The Editor Speaks

I have often wished that I could have an annual conference with the Atlantic electorate to speak my hopes for the magazine and to answer questions about our policy, our format, and our plans for the future. The policy of any periodical is at once definite and invisible. Ours for the Atlantic was openly defined by the founders of the magazine in 1857 when they declared their purpose to concentrate “the efforts of the best writers upon literature and politics, under the light of the highest morals.” Note the division of interest: we were to pursue both literature and politics — in what proportion, each editor would determine according to his taste and the atmospheric pressure.

Nine editors in succession — I am the ninth — have done their best to interpret that policy. Each reflected the American world of which he was a sensitive part. If in his ten years’ span, 1871 to 1881, William Dean Howells gave the spotlight to Bret Harte and Mark Twain and published only one article which in any way recognized that new threat in Europe, the rise of Bismarck’s Prussia, it was because to Americans of the 1870’s the development of the West was of far closer import than the doings of a German chancellor. But as our foreign policy under McKinley, T.R., and Woodrow Wilson committed us abroad, so the Atlantic under my three immediate predecessors, Walter Hines Page, Bliss Perry, and Ellery Sedgwick, devoted more and more space to our American responsibilities as a world power. The First World War, the Depression, the rise of Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, and the pressure on democracy of fascism, socialism, and communism — each of these enlarged the conscientiousness and vigilance of the American reader. In fact they changed his habit of reading. The analysis, the curiosity, and the anxiety with which readers approach the printed word today are in sharp contrast to our complacency in the halcyon days when The Virginian and Rebecca of Snnnybrook Farm were the books of most pressing popular interest. This change in reading has quickened the opportunity for the Atlantic, as it has for every magazine of ideas; more people are reading for edification today than ever in our past, and it is natural that our circulation should have risen from the 100,000 which I “inherited” in 1938 to the 175,000 of this year. But today’s readers are exacting: this means that the magazine must take the lead, be accurate, and be right.


An editor lives by his ability to make the right choice. But his selection of manuscripts and his skill in presenting them are not his onlv concern. I have said that in these days of more alert, reading, a magazine of ideas like the Atlantic has a larger opportunity, bo it has. And be it added, the competition for readers has increased and manufacturing costs have steadily risen year by year. The cost of setting a single page of type has doubled since 1939 and my annual bill for the manuscripts we print is more than double what the editor paid in 1930. To meet these costs, the Atlantic has been redesigned. On the soft paper we formerly used, we came off press at the rate of 2500 copies an hour. Today on a rotary press, with heat-set ink and a firmer paper, we are coming off press at 8000 an hour. But speedier printing can only partly offset the increased costs. We must also look for an increased sale, both from subscriptions and on the newsstands. For the choice of a small independent in the chain competition of today is this: to build up the circulation or to raise the price or to find a wealthy uncle. And I don’t like the thought of a subsidized Atlantic. With this in mind, we changed the cover. For a period of eight months, we tested the sale of a special pictorial edition in the three cities of Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and St. Louis. These copies bore on their cover the photograph of the leading contributor, and as the reports came in, wc found they were outselling the regular tabic of contents cover at the rate of three to one, and with the issue which bore the picture of Stassen, the sale jumped to five to one. So in November, 1947, the Atlantic appeared with its first pictorial cover — the Atlantic colophon designed by W. A. Dwiggins. The covers that followed have not been uniformly successful. I have liked some better than others; but the record shows that from that date to this, our newsstand sale has averaged a 50 per cent increase.


The Atlantic is used as supplementary reading in hundreds of schools and colleges. It goes to them at cost; we get our dividend in the stories and poems which come to us from the graduates of those courses when they are out on their own.

No magazine in America has such a record for discovering new writers. “Mister Roberts” made his first appearance in print in the Atlantic; so did the work of Cord Meyer, Jr., Alan Marcus, and Leon Wilson. Each received the Atlantic “First” Award and each lias gone on to write a notable book. In the past twelvemonth our “discoveries” have included Gudger Leiper of Chattanooga, a short-story writer speaking for the South; W. B. Ready, a Cardiff Irishman now living in Minnesota, whose story of an Irish Rugger match, “St. Patrick’s Day in the Afternoon,” was one of the funniest wc have published in years; two Texans, Tom Lea of El Paso and Dillon Anderson of Houston; Louis Auchineloss, whose novelettes of New York are in the Henrv fames tradition; and Richard Bissell, whose sparky, rugged chronicle of a rusty river boat, “The Coat Queen,” won an “I Personally” Award and is the first of a brilliant new series.

We take a special pride in the work of poets whom we can claim as Atlantic discoveries. One such poet is Collister Hutchison of Cleveland, whose subtle, delicately musical poetry is, she writes us, always “about the human spirit and its journey through existence.” Another is the philosopher Donald C. Babcock of the University of New Hampshire, who combines traditional form with powerful imagination and individuality of thought. A third is the young Englishman, R. P. Lister. Mr. Lister’s bizarre and witty verse we like for its quality, and because it inspires dozens of readers to send us retorts in rhyme. Finally there is young Philip Garrigan, who wrote an excellent Atlantic “First” — “Fly, Fly, Little Dove” — a couple of years ago. Mr. Garrigan has sent us a truly remarkable poem called “The Lost Traveler,”in which thought, sound, and imagery are fused to stir the mind and haunt the imagination.


New contributors bring new blood and they are indispensable, but the Reliables maintain the tradition and the continuity. Their reappearance in our columns, more than any other factor, accounts for the extraordinary renewal rate of Atlantic subscribers.

For the past two years Nora Wain has been living in Japan. She is trusted by the people, and with her disarming Quaker spirit she has penetrated farther than most Americans in her understanding of the ancient heritage, the present uncertainty, and the youthful aspiration — the three elements which will shape the future of Japan. Is our influence there as far-reaching and as persuasive as we like to think? For the next eight months she will send us a monthly article of her findings.

Nora Wain in the North Pacific; and in the Land Below the Wind — in North Borneo — Agnes Newton Keith, that valiant Californian, who with her English husband, the Conservator of Forests and Director of Agriculture, had the courage to return to the Orient after three and a half years in a Japanese prison camp — years which she recorded in her poignant book. Three Came Home. Now she is putting the finishing touches to her new book which will be serialized in the Atlantic — a book to be called White Man Returns, in which she discusses the return of the white man to the East, the question of whether or not he will remain, and in what capacity. “The answers,” she says, “arc being written in blood every place except North Borneo today. We may still have the opportunity to give the answer here in civilized terms if we can make up our minds to do so by sacrificing false standards. What I want to do is show these conditions through the people in the book.”


Out of Petrograd and Paris have come a group of unforgettable prose portraits of the Russian musicians who set the new style of our time. They arc written by Nicolas Nabokov, who was educated as a boy in Petrograd, then in the conservatories of Germany, and who wrote and directed his first ballet in the workshop of Diaghilev. His brilliant, friendly portrait of Stravinsky leads this issue. It wall be followed by Diaghilev, Prokofiev, Koussevitzky. In these articles we read of the singing of Chaliapin, the dancing of Pavlova, Karsavina, and Nijinsky, the choreography of Massine, Balanchine, the magnetic, temperamental atmosphere of Russian Paris in which Nicky himself grew up.


To think of England is to remember the places where I have visited our English contributors: the little gatehouse in Abingdon where I had tea with Sir Max Beerbohm during the war; the rose garden in Oxford where I found G. S. Lewis grubbing on his knees; and Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire where I had such a happy stay with Sir Osbert and Edith Sitwell. In the year ahead we shall publish several installments drawn from the fifth and final volume of Sir Osbert’s richly brocaded autobiography, the volume in which he speaks of his older friends, Arnold Bennett, Sir Edmund Gosse, Lytton Strachey, Ronald Firbank, and Wilfred Owen, his congcnials in literature. From Edith Sitwell’s Notebooks I have taken two superb critical studies, the one of King Lear, the other of Macbeth. Lord David Cecil and Isaiah Berlin at Oxford, Geoffrey Household in Dorset, and H. E. Bates in Kent — these are a few of the English Reliables who will turn our way. And let me add Stephen Potter, the author of that laughable little classic, Gamesmanship: The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating. His paper on “Woomanship” will brighten the new year.


We can never expect to export our brand of democracy until we are sure of it at home. George Santayana has just completed a terse, sage study of government for the people, and from it we shall draw his essays on equality, on compromise, and on what he calls “restricted democracy.” The American community is the better for constant watching, and this is just as true of the state of Kentucky, where a Citizens’ Committee, aroused by local ills, went to work with a new broom, as it is of the city of Baltimore, whose slum clearance —the Baltimore Plan —set a new example for American municipalities. We have asked Agnes E. Meyer of Washington to make an unsparing Survey of the plans for Medical Insurance which arc now being pressed for legislative approval. We have asked Lynn White, Jr., President of Mills College, to speak his mind — which he does incisively — on the subject of Educating the Women. Ralph McGill, the Editor of the Atlanta Constitution, will say what he believes about Civil Rights in the South. And Sumner Slichter, long experienced in the stresses and strains between management and labor, will add up the social gains which have been achieved under democracy since 1900. In this country, we take too much for granted.


Our circulation in Europe has climbed back to about what it was before the war, but this is less than what I had hoped for, especially when it is remembered that some 1500 copies of the Atlantic arc going to Americans in Germany. In every capital of the Atlantic Community, from Stockholm all the way around the crescent to Istanbul, there is an increasing interest in the ideas and the driving power of this country. A good many of our readers in the British Isles and in France and I taly have had to discontinue their subscriptions because they have no way of paying us. So when John E. Lawrence, Air Combat Intelligence Officer on Admiral Halsey’s staff and a good friend of mine, told me not long ago that he was sending ten subscriptions of the Atlantic to his friends abroad, it did my heart good.


Even here at home, it is not always easy to get a magazine delivered to the right address and on time. In August of 1948, we placed our fulfillment operation— the cutting of stencils, the mailing of all bills and notifications about renewals — in the hands of a new company at the central point of Marion, Ohio. With their electronic machines operating on a punch-card system, they promised both speed and efficiency but there are bugs in any high-geared and delicate mechanism; it took a little time to shake the bugs out of our stencil operation, and in the process a fraction of Atlantic readers missed their magazines and were irritated by the confusion. I apologized for this whenever I heard of it, and I know from the record that the operation at Marion is now swifter and as humanly accurate as the work vve once carried on by hand in Boston.


I am ending my twenty-fifth year on the editorial staff of the Atlantic and my eleventh as its Editor-in-Chief. I try each month to round up a contents page which will make just as strong an impress on our young readers as it will on those who have been loyal to us for decades. If I can steer the magazine successfully through its hundreth anniversary, start it on its second century, feeling that the writers we have discovered, the books we have helped to build, the ideas we have put in circulation, have contributed to “literature and politics” in a world at peace —then perhaps I can stretch my annual two weeks for fishing into a month.