The Atlantic: A History

From a presentation given in 1994 by the magazine’s managing editor

I would like to take you back to a certain time in the young life of our republic—a time that was filled with a deep sense of foreboding, a grim expectation that our national life was about to change radically, and a giddy appreciation nonetheless of the possibilities held out by the rapid advance of human knowledge. It was a time that has perhaps more than a little in common with the times we inhabit now.

The year was 1857. Railroads did not yet cross the North American continent, but everyone knew that one day soon they would. The publication of Darwin's Origin of Species was two years away, but loud rumblings in the halls of science had already warned the keepers of religious faith that serious challenges lay ahead. The largest wave of immigration in the nation's history was pouring through the cities of the eastern seaboard. Though he would become President in four years, Abraham Lincoln in 1857 was no more widely known nationally than any former one-term Congressman is today. But the clouds of secession had begun to gather, and few believed that North and South, still joined by weak bonds of vexing compromise, would not soon be torn asunder.

Among educated people throughout the United States the issue of slavery was obviously one of great moment. But so, too, was another matter, and in the baldest terms it might be said to have involved an attempt to define and create a distinctly American voice: to project an American stance, to promote something that might be called the American Idea.

It was this concern that brought a handful of men together, at about three in the afternoon on a bright April day, at Boston's Parker House Hotel. At a moment in our history when New England was America's literary Olympus, the men gathered that afternoon could be said to occupy the summit. They included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and several other gentlemen with three names and impeccable Brahmin breeding—men from the sort of families, as Holmes once noted wryly, that had not been perceptibly affected by the consequences of Adam's fall. By the time these gentlemen had supped their fill, plans for a new magazine were well in hand. As one of the participants wrote to a friend the next day, "The time occupied was longer by about four hours and thirty minutes than I am in the habit of consuming in that kind of occupation, but it was the richest time intellectually that I have ever had." Soon the new magazine acquired an editor, James Russell Lowell, and a name—The Atlantic Monthly.

The first issue of The Atlantic Monthly appeared in November of 1857, and the magazine, which billed itself as a "journal of literature, politics, science, and the arts," was an immediate success. Lowell unswervingly trained his attention on American writers, providing a home both for the younger American talents, whom he cultivated, and for the established ones. The magazine thrived. Within two years the circulation of The Atlantic Monthly had risen above 30,000. The number of paid subscribers today is roughly 460,000; newsstand sales average more than 50,000 copies a month. All told, we estimate, at least 1.2 million people, not including the mail carriers, put their hands on each issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

We would like to think that the magazine our readers are getting today is, at least in its tone—in its stance toward the world—similar to the magazine that James Russell Lowell and his friends first brought forth. The Atlantic Monthly's Declaration of Purpose, which was printed in its first issue, went like this: "In politics, The Atlantic Monthly will be the organ of no party or clique, but will honestly endeavor to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea. It will deal frankly with persons and with parties, endeavoring always to keep in view that moral element which transcends all persons and parties, and which alone makes the basis of a true and lasting prosperity. It will not rank itself with any sect of anties: but with that body of men which is in favor of Freedom, National Progress, and Honor, whether public or private."

One thing that The Atlantic Monthly is not is an antiquarian enterprise, a museum piece. In 1995, we won the prestigious National Magazine Award for Reporting and were nominated for National Magazine Awards in the General Excellence category—the magazine industry's top honor—and in the fiction category. In May of 1993, we won that coveted National Magazine Award for General Excellence. In 1988, we won three National Magazine Awards, more than any magazine had ever won before in a single year. Our staff is young—on average, about 35. Our editorial gaze is fixed not on the past (though we respect it) but on the beauties and horrors, the steps forward and back, of the modern world in all its awesome range.

And yet, as those of us who work at The Atlantic Monthly go about our daily chores, we do find ourselves looking from time to time at where the magazine used to be. The very mien of our offices encourages us to reflect. We have been great savers in our history, and when faced with the choice of framing some piece of paper or throwing it out, we almost always opt for the frame. A walk down our hallways is a pleasant way to pass the time. There is a letter on one wall from Madame Chiang Kai-shek, dated "Nanking, 1937," politely informing our subscription department that the Chiangs would be moving again, and asking could we please have her copy of the magazine sent to their new home in Shanghai. Nowhere in the letter does Madame Chiang mention that the reason for the change of address was that Japanese armies were chasing the Nationalist Chinese government from one provisional capital to another. Elsewhere on the walls are shelves of leather-bound volumes of The Atlantic Monthly dating back to 1857, handwritten drafts of poetry by Robert Frost and Rabindranath Tagore and others, yellowing photographs of society belles and dashing aviators who had some connection with the magazine, now forgotten. We have a letter from Admiral Peary to one of the editors stating that Peary would soon have an article to us about his discovery of the North Pole. The recent disclosure that Peary may in fact have faked that discovery has prompted us to hang his letter in the fact-checking department.

But the most resonant memorabilia on our walls are the formal photographic portraits of the ten past editors, all but one of them now dead, who stare down over our shoulders with sepia glares as we, the quick, stare in turn at the electric-green glare of our word processors. There is Lowell, of course (editor from 1857 to 1861), an ardent abolitionist and a man who in most of his opinions was far ahead of his time, though it was with the greatest reluctance that he was prevailed upon to publish an article that answered with a resounding "yes" the question posed by its title: "Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?" (February, 1859). There is James T. Fields (1861 to 1871), who occupies a place of honor and affection in the heart of every writer for deciding that articles should be paid for when they were accepted rather than when they were printed. There is William Dean Howells (1871 to 1881), the first of the editors to look to the western states for writers. A man given to gambling on the work of unknowns, Howells once gave Bret Harte a check for $10,000 for anything he might produce in the next twelve months, whether the output be great or meagre, or indeed nonexistent.

Down the hall is Ellery Sedgwick (1909 to 1938), who ushered The Atlantic Monthly into the twentieth century, made it a national magazine, and came to terms in its pages with America's new role as a world power. Around the corner from Sedgwick are Edward Weeks (1938 to 1966) and Robert Manning (1966 to 1980), the ninth and tenth editors, who did more than any of the previous ones to make The Atlantic Monthly as much a showcase for journalists and experts on issues of social policy as it was for writers of essays and stories. Weeks died only a short while ago, at the age of ninety-one, and until his death he came into the magazine's offices twice a week to write letters and read manuscripts. It was Weeks who, in 1927, bought "Fifty Grand," the first short story that Ernest Hemingway ever published.

I hadn't known about the connection between Weeks and Hemingway until I read Weeks's obituary, but it was the sort of surprise that I've come by now to expect from The Atlantic Monthly. Since joining the magazine, I have learned of all sorts of things that got their start in life, as it were, between our sheets. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," that canticle of national righteousness, first appeared in our pages, and we paid Julia Ward Howe the princely sum of $4 for it.

The Atlantic Monthly saw the first stories into print of Mark Twain, Henry James, Louise Erdrich, Sue Miller, and Bobbie Ann Mason. It was to The Atlantic Monthly that a little-known writer named James Dickey came when he had something called Deliverance that he wanted to publish. There is distinction, too, in the realm of politics. The Atlantic Monthly was the publisher of important essays by Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, by W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King. King sent a handwritten draft to us, written behind bars, of what would come to be known as his "Letter From Birmingham Jail," which we published in 1963. The Atlantic Monthly is where Felix Frankfurter, in 1927, spoke out in behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti. It was the platform chosen by Al Smith, that same year, to assert the competence of a Catholic to run for national office. It was where William Greider's 1981 interviews with David Stockman were published, interviews that rattled the federal government to the doors of the White House, and prompted President Reagan, in Stockman's words, to take the budget director to the woodshed.

The Atlantic Monthly is where war-reporting in the American press was made into an art, with dispatches from Civil War battlefields by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is where, in the 1870s, Anna Leonowens published the remarkable chronicle of her life as tutor to the son of the King of Siam. It is where John Muir published "The American Forest," which led to passage of the Yosemite National Park Bill, and where Jacob Riis published his first searching portrayals of the American slum. It is where Vannevar Bush and I. I. Rabi and Albert Einstein wrote prophetically about atomic technology in the postwar era; where George F. Kennan serialized his memoirs, and, more recently, his diaries; where Frances FitzGerald probed the agony of Vietnam in an important series of articles beginning in 1966; where Tracy Kidder unraveled the electronic mind of a computer in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Soul of a New Machine.

Despite James Russell Lowell's crotchety reluctance, The Atlantic Monthly has devoted an ocean of ink to women's issues. It is one of the few general-interest publications that attempt not only to cover religion but to engage religion on its own terms: to look beyond social and political issues in organized religion to larger questions of faith and belief. And The Atlantic Monthly, from the beginning, has set aside a place for a special kind of humor, a kind that may be gentle, cerebral, or utterly off-the-wall, but that is rarely broad. Mark Twain once said that he liked writing humor for The Atlantic Monthly because the editors allowed him to be funny without asking him to paint himself in stripes and stand on his head.

Today, the eleventh editor of The Atlantic Monthly, William Whitworth, presides over an editorial staff in Boston of about forty (not including an army of interns), plus two staff correspondents who travel, report, and write, plus another thirty or so writers and artists who are part of our family and derive a portion of their livelihoods from the magazine. In recent years we have sent correspondents to every continent on Earth, except Antarctica. To make sure that what they report is true we maintain a fact-checking department and five dogged checkers who attempt to confirm every fact that is published in the magazine, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential. To make sure that what we publish appears in a beautiful environment—and, indeed, to enhance the impact and extend the meaning of what we publish—we commission the finest illustrators in the United States and Europe to produce original graphic art for The Atlantic Monthly. We have won art awards too numerous to list, and the magazine is established as a leading showcase for illustration and design.

Perhaps now more than ever there is a role and a need for magazines that manage to combine the qualities of general-interest magazines, of political magazines, of intellectual magazines, and of literary magazines.

I mentioned at the outset that there are certain similarities in the tenor of our own times and those of the era when The Atlantic Monthly was founded. The chief similarity is, I think, that the nation was verging then, and is verging now, on a period that will fundamentally re-engrave the template by which we make sense of virtually every aspect of national reality. The beliefs that we as Americans have held since the Second World War about our economic role in the world, about our military commitments and obligations, about what constitutes the national interest, about the relationship of government and business, about what normal family life should be considered to be—all these beliefs and many others are being relentlessly undermined; and rightly so in many cases, because they are beliefs derived from a world that is disappearing.

One of the roles of The Atlantic Monthly is an obligation to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; to write with intelligence and perspective about matters such as marriage, morals, and the mind that are important but aren't necessarily "news"; to shun the bandwagon; and to spread the conclusions of our authors to people who need to know. Let's call a second purpose beauty. Many of life's nobler and more satisfying pursuits are not, as we all know, practical and utilitarian. Many of those pursuits, too, are the ones that define what it means to be human. The Atlantic Monthly is important because it harbors much of the seed corn of our literature and our spirit. For so many writers of fiction and poetry magazines like this one have been the essential way-station between anonymity and a successful public career.

A third purpose of a magazine such as The Atlantic Monthly is to serve, in a way, as the nation's dining-room table. When The Atlantic Monthly was founded the number of people who comprised America's political, mercantile, and intellectual elite was relatively small, inhabiting a few hundred square blocks in a half a dozen cities. There is much not to miss about this world—but there are certain facets of it that are worthy and valuable, that demand a modern correlative. We have grown big and specialized, and few places remain where scientists, politicians, businesspeople, and writers, where members of the military, the clergy, and academe, where Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites, the believer and the unbeliever, can regularly hear one another speak. The Atlantic Monthly is one of those places.

Finally, The Atlantic Monthly and its relatives have a purpose not unlike that of a liberal education—a purpose that, like ours, is difficult to put your finger on, and often slow to show results. Someone once noted that a liberal education, if nothing else, should at least make you a better companion for yourself. Is it too much to hope that, at its best, a good magazine might do the same?