Despite its low circulation and budget, the Atlantic Monthly magazine has maintained a strong influence in American culture by publishing many of the most prominent authors and cultural authorities and maintaining its status as one of the nation's leading general-interest monthlies. It began the twentieth century as America's foremost elite literary magazine, and although it has embraced a wider readership and broadened its scope to focus on political and social issues, it is still known as a magazine for intellectual and highly cultivated readers. Throughout its history, the Atlantic Monthly has attempted to reconcile its distrust of the masses, or the "mob," to whom it has not wanted to pander, with its need to appeal to a broad spectrum of readers in order to stay financially afloat. It has made the compromise by positioning itself as the setter of standards and the interpreter of culture for well-informed readers aspiring to ascend to the ranks of the cultural elite.
When the Atlantic Monthly was founded in 1857, it quickly became known all over the country as the organ of America's burgeoning high literature. Although it was subtitled "A Magazine of Literature, Art and Politics," it was primarily as a literary magazine that it made its mark. In its first issue (November 1857), it declared itself to be "the exponent of … the American idea," but nineteenth century readers associated the magazine with New England and a select group of elite writers. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Dean Howells, and Henry James were among its staple contributors. The magazine also published the works of America's leading female writers, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sarah Orne Jewett, and prominent African American writers like Charles Chesnutt. But at the turn of the twentieth century, the Atlantic Monthly was instrumental in establishing the American literary canon, which consisted of only its foremost white male contributors. It therefore became associated with a selective, elite vision of American literature rather than a more democratic, diversified literature that had, for a while, seemed possible in its pages.
As the twentieth century dawned, the Atlantic Monthly was known as a conservative, even reactionary magazine that defensively tried to promote the values of a by-gone elitist literary and cultural tradition in the face of social upheavals like immigration and the birth of a consumer mass culture. Throughout its history, the Atlantic Monthly has attempted to maintain the cultural authority it achieved in the nineteenth century, but it has had a hard time doing so in competition with a widely-diversified literary market. Although its circulation was never large, reaching a height of 50,000 in the 1860s, it declined steadily through the rest of the century. In the early 1900s, while magazines like the popular Saturday Evening Post reached circulations of two million, the Atlantic Monthly dipped to 7,000. Drastic measures were needed. In an age when illustrations moved magazines, the Atlantic Monthly steadfastly refused to appeal to readers with pictures, fearing the blurring of boundaries between itself and the new cadre of mass-market magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's. So instead of illustrating it pages, it began to disentangle itself somewhat from its New England literary roots and broaden its appeal by fostering young, up-and-coming writers and by publishing more thought-provoking, general-interest essays.
The Atlantic Monthly's strategy for maintaining its influence has been to lead the nation's discussions of politics, literature, and the arts, publishing the writings of leading thinkers and writers. It has prided itself on the discovery of new talents, publishing some of the first works by Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth, Eudora Welty, Louise Erdrich, James Dickey, Joyce Carol Oates, and Bobbie Ann Mason. Because of its limited funds, editors have gone in search of unestablished writers, becoming the maker of many writers' careers. In addition to its strong fiction department, the Atlantic Monthly has been the mouthpiece of influential thinkers like Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Woodrow Wilson, W. E. B. DuBois, and Albert Einstein. It has also been a stage for some of the twentieth century's most prominent debates, publishing scathing analyses of the defects of Wall Street in 1928, a defense of Sacco and Vinzetti shortly before they were sentenced to death in 1927, critiques of the use of the atom bomb, and what would become Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in 1963.
In the twentieth century, the Atlantic Monthly has steadily progressed from an elitist magazine in which, as its editor Bliss Perry argued in 1902, "The ideal reading mood … is that of well-bred people listening to the after-dinner conversation in public," to a populist magazine that wishes to serve "as the nation's dining-room table," in the words of its managing editor, Cullen Murphy, in 1994. As America has grown more democratic in its cultural life, the Atlantic Monthly has responded in order to survive. In 1947, for example, the Atlantic Monthly joined the rest of America's magazine in printing illustrations. In its attempt to stay afloat, the magazine has made a few compromises while maintaining its status as a cultural authority by helping to shape Americans' tastes and views. This formula for success has paid off in steadily increasing circulation. In 1994, the magazine's circulation topped 500,000, indicating that it is still a strong presence in the magazine market and in American culture. As Murphy defensively declares, "One thing that the Atlantic Monthly is not is an antiquarian enterprise, a museum piece."
Parker, Jean M. "Atlantic Monthly." American Mass-Market Magazines. Ed. Alan and Barbara Nourie. New York, Greenwood Press, 1990, pp. 32-39.
Sedgwick, Ellery. The Atlantic Monthly, 1857-1909: Yankee Humanism and High Tide and Ebb. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.