The Atlantic published its first letter from a reader in 1877—that’s 141 years ago, and 20 years after the magazine was founded. It was about the sculptor William Wetmore Story and the busts he created of Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. Regarding Keats’s sculpture, the anonymous author wrote:
[Mr. Story] has made a singularly interesting and striking bust; the head, turned slightly towards the right shoulder, gives a three quarter view of the face to one standing directly before it; it is idealized just in that degree which one desires for a living memory, not for the likeness of a living person. All the details, the loose coat and open collar, are managed with judgment, skill, and a very agreeable absence of elaboration.
The letter appeared in the January 1877 Atlantic Monthly, under the rubric of “The Contributors’ Club,” the magazine’s first iteration of a letters-to-the-editor page. The section welcomed responses to articles, as well as any new ideas and facts that were “worthy [of] the reader’s consideration”—like Story’s busts, for instance. The editors explained:
In the 14 decades since, The Atlantic has culled letters from stuffed mailboxes and overcrowded inboxes to publish in the magazine and, more recently, online. Like the rest of the publication, the section now known as “The Conversation” has evolved to reflect shifts in aesthetics, technology, and culture. We set out to track that evolution: What do the changes in reader correspondence tell us about history—the magazine’s and our world’s?
Under the guidance of then–editor in chief Edward Weeks, “The Contributors’ Club” was eliminated in 1942 and replaced with “Atlantic Repartee.” Rather than survey any topic, published letters were strictly replies and counterarguments to Atlantic articles, placed near the back of each issue. It was the height of World War II, and Weeks explained that “the magazine ends with that give-and-take which is very characteristic of democracy.”