On Reading the Atlantic Cheerfully

IT is little more than a year since one of the most genial of Atlantic essayists was lamenting the disappearance of the Gentle Reader. Can it be possible that the Cheerful Reader is disappearing, too? One is loath to believe it; for if the Gentle Reader and the Cheerful Reader are both to vanish, and magazines are to be edited — as Dr. Crothers hinted — for the benefit of the Intelligent Reading Public merely, the world of periodical literature will be a dismal world indeed. Yet if one were to judge from those Letters to the Editor, which the London Times, for instance, prints, and the Atlantic, for another instance, does not print, the quality of cheerfulness is nowadays sadly strained. What streams of sorrowful correspondence are directed to 4 Park Street after each issue of this magazine! And so few of them seem to flow from the pen of the Cheerful Reader! Perhaps the Cheerful Reader is busy earning his living, — too busy to write. It may be that it is only the Cheerless Persons who have leisure to take their pens in hand and “ write to the editor.” To all such unoccupied and melancholy souls the Atlantic hereby offers a Happy New Year — and a few remarks appropriate to the season.

If the Atlantic Monthly were a “repository ; ” if it confined itself to the discussion of Roman antiquities, or the sonnets of Wordsworth, or the planting of the colony of Massachusetts Bay, none but the specialists would concern themselves with the opinions expressed in its pages. But it happens to be particularly interested in this present world; curious about the actual condition of politics and society, of science and commerce, of art and literature. Above all, it is engrossed with the lives of the men and women who are making America what it is and is to be. The Atlantic is fortunate enough to command the services of many writers who have something to say upon these great and perplexing topics of human interest. It is not to be expected that they will agree with one another; perhaps they will not even, in successive articles, agree with themselves. For instance, the Edward M. Shepard who described, in the Atlantic for January, 1898, the struggle for reform in New York city politics, is the same Edward M. Shepard who was the Tammany candidate for mayor in the recent campaign, and who will review that campaign in the next number of the magazine. The Atlantic has not “ gone over to Tammany,” nor, on the other hand, does it believe Mr. Shepard less capable than he was in 1898 of discussing the municipal situation with intelligence and candor. Yet it can hear already the Cheerless Reader mourn.

When Mr. Rollin Lynde Hartt wandered from one state to another, in his series of sociological observations upon different sections of the country, how the letters from the Cheerless Reader swarmed upon his trail ! Some day he will tell the readers of the magazine how it feels to be an honest reporter of things seen, whether in hill towns of New England or mining cities of Montana. But even Mr. Hartt does not know how many Letters to the Editor those acute and highspirited observations caused. Does the Atlantic print a clever woman’s criticism of that useful institution the Kindergarten, straightway there arrive protesting letters from more Kindergartners than it innocently supposed the whole world could contain. When it allowed a distinguished college president to make a casual remark about the unchanging curriculum of Jesuit schools, there came a furious chorus from various Jesuit contemporaries (some of them, it is true, winking cordially, meanwhile, as if to remind one of the Pickwickian flavor of the controversy !) : “ Why is your contemptible publication Anti - Catholic ? ” Alas! only a few months before, when Mr. H. D. Sedgwick, Jr., had given just praise to the Roman Church in certain matters, there was a similar chorus from many Protestant contemporaries, who announced their vociferant grief that the Atlantic had gone over to Rome. Then it had been the turn of the Catholic letter-writers to pose as Lifelong Readers. But, queerly enough, a few months later still, when Mr. Sedgwick made an Italian journey, and described a station master who had unquestionably had a bad dinner, and who was low in his mind and spoke pessimistically of the Pope, behold these same Lifelong Readers terminating their subscriptions, and writing mournfully that they could not longer support such a bitterly sectarian publication as the Atlantic.

A more recent example of the uneven distribution of a sense of humor among Atlantic readers was the commotion caused by Mr. Eugene Wood’s paper on Mrs. Eddy’s literary style. Pathetic as it may seem to announce the fact now, this article was supposed to be humorous ; its examination of some of the foibles of the Foundress was to be interpreted in the spirit of Stevenson’s smiling paper on John Knox and his Relations to Women. But alas ! the able-bodied letter-writers of the Christian Scientist faith did not seem to know their Stevenson ; and to all Earnest Persons in that curious organization the Atlantic hereby expresses its regret that any of Mr. Wood’s sallies should have given pain.

It is probable, however, that sectarians, sectionalists, and partisans of every hue will continue to peruse their Atlantic with sorrow, or at least sufficient sorrow for epistolary purposes. One’s own hobbyhorse gets roughly shouldered to one side, on the broad highway of the world. Where opinions are unfettered and allowed frank expression, some truths will be uttered more wholesome than flattering to one’s private views. A beneficiary of the proposed HannaPayne shipping subsidy measure, for example, — unless he be of more philosophical temper than most beneficiaries of the public, — will not care to read in the Atlantic an article opposing legislation distinctly designed to put money into his pocket. John Doe may like the Atlantic, — Heaven bless him ! — but if he prefer to write his name, like a story title, John Doe, Prohibitionist, or John Doe, Baptist or Anabaptist, Vivisectionist or Anti-Vivisectionist, Suffragist or Anti-Suffragist, he will often discover that the wrong magazine has been sent to his address. If people insist upon regarding themselves primarily, not as human beings, but as members of some organization ending with ist or er or an, then the weekly or monthly organ of their particular faction will furnish them with far more congenial reading than the Atlantic. The Gentle Reader, declares Dr. Crothers in the essay already mentioned, is the reader who “ has no ulterior aims.” Precisely. If your chief purpose in taking a magazine is to find arguments for your favorite “ cause,” you are in a parlous state. You are in danger of evolving from a merely Earnest Person into a Cheerless Person.

The Comic Spirit has whips for such. Not all of them are punished as neatly as that Earnest Southerner who complained of a “ color line ” story in the Atlantic, “ Why can’t you Northerners be decent ? ” only to learn that the author of the story was a native of his own county ; or that Laudator Temporis Acti who lately found fault with the “ silly, ignorant twaddle ” of a certain article in the Contributors’ Club, which, he averred, would never have been printed in the good old days of Mr. Aldrich or Mr. Howells, and which — as the Comic Spirit would have it — was actually written by the faultless pen of Mr. Aldrich himself!

To have no “ ulterior aims ” ! That is a counsel of perfection for reader and editor alike, and, in this season of New Year’s wishes and resolves, the Atlantic confesses that it would like to be thought to have no ulterior aims, except the pleasure and profit of its subscribers. Not one of its genuine Lifelong Readers will accuse it of dilettanteism, of treating the vital topics of the day with indifference. James Russell Lowell, who, in the words of Mr. Scudder’s recent Life,

“ gave the Atlantic a character it has ever since maintained,” was no Gallio. But neither was he a Cheerless Person. It is true that from the day on which he assumed the editorship the magazine has held stanchly to certain tenets ; as, for instance, to take but a single example, the belief that equality of political privileges in America should not be affected by considerations of race or religion. Yet it has given the freedom of its pages to a good many writers who held quite the opposite view. It has been edited for men and women genuinely curious about affairs, politics, literature, human society. It is not preoccupied with the claims of any particular sect or party or philosophy. “ Thought men ” and “ fact men,” theorizers and workers, have alike addressed its readers, provided they had something magazinable to say, and could say it in an interesting fashion. To imagine that the contributors to such a magazine will always agree with the editor, or please all the readers, or indeed any reader in all his moods and opinions and convictions, is to hold a singularly parochial view of periodical literature. It is only your worthy rustic who wants nothing “ in the paper ” which he does not already believe. Unless his political or religious opinions, derived largely from it, are constantly reflected in it, he will — as the saying used to be — “ stop the Tribune ” !

The ideal magazine-reading mood — is it not ? — is that of well-bred people listening to the after - dinner conversation in public which has happily succeeded after-dinner “ oratory.” No matter how varied and attractive the programme of addresses may be, no guest will be thrilled by every speaker. You are perhaps fortunate if you are thrilled at all! But if the speeches are tolerably short, and represent a wide range of opinion, and are cleverly phrased, one may be expected to listen without making himself conspicuous by either protest or applause. No man, perhaps, makes precisely the speech you would like to hear. He may hurt somebody’s feelings, — possibly your own. This may be inevitable, or merely the result of inadvertency; or it may be the fault of the Toastmaster, who ought to have warned the speaker that So-and-So was at the banquet, and that certain things had better be left unsaid. A quicker-witted Toastmaster, for example, might have nudged Mr. Eugene Wood under the table, by way of friendly warning that the exact number of Mrs. Eddy’s marriages was a vexatious theme to certain persons who had purchased dinner tickets, and that in any case it had nothing to do (save as bearing upon that lady’s ripeness of experience) with the subject of her literary style. At that very same dinner — it was last October — a Pennsylvanian laid a large share of the blame for the political degeneracy of his native state upon the Quakers. The Toastmaster had, and continues to have, the gravest doubts as to the soundness of this theory; but as it was honestly held, not discourteously expressed, and was, whether right or wrong, extremely interesting, the Pennsylvanian made his little speech without interruption from the Chair. Since the dinnei’s come but once a month, and the chief features of the programme must be arranged many months beforehand, it is usually impossible to assign a place to speakers who wish to protest against something that has just been said. The Pennsylvania Quakers, however, are defended, this month, by one of their honored leaders, and the Atlantic’s guests will no doubt give him a cheerful hearing.

For the magazine means to spread each month a hospitable board, and to draw around it many men of many minds. Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Washington have both sat there, and we hope that both men will honor the Atlantic many times again, by contributing their quota to its wit and wisdom. People who do not like good company, who prefer to dine exclusively with Cheerless Persons of Their Own Sort, are not under the slightest obligation to attend. But to all its readers, the Cheerless as well as the Cheerful, the Atlantic wishes a Happy New Year! Our “mahogany tree ” has to be made longer, month by month, to accommodate the new guests that wish to mingle with the old. To add more leaves to such an infinitely extensible dining table is, of course, a pleasure. Yet it will do no harm to sit closer, too, with an amiable disposition to be pleased, if possible, with one’s fellow guests, and to make all needful allowance for a most fallible Toastmaster.

B. P.