The Story of a Magazine

Veteran editor Robert Vare talks about why he loves magazine journalism, what makes The Atlantic distinctive, and the challenges of whittling down a "best of" collection of Atlantic writings

book cover

The American Idea: The Best of The Atlantic Monthly [Click the title
to buy this book]

by Robert Vare
688 pages

From Rolling Stone to the New Yorker to The New York Times Magazine, veteran journalist Robert Vare has served as an editor at some of this country’s most respected publications, making a name for himself as a nurturer of talent and a champion of serious magazine journalism. Most recently he has come to roost at The Atlantic, where, since 2000, he has drawn to the magazine such writers as Mark Bowden, Walter Kirn, and Jeffrey Rosen, and ushered a slew of memorable narratives into print.

In 2006, taking note of The Atlantic’s impending 150th anniversary, Vare began to formulate the idea of assembling an anniversary anthology that would pay tribute to the magazine’s venerable legacy and showcase some of its most important contributions to American thought and culture. He spent the following year and a half immersing himself in The Atlantic’s archives, reading up on Atlantic history, and—with the help of a number of current and former Atlantic staff members (especially former fact checker Daniel Smith)—researching the stories behind some of The Atlantic’s most intriguing writings.

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.

—Sage Stossel

Robert Vare
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.

Do you think they meant it in a literary sense as well—in the same spirit that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The American Scholar” argued for the importance of America’s developing its own literature on its own soil?

Absolutely. Just as Emerson’s essay, which Holmes called our “intellectual Declaration of Independence,” made a case for a truly indigenous literature, distinct from the old European ways of writing and thinking, the Atlantic’s founders were saying, “There is such a thing as American society, and there is such a thing as American culture, and we need to concern ourselves with them.” They wanted the magazine to have a voice that was distinctly American.

As you looked back over the magazine’s many years of publication, what kinds of trends did you discern, in terms of the magazine’s preoccupations, strengths, and  weaknesses during different eras?

From the archives:

Flashbacks: "Howells Rediscovered"
A collection of articles by and about The Atlantic's third editor, William Dean Howells, celebrates his contributions to the magazine and American literature.

Basically, I have a theory about magazines—that they fundamentally reflect the sensibilities of their editors-in-chief, and that the great magazines have always reflected the curiosities, interests, and idiosyncrasies of these very strong-minded editors like Harold Ross at The New Yorker, Harold Hayes at Esquire, and Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone. The magazine becomes very much a personal laboratory for these editors’ interests and enthusiasms. I wasn’t able to do an in-depth study of what each editor brought to the magazine, because I didn’t have time, but it was clear that James Russell Lowell brought a tremendous passion for good writing—as well as a cause. The anti-slavery cause meant everything to him, and that made the first years of The Atlantic incredibly exciting. A little later there was William Dean Howells, who brought Mark Twain and Henry James into the magazine and set a standard for fiction writing. I was also very impressed by Edward Weeks, who was editor in the mid-20th century. He obviously loved writers, both fiction and non-fiction. His memoirs are full of glorious anecdotes about them. I think that appreciation of great writers and great writing really comes through in the kinds of pieces the magazine published during his tenure. And I am knocked out by the early years of the Bill Whitworth era. I didn’t realize until I started putting this collection together how many truly brilliant pieces he published in the first five years he was here.

Which pieces are you thinking of?

It was a glorious, glorious era.  In just one issue he had both Tracy Kidder’s “Soul of a New Machine” [published in two installments in the July and August, 1981 issues] and V.S. Naipaul’s  “Among the Believers.”  He ran five parts of Robert Caro’s first installment of the Lyndon Johnson biography, and “What’s It About?” –a brilliant piece by Thomas Powers on the Cold War. He also ran a ground-breaking two-part article by Nicholas Lemann on the origins of the underclass, and a classic of American Road literature, William Least Heat-Moon’s “Blue Highways.” Extraordinary stuff. There were so many in maybe five years. It was just an incredible period. Really an explosion of great journalism.

Oh—and I should also mention that great piece by Wilson and Kelling, “Broken Windows,” which introduced the concept of community policing and was so influential in changing the way police departments around the country fight crime. And the piece that was supposedly something of an embarrassment to Whitworth because he thought it was too gossipy—the William Greider piece on David Stockman’s growing disillusionment with Reaganomics. It was the first time that I know of that any cabinet officer had been so openly critical of his boss’s policies while still serving in his administration.

Bill Whitworth was squeamish about that one?

That’s what I heard. The piece got tremendous attention in the national media, and Bill apparently felt that maybe it was getting attention for the wrong reasons—not because a great idea was being advanced, but because one of Reagan’s cabinet officers was saying negative things about him. From what I understand, Bill Whitworth was slightly vexed about it, and about all the attention that it got—which shows you what an unusual editor he was.

Sage's cat, Sophie, contemplates the American idea

How did you make your selections for the anthology? Did you start with a pool of favorites that you were determined to include?

I started by getting suggestions from people who were really well versed in the archives—from you and from Cullen Murphy and from past editors like Bill Whitworth and Robert Manning, and from the long-time fiction editor, Mike Curtis. So I did start to develop a pool. But very quickly it became way too large – almost 200 pieces.  I knew that I wouldn’t have room for all of them, so it became a balancing act. I wanted to have fiction and poetry, as well as articles and essays. And I wanted to have pieces that fit the different thematic categories that began to emerge. I also very much wanted to have certain writers represented. How can you have an Atlantic anthology without at least one piece by Mark Twain, or Ralph Waldo Emerson, or Nathaniel Hawthorne? So I read all the contributions by those must-have writers, and then I picked the ones not just that I liked best but that seemed to me to have an inarguable historical significance and undeniable appeal to contemporary readers.

Did you discover any new favorites that you hadn’t been familiar with before?

Very much so. One would have to be Emerson’s eulogy for his good friend Thoreau. I didn’t know about that piece, believe it or not.  And I am in love with that essay as a piece of portraiture! I think it serves as a model for the modern profile. Emerson obviously knew Thoreau very well over the course of decades. And it’s so modern in the way he talks about him, not only in terms of his virtues, but also in terms of his failings.  There’s just something very moving about his portrait.

Another piece I wasn’t familiar with before was Nora Johnson’s “The Captivity of Marriage.” I was completely charmed by the wit and elegance of the writing, and by the fact that it talked so frankly about the frustrations that many women had but rarely expressed about family life. This was a pioneering piece of feminist writing that came out in The Atlantic two full years before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

Another hidden gem that I had been unaware of was James Mann’s “Who Was Deep Throat?”, which is just a fantastically prophetic piece. Thirteen years before we learned who Deep Throat really was, Mann made the case that it had to be the FBI’s number three man, W. Mark Felt. And of course, he turned out to be right about what had been one of journalism’s biggest mysteries.

Were there any pieces you were sorry to have to leave out for space reasons or because they didn’t fit into one of the thematic groupings?

One piece that I didn’t have room for, but that I wish I had was “One Woman’s Abortion,” by “Mrs. X.”   I was surprised and delighted to come across that one. Here it was 1965, a time when abortion was illegal, and there’s this very thoughtful woman talking in the most matter-of-fact and yet poignant terms about her abortion in The Atlantic. It was very powerful. I do cite her in the introduction because she allowed me to reveal her name for the first time.

What led you to organize the book thematically instead of chronologically?

That was something I knew I wanted to do right from the beginning.  I had made a study of other magazine anthologies, and I was surprised by how many of them adhere to a strict chronological structure.  A lot of them just feature one piece from each year, or present groups of articles by decade, and I thought that seemed like one of the least interesting possible approaches to organizing the material.

Organizing the material by themes on the other hand – that is, by subject, genres, and ideas that have loomed large for the magazine over the years – seemed to me a much more dynamic way of doing it. It became a kind of narrative device for telling the story of the magazine and the parallel story of the country that it’s been covering for the last century-and-a-half. And by giving readers a chance to immerse themselves in one subject at a time, it gives them an opportunity to see the differences between what a writer like Frederick Douglass had to say about race in 1866 versus what Martin Luther King had to say about it a hundred years later. Or between what Henry Demarest Lloyd had to say about John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil company in 1881 versus what Eric Schlosser had to say about McDonald’s in 2001. That was the approach I had in mind from the beginning.  I hope it works, and that it makes for a more interesting experience for the reader.

You give each article in the collection a lot of context with a lengthy headnote. Did any of the backstories you turned up in the course of researching these especially surprise you?

I should say right off that these headnotes were an enormous undertaking, and I had a tremendous amount of help with the research and writing of them from a team of former and current Atlantic staffers. I had originally envisioned maybe five or six sentences each, but when I realized that some of these pieces had such amazing stories behind them, some of them grew to more than 500 words. I would have to say that in every single case I learned something interesting in working on a headnote. Take the 1927 publication of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Fifty Grand.” That story had been rejected by six other very well respected magazines before The Atlantic finally took it on. Hemingway later referred to this as the turning point for his career in America.

There’s also the fascinating backstory for Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He wrote the piece in response to reading a newspaper advertisement that had been signed by seven ministers, urging him to abandon his nonviolent but disruptive demonstrations and to go slow and work through the courts. He was so infuriated by this that he began to scribble a response right on the newspaper itself. And when he ran out of space there, he borrowed scraps of paper, and when he ran out of that, he even wrote part of it on toilet paper. He smuggled all these papers out through people who were visiting him in his cell. They were subsequently reassembled and typed in a motel a few blocks away by his aides. I thought that was just a fantastic story, given the profound impact the essay had on the civil-rights movement.

I’ve always wondered about this—was The Atlantic the first publication to print the letter, or was it one of several outlets for it?

The Atlantic was one of several. But it was the most prominent one—and it was from there that it started to get picked up in a lot of newspapers around the country and in Sunday sermons. People had read it in The Atlantic, and that seems to have made a difference.

You're known as something of a crusader on behalf of long-form narrative journalism; in 2000 you established a nonfiction writer-in-residence program at the University of Chicago, and The Atlantic explicitly hired you with a view to ushering more long-form nonfiction into its pages. To what extent did your passion for that kind of writing inform the selections you made for this volume?

I decided early on that I wanted an entire section of the book to be dedicated to narrative non-fiction, which I’ve called “Behind the Scenes.” It includes classic narratives like Tracy Kidder’s “Soul of a New Machine” and E. B. White’s “Death of a Pig.” As with so many of the sections, though, there were space constraints, so a lot of great things had to be left out.

I can see how it would be hard to keep a sampler of narrative non-fiction short. Those pieces tend to be pretty long and diffuse, and they don’t come straight to a pithy little point.

Exactly. That’s one of the reasons they sometimes have trouble finding homes in magazines. That was a difficult section to put together. I knew I wanted it to be representative of different styles of the genre.  And I knew I wanted to showcase the whole range of narrative non-fiction going back to the early days of the magazine. The best thing I found from the early years was the Hawthorne piece, “Chiefly About War Matters,” where he takes a trip from his home in Concord, Massachusetts to Washington and sees the Civil War first-hand. That was a wonderful piece of picaresque writing.

I love how he complains right in the body of the piece about how the editors made him take out certain snide comments he wanted to make about Lincoln.

Right! Though one of the things we did for the anthology was to restore the unkind remarks about Lincoln’s ungainliness and uncouthness. Hawthorne must have been one of the most difficult writers to work with.  He was such a dyspeptic, bilious character. But what a prose-stylist! His use of footnotes… Everybody today talks about the great footnote pyrotechnics of David Foster Wallace, but Hawthorne was creating fireworks with footnotes 130-odd years ago. I wanted to showcase that. I love the satirical asides in that piece.

Did you always have an interest in narrative journalism or is that something that developed later in your career?

Throughout my career as an editor I’ve worked on all kinds of pieces—essays, first-person pieces, investigative pieces, humor… I’ve enjoyed all of them. But about ten or fifteen years ago I started to realize that the pieces that meant the most to me are the ones that tell a true story using the techniques of fiction. This to me is the highest form of non-fiction writing, because it marries the art of journalism with the art of storytelling. Pieces that do that are the ones that have really stuck with me. I worried at one point in the late 1990s that magazines were beginning to abandon the narrative form, partly because those pieces are expensive to produce, and partly because there was an assumption that readers no longer had the interest or the patience to read these long narrative accounts. I was somewhat alarmed about that at the time, but I think the situation has changed.  When Michael Kelly came to The Atlantic in early 2000, he was both a great practitioner of narrative non-fiction and a devotee. He very much wanted to put ambitious narrative writing back in the magazine. It had been there before, but it was in a period of eclipse, and he wanted to reinvigorate it. Then, of course, along came 9/11 and William Langewiesche’s astonishing work on the World Trade Center story. And also his great narrative piece about the crash of EgyptAir. That really established The Atlantic again as a home for narrative non-fiction.

What is it that appeals to you about working in magazine journalism? Has it been a deliberate choice on your part to stick primarily with that medium over the years?

Yes, I loved the immediacy of newspapers, but I disliked the superficiality and the haste with which you have to operate in the newspaper world. After five years of working in newspapers I got frustrated. Magazines give you a chance to get into a subject in-depth while still being relevant and topical and in step with the news. You have the luxury of more time, which means that you usually end up with better reporting and better writing – and pieces with more staying power.

What about book publishing?

I’ve never worked as an editor in the book industry, but I’ve had a couple opportunities.  I have to say, I was put off, though, by the sheer volume of stuff that book editors have to process. From talking to writers, and people in the book business, I get the impression that most book editors don’t have time to really edit their books. I didn’t want to be in a situation where I felt I would have to cut corners in the editing process because I believe in that process. I think of editing as being part of a collaboration, and I didn’t want to have to give short shrift to things that would be important to me.

You’ve worked at a number of different magazines over the years—Rolling Stone, the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and now, of course, The Atlantic. Can you talk a little bit about some of the differences among them—in terms of working environment, atmosphere, and the distinct sense each has of what it’s setting out to accomplish?

They do have different atmospheres. Rolling Stone when I was there was a strangely corporate place, actually. It was in the mid-eighties—about 20 years after it was founded. People weren’t smoking dope and getting high on ecstasy; it was a group of serious people coming to work well-dressed and working hard every day. It was quiet. It’s not like they were booming Led Zeppelin all day.  It definitely wasn’t like the old days when the magazine was in a warehouse in San Francisco. But I had a great time there. The advertising climate at the time was tremendous, so we had space to run great, long, 15- to 20,000-word narrative pieces. As for the The Times, it was a much smaller place than I expected. And there was much more interaction between the newspaper and the magazine than I thought there would be. The editors of the newspaper were very involved. The thing that was wonderful about it was that if you had something in the magazine, and especially if you had something on the cover, it was seen by so many people. It was sort of electrifying. Obviously the atmosphere is different in all these places.  When I came to The Atlantic, there were so many people who had been there for so many years and it was just a lovely atmosphere and I immediately felt very comfortable.  It was a very, very serious place, but not stiff or cold in any way, and I just felt very comfortable there.

Were any of your preconceptions about The Atlantic dispelled or confirmed as you got to know the magazine from the inside?

I guess I had imagined that there were a lot more people involved in the magazine than there actually were.  I was surprised by how small the staff was. But I definitely liked the atmosphere. And I especially liked working with my old friend and colleague from the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine, Michael Kelly, and with Cullen Murphy, whose editorial skills and personal charms I immediately responded to.

Do you see The Atlantic as one of several interchangeable examples of a certain type of highbrow magazine? Or are there things about it that you consider to be distinctive?

To me The Atlantic is very distinctive in its ambition, its outlook, and its tone. I’ve thought a lot about what accounts for the magazine’s longevity, and I think one reason definitely has to do with its amazing genealogical tree. It was founded by some of the towering figures of American intellectual life—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell. Just that fact means that a high standard was set, giving this magazine’s successors something to aspire to. And you know, although it’s hard to top a star-studded cast like that, I do think it set the tone for the magazine and gave it an ambition that a lot of other magazines don’t have.

Another important factor is that most of the people who were responsible for the creation of The Atlantic were writers, and it’s very unusual for writers to start a magazine. Most magazines are started by editors or businesspeople or publishers or investors. For writers to get together and start a magazine was very important. It established The Atlantic as a writer’s magazine—a place that provides essayists and journalists with the space to make their arguments in-depth and to tell their stories in all their complexity, as well as the time to research and develop them. That’s a rare and lovely thing, and I think Atlantic writers appreciate that. They also appreciate that when they write for The Atlantic they’re writing for an audience that’s serious and well-educated, and that those readers are going to pay attention to the articles they write. Surveys show that readers of most magazines spend less than twenty minutes reading each issue.  But readers of The Atlantic generally spend at least an hour to an hour-and-a-half reading every issue. That’s a significant amount of time to devote to reading a magazine. Writers welcome making a connection with an audience like that.

The publishing industry is in a period of pretty dramatic change right now, with audiences becoming more fragmented and a lot of publications making a move toward shorter, more up-to-the-minute commentary and reporting. Do you have thoughts on how The Atlantic’s core standards and principles might best be adapted to this new climate?

Well, I’m hoping that The Atlantic’s longstanding ambition and its tremendous range of interests, and the importance it puts on good writing will all continue to be things that are valued at the magazine, because there are precious few publications left with these values. It’s a very challenging time for the printed word, and there aren’t many places anymore where writers can express themselves fully and in their own voices. It’s important.  This kind of magazine is a national treasure, and we should do everything we can to keep it going in the spirit it has been for the last 150 years.