The result is The American Idea: The Best of The Atlantic Monthly, a nearly 700-page cornucopia of essays, short fiction, and poems by an array of authors whose names—from Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway to Martin Luther King—read like a Who’s Who of American history and literature. Taking his cue from the founders’ assertion that they would dedicate their magazine to exploring “The American idea,” Vare organizes the anthology’s selections into groupings centered around issues like race, the environment, and national identity, that have been of perennial concern to this country. Many of the pieces, more than merely reflecting the preoccupations of their time, played roles in actively shaping events—as in John Muir’s “The American Forests,” which helped inspire the creation of the U.S. Forest Service, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling’s “Broken Windows,” which altered the crime-fighting strategies of police departments around the country, and Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think,” which, in 1945, sketched the outlines of what we now recognize as the Internet.
Taken together, the works assembled here tell the story of a magazine that has remained unfailingly broadminded in its outlook, literary in its style, and visionary in its aspirations. Perhaps the quality of these writings may go some way toward explaining why, in a business where (as Vare notes in his introduction) “the average life expectancy of a new magazine is something closer to 150 days,” The Atlantic continues to soldier on, 150 years after its founding.
I spoke with Robert Vare in early October.
| Robert Vare|
As you explain in your introduction, the term "The American Idea," which the magazine's founders said they would dedicate their new magazine to exploring, is a concept they never clearly defined. Can you talk a little bit about how you’ve interpreted the term and used it to shape this collection?
It’s pretty interesting and also a little bewildering to me that they never really bothered to define it in the mission statement. And as far as I know, they never referred to it again in any of their public statements or journals. To me it signified a certain confidence on their part that they thought their readers would instinctively understand what they meant, even though the expression “The American Idea” wasn’t widely in use. This was just a few years before the Civil War—a time when the country was racked by sectional tensions. So issues of national identity were very much on people’s minds.
As I set out to put this book together, I asked, “What might they have meant?—Political democracy? Personal freedom? Social Justice? Economic Opportunity?” I think they were talking about a blend of all those things, because those are all values that are referred to in the Declaration of Independence. In the end, what I think they were saying is that this magazine would concern itself with the profound issues of American national life—with what it means to be American, with what constitutes the national interest, and with the question of America’s proper role in the world.