perhaps not with the band of music with which I welcomed every one afterwards.

I do not know whether it was to try me on the story, or the story on me, that my dear chief (who was capable of either subtlety) gave me the fourth of Mr. James's contributions to read in the manuscript; but I was equal to either test, and returned it with the jubilant verdict, "Yes, and as many more as you can get from the author." He was then writing also for other magazines; after that I did my best to keep him for the Atlantic, and there was but one of his many and many contributions about which we differed. This was promptly printed elsewhere; but though I remember it very well, I will not name it, for we might differ about it still, and I would not make the render privy to a quarrel where all should be peace.

James continued to write for the magazine after Howells retired in 1881. By October 1899, however, The Atlantic's readership had shifted so drastically that editor Bliss Perry had to send James a carefully worded note, advising the author that some of his work was "too subtle and delicate" for the broad new audience:

More than half of [the magazine's] circulation—which has been growing rapidly of late—is now west of the Mississippi, and there are more subscribers in Wisconsin than in any state except Massachusetts. I confess that I am not very certain about the temper of this audience, but I know it differs markedly from the old Atlantic circle of readers. The nuances of "Maude Evelyn" [a recently accepted story by James]—to take a current illustration—will be quite lost upon a great many of our subscribers.... I think it will be well for you to bear these new conditions in mind when you are mulling over the subjects and possible modes of treatment of the papers which you may from time to time do for us.