Arts & Letters

This is the seventh in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary.

September 1904
By Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of The Atlantic's founders and a regular contributor. Some twenty years after his death, the magazine ran an assortment of writings from his journals and letters, including the essay excerpted here, in which he paid tribute to the genius of William Shakespeare.

Genius is the consoler of our mortal condition, and Shakespeare taught us that the little world of the heart is vaster, deeper, and richer than the spaces of astronomy …

There are periods fruitful of great men; others, barren, or, as the world is always equal to itself, periods when the heat is latent—others when it is given out. They are like the great wine years … His birth marked a great wine year, when wonderful grapes ripened in the Vintage of God. When Shakespeare and Galileo were born within a few months of each other, and Cervantes was his exact contemporary, and, in short space, before and after, Montaigne, Bacon, Spenser, Raleigh, and Jonson. Yet Shakespeare, not by any inferiority of theirs, but simply by his colossal proportions, dwarfs the geniuses of Elizabeth as easily as the wits of Anne, or the poor slipshod troubadours of King René …

The Pilgrims came to Plymouth in 1620. The plays of Shakespeare were not published until three years later. Had they been published earlier, our forefathers, or the most poetical among them, might have stayed at home to read them.

Volume 94, No. 563, pp. 365–367

November 1907
By William Dean Howells

When William Dean Howells arrived in Boston in 1860 as a twenty-three-year-old self-educated journalist from Ohio, he was thrilled to meet Atlantic founders James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James T. Fields. Six years later he became an assistant editor at the magazine, and by 1871 he had risen to editor-in-chief. Twenty-six years after retiring from that position, he looked back nostalgically upon the satisfactions of editing such a magazine.

The magazine was already established in its traditions when I came to it, and when I left it fifteen years later it seemed to me that if I had done any good it was little more than to fix it more firmly in them. During the nine years of its existence before my time it had the best that the greatest writers of New England could give it. First of these were, of course, Longfellow, Emerson, Hawthorne, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, Mrs. Stowe, and Bryant, and after them followed a long line of gifted people...

The rejection of a manuscript often left a pang, but the acceptable manuscript, especially from an unknown hand, brought a glow of joy which richly compensated me for all I suffered from the others. To feel the touch never felt before, to be the first to find the planet unimagined in the illimitable heaven of art, to be in at the dawn of a new talent, with the light that seems to mantle the written page: who would not be an editor, for such a privilege?

Volume 100, No. 5, pp. 594–606

July 1942
By Virginia Woolf

A year after Virginia Woolf’s death by her own hand, The Atlantic published an essay in which she reflected on the inability of intellectuals to manage their own lives.

There can be no two opinions as to what a highbrow is. He is the man or woman of thoroughbred intelligence who rides his mind at a gallop across country in pursuit of an idea. That is why I have always been so proud to be called highbrow. That is why, if I could be more of a highbrow I would. I honour and respect highbrows. Some of my relations have been highbrows; and some, but by no means all, of my friends. To be a highbrow, a complete and representative highbrow, a highbrow like Shakespeare, Dickens, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Charlotte Brontë, Scott, Jane Austen, Flaubert, Hardy or Henry James—to name a few highbrows from the same profession chosen at random—is of course beyond the wildest dreams of my imagination. And, though I would cheerfully lay myself down in the dust and kiss the print of their feet, no person of sense will deny that this passionate preoccupation of theirs—riding across country in pursuit of ideas—often leads to disaster. Undoubtedly, they come fearful croppers. Take Shelley—what a mess he made of his life! And Byron, getting into bed with first one woman and then with another and dying in the mud at Missolonghi. Look at Keats, loving poetry and Fanny Brawne so intemperately that he pined and died of consumption at the age of twenty-six. Charlotte Brontë again—I have been assured on good authority that Charlotte Brontë was, with the possible exception of Emily, the worst governess in the British Isles … But surely these instances are enough—I need not further labour the point that highbrows, for some reason or another, are wholly incapable of dealing successfully with what is called real life.

Volume 170, No. 1, pp. 43–47

June 1953
By Albert Camus

Four years before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Albert Camus expressed reservations about the distorting effects of fame on a writer’s work.

Before being known, a writer in our time must accept having a small number of readers. A healthy condition. But from the moment his reputation begins to boom, when he becomes material for a newspaper article, then he has every prospect of becoming known to a great number of people who will never read him. Then he will be known, not for what he is, but according to the image created by a hurried but infallible reporter. The image will be false or ridiculous—or both—as the case may be. The fact is that to make a name in literature today, it is not absolutely necessary to write books. It is enough to be said to have written one which the evening papers have reviewed, and on which one may henceforth sleep. But the man who actually aspires to writing real books must resign himself either to remaining anonymous or to accepting the gift of a name not his own.

Volume 191, No. 6, pp. 72–73

January 1957
BY W. H. Auden

In 1957, the eminent poet W. H. Auden articulated the challenge of learning to write good poetry, and of continuing to produce it over a lifetime.

If poetry were in great public demand so that there were overworked professional poets, I can imagine a system under which an established poet would take on a small number of apprentices who would begin by changing his blotting paper, advance to typing his manuscripts, and end up by ghost-writing poems for him which he was too busy to start or finish. The apprentices might really learn something...

In fact, of course, a would-be poet serves his apprenticeship in a library. This has its advantages. Though the Master is deaf and dumb and gives neither instruction nor criticism, the apprentice can choose any Master he likes, living or dead, the Master is available at any hour of the day or night, lessons are all for free, and his passionate admiration of his Master will ensure that he work hard to please him...

We must assume that our apprentice does succeed in becoming a poet, that, sooner or later, a day arrives when his Censor is able to say truthfully and for the first time: “All the words are right, and all are yours.”

His thrill at hearing this does not last long, however, for a moment later comes the thought: “Will it ever happen again?” Whatever his future life as a wage-earner, a citizen, a family man may be, to the end of his days his life as a poet will be without anticipation. He will never be able to say: “Tomorrow I will write a poem and, thanks to my training and experience, I already know I shall do a good job.” In the eyes of others a man is a poet if he has written one good poem. In his own he is only a poet at the moment when he is making his last revision to a new poem. The moment before, he was still only a potential poet: the moment after, he is a man who has ceased to write poetry, perhaps for ever.

Volume 199, No. 1, pp. 44–52