*The Atlantic Monthly
The Atlantic Monthly
American magazine, 1857–
The Atlantic Monthly was founded in Boston in 1857 by Francis Underwood (an assistant to the publisher Moses Phillips) and a group of New England writers including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Underwood had been trying for several years to launch a uniquely
American magazine that would publish primarily contributions from American writers— in contrast to other magazines in New York which relied heavily on pirating or importing English authors—and was finally able to get backing because he had the assurance of contributions not only from his founding collaborators but also from other important and
popular writers of the time such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
Underwood and his cofounders, all Yankee humanists, had two additional goals. First, they intended the Atlantic to be an agent for propagating their own high ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual values; none of them doubted, as Higginson himself explained, that New England “was appointed to guide the nation, to humanize it,” and the Atlantic was the focal point of this cultural mission. Second, and more specifically, the group wanted “to bring the literary influence of New England to aid the antislavery cause.”
Lowell, popular as a poet and widely known for his spirited patriotism, agreed to be the first editor. Under his editorship (1857–61), essays in the Atlantic were characteristically literary, using brief observations of contemporary life as springboards for speculations on immutable truths of morality or human nature. During James T.Fields’ tenure as editor (1861–71), the magazine tried to increase its popularity, in part by publishing essays which were more journalistic than philosophical, observing and recording the contemporary scene. Their subjects were more topical, their styles more direct and concrete. Fields also solicited travel sketches—especially the ones by Hawthorne which later became Our Old Home (1863)—and, knowing that half of his readers were women, he eagerly published several long series of domestic essays. These series, many of their entries written by Stowe under the masculine pseudonym Christopher Crowfield, influenced Harper’s to initiate a domestic department—an imitation which suggested the two magazines were beginning to compete for readers.
Even with his eye toward a more general reading public, Fields did not deviate from the magazine’s original goal of being a forum for the presentation of ideas. In fact, he published, among other essays of intellectual debate and inquiry, both Emerson’s essay on Thoreau, Thoreau’s own “Life Without Principle,” Henry James, Sr.’s four-part investigation of the ethics of marriage, and Louis Agassiz’s “Methods of Study of Natural History.” Fields merely changed the mixture of the Atlantic’s nonfiction prose.
Through the rest of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, the Atlantic struggled to find a balance between its traditional literary essays and more journalistic articles, between highbrow intellectualism and the mass culture which was giving rise to higher-circulation magazines such as the Century and Ladies’ Home Journal. During the editorships of Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1881–90) and Horace Elisha Scudder (1890–98), the magazine clung tightly to what it saw as its intellectual integrity, frequently publishing essays that discussed the major texts and authors of the Western canon. The Atlantic was, in fact, one of the last general periodicals to carry extensive commentary on the Greek and Roman classics and to defend the study of these works.
Though later, more progressive editors would decide such essays on the classics explored unpromising subjects for the magazine’s audience, the Atlantic continued into the 20th century to be widely recognized as a leading exponent of high culture in America. Most of the writers whom editor Ellery Sedgwick (1909–38) chose to voice the magazine’s views on culture and literature were women: Agnes Repplier, a prolific
writer of astringent essays on contemporary manners and morals; Margaret Sherwood and Cornelia Comer, who produced polite essays; and Katherine Gerould, an acute and reactionary Bryn Mawr professor. By 1918, however, as Repplier noted in the Yale Review, the personal essay of the type the Atlantic often published had “withered in the blasts of war.” Gerould and other Atlantic essayists such as Henry Dwight Sedgwick, longing for the rapidly disappearing Victorian ethics of their childhoods, began to see themselves as futile relics of a dying culture.
Under the editorships of Ellery Sedgwick and Edward Weeks (1938–66), the Atlantic also renewed its interest in social and political issues, publishing essays such as Booker T. Washington’s “The Case of the Negro,” Bertrand Russell’s “Individual Liberty and Public Control,” and Woodrow Wilson’s “The Road Away from Revolution.”
Throughout most of the 20th century, in fact, the magazine has continued to supplement its in-depth journalistic articles on public policy with long essays on related topics: for example, Albert Einstein’s “Atomic War or Peace,” George Kennan’s “Training for Statesmanship,” and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “The Negro Is Your Brother.”
As far back as the 1860s, Atlantic editors had been aware that the magazine could be perceived, especially by the publishing industry in New York, as too literary, and hence sought out lighter essays which would serve as relief from the “Emersonian and Whippletonian articles”—and increase circulation. The magazine has consequently long been a major outlet for humorous essays. Mark Twain was one of the first—and certainly one of the most influential—humorists to write for the Atlantic, and there has been a long trail of humorists behind him, especially many who are more closely associated with the New Yorker: James Thurber, E.B.White, Garrison Keillor. In the past 25 years, under the editorships of Robert Manning (1966–80) and William Whitworth (1981–), the magazine has been an outlet for many short, humorous essays, often domestic in nature, which hark back to the genteel tradition preceding World War I, written by such contributors as Andrew Ward, Ian Frazier, and Roy Blount, Jr.
The Atlantic’s devotion to cultural criticism has also led it to be an important voice on environmental issues. Literary essays on nature, in fact, began early, with John Burroughs’ first piece in 1865, and have continued through John Muir and up to recent contributions from writers such as Annie Dillard and Gretel Ehrlich.
Jubilee: One Hundred Years of the Atlantic, edited by Edward Weeks and Emily Flint, Boston: Little Brown, 1957
119 Years of the Atlantic, edited by Louise Desaulniers, Boston: Little Brown, 1977;
enlarged edition, as Highlights from 125 Years of the Atlantic, Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1982
Howe, M.A.De Wolfe, The Atlantic Monthly and Its Makers, Boston: Atlantic Monthly
Sedgwick, Ellery, “The American Genteel Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century,” American Studies 25, no. 1 (1984): 49–67
Sedgwick, Ellery, The Atlantic Monthly, 1857–1909: Yankee Humanism at High Tide and Ebb, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994
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