In the early 1850s, an intrepid young abolitionist and publisher’s clerk named Francis Underwood approached one of the nation’s most famous thinkers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, with an idea. Underwood was in luck: The Transcendentalist poet was taken with the young man’s vision for a “literary and anti-slavery magazine” based in Boston. Emerson had long considered it a pity that New England’s most vibrant intellectual community had no definitive, lasting journal—he named “the measles, the influenza, and the magazine” the three scourges afflicting literary Boston in 1850—and envisioned a publication that would showcase the intellectual pedigree of the “American Scholar” he had explicated in a famous lecture two decades earlier.
On a spring day in 1857, Underwood and his boss, the publisher Moses Phillips, convened a three o’clock meeting at Boston’s Parker House Hotel with Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and a handful of other prominent writers. Within five hours, the magazine that would become The Atlantic Monthly was formally conceived. Wrote Emerson in his diary of the new literary venture: “A journal is an assuming to guide the age—very propre [sic] and necessary to be done, and good news that it shall be so.”
Emerson penned four poems and an essay for the debut issue, published in November 1857, and his frequent contributions thereafter helped forge The Atlantic’s reputation as the preeminent chronicler of the American Idea.
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