Harvard College and the Atlantic

READERS of this magazine have already had their attention called to Professor Barrett Wendell’s noteworthy History of Literature in America. The book contains an entire chapter devoted to the Atlantic Monthly, and from another chapter, The Decline of New England, we quote a suggestive passage commenting upon the intimate relation which once existed between Harvard College and the magazine : —

“The men who started the North American Review, the later men who for a while expressed themselves in the Dial, and later still the men whose work was finally concentrated in the Atlantic Monthly had one point in common, which they shared with the orators, the scholars, and the Unitarians who flourished along with them. Almost all these men either had been educated at Harvard College, or else had early come under the influences of that oldest seat of American learning. How deeply coherent the Harvard spirit has always been may be felt by whoever will read that long series of occasional poems in which Dr. Holmes celebrated the history of the college and of the class of ’29. Until Mr. Fields became editor of the Atlantic Monthly, then, the chief vehicles of literary expression in New England were controlled by men in whom this Harvard tradition was inbred. Though not a college man, Mr. Fields was in close and intimate sympathy with the college men of his day. The gentlemen who succeeded him in control of the Atlantic Monthly are still living, are eminent in contemporary letters, and are worthily respected and admired by whoever knows them, either personally or as authors. Neither of them, however, had chanced to have much to do with Harvard, nor had either, during his days of editorship, instinctive sympathy with Harvard character. For years, then, the New England youth who came to Harvard with literary aspiration found themselves at odds with the conscientious and admirable men of letters who controlled the chief organ of New England literature. The Atlantic Monthly ceased to understand the constituency from which its older contributors had been drawn ; and Harvard College ceased perceptibly to affect the literature of New England.”

Mr. Howells, who succeeded Mr. Fields in the editorship of the Atlantic, has reviewed Professor Wendell’s book in the April number of the North American Review. Our readers will be interested in his version of the familiar story of the founding of the Atlantic, and his impressions as to its relations with Harvard : —

“ That periodical was imagined by Francis Underwood, the professional literary adviser of a successful publishing house, who had no conception of it as the avenue of Harvardized genius to the American public, or even as an outlet to the culture of New England, but who had an abiding faith in Lowell as the fittest man in the world to direct such a periodical. Lowell, as the first editor, divined that Holmes could do more than any man living to ‘ float the Atlantic,’ and at his strong entreaty the Autocrat papers were written, and the Atlantic was floated. Lowell, if any one, characterized the magazine. He gave it literary conscience and human responsibility, and the best that his successive successors could do was to keep it true to his conception of its mission. Fields, whose generous love of letters and wide intelligence Professor Wendell does not overrate, could do no more than this, and he did no more. He left the Atlantic what he found it, and what it has since remained with marvelous constancy to the original impulse from Lowell’s great nature and liberal mind. It is ludicrously mistaken to suppose that after Fields left the magazine it ceased to be in sympathy with Harvard. Fields had no special affinity with Harvard, and the young Harvard men — it is sufficient to name Mr. John Fiske alone — began writing for his successor in greater number than before, in proportion to their fitness or their willingness ; if there was any change, it was because Harvard was becoming less literary, and the country at large more literary. The good things began to come from the West and the South and the middle states, and the editors took the good things wherever they came from.”