The Atlantic Monthly, 1857-1909: Yankee Humanism at High Tide and Ebb

By Ellery Sedgwick | Go to book overview

Introduction: Overview, 1857-1909

This book is a history of the first half century of the Atlantic Monthly magazine, from its founding in 1857 through the end of Bliss Perry's editorship in 1909. The Atlantic still thrives, but its first half century marked the period of its greatest cultural influence, particularly in literature. Those years also reflect most fully its expression of the humanist tradition of the New England cultural elite and the dialectic between that tradition and the developing democratic mass culture.

The history of the Atlantic Monthly during the nineteenth century is partly the story of its first seven editors: James Russell Lowell, James T. Fields, William Dean Howells, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Horace Elisha Scudder, Walter Hines Page, and Bliss Perry. The Atlantic's editors are worth the attention of readers of nineteenth- century cultural history because it was their business to be unusually sensitive to the intellectual currents of their times. Their editorial decisions dramatize major American cultural values and conflicts. They are of further interest because each has had an authoritative voice in shaping what was published and read, what authors and ideas gained influence among a significant cultural minority of Americans. Each has impressed his own personality, values, and vision of the magazine's purpose on his incarnation of the Atlantic.

Editors, however, like politicians, are supposed to be simultaneously leaders and surrogates for their public's values. Emerson declared at the Atlantic's founding that its editors must be ready to defy the public and accept only what they believed to be of permanent worth, and nineteenth-century Atlantic editors took their function as cultural leaders seriously ( Journals 14: 167). But most were also pragmatists, attuned not only to the intellectual currents of the time but also to the tastes and values of their readership. Their sensitivities to their public and their ability to articulate and represent the responses of relatively educated, middle-class nineteenth-century readers make them of further interest.

In addition to evaluating the Atlantic's editors, and through them its readership,

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