The Atlantic Monthly

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The Atlantic Monthly was born in November 1857, the offspring of a Boston-based Yankee humanism in vigorous middle age. The transcendental fervors of the 1830s and 1840s, the youth of the New England Renaissance, had moderated; but intellectual energy, a tempered idealism, a disposition to challenge the status quo, and optimism about the development of an explicitly American literature remained. These were reflected in active support for abolition, in theological liberalism, and in a growing body of major works of American scholarship and literature written by those living in and around Boston, Cambridge, and Concord. A quarter century later, in the 1880s, the center of intellectual culture and literary publishing would shift to New York, and New England would live out its long Indian summer, lapsing, some would say, into a self-satisfied senescence. But between 1850 and 1870, Boston was, in the semisatirical phrase of Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894), "the Hub of the Universe" (Sedgwick, p. 23).

The culture of Boston, Cambridge, and Concord had already produced several short-lived literary magazines. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) had commented that "the measles, the influenza, and the magazine appear to be periodic distempers" among Boston intellectuals and cited his own case and that of James Russell Lowell (1819–1891) as chronic (Letter to Samuel Ward, 24 February 1850). Emerson's own magazine, The Dial (1840–1844), influential beyond its small circulation, had cured him of editing but left his enthusiasm for an intellectually iconoclastic periodical intact. In 1831 Edwin Buckingham had initiated the New-England Magazine, which published early work by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Greenleaf Whittier. But Buckingham died in 1833, and his magazine followed suit in 1835. With youthful idealism, Lowell and his friend Robert Carter had founded The Pioneer in 1843 to promote progressive political reform, high aesthetic standards, and an explicitly American literature. But the intrepid Pioneer succumbed after three numbers, leaving Lowell saddled with both debt and a continued conviction of the need for a high-quality literary periodical.


The catalyst that precipitated the Atlantic was Francis Henry Underwood (1825–1894), a young man from rural New England who through his activity in the new Free Soil Party, which was formed in 1847–1848 to oppose the extension of slavery into the territories, had been appointed clerk of the Massachusetts Senate. In 1853, hoping to enlist the influence of the New England literary movement in the antislavery cause, Underwood proposed the idea of a magazine to the Boston publisher John Jewett. Jewett, who had recently published Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and discovered that antislavery literature could be both righteous and remunerative, consented. But recession turned his boom to bankruptcy before the first number could be issued.

Underwood, however, persisted. Securing a job as a reader for the larger publishing house of Phillips, Sampson, & Company, he met sporadically with a group of writers, including Emerson, Holmes, Lowell, and Edwin P. Whipple, to promote his idea. He also cultivated the influence of the firm's most popular author, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), who with the other writers convinced the reluctant Moses Dresser Phillips (1813–1859). On 5 May 1857 Phillips convened a dinner at which the magazine was named, its editorial policies defined, and Lowell appointed as editor with Underwood as assistant.

The founders of the Atlantic, who included writers and scholars as well as the publisher Phillips, intended it to serve the multiple purposes of culture, politics, and commerce. For both writers and publisher, it was an additional medium for distributing work, cultivating a broader audience, and increasing income. In the 1830s Edgar Allan Poe had hailed the dawning of the age of the magazine, and despite innumerable failures, for the next century magazines transformed the production and distribution of literature and the profession of authorship in the United States. When the Atlantic was founded, the average publication run for a book was only fifteen hundred copies. But a successful magazine such as Harper's New Monthly Magazine, founded in 1850 by the brothers Harper to promote their book-publishing business, could circulate fifty thousand copies and more twelve times a year. Magazines gave publishers and authors alike the potential to earn significant income before book publication and to develop a much larger read-ership for their books.

While the Atlantic was intended to profit both publisher and authors, it also had multiple cultural missions, articulated particularly by the influential voices of Emerson, Holmes, and Lowell. One mission was Underwood's original purpose of providing a broader platform than the abolitionist newspapers for prominent writers to oppose slavery and its political influences. A second cultural mission of the Atlantic, connected with commerce but transcending it, was to promote American writers, particularly from New England. The magazine's title suggested that it was intended to carry on intellectual exchange with Europe. The Boston cultural elite that shaped it rejected a chauvinistic literary nationalism and was in constant contact with its counterparts in England and on the Continent. Atlantic book reviews covered a broad range of European publications, and the magazine's editors solicited manuscripts from English authors. But the Atlantic's declaration of principles announced that most of the authors would be Americans, and in fact around nine in ten were. By contrast Harper's New Monthly, among others, published large quantities of British fiction because it was good quality popular literature with the added advantage that the absence of international copyright law made it cheaper. Atlantic fiction and poetry were predominantly American from the start, although writers from other regions complained with some justification that the disproportionate majority was from New England. Nonetheless, Atlantic editors cultivated writers from beyond New England, and within nine years a midwesterner, William Dean Howells (1839–1920), was selected as the assistant editor and the presumed successor to the editorship, which in fact he later held from 1871 to 1881.

While the Atlantic was no closed circle, it was founded to give voice and influence to the Yankee humanism that had developed in and around Boston by mid-century. The magazine reflected the mission of New England's cultural elite to educate and humanize a developing nation. It represented the Emersonian view that the proper aims of both individual and national life were to develop intellectual breadth and moral character that would guide personal behavior and social policy. The magazine was to provide cultural leadership by developing these values in an increasingly democratic nation focused on expansion and economic development in which the waning of religious orthodoxy was leaving a moral void. The magazine should, its founders believed, promote the best current writing, keep the great canonical works alive, and engage in principled debate on intellectual, political, and aesthetic issues. Like those other contemporary manifestations of the New England cultural mission, universal public education and the lyceum movement for communal education of adults through public lectures by noted persons, the magazine was both to broaden the readership and raise the standards of a liberal, literate culture.


Given the Atlantic's missions, Lowell was a logical choice for editor. Both his failed Pioneer and his editor-ship of the National Anti-Slavery Standard had tempered his idealism with practical experience that gave Moses Phillips confidence. And Emerson believed that Lowell would be capable of defying the public, thereby providing it with cultural leadership. His two-year editorship of the Standard had reflected uncompromising opposition to slavery and its political influence. Lowell was a scholar of Western humanism who had good contacts with contemporary authors and a substantial reputation as a poet. All of this would give the magazine credibility, particularly important at its inception. At thirty-eight, Lowell was still recovering from the devastating deaths of his wife and three of their four children. He had recently reengaged in professional commitments by teaching modern languages at Harvard, and his editorship would divide his attention, but the generous salary of $2,500 a year was attractive.

Lowell issued the first number of the Atlantic in November 1857. Successive editors modified the tone and adjusted the balance of the contents, but much of the basic character and format of the magazine during the nineteenth century were established early. Lowell's first issue was typical of its successors in emphasizing literature and book culture. Three short stories and the first installment of a serial novel occupied about a third of the magazine's 128 pages, and all reflected the New England local color realism that was to characterize much Atlantic fiction. Half the fictional works were by women. One story was from Stowe, but the other two and the serial were from little-known, young aspirants. Poetry was a major feature, and most was written by established New England poets. That first issue included Emerson's "Days" and "Brahma," works by Whittier and Longfellow, and Lowell's satire on didactic verse. Emerson's "Illusions" and Holmes's "Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table" in different ways represented the reflective literary essay that would be gradually displaced by more journalistic reportage of current affairs.

The cover declared that the Atlantic would be "Devoted to Literature, Art, and Politics," and while literature was distinctly primary, current affairs also received attention. Parke Godwin, a New Yorker prominent in developing the first Republican Party platform, had been engaged to write political editorials to run at the end of the magazine, the slot held open closest to publication. Much of the remainder was commentary on literature and art. This included seven pages of "literary notices" in excruciatingly small type in which Charles Eliot Norton, E. P. Whipple, and Lowell reviewed a broad spectrum of current American and European publications. The magazine had the character of Yankee high culture with an earnest dedication to educating the intellect, aesthetic taste, and ethical conscience through liberal inquiry and reasoned debate.

As editor, Lowell worked hard but not always systematically. He sometimes irritated authors with his combination of disorganization, scholarly exactitude, and editorial liberty. He is often remembered for alienating Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) by editing out a sentence in The Maine Woods that pantheistically attributed an immortal soul to pine trees. His generous support to young authors and his willingness to engage the Atlantic in controversy are less frequently told tales. In editing the Atlantic, Lowell generally practiced the liberal humanistic ideal of open inquiry and principled advocacy, often at some risk. His excision of Thoreau's pantheistic passage, for instance, came during a skirmish between the Atlantic and the religious press. Holmes, an Enlightenment rationalist who enjoyed provocation in the person of the Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, had indicted Calvinism as a barbarous code that produced despair and neurosis by advocating excessive suppression of natural instincts, including the sexual. When the religious press howled, Lowell instead of censoring Holmes humorously advised him to slay one of his critics in order to arm himself with the jawbone of an ass to attack the other Philistines. Lowell again showed willingness to challenge religious orthodoxy when he published a three-part series by the Harvard botanistAsa Gray defending Charles Darwin's theories, probably the earliest authoritative exposition of natural selection and evolution in the United States.

Nor was Lowell reluctant to make his magazine express political opinions offensive to many. Impatient with Godwin's moderate criticisms of the compromises with slavery by President James Buchanan's administration, Lowell appended his own more radical condemnation to one of Godwin's editorials. After Godwin responded to this high-handedness by summarily resigning, Lowell wrote most editorials himself for the rest of his tenure. In a series that Emerson called brilliant, Lowell denounced the moral and political corruption, North and South, caused by slavery. The presidential election of 1860 he saw as the kind of moral turning point that comes "once to every man and nation," offering a choice between an immoral, expedient prosperity on the one hand and respect for the rights of labor and humanity on the other. As secession unfolded, he opposed appeasement of the South and foresaw in the war both rapid Union victory and the abolition of slavery.


Lowell's editorship ended as the Civil War began. The Atlantic's original publishers, Moses Phillips and his partner Sampson, had both died in 1859, and the magazine, still risky, had been bought for $10,000 by Ticknor and Fields, publishers of Emerson, Hawthorne, Lowell, Thoreau, and others and the proprietors of the Old Corner Bookstore in Boston. Lowell was retained, although Underwood was replaced by William Ticknor's son Howard Ticknor. Gradually, however, the junior partner, James T. Fields (1817–1881), grew restless with Lowell's lack of system and scholarly tastes. By 1861 Fields was ready to try his own hand. The transition was amicable; Lowell continued to contribute, and Fields had no intention of radically changing the magazine Lowell had made influential. But both Fields's personality and his dual position as publisher and editor combined to moderately popularize the Atlantic and broaden its readership.

Lowell had been raised a member of the Cambridge intellectual elite and had attended Harvard. Fields, the son of a deceased sea captain from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, came to Boston at thirteen as a clerk at the Old Corner Bookstore and educated himself mainly through the Boston Mercantile Library. Handsome, hearty in manner, inclined to flattery, and totally extroverted, Fields admired writers and wrote verse himself but understood that his talent was for the business of books. By the time he took over the editor-ship of the Atlantic in 1861 at age forty-four, he had become an influential junior partner and had married the charming Annie Adams (1834–1915), who though seventeen years his junior shared his literary and social interests and herself became a talented writer. Over the next decade Fields used the magazine effectively to make his firm America's premier literary publisher and to create a profitable golden age of New England letters.

Fields's talent for promotion served the economic interest not only of his publishing house and the Atlantic but also of his authors. In an early form of celebrity publishing, he created the public impression of an Atlantic circle of New England Olympians, including Emerson, Holmes, Longfellow, Lowell, Stowe, and Whittier, loyal to the magazine and to Ticknor and Fields. Abolishing the magazine's genteel policy of anonymity, he published their works and their names as regularly as possible, offered their portraits with annual subscriptions, brought out their books in multiple editions, selected sympathetic reviewers, planted reviews and literary gossip in newspapers across the country, featured them in Annie's Charles Street literary salon, and advertised them nationally.

Some critics have held that Fields's promotions corrupted New England literary culture, making it self-congratulatory and closed, but his Atlantic does not support this view. Fields affirmed the circle but also widened it. He won back Thoreau, publishing seven of his essays, most of them posthumously. Without Fields's pressure for Atlantic serials, Hawthorne probably would not have published his English notebooks or begun the abortive Dolliver Romance. But Fields also actively sought new and particularly younger authors. In this effort he was aided by his wife Annie and his quasi-official assistant Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911), both of whom particularly encouraged women writers. Higginson is often remembered for his equivocal though essentially supportive role as Emily Dickinson's "preceptor," begun when she responded to his Atlantic "Letter to a Young Contributor" (April 1862). He is less often remembered for his early support of such largely forgotten writers as Charlotte Hawes, Helen Hunt, Harriet Prescott Spofford, Rose Terry, and Celia Thaxter. Fields himself recognized the power of Rebecca Harding Davis's "Life in the Iron Mills," published it in April 1861, and solicited more.

Fields also demonstrated that neither the Atlantic nor Boston culture were closed circles when in 1866 he hired William Dean Howells, a relative unknown from Ohio, as assistant editor with a specific mandate to cultivate new talent. Among those Howells encouraged and Fields published were Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836–1907; editor of the Atlantic, 1881–1890), John DeForest, Bret Harte, Sarah Orne Jewett, and most prolifically Henry James. Importantly Howells himself steadily evolved from Romantic poet to realistic reporter of contemporary social behavior, developing his essential ideas of literary realism and applying them influentially in his prolific book reviews, his editorial choices, and his own contributions.

Atlantic literature under Fields, with Howells's assistance, was predominantly realistic. Writers like Jewett, Stowe, Terry, and Thaxter reflected the best of the New England local color movement, dominated by women. Work by Davis, DeForest, James, and Howells himself consciously subverted the formulas of conventional sentimental fiction and frustrated the romantic expectations of its readers. In nonfiction the journalist James Parton persuaded Fields to move away from the ethereal Emersonian essay toward direct reportage of contemporary life.

While literature was the mainstay of Fields's Atlantic, the magazine remained liberal in religion, science, education, and politics as well, generally reflecting an optimistic faith in moral and social progress. Fields refused to add a women's section but published Stowe's long-running domestic series, House and Home Papers, as well as the Chimney Corner series that moderately advocated the basic principles of the nineteenth-century women's movement, including the vote, expanded property rights, equitable divorce laws, and access to education and the professions. Zina Pierce's Cooperative Housekeeping series (1868–1869) proposed more radical reform of women's work and economic rewards in the form of domestic cooperatives. Speculative essays on religion by James Freeman Clarke, Henry James Sr., and David Wasson criticized orthodox Protestant dogma as culturally blind and spoke for a more universal sense of religious and moral truth.

Fields's Atlantic portrayed little of the grimness of the Civil War, but the magazine's political views were unequivocal. Early in the war it advocated immediate emancipation. Higginson, a supporter of the radical abolitionist John Brown (1800–1859), contributed sympathetic histories of slave revolts. Both Emerson and Lowell insisted on the need to square the Union cause with the universal laws of moral progress by abolishing slavery. They and others criticized Abraham Lincoln's pragmatic hesitation, but after his assassination they eulogized him as the greatest American and supreme representative of the democratic will.

In the war's aftermath Atlantic writers, including Senator Charles Sumner and Frederick Douglass, excoriated President Andrew Johnson, denounced clemency for the rebels, and advocated the Radical Republican program for Reconstruction. Douglass, Higginson, and others declared that former slaves must immediately be granted confiscated land, the vote, and full civic equality enforced by long-term federal occupation. Sumner and the historian George Bancroft, among others, expounded visions of a democratic nation freed of the moral shackles of slavery, manifestly destined to absorb the whole of the American continent into one great plural unit. Emerson, Higginson, and Lowell, while generally sharing this expansive optimism, cautioned that cultural and moral progress must match the geographical and material and that this would require cultural leadership.

By the late 1860s, Fields had grown weary of both the editorship and his business. A lawsuit over royalties brought against him by a disaffected author, Gail Hamilton, had revealed no wrongdoing but was professionally damaging and personally painful. The Atlantic's circulation plummeted in 1870 from a peak of fifty thousand to about thirty-five thousand, partly in a prudish backlash against an 1869 article by Harriet Stowe exposing the incest of George Gordon, Lord Byron. But the publishing house of Fields, Osgood, & Company, which James Fields had formed with James R. Osgood in 1868 after William Ticknor died in 1864, and the Atlantic Monthly had both thrived under his management, offering a comfortable and honorable retirement. On 2 January 1871 Fields resigned his editorship to Howells and sold the company to James Osgood. As publisher and editor, he had promoted the treatment of literature as a commodity, but in doing so he had also expanded the market for good writing and the opportunities for authorship in America.

See alsoBook Publishing; Boston; Civil War; Editors; Female Authorship; Harper's New Monthly Magazine;Literary Criticism; Literary Marketplace; Literary Nationalism; Periodicals; Publishers


Primary Works

Major primary sources include the editorial correspondence of Lowell and Howells and the publishing archives of Ticknor and Fields in the Houghton Library at Harvard University and volumes of the Atlantic Monthly 1857–1870 indexed in The Atlantic Index (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1889).

Fields, James T. Yesterdays with Authors. Boston: J. R. Osgood, 1872.

Howells, William Dean. Selected Letters. 6 vols. Edited by George Warren Arms et al. Boston: Twayne, 1979–1983.

Lowell, James Russell. Letters of James Russell Lowell. 2 vols. Edited by Charles Eliot Norton. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894.

Secondary Works

Austin, James C. Fields of the Atlantic Monthly: Letters to anEditor, 1861–1870. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1953.

Ballou, Ellen B. The Building of the House: Houghton Mifflin's Formative Years. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Brooks, Van Wyck. The Flowering of New England, 1815–1865. New York: Dutton, 1936.

Brooks, Van Wyck. New England: Indian Summer, 1865–1915. New York: Dutton, 1940.

Charvat, William. The Profession of Authorship in America,1800–1870. Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1968.

Duberman, Martin. James Russell Lowell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966.

Howe, M. A. DeWolfe. The Atlantic Monthly and Its Makers. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1919.

McMahon, Helen. Criticism of Fiction: A Study of Trends in the Atlantic Monthly, 1857–1898. New York: Bookman, 1952.

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines, vol. 2, 1850–1865. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938.

Sedgwick, Ellery. A History of the Atlantic Monthly,1857–1909: Yankee Humanism at High Tide and Ebb. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Tryon, Warren S. Parnassus Corner: A Life of James T. Fields,Publisher to the Victorians. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963.

Ellery Sedgwick

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