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

By Ellery Sedgwick | Go to book overview

5
Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1881-1890) Editorial Aesthete

History has not been kind to Thomas Bailey Aldrich. When remembered at all, he has been identified as a writer of delicately shaped and trivial verse, author of a few entertaining stories, an indolent and inefficient editor, and an amusing but somewhat languorous, shallow, and supercilious human being. The only one of his poems now read is his infamous diatribe against immigration, "Unguarded Gates," habitually cited to demonstrate the ethnic bigotry of the "genteel tradition." Aldrich himself has often been excoriated as an archetype of that tradition.1

Most late- twentieth-century observers of Aldrich's editorial record would reaffirm the judgment of history that quickly discredited his restrictive aesthetic values and antidemocratic social conservatism. But the fair-minded observer is bound to acknowledge a degree of competent professionalism in Aldrich's editing, his self-disciplined patience with fractious contributors, his genuine wit, and his editorial resistance to the commercial forces that in the 1880s were beginning to marginalize traditional high culture and promote mass culture.

Partly due to Aldrich's editorial professionalism, his Atlantic was never reduced to the narrow dimensions of his own values. But it did reflect a moderate shift away from the optimistic liberalism that had characterized the magazine's first twenty-three years and toward a more insular cultural and aesthetic conservatism and a disengagement from politics. The founders had helped to create and publicize a moderately liberal literary and intellectual culture, actively supporting a range of literary production and engaged in contemporary national life, including political and social issues. Howells had made the Atlantic even more literary but had built on its tradition by developing a realism that fused literature and contemporary social life and by trying to democratize both the subject matter and the

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