*The American Scholar

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The American Scholar

American journal, 1932–
Every issue of the current American Scholar begins with a personal essay by “Aristides,” the nom de plume of editor and renowned essayist Joseph Epstein. His familiar writing on such topics as napping, name-dropping, and personal musical tastes is not at all academic in the traditional sense, but then, despite its title, the American Scholar is not a traditional scholarly journal. Rather it draws its name from the 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard University by the great American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who enlarged the definition of a scholar to “man thinking.” In this speech, which James Russell Lowell called “an event without any former parallel in our literary
annals” and Oliver Wendell Holmes hailed as “our intellectual Declaration of Independence,” Emerson declared that “Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier.” Unfortunately, Emerson concluded, in our time these functions have been divided one from another so that each person inhabits only one aspect of his or her
potential. The American Scholar strives to mitigate this trend by helping its readers embrace all aspects of this Emersonian selfhood.
The American Scholar began publication in 1932, as the successor to the Phi Beta Kappa Key, publishing for members of PBK (the national academic honor society) as well as “for all who have general intellectual interests.” In its first issue, the editorial board promised that the American Scholar would be “devoted to general scholarship,” an assurance reiterated over 60 years later by the current editorial team, who characterized the publication as “fill[ing] the gap between learned journals and good magazines for a popular audience.” In its current format, each quarterly issue leads off with general essays, followed by more specifically topical essays (marked by their smaller print) on the arts, sciences, social sciences, literature, politics, legal issues, and current events, as well as categories such as “memoir” and “reappraisal.” Book reviews, some poetry, and the occasional book excerpt fill out the journal’s offerings; as one reviewer noted, it is
“an ideal magazine to be read leisurely.” Commenting on the magazine’s continuing interest in the current affairs of the world, the Winter 1939–40 editorial noted that “The table of contents of a journal of contemporary thought, such as The American Scholar aspires to be, may reflect, more than its editors are aware, the salient features of the
modern scene.”
Although the magazine’s first essays were strictly formal, by the 1940s the tone was becoming increasingly familiar as the journal began including more addresses and speeches, thus easing its transition into publishing informal essays. It is this personal tone, one which recognizes that sophisticated and erudite readers not only appreciate
serious discussion about wide-ranging issues but also have both a compassionate interest in their fellow humans and a sense of humor, that remains at the forefront of the American Scholar’s publishing sensibility. During much of its history, the magazine has included in every issue a long-running series of familiar essays by a single author,
including philosopher Irwin Edman’s “Under Whatever Sky” (1945–54), Joseph Wood Krutch’s “If You Don’t Mind My Saying So” (1955–70), and Epstein’s quarterly “Aristides” essay (1975–). While the journal has also regularly published more formal essays, including René Dubos’ “The Despairing Optimist” series (1970–77), it is the magazine’s personal, informal essays, following in the tradition of Addison, Steele, Edmund Burke, and Montaigne, that have contributed to the popularity of the essay form in contemporary culture. According to Epstein, “The familiar essayist lives, and takes his professional sustenance, in the everyday flow of things,” and the American audience has responded well, giving the journal a circulation of 26,000 (as of 1993), large for a magazine of its type. The American Scholar has clearly played a leading role in
claiming for the personal essay its own territory in the American literary landscape.
For a magazine so long-lived, the American Scholar has had a remarkable consistency of editors. The founding editor, William Allison Shimer, held that position until 1943, when he joined the armed forces to fight in World War II. Marjorie Hope Nicolson, president of the United Chapters of PBK, served as interim editor for one year before handing over the reins to Hiram Haydn, editor from Autumn 1944 until his death in 1973.
During Haydn’s tenure, the magazine was subtitled “A Quarterly for the Independent Thinker,” reminding readers of the journal’s Emersonian roots. Following Haydn’s death, editorial board member Peter Gay served as acting editor for two issues until Joseph Epstein stepped into the editorial role, a position he still holds. This consistency of leadership has also been expressed in the journal’s physical appearance, for the packaging of the magazine remains very similar to that of the first issue—quiet, understated, and discreet. The editorial board has seen far more diversity, having included such disparate thinkers as Hannah Arendt, Jacques Barzun, Saul Bellow, Ralph
Ellison, Erik Erikson, John Erskine, John Kenneth Galbraith, Clifford Geertz, Lillian Hellman, Randall Jarrell, Judith Martin, Margaret Mead, Daniel P.Moynihan, and Robert Penn Warren, many of whom are themselves innovators of the essay in its various manifestations.
In Winter 1976–77, the editors paused to commemorate the Phi Beta Kappa bicentennial and reexamine the purpose of the American Scholar, one of the honor society’s major public activities. Epstein and the editorial board noted that the journal— and by extension the essay genre itself—linked society and the intellectual world, striving
to play the same role that David Hume (quoted in that issue’s editorial) attributed to his own essay writing: “I cannot but consider myself as a kind of resident or ambassador from the dominions of learning to those of conversation, and shall think it my constant duty to promote a good correspondence betwixt these two states, which have so great a
dependence on each other.” In fulfilling this function, the American Scholar has changed its focus very little over the years. Echoing the journal’s first editorial policy, Epstein recently remarked, “We hope chiefly to be interesting and entertaining to people who are
interested in ideas and culture”—people, that is, who are American Scholars.


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