The Atlantic
Writers Project

An Emblem of Poseidon

In 1857, a collective of thinkers started a magazine they hoped might help their young, divided country toward a better future. For the better part of two centuries, The Atlantic has remained committed to the belief that ideas can change the world. Here, contemporary Atlantic writers reflect on 25 voices from the archives who helped shape the publication—and the nation.

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

By Adrienne LaFrance

Little Women is the story for which Louisa May Alcott is most famous, but it captures just a sliver of her literary charisma. Alcott also wrote poetry, pulp fiction, and fairy stories, all with the same vivacity that made her magnetic to those who knew her. She is among the most beloved writers in the world, and certainly among the most famous ever to have graced the pages of this magazine. Her superstardom seems in retrospect to have been fated. In reality, however, it was not so straightforward.

Alcott spent her childhood surrounded by the transcendentalists of Concord, Massachusetts. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a founder of The Atlantic, was a dear friend and mentor to her, and she credited him for shaping her literary sensibility since childhood. As a teenager, she wrote him love letters. They are lost to history; Alcott burned them before she could send them. Still, on her frequent moonlit walks she would pick wildflowers and leave them on his doorstep.

In 1860, three years after this magazine’s founding, Alcott—then 27—had her first Atlantic short story published, “Love and Self-Love,” followed by “A Modern Cinderella: Or, the Little Old Shoe” a few months later. When war arrived, in April 1861, Alcott was discouraged that she could not serve in the Union Army. She was a fierce abolitionist and wanted to do her part. As Harriet Reisen wrote in her biography of Alcott, she spent the fall of 1861 feeling stuck—“wrote, read, sewed and wanted something to do.” She had tried teaching and despised it, which only intensified her will to write.

The following year, she submitted a manuscript to The Atlantic called “How I Went Out to Service,” a fictionalized account of her weird, short-lived experience as a domestic servant. The editor at the time, James T. Fields, was less interested in Alcott’s work than the magazine’s founding editor, James Russell Lowell, had been, and he rejected the essay. He advised her: “Stick to your teaching; you can’t write,” and enclosed an unsolicited loan of $40 so she could set up a schoolhouse.

Naturally, Alcott was furious.

“I won’t teach. I can write, and I’ll prove it,” she responded, according to her description of the confrontation in her journal. To friends she complained about The Atlantic being a “slow coach magazine.” Meanwhile, other publications took notice of her talent. She started publishing pulp fiction—tales of “blood and thunder,” as she put it—in numerous popular monthlies and weeklies. Her stories were fantastical, violent, and adventuresome. Wolves, damsels in distress, and pirates leaped off the page. Her career took off too.

By late 1862, still feeling restless, Alcott volunteered to serve as a nurse in the Union Army. She deployed to Washington, D.C., where she was stationed at a Georgetown hotel that had been turned into a hospital. The work was grueling. She dressed horrific wounds, cared for men as they died, comforted them as their limbs were amputated without ether. She was, as she wrote in her diary, “five hundred miles from home, alone, among strangers, doing painful duties all day long, and leading a life of constant excitement in this great house, surrounded by three or four hundred men in all stages of suffering, disease and death.” But, she added, “though often homesick, heart sick, and worn out, I like it.” After six weeks, Alcott fell gravely ill. She was diagnosed with typhoid and treated with mercury, which some scholars speculate may have caused the delirium and hallucinations she suffered. Months passed before she recovered.

Later, reflecting on the trauma of war and her proximity to it, she wrote, “I shall never regret going … for the worth of life lies in the experiences which fill it, and this is one which cannot be forgotten.” Alcott processed what she’d been through the only way she knew how—by writing about it. In 1863, an abolitionist newspaper called The Boston Commonwealth published Alcott’s “Hospital Sketches,” a fictionalized account of her time in Georgetown. It was a sensation. Fields, the Atlantic editor, then sent word that he’d love to publish her after all.

That fall, The Atlantic paid Alcott $10 to publish “Thoreau’s Flute,” a poem she’d written after Henry David Thoreau’s death. The poem was published anonymously (customary for poetry in The Atlantic at the time) and people assumed it had been written by Thoreau’s friend Emerson. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow even stopped by the Alcott house with a copy of The Atlantic, raving about Emerson’s latest. As Longfellow began to read the poem aloud to Alcott’s father, he interrupted to reveal with great pride that Louisa was in fact the author. Soon after, The Atlantic published “The Brothers,” a story set in a wartime hospital and narrated by a Civil War nurse.

In 1868, Alcott published Little Women. It was a hit from the start, and went on to become one of the most successful books of all time. It has never been out of print. In 1871, nearly a decade after Fields first rejected her, Alcott finally did the thing she must have been waiting so long to do. She wrote him a brief note and enclosed $40:

Dear Mr. Fields,
Once upon a time you lent me forty dollars, kindly saying that I might return them when I made a “pot of gold.” As the miracle has been unexpectedly wrought I wish to fulfill my part of the bargain, & herewith repay my debt with many thanks.
L. M. Alcott

Alcott’s body of work is among the most important in American letters, but her greatest contribution may be in her imagination for what was possible. “I’d rather be a free spinster,” Alcott once wrote, “and paddle my own canoe.” Nora Ephron, Susan Sontag, Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, Ursula Le Guin, and too many other great writers to name have cited Alcott as a foundational influence. Her exuberance, her independence, and her acclaim told generations of writers that they, too, could write. They, too, could live.

Vannevar Bush

Vannevar Bush

By Ian Bogost

Dwight D. Eisenhower popularized the idea of the military-industrial complex, but Vannevar Bush built it. Over decades, the engineer turned bureaucrat amassed enormous political influence connecting scientific innovation to military application via government funding.

Eventually, he would try to atone. The month before a nearly 10,000-pound uranium-fission bomb leveled Hiroshima, The Atlantic published “As We May Think,” Bush’s wide-ranging vision of how knowledge might be shared in the future—for ends other than warfare. The essay’s ideas became the direct precursors to the internet and its connected computers.

Bush was born before the turn of the 20th century in an industrial suburb of Boston. His family was of modest means but persistent spirit; his father, a pastor, had worked his way through Tufts by delivering coal to student dorms. The young Vannevar was a tinkerer, a predilection that turned into a profession. He became an electrical engineer at a time when that profession was concerned with electricity rather than electronics. He tested transformers for General Electric. He ran a radio station. Some of his earliest inventions operated electrical plumbing for transmitters and receivers. Later, an analog computer followed, one that could perform complex calculations.

Wealth and influence came with Bush’s business and research success, and he used his connections to accumulate more power. The details of this ascent are boring; Bush was, in essence, a gray-suit ladder climber. He fell into the leadership of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s precursor. When World War II broke out, Bush, sensing opportunity, persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to authorize the creation of the National Defense Research Committee, a scientific-research office for warfare applications. From that perch, he established the Office of Scientific Research and Development, a massively well-funded organization that managed, among other things, the Manhattan Project.

Bush’s influence on computer technology was cemented long before “As We May Think.” But the 1945 Atlantic essay delved deeper into a lesson Bush considered—or at least, hoped to retrospectively justify as—the most important accomplishment of his military-industrial career: Sharing information between people and among organizations can drive rapid innovation.

“As We May Think” imagines a spectacular future along those lines—one in which all knowledge might be connected to any other knowledge, and retrieved on a moment’s notice. And to which new knowledge might be easily added, too, using tools that would simplify and automate recording and storage. Bush never really got over his love of analog, electrical, and mechanical devices, and his vision seems positively steampunk from today’s perspective: a walnut-sized forehead camera with a shutter cord running down a man’s sleeve to his palm; a “supersecretary” that transforms sound waves into typewriter-key presses; sheafs of microfilm comprising billions of books, perhaps all human knowledge, as if stacked up inside a moving van.

At the center of it all, Bush imagined a “mechanized private file and library.” He called this device a “memex,” and imagined that it would house all of an individual’s books, records, and communications. Today, that notion probably conjures the image of a laptop or smartphone. But Bush conceived of the memex as a piece of furniture—“an ordinary desk.” The memex user would purchase or borrow materials on microfilm, which would be projected on screens inset atop the desk’s surface. More than one book or other source could be seen at once, and the user could draw connections between the knowledge they contained—by literally drawing connections via a stylus (or by means of the desk’s mechanical buttons and levers). The connections themselves became knowledge in the process, sortable for later retrieval, archival, or sharing.

Bush named this process of knowledge construction “trail building,” a pretty obvious precursor to later spatial metaphors of digital knowledge: the information superhighway, surfing the web. He even foresaw information technology as the business-process facilitator it very much became; one of his examples amounts to an early take on a stock-, inventory-, and financials-management system for a department store.

As if to drive Bush’s point about knowledge trails home, it is possible to draw a direct line from “As We May Think” to consumer computing and the internet. In 1945, a 20-year-old Navy technician stationed in the Philippines named Douglas Engelbart picked up a copy of the article. In 1968, inspired in part by the memex vision, he unveiled a networked computer with a mouse, windowed displays, video conferencing, and collaborative editing—innovations that wouldn’t mature for decades more. At about the same time, Ted Nelson, a counterculture visionary of the ’60s, adapted Bush’s trails into linked hypertext, a concept he developed in 1965. In the ’80s, a computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee, influenced by Bush and Nelson, simplified hypertext writing and publishing into the World Wide Web.

In his introduction to “As We May Think,” Edward A. Weeks, The Atlantic’s editor at the time, wrote that “Dr. Bush calls for a new relationship between thinking man and the sum of our knowledge.” It was an accurate portrayal of Bush’s aspiration, but one that also hid some of the darker assumptions of his vision. For one, “a thinking man” was assumed to be male, for what other actor would pursue knowledge-making in the first place? The knowledge in question was also of a particular kind: that from the world of letters, recorded in books and other respectable forms, rather than obtained through experience or captured in more vulgar form. Even the memex, as illustrated in reprints of “As We May Think,” looked like the desk of a 1940s manager—a hulking metal thing meant to be housed in an office by a tidily dressed professional.

By the time Bush published his essay in 1945, his attitude about the nuclear age he had helped found was beginning to falter. He hoped that the lessons he’d learned in knowledge sharing for war could be applied to peace. For a long time, that seemed possible, even likely. Engelbart’s examples included collaborative writing and grocery lists. Nelson dreamed of a universal publishing platform for anyone—and one that would pay royalties too. Berners-Lee wanted to give away the web for anyone’s benefit.

Some of those aspirations became reality—to a point, and for a time. Bush’s influence declined after the war. “As We May Think” suggested that ambition toward good, rising from the ashes of war, both absolves one of wrongdoing and avoids more destruction in the process. But the military-industrial complex only grew after Bush thought about how we might think beyond it. The Cold War reconnected scientific advancement to national security; the internet itself was one of its subsequent inventions, built to protect military command in the case of nuclear catastrophe.

The fusion of the memex and the internet—carried out via computers descended from the ones Engelbart prototyped on networks such as the one Berners-Lee designed—has indeed reaped some of the benefits Bush foresaw. More knowledge is accessible to more people more rapidly than ever. But then, much of that “knowledge” isn’t deserving of the name. Sifting through the noise to find signal has become even more difficult than it was when knowledge was hidden away in books. At its worst, disinformation has fueled conflicts, hot as they were under Bush’s reign. Cyberwar—combat carried out by means of the information systems Bush’s intellectual progeny invented—is the successor to the nuclear war he also designed and then atoned for in these pages. Computers were born at war and couldn’t escape war’s shadow. Perhaps they never will.

An Emblem of Poseidon

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Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler

By Gal Beckerman

Raymond Chandler’s December 1944 Atlantic essay, “The Simple Art of Murder” is remembered as a classic of literary criticism—the moment when one of the English language’s foremost mystery writers demanded more of his fellow practitioners, that they take their craft more seriously, and elevate their genre in the process. It was also something else: a delicious and relentless hatchet job.

Chandler dismissed a whole generation of British detective fiction, which included Agatha Christie and A. A. Milne, in a phrase: “The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers,” he wrote. These books weren’t realistic, he argued, and their authors were not approaching their characters or plots with actual humans in mind. The hero of this essay, the redeemer of the genre, is Dashiell Hammett, Chandler’s contemporary, whom he praised for breathing life into his stories, giving murder, he wrote, “back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”

We remember Chandler today for having helped birth the hard-boiled detective—that mainstay of fiction, fedora cocked on his head, cigarette dangling, heart silently bleeding. But as this and other essays show, he was also a polemicist who was not afraid to take a fierce stand. When he ended up in Hollywood as a screenwriter, he poured his hatred of the entire industry and the compromises it demanded of creative people into “Writers in Hollywood,” an essay for The Atlantic’s November 1945 issue. In another article, “Ten Per Cent of Your Life,” also in The Atlantic, from 1952, Chandler railed against literary agents and the cut they take of a writer’s income: “Where the money is, there will the jackals gather, and where the jackals gather something usually dies.”

The man with this caustic spirit was born in Chicago in 1888 and spent much of his rough-and-tumble youth in Nebraska and then Ireland and England, where he and his mother moved after Chandler’s alcoholic father left them. He tried to follow a traditional British path toward respectability—first-class schooling, a clerkship in the British Admiralty—but what would become a lifelong restlessness kicked in, and by 1912, he was back in the United States and headed to California to make his fortunes as a journalist.

Newspapers didn’t captivate him for long, and Chandler continued to be peripatetic for many years, fighting with a Canadian regiment in Europe during World War I, nearly getting killed in France. He tried to be a poet, worked as an accountant for an oil company, drank too much. When he was fired from that job in 1932 at the age of 44, he tried to clean himself up and turned seriously to writing. What he was most drawn to were tales about detectives—Hammett was already a hero. He published his first story in the pulpy magazine Black Mask the following year.

Chandler had finally found his calling, and after a few years of perfecting his stories, and building the character who would become Philip Marlowe, he published The Big Sleep in 1939, achieving immediate success. A string of Marlowe novels followed, about one a year, including The Lady in the Lake and Farewell, My Lovely.

Soon Hollywood came calling, and in 1943, Paramount paired Chandler with Billy Wilder on the adaptation of James M. Cain’s noir hit Double Indemnity. The men couldn’t stand each other, but the film was a success, earning Chandler an Oscar nomination—and though he’d never work with Wilder again, he would continue to try and make it in Hollywood for the next four years despite growing more and more bitter.

The world of the movies was a poor fit for Chandler. He came to disdain everything to do with it. When The Atlantic sent him to cover the Oscars in 1948, he offered this assessment of the whole art form: “In a novel you can still say what you like, and the stage is free almost to the point of obscenity, but the motion picture made in Hollywood, if it is to create art at all, must do so within such strangling limitations of subject and treatment that it is a blind wonder it ever achieves any distinction beyond the purely mechanical slickness of a glass and chromium bathroom.”

By the early 1950s, Chandler had retreated to San Diego, mostly taking care of his ailing wife, Cissy, and then after she died, turning more and more to drinking. There was one more Marlowe novel in 1953, into which the writer poured all of his regrets and sadness, The Long Goodbye, but his creative energies were by then sapped by depression and alcoholism. In 1959, he died of pneumonia.

Chandler took writing seriously, and he infused this sense of purpose and rigor into a genre that he knew was often dismissed as frivolous. In a thorny 1945 letter to his Atlantic editor, it’s this that he’s most proud of, having taken, he wrote, a “cheap, shoddy, and utterly lost kind of writing, and have made of it something that intellectuals claw each other about.”

He also made it clear in that letter that the commitment to this kind of work—the characters and plots he was able to refine—is what kept him coming back again and again to the magazine, despite a rejection from which he was just then smarting: “I do not write for you for money or for prestige, but for love, the strange lingering love of a world wherein men may think in cool subtleties and talk in the language of almost forgotten cultures. I like that world.”

Charles Chesnutt

Charles Chesnutt

By Imani Perry

Charles Waddell Chesnutt was a product of the one-drop rule. He was born in Ohio in 1858, with pale skin and straight hair, to two free African Americans from Fayetteville, North Carolina. After the Civil War, when Chesnutt was 8 years old, his family returned to North Carolina.

Chesnutt’s coming-of-age coincided with the Reconstruction period, those brief years after the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, when African Americans exercised civil and political rights in southern states. By age 14, he was working as a teacher in the community of freed people in North Carolina. As he entered adulthood, however, the federal government retreated from the South, leading to the horrific period known as “Redemption.” Jim Crow was established through a combination of law and violence, restoring a white-supremacist order to the region.

In response, Chesnutt moved to New York in 1883 and eventually settled with his wife and children in Cleveland. He was trained as a stenographer and lawyer, rare achievements for Black men of the period. However, the practice of law was elusive for African Americans, who were deemed unfit for intellectual pursuits. And, as with other Black people of that period who had the rare benefit of a high-quality education as well as a deep commitment to racial uplift, Chesnutt tried his hand at a wide array of endeavors. But his greatest distinction would be as a writer.

In 1887, Chesnutt had his first short story published in The Atlantic. “The Goophered Grapevine” fell into the literary genre of “local color”: In it, he faithfully depicted the folkways of Black North Carolinians, including the particularities of language and spiritual traditions. Chesnutt’s work found popularity thanks to a general market interest in stories of southern culture, but unlike many of his counterparts who romanticized slave plantations (these were the early days of the Lost Cause Confederate mythology), Chesnutt depicted African American culture with care and political wit. His characters, like those in African American folktales, sought to subvert the power of white supremacy with cleverness and conjure.

In general and perhaps because of his erudition and his appearance, Chesnutt was the rare Black man who was treated as a serious writer of American literature; he had an unusual degree of professional interaction with white contemporaries such as Mark Twain and George Washington Cable. In 1899, several of Chesnutt’s local-color stories were published as a book titled The Conjure Woman, which was well received.

But Chesnutt was not interested only in the unserious. “The Wife of His Youth,” which was first published in The Atlantic in 1898, is a critique of colorism and classism in Black America. The elite “Blue Veins,” so called because they are light enough for their veins to be visible beneath their skin, are led by Mr. Ryder, who surprises the group by revealing the “wife of his youth”: an illiterate and dark-skinned formerly enslaved woman. Chesnutt rejects the attitudes of those elite African Americans who would see themselves as wholly different and superior to their darker counterparts. And yet, as evident in his first novel, The House Behind the Cedars, which was published in 1900, he also rejected essentialist ideas of race. Cedars belongs to the genre of the “passing novel,” depicting the challenges of light-complexioned African Americans who chose to pass for white. Unlike most, however, Chesnutt rejected the idea that all African Americans who would pass for white must be tragic and doomed. They might just as easily be white as Black. With Cedars, Chesnutt revealed himself to be an astute critic of race and a distinctive one. The book was modestly successful and received mixed reviews.

In 1901, Chesnutt’s major novel was published. The Marrow of Tradition is a fictionalized version of the events leading up to the Wilmington Race Massacre of 1898. William Dean Howells, who was the editor of The Atlantic from 1871–81, had previously championed Chesnutt as a leading writer of his race, but he viewed this book less favorably. In a review published in the North American Review, Howells described the book as “bitter, bitter. There is no reason in history why it should not be so, if wrong is to be repaid with hate, and yet it would be better if it was not so bitter.”

A better description might have been that it was unflinchingly honest about what is now described as the only successful coup d’état to take place on U.S. soil, in which the multiracial Fusion government of Wilmington was subject to violent overthrow. Chesnutt sent copies of Marrow to political leaders, hoping the power of his pen might move them to protect African American rights and lives. His hopes were soon dashed and his popularity waned as his work grew more serious. He published his last novel in 1905, and his work was largely overlooked until the revival of African American literature that coincided with the civil-rights and Black Power movements. Only over the past several decades has Chesnutt been recognized by literary critics as among the most significant writers in the American realist tradition.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

By George Packer

Frederick Douglass was, along with Abraham Lincoln, one of the two greatest Americans of the 19th century. He was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, escaped to the North in 1838, and quickly became an activist, writer, and lecturer, pursuing all three without rest until his death in 1895.

Douglass’s long life and prodigious body of work were divided by the Civil War. Though he campaigned for other causes, especially women’s rights, until 1865 he devoted himself with unwavering intensity to a single goal: the end of slavery. He described and denounced it from personal experience, starting in 1845 with the first of his three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which makes the physical and moral horror of slavery unbearably real. He exposed the hypocrisy of America’s democratic rhetoric in scathing lectures such as “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” delivered on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York, to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass regarded the southern rebellion and the bloody war that followed as divine deliverance from an evil that had begun to seem intractable. He lobbied President Lincoln to arm Black soldiers, and then personally recruited them to fight. This was the era of Frederick Douglass the American prophet—a Jeremiah in the pulpit, the lecture hall, and the columns of newspapers and magazines, calling down God’s punishment on a land that made claims of liberty and equality for all but refused to acknowledge the basic humanity of nearly 4 million souls.

Victory over the Slave Power ended the first half of Douglass’s work. The second half, following the war and Lincoln’s murder, required less prophecy and more politics.

Douglass spent the rest of his life fighting for the right and necessity of Black Americans to be fully equal citizens, with equal votes. The main political question in the years after the Civil War was whether the federal government should formally secure those rights and prevent the defeated South from imposing racist laws and violence and effectively reversing the verdict of the war. In 1866 (over the veto of President Andrew Johnson, a southern sympathizer), Congress passed civil-rights legislation that gave Black people status as American citizens, with full access to the courts—but the law said nothing about voting. In midterm elections that November, radical Republicans won big gains in Congress, and Douglass saw an opening to push hard for Black political equality.

He published two essays in The Atlantic, “Reconstruction” in December 1866 and “An Appeal to Congress for Impartial Suffrage” in January 1867. They have his characteristic fire and eloquence, but this is not the language of a prophet. Douglass knew he had to persuade elected officials by using political arguments—including arguments that appealed to self-interest, not just moral values and constitutional principles. He laid out his case on the grounds that enfranchising Black people would energize an exhausted republic and stop the South from trying to restore its old ways; by contrast, denying a large population of Americans the right to vote would plant the seeds of future discontent and destruction.

But Douglass couldn’t entirely suppress his prophetic voice. He always returned to the moral case, which is the only case that gives America any claim to true greatness. Like Lincoln, Douglass based his politics on a vision of human equality that he located in the founding documents. “The fundamental and unanswerable argument in favor of the enfranchisement of the negro is found in the undisputed fact of his manhood,” he wrote in “An Appeal.” “He is a man, and by every fact and argument by which any man can sustain his right to vote, the negro can sustain his right equally.” The same idea of equality Douglass used to rhetorically demolish slavery gave him the logical tools to reframe the United States as a truly self-governing republic. To be human is to be born equal, with an equal right to participate in making and directing one’s government. Depriving freed Black people of the vote, he argued, would bring ruin to self-government.

In the decades following his Atlantic essays, Americans allowed the cause of equality to be thwarted and crushed. Douglass died as the rule of Jim Crow hardened across the South. Equal citizenship became the work of future generations, down to the latest.

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois

By Adam Serwer

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was the child of two revolutions: one in Haiti, where his father, Alfred Du Bois, was born in freedom because a nation of enslaved people had overthrown their masters; and one in the United States, where his maternal great-great-grandfather was granted freedom after fighting for the Continental Army, which was led largely by slave owners who could conceive of only their own liberty.

Du Bois himself was born in Western Massachusetts in 1868, in the midst of a third revolution: Reconstruction, during which America would for the first time seek to build a true multiracial democracy. He came of age as the dawn of that era gave way to the long night of Jim Crow, but in his lifetime, he helped lay the foundation for a fourth revolution, one that would come to be known to most Americans as the civil-rights movement. In his essays for The Atlantic, he would relentlessly battle the abuses of history, sociology, and science in pursuit of what he described as “the astonishing doctrine of the natural inferiority of most men to the few.”

In 1897, the magazine published “Strivings of the Negro People,” which was what the Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis called “his national debut.” The essay introduced for the first time his concept of “double consciousness,” the idea that Black people wished “to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.” It argued not only for vocational schools for Black people but for higher education and political rights as well. From Du Bois, Lewis wrote, “the genteel white reading public encountered a troubling essay the likes of which had not been seen before—not even from Frederick Douglass’s flaming pen.”

Du Bois’ writing assaulted both the emerging racial order in the South and the scholarly forces that had been marshaled to justify it. The 1898 Wilmington Massacre came a year after “Strivings,” and the final elements of Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement would follow. As the dream of multiracial democracy in America collapsed, Du Bois fought the white-supremacist consensus of the academy as fiercely as what he saw as accommodationism from other Black leaders.

His 1901 essay, “The Freedmen’s Bureau,” foreshadowed his later masterpiece, Black Reconstruction in America, a scholarly rebuke of the turn-of-the-century academic consensus that portrayed Reconstruction as a misguided experiment in racial equality that was doomed to fail because of Black inferiority. The opening and concluding line of that essay, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” was famously prophetic, as concise and clear ashis analysis of Black rights in the early 1900s: “For this much all men know: despite compromise, struggle, war, and struggle, the Negro is not free.”

The following year, Du Bois took on Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise,” summarized as the argument that Black people should pursue commercial success while abandoning “agitation of questions of social equality” as “extremist folly.” Political rights would come eventually, Washington argued, because “no race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.”

In “Of the Training of Black Men,” Du Bois objected to this for both practical and moral reasons. Acknowledging the importance of physical labor, he nonetheless pointed out that “if white people need colleges to furnish teachers, ministers, lawyers, and doctors, do black people need nothing of the sort?” The question takes on greater significance in the context of a racially segregated society. “All this is needful work. Who would do it if Negroes did not? How could Negroes do it if they were not trained carefully for it?” Although he does not mention Washington by name, Du Bois argues that Washington’s Tuskegee Institute would not have been possible without the contributions of highly educated white New Englanders who traveled to the South in the aftermath of the Civil War: “In a single generation they put thirty thousand black teachers in the South; they wiped out the illiteracy of the majority of the black people of the land, and they made Tuskegee possible.” The vocational uplift Washington sought, Du Bois argued, was impossible without an educated class, which meant reaching beyond what Washington called “common labour.”

Du Bois also contested the idea that stability and friendly relations would emerge from Washington’s compromise. “No secure civilization can be built in the South with the Negro as an ignorant, turbulent proletariat,” he wrote. “Suppose we seek to remedy this by making them laborers and nothing more: they are not fools, they have tasted of the Tree of Life, and they will not cease to think, will not cease attempting to read the riddle of the world.”

The writer, sociologist, and historian had drawn much of his inspiration from the South, in particular from Wilson County, Tennessee, “where the broad dark vale of the Mississippi begins to roll and crumple to greet the Alleghanies,” a place where families “dig a living out of a rocky side-hill.” In “A Negro Schoolmaster in the South,” published in 1899, Du Bois wrote about his experience coming to know the rural South for the first time, as a teacher from New England. Although not an explicitly political work like the others, Du Bois’ time in Wilson County, Lewis writes, “would remain in his memory bank a lifetime, influencing a prose to which he was beginning to give a mythic spin, his conception of what he would later call the black proletariat.”

Du Bois’ 1915 Atlantic essay, “The African Roots of War,” traces the roots of World War I to European powers’ “scramble for Africa,” synthesizing his arguments for racial equality, his historical research, his leftism, and his understanding of the color line as an international challenge and not simply a domestic one. Out of European colonial competition arose not only armed conflict, but the myth of racial superiority, “and the interpretation ‘Christian brotherhood’ as meaning anything that one of the ‘brothers’ may at any time want it to mean.”

Du Bois served both as an architect of civil-rights organizations themselves and as an unparalleled warrior in the battle of ideas. He would not however, live to see the success of the movement he helped build. Persecuted by the U.S. government during the Red Scare, Du Bois would ultimately relinquish his early condemnations of Stalinism and fail to apply his rigorous skepticism to tyranny in the East as he did in the West. Du Bois died in Ghana on August 27, 1963, just before the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. The next day, a quarter of a million people packed the National Mall for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

By Sam Fentress

On Christmas Day 1832, 29-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson boarded a brig for Malta in search of renewal. Still shattered by the loss of his first wife to tuberculosis a year before, and disillusioned with the conventions of his ministry, Emerson finalized his resignation from Boston’s Unitarian Second Church just days before setting sail. His tour of Western Europe would last eight months. Near the end of his sojourn, having reached the English Lake District, he spent a day with an elderly William Wordsworth. The young scholar had copied four lines from the poet’s “Immortality” ode to his journal five years before:

Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:

Emerson didn’t record the line that follows—“Heaven lies about us in our infancy!”—but it reflects an ongoing directive in his work: to be always and absolutely receptive to the present, unburdened, like a child, by the assumptions of the past. In his first publication, the sprawling, book-length essay “Nature,” Emerson portrayed the “lover of nature” as one “who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.” Like Wordsworth, Emerson saw this spirit embodied in the figure of the poet. Poetry, Emerson wrote, “adorns nature with a new thing.”

To many, including the scholar Lawrence Buell, Emerson represents America’s “first modern American public intellectual.” He was born in Boston, educated at Harvard, and trained as a minister (the profession of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather). Upon returning from that trip through Europe, he made his way as a writer-lecturer, leaning on the inheritance left by his deceased wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker. In 1833, he gave his first public lecture. Two years later, he married Lydia Jackson, who would remain his partner until his death in 1882. And two years after his marriage to Jackson, in a famous address to Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Society, he called for nothing less than the vitalization of the nation’s mind, announcing the culmination of “our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands.” The “American Scholar,” Emerson explained, “​​is the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart … The unstable estimates of men crowd to him whose mind is filled with a truth, as the heaped waves of the Atlantic follow the moon.” The writer Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., who taught for decades at Harvard Medical School, called his speech the “Declaration of Independence” of American intellectual life.

Emerson’s ideas benefited from exchange among three testing grounds of American thought. One was the national lecture circuit—the “lyceum” movement—in which Emerson became an unprecedentedly celebrated figure. His tremendous charisma sometimes threatened to overpower the substance of his argument, to the point that a criticism of these performances—“our flighty friend Ralph speaks vigorously, yet says nothing,” one contemporary takedown accused—could as easily constitute praise, as in the words of James Russell Lowell: “We do not go to hear what Emerson says so much as to hear Emerson.”

Magazines made up a second intellectual realm. In the early 1840s, Emerson contributed to the creation of The Dial, a transcendentalist journal whose first editor was the feminist writer Margaret Fuller. Frustrated by the Unitarian assumption that empirical knowledge was the basis for a rational religious truth, the transcendentalists encouraged individual revelation fueled by a Wordsworthian reverence for the natural world. (“He does not care for facts, except so far as the immortal essence can be distilled from them,” Fuller wrote of Emerson in 1842. “He has little sympathy with mere life: does not seem to see the plants grow, merely that he may rejoice in their energy.”)

Emerson also moved within a lively club scene that reached its height in 19th-century New England. Among the most important of these for Emerson was the Saturday Club, formed in Boston in 1855, which became something like an ideal intellectual community for him. It was within an offshoot of the Saturday Club that, in May 1857, Emerson and a group of his friends, including Holmes, Lowell, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, developed over dinner the idea for a new publication—The Atlantic Monthly. The magazine would reflect their transcendentalist values, expound what its founders called “the American idea,” and attempt to “keep in view that moral element which transcends all persons and parties, and which alone makes the basis of a true and lasting national prosperity.”

Although the pages of The Atlantic were Emerson’s home for the last productive decade of his career, his participation in social and literary scenes never amounted to total ideological allegiance. Taken to its extreme, Emerson’s own desire to live at firsthand (“to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,” as he wrote in his essay “Self-Reliance”) betrayed a New England nationalism that blinded him to urgent causes—for a while, strikingly, abolitionism. But by the time of the Civil War, when the magazine published his forceful essay “American Civilization,” Emerson had spoken out extensively against slavery. “They call it an institution, I call it a destitution,” he wrote. “In this national crisis, it is not argument that we want, but that rare courage which dares commit itself to a principle.” He urged an expedient path to emancipation: “Now, in the name of all that is simple and generous, why should not this great right be done?”

At his best, Emerson inspires in his audience an understanding of the possibility built into their lives, the sense that they too might recognize themselves as seekers of an “unattained but attainable self.” “The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment,” Emerson wrote in his masterpiece essay “Circles.” It is a philosophy that risks forgoing tradition, even reason—the assumptions we made yesterday may not hold true for us today—to make room for a perpetually new sense of world and self. In forgetting oneself, by doing something “without knowing how or why,” Emerson writes, one finds, or makes, oneself anew.

Charlotte Forten Grimké

Charlotte Forten Grimké

By Clint Smith

Charlotte Forten Grimké was born August 17, 1837, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the seam of two realities for Black Americans. On her father’s side, she came from a long line of free Black people, prominent abolitionists in Philadelphia. Her mother, conversely, was born enslaved in the South. Forten Grimké’s work as an educator and a writer was shaped by the experience of growing up with relative freedom alongside the intimate understanding that comes from being born to a woman who was once considered chattel.

Denied entry into Philadelphia’s white schools, Forten Grimké—known to those close to her as “Lottie”—was educated by private tutors in her early years. At the age of 16, her family sent her to Salem, Massachusetts, where she attended Higginson Grammar School and was the only Black child in a school of some 200.

Later, she attended Salem Normal School, where she was trained to be a teacher herself. After graduating, she taught at Epes Grammar School, becoming the first Black person in Salem, Massachusetts, to formally teach white students. The previous year, she had begun publishing poems in journals such as William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper.

In addition to writing poems, Forten Grimké kept a diary from 1854 to 1864, starting when she was 16, that allowed her, as she put it, “to record the passing events of my life, which, even if quite unimportant to others, naturally possess great interest to myself … it will doubtless enable me to judge correctly of the growth and improvement of my mind from year to year.” Excerpts from the diary were published posthumously and provide an intimate, firsthand account of the life of a free Black woman in the North before the Civil War in ways that few other documents have.

During May and June 1854, Forten Grimké wrote a series of harrowing, agony-filled entries about the circumstances of a man named Anthony Burns, who had escaped from slavery in the South but who was then captured in Massachusetts under the Fugitive Slave Act and enslaved on a new plantation. These diary entries reveal how, even as a teenager, Forten Grimké possessed not only firm moral convictions about slavery but also an ability to outline with honesty and eloquence the horrors of the institution. The outcome was not what Forten Grimké and others had hoped for. “Our worst fears are realized; the decision was against poor Burns, and he has been sent back to a bondage worse, a thousand times worse than death,” she wrote in her diary the day the decision came down. “To-day Massachusetts has again been disgraced; again she has shewed her submission to the Slave Power.”

From 1862 to 1864, during the height of the Civil War, Forten Grimké lived on St. Helena Island in South Carolina, where she taught formerly enslaved people. The experience shaped her in profound ways, and she decided to write about it—this time for an audience beyond the pages of her diary. In 1864, Forten Grimké published some of her reflections in two nuanced and lyrical essays for The Atlantic.

In “Life on the Sea Islands,” Forten Grimké writes in startling detail about her surroundings: the moss hanging from the trees, the movement of small children playing around their mother, the colors of women’s dresses as they carry a pail of water atop their head. In her writing, flora and fauna are not merely part of the landscape but richly described central characters in the story. “First comes the yellow jessamine, with its perfect, gold-colored, and deliciously fragrant blossoms,” she writes. “It lights up the hedges, and completely canopies some of the trees. Of all the wild-flowers this seems to me the most beautiful and fragrant. Then we have the snow-white, but scentless Cherokee rose, with its lovely, shining leaves.” Later, “the hedges were all aglow with the brilliant scarlet berries of the cassena, and on some of the oaks we observed the mistletoe, laden with its pure white, pearl-like berries.”

But Forten Grimké’s essays are notable not only because of their lyricism but also because they reveal the cognitive dissonance that many Black Americans experienced in a society that in one breath told them how their circumstances proved that they were the lesser race and in the next told them that they could not have access to the levers of upward mobility that might change those circumstances. “One’s indignation increases against those who, North as well as South, taunt the colored race with inferiority while they themselves use every means in their power to crush and degrade them, denying them every right and privilege, closing against them every avenue of elevation and improvement,” she wrote.

After the Civil War, Forten Grimké eventually made her way to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a teacher at what became Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and then as a clerk for the U.S. Treasury. In 1878, at age 41, she married the 28-year-old Reverend Francis James Grimké, who served as pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, one of the prominent Black churches in the city.

Forten Grimké continued to publish in Black periodicals in addition to supporting her husband’s church. In 1892, she and luminaries such as Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, and Mary Church Terrell established the Colored Women’s League. In 1896, Forten Grimké helped start the National Association of Colored Women. She died in Washington, D.C., in 1914 at the age of 76.

Forten Grimké’s work helped lay the groundwork for generations of Black writers who refused to separate their politics and their writing. Forten Grimké was both an ardent abolitionist and someone who could wield language with precision and beauty. She never accepted that these should be mutually exclusive, and showed other writers that they shouldn’t either.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

By Faith Hill

The branches of an old birch, stretching toward the sky; the soft muffle of snowfall near a dark wood; a crow high up in a hemlock; a golden dawn. These graceful, austere images of rural New England have made Robert Frost one of the most recognizable names in American poetry, an enduring staple for high-school syllabi and suburban home decor. But his nature-poet reputation has often obscured a more complicated man, and a much darker body of work.

Frost was born not in Maine or Vermont or New Hampshire but in San Francisco, nine years after the end of the Civil War. His father, William, was a passionate Democrat—he’d tried and failed to enlist on the southern side—and named his son after the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. William wrote about politics and, the writer Raymond Holden noted in a 1931 profile, used to dress his son “in fancy costume and make him ride on floats in political parades.” Eventually, William ran for office himself, and the younger Frost helped him plaster election posters in local saloons.

It was not a happy childhood. William was abusive, bitter about his dashed political career, and often drunk. When Frost was 11, his father died of tuberculosis, and he moved with his mother and sister to Massachusetts, where they lived on less than $400 a year. Frost went on to attend Dartmouth but dropped out before the end of his first semester. (He always maintained that he left of his own accord, but other sources have reported that he was expelled for a hazing-related prank.) He returned home and worked a series of odd jobs—helping his mom in the classroom where she taught, writing for newspapers, tending to lamps in a textile mill. He didn’t stay in any of them for long.

Then his mother lost her job, and suddenly his family’s financial well-being rested on his shoulders. Around the same time, his sister, Jeanie, began to spiral into psychiatric distress. Frost turned to poetry.

In 1894, Frost published his first poem: “My Butterfly.” Though he was only 20, the work contained the same themes he’d grapple with for the rest of his career. The subject appeared to be simple: a lovely butterfly, “Tossed, tangled, whirled and whirled above, / Like a limp rose-wreath in a fairy dance.” But the poem really concerned something much sadder, and more existential. “I found that wing withered to-day!” he wrote. “I found it with the withered leaves / Under the eaves.” The butterflies die, the leaves die—all of nature, he recognized, was part of a cycle that ends only in desolation.

“My Butterfly” did not make Frost famous. He went to Harvard in 1897, two years after marrying his high-school classmate Elinor White, but dropped out in 1899, citing “nervous exhaustion.” He and Elinor rented a house and worked on a nearby poultry farm; after their landlord kicked them out, they moved to a farm financed by Frost’s grandfather. Frost tried writing in his spare time, but almost no one was buying his poems. His mother died of cancer in 1900, when he was 26. He and Elinor lost two children, one in infancy and the other at age 3.

In 1912, having failed at farming for more than a decade and desperate for a turn of fate, Frost and Elinor flipped a coin (at least in Frost’s retelling): They would move either to England or to Canada. England won.

There, everything changed. Frost sold his first collection of poetry, A Boy’s Will, in a matter of months, and his next, North of Boston, was published a little more than a year later. He met the eminent poets Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, and Edward Thomas. In 1914, World War I forced the family back to America—but by then, his name meant something, even in the U.S. In 1915, The Atlantic, which had rejected his work in the past, published three of his most famous poems—“The Road Not Taken,” “Birches,” and “The Sound of Trees”—alongside a glowing essay calling Frost “a new master.”

Frost’s stardom continued to grow, along with what the former Poetry editor Joseph Parisi called his “cunningly crafted” persona as a “kindly sage and folksy poet-farmer.” Of course, he really did love New England, and held some fondness for the years he had spent farming. But he was competitive and strategic too—a striver, after all those years of disappointment. “I am but a timid calculating soul always intent on the main chance,” he once said. “I always mean to win.”

Perhaps fairly, some writers have come down hard on Frost for exploiting that country-boy image—and for being a generally nasty, self-involved person. (The critic Helen Vendler, reviewing a volume of Lawrance Thompson’s biography, called him a “monster of egotism.”) Others have defended his name, casting him as a smart and tenacious self-marketer.

But the authenticity debate, however heated, isn’t crucial to understanding his work. Frost’s poems aren’t really about nature or rural life or New England at all. Largely, they’re about death and human limitations—and Frost knew those subjects intimately. In 1920, he committed his sister to a psychiatric hospital, where she died in 1929. He outlived four of his six children; after those first two terrible losses, another child died from an illness developed in childbirth, and another by suicide. By the end of his life in 1963, Frost had won four Pulitzer Prizes. He’d also become an expert, many times over, in the sense of loss that pervaded his work.

Among his most famous poems is “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” It’s so famous, in fact, that its closing refrain has become a hackneyed stand-in for innocence lost, threaded through decades of pop culture, notably S. E. Hinton’s book The Outsiders but also Garfield, The Simpsons, The Fault in Our Stars. The original work, though, isn’t trite at all—it’s simple and profound, a quiet gut punch about the fragility of natural life and the inevitability of its end. It sounds a bit like another poem Frost once wrote on that same subject: “My Butterfly.” You can hear echoes of 20-year-old Frost, mourning “withered leaves,” in the words we remember today: “Then leaf subsides to leaf. / So Eden sank to grief, / So dawn goes down to day. / Nothing gold can stay.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

By Maya Chung

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life was haunted by the ghosts of his Puritan ancestors. Obsessed with the sins of the past, Hawthorne was committed to exploring morality—his own, and others’—in his writing. Like many of his characters, he was wracked by shame and ambivalence: simultaneously attracted to rebellion but tortured by the thought of its pitfalls. Born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1804, he was, according to his biographer Brenda Wineapple, “a man of high standards, rigorous and stern.” He longed to tell stories for a living but wrote to his mother that “authors are always poor Devils, and therefore Satan may take them.” When he did become a writer, publishing his first novel at 24, the image he created of himself was, according to Wineapple, of an “artist as self-hater—to express the complex, incendiary truth of his feelings.”

Hawthorne’s inner turmoil is evident in his treatment of Hester Prynne, the doomed heroine of The Scarlet Letter, for which he is best known, who has a child out of wedlock and is sentenced to bear a scarlet letter A on her chest and the opprobrium of her Puritan Massachusetts town. “To be sure, Hawthorne loved and hated her, admired and punished her, branded and redeemed her and then left her quite as bereft … as he himself had been,” Wineapple writes. Through Hester, perhaps we can understand why Hawthorne was unable to shake off the sins of his ancestors—he believed that, as he writes, “there is a fatality … which almost invariably compels human beings to linger around and haunt, ghost-like, the spot where some great and marked event has given color to their lifetime … Her sin, her ignominy, were the roots which she had struck into the soil.”

Hawthorne’s fondness for working his feelings out on the page wasn’t confined to his novels. One of his most memorable essays is a dispatch, printed in The Atlantic in 1862, from Washington during the Civil War. It originally included a number of passages criticizing Lincoln, which were cut by the magazine’s editor, James T. Fields. Even Hawthorne seems surprised at his own boldness (“Good Heavens! What liberties I have been taking with one of the potentates of the earth”), but notes, “with whom is an American citizen entitled to take a liberty, if not with his own chief magistrate?”

The Atlantic also published 12 excerpts from Hawthorne’s notebooks, which include encounters with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller. In one passage, Hawthorne betrays a writerly enamorment with nature, pondering “Perhaps there are higher intelligences that look upon all the manifestations of the human mind—metaphysics, ethics, histories, politics, poems, stories, etc., etc.—with the same interest that we look upon flowers, or any other humble production of nature—finding a beauty and fitness even in the poorest of them, which we cannot see in the best.”

In his notebooks, Hawthorne also reflects on his time living at Brook Farm, the utopian experiment in Massachusetts that served as the inspiration for his novel The Blithedale Romance. Suspicious as he was of both idleness and materialism, it’s no wonder he was attracted to the community’s socialist project. The Blithedale Romance demonstrated the influence of Hawthorne’s beloved mother, who, according to Wineapple, warned him about the dangers of vanity and material things, and even expressed surprisingly modern ideals: “It is odd enough that the kind of labor which falls to the lot of women is just that which chiefly distinguishes artificial life—the life of degenerated mortals—from the life of Paradise. Eve had no dinner-pot, and no clothes to mend, and no washing-day,” says Miles Coverdale, the story’s protagonist.

As the American Consul in Liverpool, England, from 1853 to 1857, Hawthorne also provided dispatches from his time there, including observations on Greenwich and London along the Thames, a disappointing visit to Shakespeare’s birthplace, and an ethnographic study of English poverty. There’s a glimpse of his interest in utopia, dystopia, and sin in those writings, where he observes the grime of those English streets, writing that it was the “symbolic accompaniment of the foul incrustation which began to settle over and bedim all earthly things as soon as Eve had bitten the apple.”

According to Wineapple, Hawthorne was “acutely aware of the power of history,” but he also believed in the importance of fiction. As he wrote, fiction “may not serve the useful function of biography or history—works of fact—but without it biography and history are dull, dead, removed, unreadable.” His novels were created in fervent engagement with the world—perhaps that’s why they feel so alive, and relevant, today.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

By Megan Garber

In 1927, a young writer struggled to sell a short story about a boxer preparing for a fight. He sent his manuscript to magazine after magazine, Scribner’s and Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post; again and again, it was rejected. And then he sent it to The Atlantic. “Fifty Grand,” lean in its wording and robust in every other way, ran in the July issue. Ernest Hemingway would cite its publication as a turning point in his career.

“Fifty Grand” follows Jack Brennan, who is good at his job but would prefer not to be, as he trains to confront a rival at a widely bet-upon match. The story brings a certain literalism to Hemingway’s famed penchant for “muscular” prose. And it carries many other trademarks of the writer who would shift literature’s paradigms through the blunt-force impact of his sentences—terse dialogue, absent adjectives, words that jab and dodge and hook.

You can’t talk about Hemingway the artist without also talking about Hemingway the brand; as the critic Edmund Wilson observed, in a 1939 essay for The Atlantic, Hemingway was “his own worst-invented character.” There he is, in Cuba, posing with a slain marlin, flashing that blustery grin. There he is, on the cover of Time, gazing from a golden frame like a displaced god of the hunt. Hemingway saw action in war. He reported from its front lines. He survived two plane crashes in the span of two days. He battled depression and alcoholism and fame. He seemed always to be outrunning death—or, perhaps, taunting it. He lived life as if the living itself were a kind of conquest. The American public, consuming him as a story, came to know him as “Papa.”

What the mythology doesn’t fully account for, though, are the hours Hemingway spent in the undignified pose of his chosen profession: hunched over a typewriter, confronting the blank page, trying to snare the world with a net of pulp and ink. His style is easy to parody and nearly impossible to imitate. That is because brevity is not its defining quality. Intensity is. Hemingway, echoing Freud, compared stories to icebergs: Good writers are able to convey, with a few words strategically surfaced, all that lurks below. Hemingway, as a great one, perfected the art of implication so completely that his work, at its best, evokes a certain sorcery. You feel the scene in all its textures and temperatures—you see it, in its hues—but you’re not sure how you’ve been lulled to the illusions. He’s given you so little.

Hemingway grew up in the tidy suburb of Oak Park, Illinois (“wide lawns and narrow minds,” the fabled insult goes). He acted in school productions and played varsity football and was dubbed, in his high-school yearbook, “class prophet.” His father was a doctor. His mother was a musician. Both were stern. One of Hemingway’s many rebellions was his studious rejection of propriety. He referred to the Nobel Prize, which he won in 1954, as “the Swedish thing.” He wrote about matters people were told not to talk about in public—sex, impotence, pregnancy, despair. But he acknowledged them, often, elliptically. “Fifty Grand,” as a title, refers to the money Jack Brennan bets against himself as he prepares to face Jimmy Walcott in the ring; Hemingway leaves it open whether Jack finally throws the match. He is similarly coy about the injuries Jake Barnes, the hero of The Sun Also Rises, sustained in action. The couple in “Hills Like White Elephants” never say abortion aloud. Their silence, instead, aches onto the page.

When he was 18, Hemingway volunteered as an ambulance driver, and then was wounded, in the war once thought to end all others. Its ghosts populate his stories, whether tales of battle itself, or of love, or fishing, or feasting, or prizefighting. They haunted him, as well. Papa, the Byronic hero, was often a villain to the people who loved him. He could be bigoted. He could be misogynistic. He could be mercurial. He could be cruel. That’s there on the page too. Life itself, in many of his stories, is an ongoing act of betrayal. His characters are always finding themselves unable to say what they mean, and hurting each other because of it. They are constantly trying, and failing, to connect. If Hemingway was a voice of a lost generation, his prose lives out the absence. His work hews to the style guide of the newspaper that gave him one of his first writing jobs: “Use vigorous English,” it advised, and “eliminate every superfluous word.” His just-the-facts fictions were, at the time, giddy and new. An Atlantic reviewer marveled that Hemingway “writes as if he had never read anybody’s writing, as if he had fashioned the art of writing himself.”

Reviewers were not always so enraptured. (Hemingway, fonder of the “one true sentence” as its author than as its subject, dubbed critics “the lice who crawl on literature.”) In his 1939 Atlantic essay, Edmund Wilson considers the writer Hemingway had been and the one he had become. He praises the early work, helping to establish an assessment that has become conventional wisdom: Hemingway, a wayward bard of “heroic dissipation.” But “as soon as Hemingway begins speaking in the first person,” Wilson notes—as the author had done in several of his books—“he seems to lose his bearings, not merely as a critic of life, but even as a craftsman.” James Atlas, in a 1983 Atlantic essay, pointed out the tension in Hemingway’s writing “between eloquence and maudlin self-indulgence.”

The lot who live under Hemingway’s hulking shadow has included Hemingway himself. The paradox of the pioneer is that, sooner or later, their contributions become banal. The curse of the artist is the drive to keep creating anyway. “Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman,” the old man thinks to himself, as he spars with the sea. “But that was the thing that I was born for.”

Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe

By Spencer Kornhaber

The story behind the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is an American legend. In the early days of the Civil War, the poet Julia Ward Howe yearned to contribute to the Union’s cause, but her efforts were hindered by the young age of her children and her lack of “practical deftness,” as she later wrote in her memoir. Yet her words ended up providing the soundtrack to the Union’s victory—and influencing every great American conflict, armed or civil, to have come since.

After paying a visit to the battlefront near Washington, D.C., in 1861, Howe found herself stuck in traffic on a road crowded with soldiers. To pass the time, she and her fellow carriage passengers sang popular marching songs of the era. One such song, “John Brown’s Body” updated the folk hymn “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us” with lyrics referencing the recently executed abolitionist John Brown. A minister traveling with Howe was taken with the catchy, if morbid, tune, and suggested that she revise it with “some good words.” Upon waking the next morning, Howe later remembered, “the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind.” Replacing the refrain, “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the ground / His soul is marching on,” Howe imagined a first verse full of Old Testament fury:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

The five-stanza poem, which The Atlantic paid $5 to publish in February 1862, went on to situate war-front scenes—watch fires and “burnished rows of steel”—as part of a divine mission: “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” It quickly became beloved among Union troops and a personal favorite of Abraham Lincoln’s. Over subsequent decades, the “Battle Hymn” cheered on other wars, inspired great literature (including the title of John Steinbeck’s signature novel), and made its way into pivotal speeches (such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s last words in public). In 2017, The Atlantic’s music director, Jon Batiste, gave the tune an uneasy, even mournful, reinterpretation to reflect “what we’ve done with the mythology that we were given,”he said.

Born in 1819 in New York City to a stockbroker father and a poet mother, Howe was already publishing anonymously by the time she was 20. Her privileged youth had allowed her to fall in with a literary crowd that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Margaret Fuller. Her 1843 marriage to Samuel Howe, the director of the Perkins Institution for the Blind, was famously tense: Though husband and wife collaborated on an abolitionist newspaper, Samuel didn’t like to see Howe working outside the home. Still, Howe managed to publish poems, plays, and essays about an array of social issues (in 2004, scholars even put out her unfinished novel The Hermaphrodite, an ahead-of-its-time exploration of gender identity).

After the success of the “Battle Hymn,” Howe dedicated herself to peace: The modern holiday of Mother’s Day derives in part from Howe’s 1870 proclamation calling for mothers to unite against armed conflict. She also became a key advocate for women’s rights, including by co-founding the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. After Samuel’s death in 1876, Howe felt liberated to tour the country delivering speeches and writing travelogues, and the resulting renown earned her the nicknames “the Dearest Old Lady in America” and “the Queen of America.” One of Howe’s best-known lines, quoted posthumously by her children, reflected upon these energetic final decades: “Life is like a cup of tea—the sugar is all at the bottom.” After her death, her children wrote a book about their mother that won the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for biography, in 1917.

At The Atlantic, Howe’s archive largely follows in the spirit of “Battle Hymn” by expressing the fervent patriotism that coursed through America around the time of the Civil War. Her poems for the magazine also show the point of view of a woman before modern feminism—the point of view of someone who wants to pitch in but must do so from the confines of the home. In the 1863 poem “The Flag,” for example, Howe’s narrator offers hospitality to passersby: “My wine is not of the choicest, yet bears it an honest brand; And the bread that I bid you lighten I break with no sparing hand.” Yet this humble generosity comes with an edge of pride and defiance—“Salute the flag in its virtue, or leave my poor house alone.”

Helen Keller

Helen Keller

By Ellen Cushing

If you know anything about Helen Keller, you know this: A girl—wild hair, jerky mannerisms—is pulled to an old-timey water fountain by her teacher. The teacher pumps water on the girl’s hand, and yells a little, and repeats the letters W-A-T-E-R over and over, both with her mouth and her fingers, spelling the word into the girl’s hand with growing urgency. Suddenly, the kid gets it: She looks to the sky, clenches her face in concentration, speaks haltingly, pumps the fountain, and then, finally, spells W-A-T-E-R back into her teacher’s hand. The music swells.

What a peculiar thing it must be, to have your life become one of modern culture’s most enduring nuggets of intellectual property. The Miracle Worker is a Tony Award– and Pulitzer Prize–winning Broadway play, a smash-hit 1962 film, and three made-for-TV movies, in addition to being a more tenuous inspiration for anime and Bollywood releases, hundreds of children’s books, a postage stamp, a state quarter, and a South Park episode. The film is shown in schools and on cable TV; it is so ubiquitous that its title has become a cliché. In it, and because of it, Keller is a perpetual child, cast in bronze and forever 7 years old, as she is in the statue of the water-fountain scene that now stands in the U.S. Capitol. According to the logic of the movie’s emotional arc, Keller begins as a problem to be solved, and then, by the end, she is an inspiration—all of which is to say she’s never really much of a person.

Helen Keller the person was funny, and grumpy, and flawed. She adored animals, especially dogs. She had a demanding sweet tooth. And she grew up: She had a serious boyfriend, fierce political beliefs, an intellectual life, and a taste for whiskey. “She died when she was 88, and most of what people remember her for happened when she was a child,” one of her biographers, Kim E. Nielsen, told me. “Not even an adolescent—a child. But she figured out relationships and goals and dreams and how to make money and express her ideas and have an impact. She did that while facing ableism, sexism, and people’s low assumptions about her. She did that in spite of the resistance to the idea that she could have a full life.” That she was anything more than just her story.

Helen Adams Keller was born in northwestern Alabama in 1880, to a prominent Confederate family. At 19 months, she fell ill with a disease that was at the time unexplained but that doctors now believe was likely meningitis; it left her with permanent and severe damage to her sight and hearing. Keller was a bright and lively child, but by her own account, an unhappy one, surrounded by “silence and darkness” and so angry about her inability to communicate fluidly that “I kicked and screamed til I was exhausted.” When she was 6, research led her mother to Alexander Graham Bell, at the time a pioneer in deaf education, and then, eventually, to Anne Sullivan, who was 20 and also visually impaired. Sullivan, who would be Keller’s teacher and companion until her death, taught the young girl how to finger-spell, which allowed her to learn other forms of communication—braille, lipreading, speaking—and eventually to pursue a formal education of the kind that had previously been unthinkable for someone like her.

This accomplishment alone made Keller a celebrity in the absolute way of pre-internet, pre-Hollywood American monoculture. Leading minds of the era—all men, all decades her senior—adored her. Mark Twain likened her to “Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare and the rest of the immortals.” Her education at Radcliffe (Harvard’s women’s college, from which she graduated with honors) was paid for in large part by the oil magnate Henry Huttleston Rogers. While still an undergraduate, she began work on an autobiography, The Story of My Life, which was serialized in Ladies’ Home Journal and later became the basis for The Miracle Worker, which premiered on Broadway in 1959. The book was a massive success, and made Keller an international superstar: Along with Sullivan—always with Sullivan—she traveled the world, lecturing about her life and the experiences of people with disabilities. She wrote multiple sequels to My Life, all of which were well received, though none as universally. She appeared in magazine ads, met with Hollywood stars, and did stints on vaudeville. Long before The Miracle Worker, she and Sullivan were fictionalized in the silent film Deliverance, which trafficked in the image of Keller as something between a circus freak and a secular saint: Newspaper advertisements for the movie described her as “The 8th Wonder of the World.”

But starting in her 20s, Keller had become interested in politics beyond disability, and in respect beyond celebrity. She was an ardent proponent of socialism, suffragism, pacifism, and civil rights, a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and a member of both the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World. (When Deliverance premiered in 1919, she threatened to skip the event because the actors’ union was striking.) But she was, for her whole life, “mired in the performance and ideology of perpetually overcoming her disability” at the expense of other pursuits, as Nielsen writes in The Radical Lives of Helen Keller. She yearned to be a public intellectual but strained against what editors, and fans, wanted from her: more stories from America’s foremost deaf and blind person, about what it is like to be deaf and blind; sentimental tales of triumph over hardship. “She had a really hard time selling the pieces not about disability,” Nielsen told me. “At the end of the day, her most popular writing was always about being Helen Keller.”

Which is a shame, because Keller’s writing about other subjects is incandescent. “Put Your Husband in the Kitchen,” published in The Atlantic’s August 1932 issue, is insightful and lucid, a sound study of postindustrial macroeconomic dynamics that also happens to be surprisingly big-hearted and funny as hell. “The average woman is not very familiar with the complexities of economics, but it seems to me that she has ordered her household economy upon a more solid basis than that upon which men have arranged the affairs of their larger world,” Keller writes, arguing that captains of industry might learn a thing or two by considering the labor-saving, leisure-creating magic of the modern kitchen appliance at a moment when the nation faced a crisis of “overproduction, unemployment, and widespread suffering.” The essay is more than 4,000 words long, and it makes only one passing mention of Keller’s disability, at the very beginning. After that, she says what she really wants to say.

Jack London

Jack London

By Oliver Munday

In Jack London’s short story “An Odyssey of the North,” published in The Atlantic in 1900, an inquisitive character named Prince asks his partner, “Who is he, anyway?” when told about a mysterious dog-driver. The two are talking in the bone-chilling cold of the Yukon, clad in pelts, the whiteness of their surroundings stretching on for miles. On the horizon lies the frigid Bering Sea. “Don’t know,” Prince’s partner responds. “But he’s a fellow to whet your curiosity.”

London was a man of extremes. In his expansive body of work—which included gritty reportage, naturalist realism, and science fiction—he sought out the wildest corners of experience, in order to further understand human survival. He spent time in many perilous situations, both chosen and not: prison, the Russo-Japanese War, the rails, the Arctic, and London’s impoverished East End. For a stint he was a pirate. Students of writing are implored to “write what you know,” and the man went to incredible lengths to know.

The Call of the Wild, London’s 1903 novel told from the perspective of a dog named Buck, was an early, instant success, published when London was just 27. It remains the book for which he is best known (it has been taught widely in school, easily adaptable to the thematic concerns of English classes). The story is set, again, in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush, an age of rapacious acquisition and political corruption. London had learned the tenets of socialism as a kid growing up in working-class San Francisco, but to witness the Gold Rush up close as a young man alchemized his political commitments. He would become a lifelong socialist, touring the country to lecture and promote his political works, collected in books like War of the Classes, and Revolution and Other Essays. Twice, he tried and failed to become Oakland’s mayor.

But London’s political ambitions—and indeed, some of his greatest literary accomplishments—were overshadowed by the success of those early adventure stories. He wrote plays, memoirs, and poetry prolifically; his seminal work of reporting, The People of the Abyss, is an astonishing sociological study for which he lived among the destitute in London for several weeks. His eye for the world’s craggy edges helped define American naturalism, a genre explored by writers such as Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane; and his politically charged sci-fi novel The Iron Heel is an early example of dystopian fiction, a prescient vision of an America run by tyrannical oligarchs. The domains in which these narratives take place—the cities, tundras, seas, plains, and slums—are as alive as the characters themselves, artful wildernesses of natural detail.

And then there are the short stories, where London’s adventurousness is best on display. In works like “The White Silence” and “To Build a Fire,” he pits his protagonists against nature’s cruelest conditions in a struggle to survive, so that the reader might understand the bounds of the human will. These tales are all imbued with a thrilling sense of quest, a defining characteristic of his shorter narratives. Alongside Melville, Kipling, and Poe, London was essential in catapulting the literary form of the short story to popularity in early-20th-century America.

London’s life, to invoke his character Prince one again, was a lavish feast for the curious. But living a fascinating life can often bear contradictions. He embodied a crucial one, believing fervently in socialism and justice for the working class almost as much as the machinery of his own success. London’s fame was hard to overstate; at one point he was ranked among the wealthiest writers in the country, a mantle he would have surely decried from another station in life. Jack wanted it both ways, which perhaps makes him the most American of American writers.

It is especially difficult, when going through his oeuvre, to separate the author from the work. At times, London is indistinguishable from his many compelling protagonists. He was an intrepid man, hell-bent on discovering the world by wending a path through its most extreme conditions. Along the way, his writing lived in the notebooks stored in his bag, as much a vessel for survival as any canteen. (It’s far easier to picture London writing inside of a yurt he built himself than it is to imagine him seated at a desk.)

Curiosity remained his guiding principle, and through his work he became a most astonishing transcriber of it. His life and work were extraordinary; one can feel the surrounding bristle of the world when reading his sentences, and that’s undoubtedly because he did, too.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

By Cullen Murphy

Some American literary figures are perpetual moderns—we treat them like contemporaries. Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, Emily Dickinson: They don’t really seem to have aged. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is the opposite. The sepia photographs show an elderly man with a blanched, leonine mane: a specter from yesteryear. The oil paintings, yellowed by age and varnish, have the generic quality of so many portraits from that era: judge, scholar, senator, whatever. And the poetry! The thundering meter. The relentless sentimentality. The couplets as tightly harnessed as a matched pair. This isn’t the stuff of quiet introspection. It’s meant to be declaimed at grammar-school assemblies and the Grange Hall.

That’s the highbrow assessment, at any rate, and it has been for more than a century. In 1915, the critic Van Wyck Brooks famously consigned Longfellow to oblivion: “Longfellow is to poetry what the barrel-organ is to music.” Although the titles of Longfellow’s most popular works—“Paul Revere’s Ride,” “The Song of Hiawatha,” “Evangeline,” “The Village Blacksmith”—are still known to many, the works themselves don’t live in most memories, save for a handful of disembodied lines, bits of atavistic DNA from an America we’ve left behind:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere …

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands …

One can stipulate some version of the critique and still find it wanting. On the other side of the ledger is what Longfellow achieved in his lifetime, and the role he played in shaping America’s sense of itself—“the American idea,” as The Atlantic’s founding editors called it. Longfellow was one of those founders, providing a poem for the magazine’s very first issue, in 1857, and over the next two decades contributing many more poems and several essays. At the time, he was already one of the most widely read authors in a country with few national figures—a country that in fundamental ways was not even a nation, and was only beginning to create a homegrown literature. The United States was an assortment of regions, even putting aside the growing division between North and South over slavery; until after the Civil War, the name of the country even took a plural verb. The adults of Longfellow’s childhood remembered the Revolution, but younger generations needed a mythic history to steer by.

Longfellow was not a propagandist, and his themes were not exclusively American—he spent years translating The Divine Comedy—but he was a man of the New World. He drew on its natural history and its legends, and on the Pilgrim settlement. He celebrated hard work and moral steadiness. His religious sensibility centered on deeds rather than words. The robust brushstrokes of his poetry have something in common with WPA murals—understandable, memorable, didactic, and very public.

Unlike his close friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, Longfellow was an abolitionist. He spent money to buy enslaved people into liberty. His Poems on Slavery was published a decade before Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The volume’s final poem, “The Warning,” anticipates the violence to come. Longfellow did not want war, but “Paul Revere’s Ride,” published in The Atlantic in January 1861, was a call to action. American freedom was on the line—threatened as surely now, with slave states cascading into secession, as it had been when the Redcoats marched on Lexington and Concord. Schoolchildren recite the poem as if it’s actually about Paul Revere and the events of 1775:

The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.

Readers in 1861 knew better. Revere was just the steed that Longfellow rode in on, with a message of his own. As the historian Jill Lepore observed in 2011, on the 150th anniversary of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Longfellow’s poem is about “waking the dead.” She wrote: “The dead are Northerners, roused to war. But the dead are also the enslaved, entombed in slavery.”

Longfellow the man was an improbable confection—a well-born New Englander, steeped in the classics, whose work in his lifetime transcended divisions of rank or education. He was a Mayflower descendant through more than one lineage, and his use of three names might suggest the genetic self-regard of his New England caste. Oliver Wendell Holmes once poked fun at Boston Brahmin families (like his own), noting that they seemed to have been spared the consequences of Adam’s fall. In Longfellow’s case, the caricature is misleading. He may have been the most highly paid writer in America—receiving as much as $3,000 for a poem, somewhat above current Atlantic rates—but his days were far from charmed. He buried one daughter and two wives. The accidental fire that killed his second wife, Frances Appleton, also left his face badly scarred—that’s likely why he grew a beard. Throughout his life he experienced what today might be diagnosed as depression. He never behaved like an Olympian toff; he was liked by everyone. Longfellow carried his celebrity with modesty, replying to every letter and pausing for strangers who approached him in person. Once, a young woman came to his famous home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and when he answered the door she eventually asked if this was the house where Longfellow died. His response could apply to his reputation as well as his vitality. He said to the young woman, “Not yet.”

John Muir

John Muir

By Michelle Nijhuis

When John Muir’s byline first appeared in The Atlantic, in August 1897, he was 59 years old and considered something of a secular prophet. Born in Scotland and raised on a Wisconsin farm, Muir had found his way to California in his early 30s and promptly fallen in love with the majesty of the Sierra Nevada. “Gazing awe-stricken I might have left everything for it,” he recalled in My First Summer in the Sierra, a series of journal entries written in 1869 and later turned into a book. “Beauty beyond thought everywhere, beneath, above, made and being made forever.”

Muir’s Sierra summer turned into more than five years of full-time mountain living, during which he helped herd sheep, milled lumber, and guided tourists to support what he called his “main work”: an ambitious and, as it turned out, unusually insightful study of the range’s geology. In 1873, after publishing a few dispatches from the mountains in the popular press, he began spending his winters writing in the San Francisco Bay Area. Like most writers, he found writing difficult—he once complained that the process made him feel like “a cowboy dragging steers with a rope”—but his essays about the Sierra, first for the regional Overland Monthly and later for national magazines such as Harper’s and The Century, were popular with readers eager for a vicarious escape from their industrializing society.

In 1889, Century editor Robert Underwood Johnson, himself a committed conservationist, urged Muir to found “an association” dedicated to protecting the Sierra from industrial development. Muir, who had married and was busy managing his in-laws’ expansive orchard in the Alhambra Valley, demurred but wrote a pair of Century articles that helped persuade Congress to designate the Yosemite Valley and its surroundings as a national park. A few years later, a group of UC Berkeley professors and students took up Johnson’s idea and convinced Muir to convene the first organizational meeting of the Sierra Club in May 1892. As he wrote to one of the founding club members, he hoped “to do something for wildness and make the mountains glad.” (Though the Sierra Club now works across the continent on issues such as national-park protection, urban air pollution, and climate change, Muir’s writings and lanky, long-bearded silhouette remain closely associated with the organization to this day.)

Five years later, Muir published his first essay for The Atlantic, facilitated by an introduction from the Harvard botany professor Charles Sprague Sargent. “The American Forests” is a tribute to the magnificence of the nation’s public forests and a call for a “permanent rational policy” to govern their management. Muir’s contributions to the magazine over the next decade and a half illustrate why he became a conservation icon—and why today’s conservationists, including the Sierra Club’s own leaders and members, struggle with his legacy. Throughout his life, Muir expressed a radical empathy with the nonhuman world: “Nature’s object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all for the happiness of one,” he mused at the end of his 1,000-mile trek across the post–Civil War South in 1867. In My First Summer in the Sierra and in a series of Yosemite essays that The Atlantic published from 1898 to 1901, Muir not only praised the spectacular landscape but paused to appreciate the local lizards (“They bear acquaintance well”), a Douglas squirrel (“quick mountain vigor and valor condensed”), and—with some reservations—the “ferocious courage” of carpenter ants. He even accorded respect to gnats and mosquitoes, referring to them as “small people.”

Muir was less complimentary about many of his fellow humans. “A strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed, dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness,” he remarked in My First Summer in the Sierra after encountering a Mono deer hunter in Yosemite. Though the Mono and Miwok people had hunted, gathered, and resided in the valley for hundreds of years, if not more, Muir mused after another encounter that they “seemed to have no right place in the landscape,” and expressed his disgust at the sight of their unwashed faces.

Muir’s defenders point out that Muir also expressed great admiration for Native people, especially after he began making extended trips to Alaska in 1879. But in general, he had little regard for the human history of the landscapes he loved: His lyrical tribute to Yellowstone, published in The Atlantic in 1898, presents the dispossession of its Native residents as a positive development. (“No scalping Indians will you see,” Muir reassures the would-be tourist.) Such attitudes were shared by the European and North American conservationists who supported the establishment of parks and game reserves by colonial governments in Africa and elsewhere—unilateral designations that not only deprived longtime residents of land and livelihoods, but disrupted existing wildlife management practices and created enduring hostility toward international conservation efforts.

Fortunately, the movement Muir helped shape continues to evolve. In 1904, toward the end of a grueling round-the-world trip with Sargent, Muir floated the Whanganui, New Zealand’s longest navigable river. More than a century later, in 2017, the New Zealand Parliament recognized the river, its tributaries, and “all its physical and metaphysical elements” as a legal person. The Whanganui’s interests are now represented in court by two guardians, one chosen by the Maori groups most closely connected with the river and the other by the national government. The arrangement echoes Muir’s visionary empathy for nonhumans, and recognizes what he so often did not: that human relationships with a place are not obstacles to conservation, but indispensable to it.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath

By Sophie Gilbert

One of the thrills of reading Sylvia Plath is the abundance of versions to choose from. Sideline her poetry for a minute (just a minute) and you’re still left with her letters, almost 2,300 pages of performative exuberance and curated honesty riddled with exclamation points and yearning, many of them signed from “Sivvy.” Her journals are tides of emotion and experimentation unleashed upon the page. (“Oh, I bite,” she wrote in August 1951. “I bite on life like a sharp apple … I have a well, deep, clear, and tartly sweet, of living.”) Then there’s the vivid disaffection of her lone novel, The Bell Jar, published under a pseudonym in 1963, a recounting of the recurring depression that would lead to her death by suicide that same year.

Still, the version of Plath that endures over any other is poet. More so than virtually any other artist’s work, her poetry is impossible to judge on its own terms outside her mental illness and her abandonment by her husband—the poet Ted Hughes—because the writing that made her name is inextricable from both. “I write, at the present, in blood, or at least with it,” Plath wrote in a letter dated February 1963, the month she died. Ariel, the collection of poems mostly written in the last months of her life, comes in unnerving gasps of genius, raging with pain. This version of Plath, Hughes argues in the foreword to her journals, was her true self—the rest of her writings, he argues, are a “waste.”

It’s too easy to disagree. Plath was born in Boston in 1932, the daughter of Aurelia, a second-generation Austrian American, and Otto, a biologist who specialized in the study of honeybees. When Plath was 8, her father died; the following year, her first published poem appeared in the Boston Herald. However talented she was, Plath was equally ambitious—her letters tend to be dominated evenly by passion, humor, and what we might now call hustle, with pithy bites of envy in between. (“I keep reading about this damn adrienne cecile rich, only two years older than I, who is … regularly in all the top mags … Occasionally I retch quietly in the waste basket,” she wrote to a former boyfriend in 1955.)

While studying at Smith College in 1953, Plath won a national competition to become guest editor at Mademoiselle in New York. The prize was prestigious, but the experience she found tawdry and discombobulating. Later that summer, after receiving electroconvulsive therapy for a serious depressive episode that she later expounded upon in The Bell Jar, Plath made her first attempt to end her life. She was treated for the next several months at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts.

After returning to Smith to complete her thesis on Dostoyevsky, Plath received a Fulbright fellowship in 1955 that sent her to study English at the University of Cambridge. It was a happy time: A few months before she left, she’d also had her first poem published in The Atlantic, an event that prompted an immediate telegram to her mother followed by an ecstatic letter: “Such bliss! That fortress of Bostonian conservative respectability has been ‘charmed’ by your tight-rope walking daughter!” Plath was endearingly delighted with life in England. Her letters from the time effervesce with appreciation for her studies (“I feel as if I had planted a tree in new soil”), for Cambridge (“the little cobbled streets in the pink twilight”), and for her social life (“the ratio of men to women here is pleasantly 10 to 1”).

Cambridge was also where Plath met Hughes. Her account of their introduction is chaotic and violent: “When he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face.” In letters to her mother about Hughes, Plath was manic, exuberant about the poems she was writing and the excesses she was feeling. But she also seemed to sense something vital. Hughes, she wrote, “is a breaker of things, and of people.” They married within months, and Plath turned her focus into forging his career alongside hers—submitting poems and stories, planning fellowships, and managing their finances. Money was always short. In 1958, she expressed frustration with “the tardy Atlantic which has kept [our submissions] for the usual half year: they ought to reorganize: no other magazine in the world keeps submissions so long.”

In 1960, Plath gave birth to her and Hughes’s first child, Frieda. In the same year, she published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus. The concurrence of these events shows how intricately Plath’s identity as a mother was tied with her artistry as a writer, how determined she was to participate fully in both spheres and to nourish her creative self while raising children. It was an admirable ambition but a hefty burden. In 1962, a few months after giving birth to a son, Plath discovered Hughes was having an affair with an acquaintance. She started writing in furious stretches before the children woke up, which, she wrote, felt like “writing in a train tunnel, or God’s intestine.”

The poems that became Ariel are eerie, damaged, dazzling things, forged in physical and emotional darkness. They are blazing, and brazen. Plath invokes Holocaust imagery, sexual violence, radiation poisoning, and pestilence. She also enshrines her love for her children. Two poems about bees, which The Atlantic published in 1963 after her death, express wild swings between despair and hope—the corruption of life but the simultaneous promise of spring, of survival. No other poet could contain so much and make you believe all of it.

Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter

By Emma Sarappo

Katherine Anne Porter’s first novel, Ship of Fools, wasn’t published until she was 72 years old, but it was an instant hit. Mary Hemingway wrote that when she asked John F. Kennedy about Cuba over dinner, he instead wanted to discuss the book; its 1965 film adaptation starred José Ferrer and Vivien Leigh.

Before Ship, however, Porter was an accomplished short-story writer who had published four collections and won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize in the same year.

Her subtle and arresting prose, much of it inspired by personal experiences, follows young women confronting the expectations of adulthood, matriarchs holding their families together, cowardly men ruined by their own weaknesses. Her writing is often characterized by contempt for people who consider themselves good but lack conviction.

Her most enduring and acclaimed work may be Pale Horse, Pale Rider, her 1939 collection of three “short novels.” The title novella, set during the influenza pandemic of 1918, inspired a flurry of articles in the pandemic spring of 2020. Like much of her fiction, it takes its shape from her own life, following Miranda Gay, a Porter character who shows up in in multiple stories. Gay observes the world’s attempt to carry on as disease strikes her neighbors until she eventually catches the flu, and while she hovers close to death, her beau, a young American soldier named Adam Barclay, tends to her. When she finally comes out of her illness and rejoins the world, she learns Adam also caught influenza and died. The real-life Porter contracted and survived the 1918 flu, then learned of the death of a kind young man who’d helped her. The seriousness of her involvement with the inspiration for the Adam character is not entirely clear, and her writing on illness and dying may have drawn more extensively from her experience with tuberculosis. But Porter’s description of Miranda’s brush with death is indelible: “There it is, there it is at last, it is very simple; and soft carefully shaped words like oblivion and eternity are curtains hung before nothing at all,” she thinks as she hovers on the brink. She lives, but a part of her doesn’t return from the encounter.

“My life has been incredible, I don’t believe a word of it,” Porter once said. It’s an apt quotation, because Porter was famous for lying about, embellishing, or rewriting almost all the details of her background. She seemed unable to come to terms with the actual facts and was continually revising them. She contradicted her own reports of or misrepresented her age, her name, her number of marriages, her family, and her upbringing, both in public and in private. Her 1975 Atlantic article, “Notes on the Texas I Remember,” is full of misrepresentations of her family’s wealth and situation at the turn of the 20th century.

Texas loomed large for Porter, though her relationship with her home was complicated, and after she left it in 1918 she rarely returned. She presented herself as a wealthy, glamorous grande dame of the Old South and “a grandchild of a lost War.” (In fact, she grew up in poverty.) She cultivated friendships with members of the Southern Agrarians who stubbornly embraced Lost Cause apologia, and she expressed a deep fascination with the “old order” her entire life. “I’m a Southerner by tradition and inheritance, and I have a very profound feeling for the South … Maybe I’m just not Jewish enough, or Puritan enough, to feel that the sins of the father are visited on the third and fourth generations,” she told The Paris Review in 1963.

Porter’s affection for the antebellum South was not a fluke of nostalgia: Her racism, her anti-Semitism, her anti-feminism, and her homophobia, among other prejudices, were clear in her public statements and in her work. Her politics were prone to change on a whim, or for aesthetic reasons. She called herself left-leaning and spent her youth in close company with American and Mexican Communists but never committed herself to the cause. She almost certainly informed on her friend Josephine Herbst, a suspected Communist, to the FBI out of pique. She was an associate of the high-ranking Nazi Hermann Göring in the 1930s—but later wrote Ship of Fools as an allegory for the rise of German fascism, claimed to have been one of the first Americans raising the alarm about Hitler, and told students she’d met him and regretted not killing him. She could be untrustworthy in her dealings, wildly sensitive to criticism, and unable to sustain romantic relationships. She constantly blew deadlines, self-imposed or external. Her life and fiction were built on a belief that the world is split into saints and villains, and that the latter are less dangerous and more honest about their desires than “so-called innocents who stand by and allow others to perpetrate evil,” her biographer Joan Givner writes.

Porter’s reputation and fame both have suffered in the decades since her death. But during her far-fetched life and after it, her stories have consistently been praised as shining examples of American literature. Writing was her inescapable drive and the most important thing in her life: “I’ve never made a career of anything, you know, not even of writing,” she admitted to The Paris Review. “I started out with nothing in the world but a kind of passion, a driving desire. I don’t know where it came from, and I don’t know why—or why I have been so stubborn about it that nothing could deflect me. But this thing between me and my writing is the strongest bond I have ever had—stronger than any bond or any engagement with any human being or with any other work I’ve ever done.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt

By Helen Lewis

Eleanor Roosevelt was such an accomplished first lady that it is impossible to resist wondering how she would have handled the presidency. During her time in the White House—the longest of any presidential spouse—she was as visible as Franklin, and more powerful than any other woman in America. She toured the country, made speeches, and wrote a regular syndicated column. She championed difficult and divisive policy areas, such as housing reform and equal rights for women and racial minorities. And after Franklin died, she began a new act to her political career, as a delegate to the United Nations.

As a result, Eleanor has consistently topped the Siena College Research Institute’s poll of the best first ladies for the past 40 years. In common with many political wives, though, Eleanor was deeply reluctant to take on the job, hating both its exposure and its limitations. “I was happy for my husband,” she wrote in her autobiography. “But for myself I was deeply troubled. As I saw it, this meant the end of any personal life of my own.” As a natural writer, she was open about the demands of the role, but reflected on them without self-pity. “I was glad Mr. Churchill had come,” she wrote for The Atlantic in 1959, recalling a wartime summit between her husband and the British prime minister, “but I seemed to be an automaton in those days, registering neither fear nor joy but just accepting what had to be.”

Churchill wanted his bedroom in the White House to be outfitted with “plentiful supply of all the drinkables,” but such habits were alien to Eleanor. Her beloved, depressed father, Elliott, struggled with alcoholism, and died when she was 9 after jumping out of a window. (Her mother, an emotionally unavailable socialite, had died two years earlier.) She went to finishing school in England, where an inspirational teacher opened up the world to her, but returned to become a miserable, lonely debutante in New York. Her romance with her cousin Franklin was opposed by his mother, who later lived next door to the newlyweds and interfered in raising their six children. In 1918, Eleanor discovered Franklin’s affair with her social secretary Lucy Mercer; she was devastated, but Franklin refused her offer of a divorce, fearful of losing his burgeoning political career. Three years later, he developed polio, and was left permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Eleanor helped to nurse him through the illness.

These two events reconfigured the couple’s relationship, and it settled into a respectful partnership rather than a traditional marriage. (Mercer was with Franklin when he died in 1945.) The arrangement gave Eleanor what she most wanted: the freedom to follow her own interests. When Franklin became governor of New York in 1929, Eleanor supported his career but retained her independence, teaching several days a week at a girls’ school in New York.

Eleanor had to give up her paid work when Franklin became president in 1933, but refused to retreat into the background. One of her innovations as first lady was to hold a press conference solely for female reporters, which raised their value to their newsrooms. When Prohibition was repealed, she announced to these journalists that beer would be offered in the White House as soon as it was legal to do so. “This marked the first time the women reporters got a story that their male counterparts considered significant news,” the historian Maurine Hoffman Beasley writes in Eleanor Roosevelt and the Media. As well as a feminist gesture, this was good politics. The notoriously abstemious Eleanor could reassure the anxious temperance lobby that repealing the law would not lead to a national culture of drunken dissolution.

On a range of topics, Roosevelt was ahead of her time. She saw alcoholism as a disease, not a personal failing. She advocated for the desegregation of a housing project in Detroit—thus getting the blame for the subsequent riots—and resigned from Daughters of the American Revolution when the organization would not host the Black singer Marian Anderson. She also had passionate relationships with women, which many historians now believe were sexual. (At FDR’s inauguration, she wore a sapphire ring given to her by the lesbian journalist Lorena Hickok.)

In another age, Eleanor Roosevelt might have lived a very different life. She clearly struggled to reconcile herself to the expectations placed on a white, upper-class woman of the time, never mind the wife of a president. She wrote restlessly, endlessly, almost compulsively: Her syndicated column ran six days a week for nearly 30 years. What stands out most from her Atlantic essays is her reporter’s eye for detail. She took keen notice of the specifics of the food the Roosevelts served to the Churchills in December 1941, just weeks after Pearl Harbor—a visit, incidentally, that is begging to be made into a Netflix drama. “Sir Winston did not believe in suffering where it was not necessary to do so as far as food was concerned,” she wrote. “Something hot, something cold, two kinds of fresh fruit, a tumbler of orange juice, and a pot of weak tea were suggested for his breakfast tray.” These are not just gossipy domestic details; Churchill was particularly grateful for the Roosevelts’ hospitality because of the extensive rationing in place at home. His longing for a roast dinner—“Like all Englishmen he was very fond of beef in every form”—is used to illustrate the unequal toll of the war on Europe and the United States.

As well as being schooled in England, Roosevelt was widely traveled. This helped her avoid the myopia that can afflict even the most cosmopolitan Americans—an unfortunate tendency to see the U.S. as not just the greatest country on Earth, but the center of the universe. In a 1961 article for The Atlantic, she wondered whether decolonization would mean the loss of American influence abroad, and the chance for its young people to experience other cultures. Were young Americans, she asked, “being prepared to take their faith in democracy to the world along with their skills?” And, more pointed: “Have they acquired an ability to live and work among peoples of different religion and race and color, without arrogance and without prejudice?” (This would still be a provocative question for a first lady to ask today.)

That article ends with a tacit endorsement of John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps, which Roosevelt framed as an example not of dreamy idealism, but of hardheaded realpolitik. The Soviets were propagandizing for their way of life, so why not the United States? In closing, she addressed young Americans with words that might also have been her motto: “Do not stop thinking of life as an adventure. You have no security unless you can live bravely, excitingly, and imaginatively; unless you can choose a challenge instead of a competence.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe

By Elizabeth Bruenig

In June of 1811, in a rustic Congregational parsonage in Litchfield, Connecticut, Lyman Beecher and his wife Roxana Foote welcomed their seventh child, a daughter named Harriet. She was born into a household dense with company: Aside from serving as Litchfield’s Congregational pastor, Beecher and his wife also took on boarders, housed traveling preachers, retained two Black indentured servants, and shared a roof with a rotating cast of extended family. The sprawling Beecher clan consisted, almost to a person, of vivid, eccentric characters.

Lyman Beecher was a product of the Second Great Awakening who devoted himself eagerly to the causes of temperance, ending dueling, and the bracing, soul-stripping repentance that was thought to lead to true conversion in the period’s Puritan-inflected Calvinist milieu. Yet with respect to the most urgent ethical and political matter of his day—human chattel slavery in America—Beecher’s zeal was conspicuously muted: Over time, the minister shifted from advocating a policy of “colonization,” that is, exiling free Black people to a colony in West Africa; to serving as a kind of mediator between colonizationist and abolitionist thinkers in his New England circles; to eventually, perhaps, entertaining (mostly private) conservative abolitionist sympathies himself.

In 1834, Beecher’s conflicted feelings regarding slavery and his habit of never quite matching the hour happened to align aspiciously for Harriet, by then 22. At the time, Beecher was serving as the president of Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, though his administrative efforts appear to have been primarily focused on raising funds. Students led by the abolitionist Theodore Weld organized nine evenings of public lectures, testimonies, and conversations about slavery, concluding with a vote: colonization, or abolitionism?

Abolitionism won, antislavery activism exploded at Lane, and the school’s trustees panicked. Harriet, who possibly witnessed, and certainly heard accounts of, the debates from her family, was intrigued. Though she shared her father’s intense Christian faith, Harriet’s experience of the religion was decidedly less strident and formulaic than Beecher’s, and much more spiritual, searching, and sacramental: For her, the unfortunate fact of human wickedness need not be taken as a reason to abandon attempts at progress. (Like her mother, Harriet eventually became an Episcopalian.) She was moved by innocent suffering, and she believed it could be stopped, at least in certain forms. During the uproar over antislavery activism at Lane, Harriet accompanied her father and the then–newly widowed biblical-languages professor Calvin Stowe to a meeting of clergy held at the home of Reverend John Rankin, who told a story about:

“a Kentucky slave mother having been harshly treated by her mistress, [who] took her child in her arms and in the night started for Canada … The river was frozen over and a thaw had come so the water was running over the ice, which was just ready to break up. She waded across …”

The image of a Black woman escaping slavery, babe in arms, braving a threat terrifying to the the well-heeled white men who spent so much time debating her fate, would surface some years later in Harriet’s most celebrated novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. By the time the book was published, in March of 1852, Harriet had been writing professionally for several years, supplementing the meager income Calvin, now her husband, earned teaching. As for many working mothers, then and now, Harriet’s time was divided between caring for her children—she would eventually bear seven—and her work; over her lifetime she produced more than two dozen novels, short stories, memoirs, articles, and essays. “If you see my name coming out everywhere, you may be sure of one thing, that I do it for the pay,” she wrote a friend in 1838.

But also for love. Harriet’s antislavery writing, she said, was unique to her role as a woman and a mother. “You have spoken of my article as unladylike,” she wrote to one New York Observer editor who had attacked her character over one of her essays, but “there are some occasions when a true woman must and will be unladylike. If a ruffian attacks her children, she will defend them even at a risk of appearing unladylike & you may be sure that whenever a poisoned dagger is lifted to stab the nobly unfortunate in the back that some woman’s hand will always be found between its point & his heart.” For Harriet, who had lost her beloved 18-month-old son Charley to a cholera epidemic in 1849, the torture of slavery, symbolized for her by the woman fleeing slavery with her sweet baby borne up close against her in the half-frozen river, was something no soul touched by love could countenance. She put her womanhood up as collateral in the public eye to fight it.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an unqualified literary and financial success, but perhaps more important for Harriet, the novel advanced three of her most earnestly held goals: It widely popularized the cause of abolition, spread her vision of a spiritual and merciful Christianity, and secured her place in the American literary canon. By age 46, Harriet had talent and credibility to share, and she lent a healthy dose of each to a fledgling magazine with abolitionist leanings: The Atlantic. She helped inaugurate the American institution’s maiden issue with “The Mourning Veil,” a melancholy, mesmerizing reflection on a mother’s growth through grief for her beloved dead child.

“Olivia became known in the abodes of sorrow,” Harriet wrote of her bereaved protagonist, a character who, not unlike her author, gains a new sort of strength behind her black mourning veil, “and a deep power seemed given her to console the suffering and distressed. A deeper power of love sprung up within her; and love, though born of sorrow, ever brings peace with it. Many were the hearts that reposed on her; many the wandering that she reclaimed, the wavering that she upheld, the desolate that she comforted.”

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

By Robinson Meyer

There is a basic problem with discussions of Henry David Thoreau, an issue that ails accounts of every Famous Writer but that is particularly acute with him. It is the idea—the lie, really—that he knew what he was doing. Thoreau’s canonical status in American culture—the fact that he’s assigned in school, or that Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. found inspiration in his work—gives the impression that we can take his ideas down and admire them whole, like a fine ashtray. Thoreau, it seems, wanted to be seen as a secular sage, strove to live his life as a work of art. But out of kindness to him and ourselves, we should decline to play along. Thoreau was a resident of the greater Boston area, who made wrong turns, who sent cranky letters to his editor, and who got awkward when someone had an unwanted crush on him. By seeing him as more-than-a-person, we miss out on one of the biggest questions about him, an argument that has been ongoing since his early 20s. It is this: Was Henry a genius and a saint, or was he very annoying?

He was born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, son of a pencil-maker. A happy moment to be a free American: The country was victorious after the War of 1812, and Massachusetts one of its economic engines. Harvard-educated. While still a student, he meets Ralph Waldo Emerson, 14 years his senior and already an icon, who became a kind of stand-in father. At 24, he moves in with the Emersons. At 27, he moves to Walden Pond. (His mother keeps doing his laundry.) His first book, published at age 32, fails. His second, Walden, published at 37, is a success. It is now 1854. He is a writer in his own right. And now the drama starts.

The Atlantic was founded in 1857. James Russell Lowell, the magazine’s first editor, soon asks Thoreau to submit something. The two men have a history. About a decade earlier, Lowell wrote a poem that ridiculed Thoreau’s height and implied that he was just a knockoff of his mentor:

There comes [Thoreau], for instance; to see him’s rare sport,
Tread in Emerson’s tracks with legs painfully short;

Yet Thoreau gamely submits an account of his time in the Maine woods. Lowell runs it, but cuts a worshipful sentence about an evergreen tree. (The sentence has been restored online.) Outraged, Thoreau swears that he’ll never write for the magazine as long as Lowell edits it.

He didn’t have that chance. Thoreau died of tuberculosis in 1862, a year after Lowell left his post. But now Emerson steps in. He writes a startlingly honest eulogy for his friend, which The Atlantic runs; it also publishes “Walking,” one of Thoreau’s finest essays. From then on, the magazine, which barely published Thoreau while he was alive, championed him as “one of their own,” the literary scholar Daniel A. Wells writes. It excerpted his posthumous books, rushed extracts of his journals to print. By the end of the century, writers were grumbling about “the cult of Thoreau,” but The Atlantic was arranging pilgrimages to Walden Pond.

Lowell, meanwhile, became Thoreau’s biggest critic. “We look upon a great deal of the modern sentimentalism about Nature as a mark of disease,” he wrote in the rival North American Review, of which he was now the editor. “To a healthy mind, the world is a constant challenge of opportunity. Mr. Thoreau had not a healthy mind.” The Review attacked Thoreau as a tedious egotist for the next half century.

To some degree, that old fight persists. In 2015, Kathryn Schulz outlined Thoreau’s bore-ish traits in The New Yorker; Jedediah Britton-Purdy, a Columbia law professor, defended him in The Atlantic.

Who was right? Well, look. He does not seem to have been a very fun hang. In his eulogy for Thoreau, Emerson wrote that young men, experiencing what we would now call a quarter-life crisis, would meet him and realize that this utter weirdo had it, the sense of purpose they had been craving: “This was the man they were in search of, the man of men, who could tell them all they should do.” As soon as they got that look in their face, Thoreau shut down. He would ignore them at the dinner table, decline their invitations to go walking. He turned down free trips to the Yellowstone River and South America, Emerson reported, out of aloofness.

This is, remember, how Thoreau was described by a close friend in a eulogy. But the men had it good by comparison. With a few significant exceptions, Thoreau found women boring, feeble, and “an army of non-producers.” (Incredible criticism from a man who, by his own account, took four-hour hikes every day.) “It requires nothing less than a chivalric feeling to sustain a conversation with a lady,” he journaled. Some scholars have chalked this antipathy up to a confused homosexuality; he was, at the very least, flummoxed by his own body his entire life.

Aloof, irritable, misogynist—yes, so, why read Thoreau? There are two reasons. The first is that he arrived at the right answer on the greatest moral crisis of his time: He knew that chattel slavery, then essential to the American economy, was a crime against humanity, and he knew that violence was permissible to tear it down. And the second is that he had one exemplary skill: He was a writer. He put his eyes on the world, and that lonely, pure, hypocritical dynamo of a mind spat out insight, asides, quips, profundities. He excels as a writer of attention, of experience, of the thoughts that flicker across our mind on long walks or long drives before vanishing forever. He captured what it’s like to live from moment to moment—which is to say, what it’s like to live.

Take the final cascade of images at the end of “Walking.” He is on one of his hours-long walks through a local farm. The stroll has taken him into the late afternoon. “I saw the setting sun lighting up the opposite side of a stately pine wood,” he reports. “Its golden rays straggled into the aisles of the wood as into some noble hall.”

And suddenly, he is in that hall. He has walked into an ancient mansion, owned by an invisible family, “admirable and shining,” that had lived in Concord for centuries. “The pines furnished them with gables as they grew. Their house was not obvious to vision; the trees grew through it. I do not know whether I heard the sounds of a suppressed hilarity or not. They seemed to recline on the sunbeams. They have sons and daughters. They are quite well.”

His attention caresses the world, enchants it. We are there with him, aside that eternal family in that sun-kissed hall. But Henry is too honest to leave us on that daydream. The world is always a little more disappointing than we want. So he shares what happened next: He forgot about the whole thing. “It is only after a long and serious effort to recollect my best thoughts that I become again aware of [the family’s] cohabitancy,” he admits. “They fade irrevocably out of my mind even now while I speak.”

Thoreau was independent, aggrieved, motivated by a highly idiosyncratic sense of aesthetics and a full-body adoration of liberty. He resented his neighbors but loved humanity. He was excruciatingly American of a certain type: He is the forefather of UFOlogists, Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, effective altruists, and minimalist UX designers. He would have loved open-source software. Like certain libertarians and Communists, he married a hatred of everyday political intercourse with an absolute optimism about the future and an unshakeable faith in the ultimate goodness of humanity.

On the one hand, that hopefulness, that trust in other people and mistrust in institutions, is the bedrock of democracy. On the other hand, it is ripe for abuse and appropriation; there is currently a Mazda commercial that quotes him. But “Walking” gives us a sense of where he drew that hope: from novelty, from growth, and from expansion—imperial or otherwise. (Despite revering the wisdom of America’s Indigenous population, whole swaths of “Walking” treat their genocide as inevitable.) Although he never went to California, he would have loved the Californian ideology. But unlike advertising—unlike the politicians he loathed, and unlike all of us on the internet, every day—he did not lie. A saintly trait, that.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

By James Parker

People with as much profane American energy coursing through them as Mark Twain do not usually end up wealthy and celebrated and artistically triumphant; they end up in jail, or in locked wards, or on the street. Or in politics. But Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Missouri in 1835, was a miracle of adaptiveness. Up through the crust of his personality it came, red-hot American magma, the wild innocence and overwhelming violence of a nation that was forming in his time as it is forming in ours.

It was unmanageable but he managed it—just. He suffered fits of rage and deep depressions. He was made of complexity: a prude who liked masturbation jokes, an iconoclast who worshipped justice, shrewd about so many things, nakedly credulous about so many others, tremendous ego, tremendous doubts. He made piles of money, spent piles of money, went bankrupt, had to go on tour like a jaded rock band to pay off his debts. He loathed his rivals with unnerving fixity. He once described the Beatitudes, the words spoken by Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount —“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” etc.—as a sequence of “immense sarcasms.”

His superpower was his literary style. It was subtle; it was ferocious; it was scornful; it was generous. Earthly humor, but with a transcendent reference point: humor under the light of a God that he likely didn’t, finally, believe in. The resilience and capacity of this style allowed him to experience in full the nature of his country, and himself as a part of that nature.

He was prolific in that titanic 19th-century way: journalism, satire, memoir, polemic, fiction, on and on unstoppably. Almost nothing was beneath his notice. An 1880 essay for The Atlantic, in which he recorded his experience with a telephone, produced a very modern moment: “Then followed that queerest of all the queer things in this world,—a conversation with only one end to it. You hear questions asked; you don’t hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise, or sorrow, or dismay.” With Huckleberry Finn, he made himself a mandarin of the vernacular: a pioneer, like Walt Whitman, of the great American monologue. Think of that voice, down the line, splintering and refracting in the Dream Songs of John Berryman; think of it today on the stages of a thousand comedy clubs.

The older he got, the madder he got. And wiser too, in his way. He had to effect an escape from his time. Elitism, herd thinking, stale piety, injustice, moral numbness—for Twain, all found their apotheosis in the crime of slavery (though his early writings about Native Americans were genocidally hostile). Man, he wrote, is “the only animal who enslaves.” We can say that he helped America come to consciousness.

Armed with his twin weapons of irony and bombast, he went forth. Like a knight. Or a jester: the shuffling showman in the white suit, behind mouth-obscuring whiskers, who sought restlessly and intuitively the line between his own extremity and the capacities of his audience. Sometimes he got it wrong: Delivering an after-dinner speech before the cream of Boston literary society in 1877, he told a long joke about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, all of whom were present, that—to put it in contemporary terms—bombed. The joke, in which the three illustrious men of letters were impersonated by tramps, was well meant, but Twain would remember forever the “sort of black frost” that congealed over the faces of his listeners after the first 200 words.

With astonishing regularity, however, he got it right: To recite one of the many proverbs attributed to him—“Give a man a reputation as an early riser and that man can sleep till noon every day,” “The lack of money is the root of all evil”—is to feel that one is channeling a rare expertise, knowledge scraped up on the far side of experience. “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened”: That one, so perfect, so true, is a misattribution, apparently. He never said it or wrote it. Which is somehow even more Mark Twain.

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

By Adam Harris

On September 18, 1895, Booker T. Washington stood in front of a crowd of thousands of mostly white southerners and presented competing visions of the region’s future: shared progress, or mutually assured destruction. “One-third of the population of the South is of the Negro race,” Washington told the audience who had gathered in Atlanta for the Cotton States and International Exposition—a world’s fair of sorts designed to highlight the economic progress the South had made in the past few years. Given the recent rise in lynchings in the region, organizers wanted to address race and racial progress as well, which Washington, the leader of the esteemed Tuskegee Institute, did with moral force. “We shall contribute one-third to the business and industrial prosperity of the South,” Washington told the audience, “or we shall prove a veritable body of death,” which would lead the region to stagnate.

In his address, which came to be known as the Atlanta Compromise, Washington argued that “agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly.” Instead, Black Americans should focus their efforts on improving their lot in life through labor. “The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar,” he said. As Washington saw it, if Black people could—through their work—exert economic influence, then social and political progress would necessarily follow. “It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.”

His speech was interrupted three times for raucous applause—once for five minutes. And the next day, newspapers from Washington state to New York hailed his “impressiveness and eloquence.” W. E. B. Du Bois, who later offered sharp criticisms of the philosophy, sent a handwritten note to say that the address had been “a word fitly spoken,” and it propelled Washington’s career as a spokesperson for Black America. Though Washington’s views on racial progress are often oversimplified as accommodationist—and many charge that his intent was to perpetuate an economic system where Black people consistently lived in the lower rungs of society—the speech offered an expansive vision of where Black self-reliance might lead.

A year later, in the September 1896 issue of The Atlantic, Washington further developed his vision. In his writing as in his public addresses, Washington frequently drew on threads from his own life—and those of others—to wrest whatever elucidating details about the American experience he could. Abstractions, Washington knew, were less effective than narrative.

He wrote of his childhood in a one-room log hut on a Virginia plantation, his work in the coal mines of West Virginia, and his trek to Hampton Institute, now known as Hampton University, where he graduated with honors. “When I learned that it was an institution where a black boy could study, could have a chance to work for his board, and at the same time be taught how to work and to realize the dignity of labor, I resolved to go there,” he wrote in “The Awakening of the Negro.” Hampton is where he learned what it meant to be a man rather than property, and where the idea of education in pursuit of a practical skill became central to his worldview. “In a word, the constant aim is to show the student how to put brains into every process of labor; how to bring his knowledge of mathematics and the sciences into farming, carpentry, forging, foundry work; how to dispense as soon as possible with the old form of ante-bellum labor.”

After Washington’s time at Hampton, he moved farther south to Alabama to teach students the lessons he’d learned there. “Nothing else so soon brings about right relations between the two races in the South as the industrial progress of the negro,” he believed.

But his aims didn’t end with students going out into the world armed with knowledge and ability. “Let us go on for a few more years knitting our business and industrial relations into those of the white man, till a black man gets a mortgage on a white man’s house that he can foreclose at will … Whether he will or not, a white man respects a negro who owns a two-story brick house,” he wrote. The goal, then, was to build wealth and economic power until social equality was not a request but an inevitability.

The success of Washington’s proposal rested on an optimistic foundation, and the idea that white supremacy would allow such material gains for Black Americans en masse. In the November 1899 issue of The Atlantic, he enumerated the pillars necessary for his plan’s viability: Black people must be allowed to be educated, be permitted to buy land and buildings, have access to employment, and be “treated with respect in the business world.” A year and a half later, in 1901, a group of white men in Alabama convened a constitutional convention to, as the convention’s president put it, “establish white supremacy in the state.” They ultimately signed off on a document that created new voter-suppression laws and would codify segregated public schools—those they severely underfunded for generations to come.

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton

By Amy Weiss-Meyer

Edith Wharton’s fictional characters always appeared to her complete with their names. To change those names, Wharton wrote in her essay “Confessions of a Novelist,” which appeared in The Atlantic in April 1933, was, for most of her career, not an option: “For many years the attempt always ended fatally; any character I unchristened instantly died on my hands, as if it were some kind of sensitive crustacean, and the name it bore were its shell.”

By the time her essay appeared in this magazine, the 71-year-old author was widely admired for her novels, among them The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), for which she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. But Wharton’s tone in her Atlantic essay is studiously humble. “I shall try to say something of the growth and unfolding of the plants in my secret garden, from the seed to the shrub-top,” she promised, “for heaven forbid that I should try to magnify my vegetation into trees!” Rather than examine the theory or technique of fiction, she aimed to explore “the question of how some of my own novels happened to me.”

Wharton’s work had first been published in The Atlantic more than 50 years earlier, well before she was known as a preeminent chronicler of Gilded Age manners; her habit of telling stories about the world around her began earlier still. Born Edith Jones in 1862, she grew up in a wealthy New York society family, the much-younger sister of two older brothers. The Joneses spent much of Edith’s childhood in Europe, where she learned French, Italian, and German, and cultivated the practice she called making up, imagining the lives of “the ladies and gentlemen who came to dine, whom I saw riding and driving in the Bois de Boulogne.” In Rome, according to Hermione Lee’s biography of Wharton, Edith and her friend Margaret “Daisy” Terry—a niece of Julia Ward Howe—spent hours at the windows, observing life outside the palazzo where the Terrys lived.

Edith’s family returned to New York in 1872, when she was 10. According to Lee, it was around this time that she began to write “blank verse dramas, sermons, lyric poems and stories.” She read voraciously from her father’s library—plays, poetry, folklore, history, philosophy—but was forbidden by her mother from reading novels before marriage, a prohibition she apparently obeyed. Later, Wharton would be intensely critical of what she saw as a disdain for literary culture in her parents’ social milieu. “In the eyes of our provincial society,” she wrote in her 1934 memoir, “authorship was still regarded as something between a black art and a form of manual labor.”

Still, the Jones family was not entirely unconnected from the world of literature. In 1880, when Edith was 18, her brother Harry sent some of her poems to an editor he knew, who sent them to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who in turn sent them to William Dean Howells, this magazine’s third editor, who published five of the teenager’s poems. But after this early success, her writing career stalled. Her father died in 1882. In 1885, she married Edward “Teddy” Wharton. She spent much of her 20s and 30s in poor health.

The Whartons traveled extensively in Europe during their marriage, and Edith eventually moved permanently to France after their 1913 divorce. Much of Wharton’s writing in The Atlantic, fiction and nonfiction alike, draws on these experiences, showcasing the pride she took in her ability to find—and appreciate—the truly authentic on the continent, along with her thinly veiled scorn for those who lacked that savoir faire. “It is not easy, in the height of the Swiss season, to light on a nook neglect­ed by the pervasive tourist,” Wharton writes in a dispatch from Splügen, Switzerland, later published in her 1905 collection Italian Backgrounds. “One’s enjoyment of the place is thus enhanced by the spectacle of the misguided hundreds who pass it by.” The means of travel mattered, too: a car allowed for “the delight of taking a town unawares, steal­ing on it by back ways and unchronicled paths,” she wrote in another Atlantic essay on a trip through France. (The railway, by contrast, enforced “the bondage to fixed hours and the beaten track.”)

Wharton’s cultural elitism naturally extended to her home country as well. “In the 1900s,” Lee writes in her biography, “her letters are full of attacks on American culture and literary declines.” One exception to this trend, as Wharton saw it, was The Atlantic. In 1905 she wrote to Bliss Perry, the magazine’s editor, to say that she admired him for “maintaining the tradition of what a good magazine should be, in the face of our howling mob of critics & readers.” Wharton hoped, she said, that “the Atlantic will long continue to nurse its little flame of sweetness & light in the chaotic darkness of American ‘literary’ conditions.”

Wharton worried also about the quality of the critical reception of her own writing, the “densities of incomprehension.” “As my work reaches its close,” she wrote to her old friend Daisy in 1925, “I feel so sure that it is either nothing, or far more than they know … And I wonder, a little desolately, which?”

But by the end of her life, she seemed, publicly, at least, to be more at peace with the “howling mob of critics & readers.” “The novelist’s best safeguard is to try to put out of his mind the quality of the praise or blame likely to be meted out to him by reviewers and readers,” she wrote in her 1933 Atlantic essay, “and to write only for that dispassionate and ironic critic who dwells within the breast.”

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

By David A. Graham

In 1895, a hotshot young professor wrote in The Atlantic in praise of the “literary politician.” The type was rare, he admitted: The professor had little regard for the elected official who po-facedly quotes from great poets while opposing political reforms, nor for the writer who succeeds in print but is defeated “at the hands of the men who control the primaries.” Instead, he was thinking of “the man who has the genius to see deep into affairs, and the discretion to keep out of them.”

The exemplar was Walter Bagehot, the professor argued, and he imagined himself as the British journalist’s American inheritor. Like Bagehot, he’d risen from the provinces; studied the law, then abandoned it; and written a seminal work on constitutional government in his own country. He was now a chaired professor and prominent public intellectual.

But somewhere along the way, Woodrow Wilson either changed his mind or lost his discretion. Within 20 years, he would be president of the United States, capping a dizzying rise to the nation’s highest office—one he helped make even more important.

Wilson was born in Virginia in 1856 and raised across the South, following his father’s work as a Presbyterian minister. He graduated from the College of New Jersey, then passed the bar. While practicing law in Atlanta, he met and impressed a young journalist from North Carolina named Walter Hines Page, who told a friend that Wilson “has one of the finest minds in America. Keep your eye on him!” But Wilson disliked legal work and entered graduate school. Even before earning his doctorate, he made his name with a book on the American system of government, modeled on Bagehot’s The English Constitution. By 1890, he’d been hired at his alma mater. By 1902, it had been renamed Princeton and he was its president.

Wilson and Page embodied the post–Civil War resurgence of the southern gentry. Each pursued national reconciliation in his own way, and both rose to lead venerable Yankee institutions. Between writing more books, Wilson contributed to The Atlantic starting in 1886; Page, meanwhile became the magazine’s associate editor (on Wilson’s recommendation) in 1895, and quickly rose to the editorship.

But Wilson soon moved from merely writing history books to appearing in them. In 1910, Democratic leaders in New Jersey recruited him as a candidate for governor. He agreed on condition of a unanimous nomination—not for him the snares of “the men who control the primaries”—and won. Two years later, he became the first southerner and second Democrat to be elected president since the Civil War.

Wilson’s administration was eventful. He oversaw the creation of the Federal Reserve, instituted a national income tax, and continued the trust-busting of his predecessors Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. When World War I broke out, he resisted American entry, but Page, whose support had been rewarded with the ambassadorship to the United Kingdom, eventually helped persuade the president to intervene. After the war, Wilson formulated a plan for the League of Nations, but he struggled to implement it after being partially debilitated by a stroke.

Wilson’s path from the ivory tower to the White House is unimaginable today. Some modern presidents are very smart, but no ambitious contemporary national politician would view an academic career as an asset—and many would reasonably think it a disadvantage. Even Wilson might have admitted his pedigree was unusual: In an 1897 Atlantic essay, he attributed President Grover Cleveland’s success to his being a “somewhat unsophisticated man of action.”

Though Wilson could be didactic, and lacked Bagehot’s wit, some of his writing is keen, even epigrammatic, like this description of the American temperament: “We printed the SELF large and the government small in almost every administrative arrangement we made; and that is still our attitude and preference.” Other insights have remained relevant: “We may learn by some sad experience that there is not even yet any common standard, either of opinion or of policy, underlying our national life.”

Wilson’s political ideas remain hugely influential, as the former Atlantic staffer Ross Douthat has argued, but his reputation has fallen, for reasons his Atlantic work shows. Contemporary conservative commentators have portrayed Wilson as the father of big government and expansive executive authority. Though sometimes hyperbolic, they aren’t wrong: Wilson wrote in The Atlantic about the importance of presidential power and the need to rein in corporations.

Despite these instincts, Wilson has few defenders among contemporary progressives; even Princeton removed his name from its public-policy school in 2020.

The liberals aren’t wrong, either. Wilson was demonstrably racist and colonialist. While president, he segregated the federal bureaucracy and infamously screened The Birth of a Nation at the White House. In his journalism, he took a paternalistic approach to residents of a new American territory: “They are children and we are men in these deep matters of government and justice.” And he railed against Reconstruction, saying that it had created a “perilous state of affairs”: “a laboring, landless, homeless class, once slaves, now free; unpracticed in liberty, unschooled in self-control; never sobered by the discipline of self-support, never established in any habit of prudence; excited by a freedom they did not understand, exalted by false hopes; bewildered and without leaders, and yet insolent and aggressive; sick of work, covetous of pleasure, — a host of dusky children untimely put out of school.”

Nearly two decades after Bagehot died, Wilson lamented that his hero’s “fame is still singularly disproportioned to his charm.” Wilson has now been dead for more than a century, but he has never slipped into the obscurity that usually consumes even academic stars. It is a tainted fame, but perhaps notoriety is the price of forsaking a career as a literary politician to become a very successful electoral one.