Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 8. The Atlantic Monthly

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XIX. Later Magazines

§ 8. The Atlantic Monthly

Of the four leading popular magazines of first rank the most important, though not the earliest in point of time, was The Atlantic Monthly. Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Whittier, and Holmes had been writing for more than twenty years, and Lowell for more than ten, before New England maintained a general literary magazine of high grade. It was not till the stirring of political and sociological movements emphasized the need of an organ in which distinctly New England thought could find expression that the Atlantic was founded. The real father of the Atlantic was Francis H. Underwood, who projected a magazine as early as 1853 when he was in the offices of John P. Jewett and Co. of Boston. This firm had come into prominence as the publishers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, then at the height of its fame, and a serial story by Mrs. Stowe was to have been a feature of the new periodical. Financial considerations prevented the appearance of the magazine as planned. After the firm of Jewett failed, Underwood became connected with Phillips, Sampson and Co., and at length persuaded them to undertake the venture. According to a familiar story the plan was really launched at a dinner given by Phillips, the senior member of the firm, to Underwood, Cabot, Motley, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, and Emerson. Later, Lowell was decided upon as the first editor. To Holmes is given the credit of suggesting the name “Atlantic Monthly.” Underwood went to England in the interest of the project, and elicited promises of support from some English writers. Later a number of manuscript offerings from these men were entrusted to Charles Eliot Norton, who was returning from Europe, and were mysteriously lost en route. New Englanders afterward felt a pious thankfulness for this accident, since it helped to make more certain that the Atlantic should be distinctly American.

The first issue of the magazine, that for November, 1857, contained contributions from Emerson, Whittier, Lowell, C. E. Norton, J. T. Trowbridge, and others. The most notable feature was The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, which ran as a serial in the first twelve numbers, and was followed in successive years by The Professor at the Breakfast-Table and The Professor’s Story [Elsie Venner]. With the failure of the publishers in 1859 the Atlantic passed to Ticknor and Fields, and a little later James T. Fields, the junior member of this firm, succeeded Lowell in editorial charge. Fields was one of the few publishers who have been regarded by most of their authors as personal friends, and in many ways he made an ideal editor. No other magazine has come so near to comprehending the best that American writers has to offer as did the Atlantic during these early years. It was fortunate in having so many of its contributors within easy reach of Boston, and the dinners of the Atlantic Club—which seems never to have been a club—and of virtually the same group of men in the Saturday Club have often been celebrated in reminiscence and history. The jealous charge that only New Englanders were welcome to the pages of the Atlantic was probably never well founded, though it was natural that New England standards should be applied in judging contributions. It was the Atlantic which first recognized the value of Bret Harte’s early tales, and drew the author from the West; and this is but one example of the reaching out of the magazine for what was best everywhere. A list of the contributors for the first fifty years would lack but few names of American writers of distinction, and these would in almost all cases by men who were committed to some other publisher. Yet perhaps after all the case is best put by Howells when he says: “The Atlantic Monthly … was distinctively a New England magazine, though from the first it has been characterized by what was more national, what was more universal, in the New England temperament.”

Successive editors of The Atlantic Monthly have been James Russell Lowell (1857–61), James T. Fields (1861–71), William Dean Howells (1871–81), Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1881–90), Horace E. Scudder (1890–98), Walter Hines Page (1898–99), Bliss Perry (1899–1908), Ellery Sedgwick (1908– ). While the development of the illustrated magazines during the seventies deprived the Atlantic of its conspicuous pre-eminence it long continued to maintain its high standard and its distinctive character. In 1908 it was sold by the Houghton Mifflin Company, the direct successors of Ticknor and Fields, to the Atlantic Publishing Company, of which Ellery Sedgwick is president, and under his editorship it has increased its circulation without becoming cheapened, though to conservative readers who recollect former days it seems to have departed sadly from its old traditions.