This month The Atlantic turns 158 years old, an occasion that had me revisiting some of my favorite artifacts from the magazine’s past. Digging through the archives of The New York Times yesterday morning, I came across the newspaper’s first review of a brand new Atlantic Monthly, on November 2, 1857. It contains praise (“marked literary ability,” “very neat and prepossessing to the eye”) and criticism (“lack of freshness”). There are several great lines worth lingering on. I particularly liked this one: “A periodical, like a horse or a steamer, must have sufficient time allowed it to show its strength.” This one, too: “The Atlantic certainly makes no pretensions to the character of an oracle of the Newness.” But the lengthy review is mostly characterized by guessing at the authorship of various pieces, which ran without bylines in the first issue.
The Times review is a bit difficult to read in its original form, so I’ve transcribed the original review and added paragraph breaks for clarity. I’ve also added links, when possible, to the pieces mentioned, or to other stories that provide more information about them. (And if you want to read the November 1857 issue of The Atlantic yourself, it’s digitized here.)
The first number of a new magazine which comes before the public with the pretensions of the Atlantic Monthly is entitled to something more than the more notice which necessity limits us to bestow upon the long-established individuals of the periodical tribe. The Atlantic Monthly is intended to take the position which Putnam’s Monthly attempted to occupy—the laudable one of furnishing an original American magazine of the highest literary order at the same price of the magazines which are in part composed of matter borrowed from foreign sources.
The plan of the Atlantic differs somewhat from Putnam’s, as among its corps of contributors are the names of several English writers; but it follows the example of that work and the English magazines, in not publishing the name of its editor, or the authorship of its individual articles. In its externals the Atlantic has the ordinary magazineish aspect, and the cover is embellished with a head of old Governor Winthrop, which has rather too much the appearance of the head of old George Buchanan on the cover of Blackwood.
The leading article is a very odd one for the first number of a new American monthly, being “Personal Recollections of Douglas Jerrold,” evidently of trans-Atlantic origin, and, we find the name James Hannay—the author of Singleton Fontenoy, a novel, and a sea-sketch called Biscuits and Grog—among the list of English contributors, we presume it is from the pen of that writer. It is a light, gossiping article about Jerrold, but it contains nothing which has not been many times published since his death. Jerrold was very far from being the kind of man who would have found himself at home among the class whom the Atlantic is supposed to represent, and the prominent position awarded to him in the first number is, therefore, the more surprising.
Following the reminiscences of Jerrold is a scholarly, but most pleasantly written article, entitled, “Florentine Mosaics,” giving traditionary history of Florence, and accounts of its famous works of art; the conclusion is to be given in the next number. Judging from the style of the “Florentine Mosaics,” we presume it to be by Mr. Motley, the author of Morton’s Hope, and the History of the Dutch Republic. “Santa Filomena,” the next article, is a poem in honor of Florence Nightingale, which we can hardly be wrong in attributing to Longfellow. “Sally Parson’s Duty,” is a Yankee story of revolutionary times, perhaps by the author of Neighbor Jackwood.
“The Manchester Exhibition,” is an admirable piece of art-criticism, and is much more readable than the subject would lead one to suppose. Four poems follow, all of them evidently by Emerson, the philosopher of Concord, and one of them, entitled “Brahma,” is the most puzzling piece of verse we have encountered in many a day. It might be reversed, like some of Turner’s pictures—turned upside down, without any detriment to its coherence of beauty. Those who find no meaning in it by reading it in the ordinary manner may discover some by commencing at the bottom and reading upwards.
“The Autocrat of the Breakfast-table, or Every Man his own Boswell,” is superlatively good, and of the regular magazine flavor. Judging from the poems and poetry in the "Autocrat," we should unhesitatingly assign it to Oliver Wendell Holmes. The readers of The Atlantic will be very glad to discover that the “Autocrat” intends to continue his piquant lucubrations.
“Illusions” is a prose article, which the disciples of Emerson will not fail to attribute to their Gamaliel. “The Gift of Tritemius” is a noble poem, so much like Whittier that it may be his; but if not, the Atlantic may pride itself on having a poet so much like him. The “Mourning Veil,” which follows this, is a pretty little melancholy story by Mrs. Stowe, or at least it has the marks of her style. “Pendlam, a Modern Reformer,” is a rather clever burlesque, but melancholy in tone, on the flighty school of reformers.
“British India” is an extended newspaper leader on a very hackneyed subject. “Akin by Marriage” is the commencement of what promises to be a very long-winded story of New England life. The “Origin of Didactic Poetry” is a piece of humor in verse, good enough to be from the pen of the author of A Fable for Critics, whether it be or not; the “Financial Flurry” is an essay on the present panic, which some inconsiderate readers may regard as flippant, for there are few people who can see the fun of a joke at their own expense. But, under a light and sportive style, the writer of this article, which is the only one in the Magazine that we should say had a New-York origin, tells some grave truths that are none the less valuable for being told in a lively manner.
Then comes the inevitable “Sonnet,” which is succeeded by a page of editorial small talk, under the hackneyed title of “The Round Table,” and then the literary notices, and a few pages about music, both of which are well done, and exhibit marks of especial ability.
It will be seen that the new Magazine is made up after a fashion that has been in vogue since the days of Sylvanus Urban. The articles, except the stories, are all of marked literary ability, and are evidently from the pens of mature and practiced writers. The Atlantic certainly makes no pretensions to the character of an oracle of the Newness. It is sufficiently moderate in tone, and quiet enough to have been published in Richmond or Charleston. Though the writers are nearly all New Englanders, the careful exclusion from its pages of anything that savors a Boston notion cannot fail to excite attention.
Though the talent of the writers in the Atlantic is indisputable, there is a lack of freshness in the topics discussed. Much less ability bestowed upon subjects which have a passing interest would give much greater value to a magazine. But this has been the fault of all American monthlies. They have been filled with purely literary articles, which, to command attention, must be of superlative merit. However, it would be wrong to form a judgment of a work like the Atlantic Monthly from the first number.
A periodical, like a horse or a steamer, must have sufficient time allowed it to show its strength. It will not do to judge of it from its first start. If it exhibits the ability and contains nothing offensive at first, we may safely augur well for its continuance.
There is more good poetry in the first number of the Atlantic than Blackwood contains in a score of numbers, and the general aspect of the work is very neat and prepossessing to the eye. In assigning the authorship of the various articles, we have been guided by internal evidence and the aid furnished by the list of contributors on the cover of the magazine. There is no impropriety in guessing at the authors of particular essays, when the publishers give us a list of their retainers in a lump.