Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Harris & Ewing / Library of Congress

The first jazz recordings were made a century ago, in late February 1917. Just five years later, Carl Engel reported in our August 1922 issue, “Jazz is upon us everywhere.” The music was spreading into venues across the United States and Europe, and Engel, for one, was not a fan. He found the dancing inspired by “this delirious caterwauling” particularly offensive: “silly, lewd gyrations … the release of tension in a witless, neurotic stratum of society” that were “not precisely setting an example of modesty and grace.” Still, he later acknowledged, “jazz—good jazz—is not devoid of musical possibilities, not wanting in musical merit,” even if the “prurient panders of the musical fraternity” and “deplorable dances of our day” were beyond defense.

Theodore Maynard, on the other hand, thought modest and restrained dancing was ill-suited to the new music. In “Jazz,” from our January 1922 issue, he describes a cabaret scene in which wealthy patrons rise to dance to a jazz song. Maynard sees none of the “silly, lewd gyrations” that Engel condemned. Instead, he puzzles over the lack of passion and enthusiasm in the dancers, so out of touch with his own reaction to the music:

                                                           Gay
   They were not. They embraced without dismay,
Lovers who showed an awful lack of awe.

Then, as I sat and drank my wine apart,
   I pondered on this new religion, which
   Lay heavily on the face of the rich,
Who, occupied with ritual, never smiled—
Because I heard, within my quiet heart,
Happiness laughing like a little child.

You can read the full poem here.

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Interior view of a slave pen, showing the doors of cells where the slaves were held before being sold
Slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia Library of Congress

This year I’ve spent my working hours in a distant American past, reading contemporaneous accounts of abolitionism, civil war, and Reconstruction in the deepest reaches of our archives.

Over the last few months this position has sometimes felt disjointed from the constant stream of news coming out of Congress and the White House. But this week the two eras collided violently when efforts to take down Confederate monuments were met with protests by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Confederate generals became the subject of articles, protests, and presidential flim flam, and Frederick Douglass reemerged on our homepage as a powerful political voice.

So, though it was written more than 150 years ago, William Cullen Bryant’s “The Death of Slavery” feels relevant today. In the poem, published in our July 1866 issue, Bryant hails the abolitionist victory at the close of the Civil War by addressing his words to the institution of slavery itself—that “great Wrong,” that “scourge,” finally at the end of its “cruel reign.”

Like The Atlantic’s founders, Bryant was fiercely opposed to slavery. He repeatedly gave voice to his abolitionism in the editorials he penned as the longtime editor of the New York Evening Post, and was an emphatic supporter of the anti-slavery Free-Soil and Republican Parties and particularly of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign. The grand moral language and triumphant tone of “The Death of Slavery” evince the fervent outrage with which he viewed America’s “peculiar institution,” and the equally fervent exultation he felt when it finally ended.

The last stanza of the poem, in which Bryant addresses the physical remnants of slavery, feels particularly resonant at the end of this long and difficult week. It reads:

I see the better years that hasten by
   Carry thee back into that shadowy past,
   Where, in the dusty spaces, void and vast,
The graves of those whom thou hast murdered lie.
          The slave-pen, through whose door
          Thy victims pass no more,
Is there, and there shall the grim block remain
   At which the slave was sold; while at thy feet
Scourges and engines of restraint and pain
   Moulder and rust by thine eternal seat.
There, ’mid the symbols that proclaim thy crimes,
Dwell thou, a warning to the coming times.

You can read the rest of the poem here, and find more verse about the Civil War in our archives.

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Rob Stothard / Getty

On August 21, the Great American Eclipse will sweep the country from coast to coast, covering the land below in darkness for more than two minutes. About 12 million people live within the path of totality, and according to Martin Knopp, an administrator at the Federal Highway Administration, some 2 to 7 million who live within a day’s drive are expected to travel to that narrow zone this coming Monday.

Will you be watching? Whether you’re planning to be in the path of totality, or just tuning in from your home state, we want to see how you’re viewing the eclipse that day. In addition to the special coverage of the eclipse on our site, we’ll be sharing readers’ best photos from eclipse celebrations and viewing parties across the U.S. in our Instagram story. To submit yours, email the photos to atlanticeclipse@gmail.com or send them to @theatlantic via Instagram Direct Message. Please provide the location, the story behind the photo, and the largest file size you have. (Terms and Conditions here.)

Vertical photos that show not only the eclipse, but also where you’re viewing it from and who’s watching with you, are ideal. Have fun with it! And don’t forget to follow us here and tap our icon in the Instagram app on Monday, August 21, to view the story.

Victor Fraile / Reuters

It’s August again, and here in D.C., where we’ve had a cool and cloudy week, it’s already starting to feel a bit like fall.

It’s a time of year that Helen Hunt Jackson (under the diminutive pen name “H. H.”), captured in our pages almost a century and a half ago. In “August,” from our August 1876 issue, she describes the loveliness, and ephemerality, of a summer nearing its end:

Silence again. The glorious symphony
Hath need of pause and interval of peace.
Some subtle signal bids all sweet sounds cease,
Save hum of insects’ aimless industry.
Pathetic, summer seeks by blazonry
Of color to conceal her swift decrease.

You can read the full poem here.  

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Following this item on Donald Trump’s (ill-advised) criticism of Richard Blumenthal’s military record, and this exchange of reader mail, several more responses. I’m not planning an open-ended forum of everyone’s Vietnam-era memories, but I think these offer a valuable range of perspectives. More ahead.

From a recent veteran:

It is fascinating for me—a Millennial veteran, whose service was like that of Al Gore’s—to see the feedback you received from boomers on the Vietnam-era decisions that were made.

As a brief extra bit of background I can draw a straight line from 9/11 to my decision to serve. But I also made my decision as a response to the “Support Our Troops” marches in March 2003 regarding a theater I was morally ambiguous about (but did not oppose at the time). I can also draw a straight line from my service to my cynicism with the U.S. military and neo-con policy.

Your readers’ inputs show how much has changed in the era of the all-volunteer military. The Vietnam War is something still hotly debated, whereas I don’t know how many folks will talk seriously about Iraq—it’s so esoteric to most Americans. On the flip side, having played sports at an overseas base myself, the experience of the baseball player blows my mind a bit. It’s nice to know the military has changed for the better in some ways.

There were two other points from your first reader that I find interesting. The first is this:

“By the mid- to late-sixties, it was clear that Vietnam was a crime, a mistake, and an accidental catastrophe. Was this position morally ambiguous?”

Yes, I still think the Vietnam War was and is a morally ambiguous moment in American history. Better thinkers than I have written to defend America's involvement, so I won’t re-hash their arguments. However, I also have the utmost respect for those who opposed the war. MLK and Muhammad Ali displayed a courage that just did not need to exist in the era of Iraq with an all volunteer military.

But that brings up the other fascinating thing to me—the quote of yours about being unable to affect national policy. The crazy thing is, y’all did affect national policy! The Vietnam War ended. That’s how democracy should work—an anti-war movement shook up a major political party and pulled us out of a fight we weren’t losing because our involvement was not in line with what they believed our country should stand for.

Again—that hasn’t happened in today’s wars. They are endless, nobody has enough skin in the game to put on large-scale protests, and the DOD has largely insulated the average civilian from exposure to the wars rather than openly debate whether this is how American power should be used. They are talking of an Afghan viceroy in the White House!?

You’ve written about how the Iraq War was far less defensible than Vietnam, but our run-up to war was an unstoppable year-long process. There was no Gulf of Tonkin incident, just a highly covered invasion and then 14 years of mission creep around the world because people are scared of terrorism.

I don’t want to sound nostalgic for Vietnam-era civil-military relations, nor do I intend to frame Vietnam as a positive counterpoint to our current situation. More Americans died then, returning service members had a far less positive experience than I did, and your baseball contributor highlights the waste that came in a large army of draftees. But I do think there is much we can and should learn from Vietnam and the past 16 years as we wrestle with how best to apply American power in the current and future, and how best to check American power with American democracy.

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Demonstrators protest the Vietnam War during a speech by Vice President Hubert Humphrey in Chicago on March 15, 1966. Larry Stoddard / AP

Late last night I did an item arguing that Donald Trump represented a classic “chickenhawk” figure from the Vietnam era—someone who didn’t complain about the war, as long as it didn’t inconvenience him personally. With that background behind him, I claimed, it was all the more unseemly for Trump to criticize what anyone else had done in that era, from the long-time prisoner of war John McCain to the one-time Marine Corps reserve member Richard Blumenthal.

Responses have come in on all sides of this debate. I’ll revive this thread, started after my “Chickenhawk Nation” article two years ago, because the arguments are in fact connected to those earlier discussions. (By the way, where did the contemporary term “chickenhawk” come from, to denote people who are all in favor of wars that someone else will fight? The first use I’m aware of was by my friend Michael Kinsley, then in his role as TRB columnist for The New Republic, in the mid-1980s.)

Here are two dispatches from different perspectives. First, from someone who runs a tech company on the East coast, and who thinks I was too dismissive of the “Consistent Non-Warriors,” like Bill Clinton:

You describe those who opposed the Vietnam War, and who refused to participate in it, dismissively: “At least they’re consistent.” Part of the Great Chickenhawk Consensus, which you have so ably documented, holds that we must all atone for the sin of being right, that we ought to pretend that the War in Vietnam was just or that its end was clearly ordained.

[Quoting me:]The brutal fact that it was easier, for opponents of the war, to keep themselves from being involved than to change the whole nation’s policy left this group with its moral ambiguity.

I admire the modesty that underlies your description of those with principled opposition to participating in the War in Vietnam here, but I think it’s questionable both on the historical politics and in its contemporary echoes.

By the mid- to late-sixties, it was clear that Vietnam was a crime, a mistake, and an accidental catastrophe. Was this position morally ambiguous? I thought then, and to a considerable extent still believe, that the morally treacherous position was the one held by those who knew the war was wrong, but chose to aid it anyway. Those were the returning veterans we scorned, and (though most people today pretend otherwise) they deserved scorn: They went off to kill, they knew better, and in choosing to aid the war they made it harder for their compatriots to end it.

The moral position of the “Warriors” is scarcely better. Some, of course, were ignorant. Some were misled. Thoughtful professionals knew, or should have known, that the war was a crime and a criminal waste; those who allowed themselves to be used to extend and prolong the war deserve scant commendation.

After the Civil War, the US allowed itself to believe things it knew to be untrue for the sake of restoring the union. We always knew there was no Noble Cause, but we pretended otherwise. We knew that Lee and his fellows had committed treason, but it seemed a time to be magnanimous. A nation was patched together, though at great cost—a cost we continue to pay in remission of every last drop of blood drawn with the lash.

We’ve tried the same trick with the memory of Vietnam, hoping to find unity by ceding a merely rhetorical victory to the losers. That unity was always elusive, and after Trump it may well be forever broken.

For what it’s worth, my use of “at least they’re consistent” was meant to be wry shorthand, rather than dismissive. After all, this is the group in which I classified myself. As for the moral ambiguities, they centered on reluctance to face who was being drafted and sent off to fight, as the better-educated, better-connected young men were deferred, but at this point that is thoroughly plowed terrain.

***

Next, from a reader who was playing professional baseball, in the minor leagues, as the war ramped up:

I was playing ball in the ’60s and, through the team, got onto a “special” National Guard unit.  I did have to go to Basic Training, but did not have to attend meetings.  Until, of course, the whole matter became political and the Guard became sensitive …  

My [baseball] career was going nowhere because of injuries, was moving every few months to different parts of the country, and I had zero interest in “participating” in the hopelessly juvenile antics of the guard. A knee surgery accorded me the opportunity to exit that organization gracefully.

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Emily Jan / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

After almost 160 years, we’re running our first-ever Instagram contest. The September 2017 issue will be in mailboxes and on newsstands within the next week, and we want to see where you’re reading your Atlantic magazine.

It’s easy to enter: Snap a picture of you (and your friends! Family! Pets! Get as creative as you’d like with it) reading your copy of the September issue, and share it on Instagram throughout the month of August, using this hashtag: #ReadingMyAtlantic. We’ll select a winner in early September—the prize includes a one-year digital subscription, a limited-edition Woolly-Mammoth tote bag, and a limited-edition poster of the “My President Was Black” cover, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The winner’s post will also be shared from our account, so be sure to give us a follow.

We can’t wait to see where you’re taking your copy of The Atlantic—and the places The Atlantic might be taking you.

Emily Jan / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Full official contest rules below:

Emily Jan / The Atlantic

This November marks 160 years since The Atlantic’s first issue went to press. We hope you’ll celebrate with us—and in turn, we want to celebrate you, the readers who have stuck with us through the decades. Did you follow our coverage of the space race, the civil rights movement, the Watergate scandal? Did you read James Fallows’s essay on living with a computer in print, before you began to use a computer yourself? Did you get your book recommendations from Edward Weeks, the Peripatetic Reviewer, or submit a short story to the Atlantic Firsts contest for emerging writers? Can you remember when each issue came with the table of contents on the cover, or picture some of the first illustrations ever featured in our pages back in the ’40s?

If so, we want to hear from you: For a special mention in our 160th-anniversary issue, we’re searching for the person who’s been subscribing to The Atlantic for the greatest number of years. If you think that’s you or someone you know, please fill out this form to tell us how long you’ve been subscribing, and a little bit about your Atlantic story.

Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Jon Emont reported from Indonesia this week on one prophet’s stymied attempts to kickstart a new religion called Millah Abraham. The story is interesting not only for the specific challenges it details—the prophet is imprisoned and his followers face government persecution—but also as a test case for a much broader question: What does it take to successfully create, sustain, and grow a religion?

As Emont notes, our world today is dominated by Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam—the same four faiths that dominated the globe a millennium ago. New religions crop up all the time, but the followings they gain are vanishingly small compared to the followings of the “big four.” Why is that?

Is it because we find it harder to believe in miracles if we’re told they happened 20 years ago as opposed to 2,000 years ago—because, as one expert put it, “the mist of time lends its authenticity”? Or is it because in 2017 fewer governments see it as their job to push a particular religion, resulting in a lack of state sponsorship? Or maybe it’s because people in the market for a religious belief system now have access to a huge array of options, and such a glut makes it harder for any one religion to distinguish itself from its competitors?

One thing’s certain, as Emont writes: “Any new religion, to be successful, would have to present millions of believers with an offer they couldn’t refuse.”

We want to know what that offer looks like for you.

Have you participated in a new religious movement or group? What about it was most powerful for you? What did it allow you to experience that doesn’t get enough credit or attention among more established religious groups?

Let us know in this form. And in case you’re wondering what counts as “new”: Experts are divided on that, but we’re interested in hearing about experiences with movements that have sprung up in the past 100 years. Whether you’re part of a group that’s strikingly distinct from existing religions (like readers of The Urantia Book) or a group that remixes an existing religion in fresh ways (like the Neo Hasids who attend Chulent parties in New York), we want to hear about your alternative religious communities—particularly if they’re ones we may never have encountered before.