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

By Ellery Sedgwick | Go to book overview

3
James T. Fields (1861-1871) The Publisher as Editor

James Thomas Fields came to the Atlantic editorship through quite a different route than Lowell. Lowell had been born a Cambridge Brahmin in Holmes's original sense, a descendant of a line of New England scholars, judges, and ministers. Fields had come to Boston at thirteen as a poor apprentice bookstore clerk from the provinces. His subsequent rapid rise, like that of his successor Howells, demonstrated that the mid- nineteenth-century Boston cultural elite was far less a hereditary class than a meritocracy with diverse routes of access. While Lowell had come to the editorship mainly as a poet, critic, and scholar, Fields, although he had once aspired to being a poet, continued to write, and genuinely loved literature, came to it mainly as a publisher and man of business.

Both contemporaries and later critics have been divided in judging Fields's influence on Boston literary culture, and specifically on the Atlantic in his dual role as editor and publisher. He has been accused both then and now of allowing mercenary motives and promotion too much influence over editorial policy, particularly in arranging favorable reviews of his firm's books, favoring light literature over more serious work, intellectually diluting the magazine's contents, and creating the first promotional literary celebrity system. Martin Green has said that for all his genial good fellowship and sympathy with authors, Fields was in a basic sense a fraud who profited by bloating the reputations of the New England authors beyond their worth, thereby not only misleading the public but preventing a healthy mutual or self-criticism among the writers themselves (115-18).

Those authors, however, while generally viewing Fields's promotions with irony, were genuinely grateful, as Lowell had written to Norton, to have their books and the Atlantic placed in a stable, well-capitalized publishing house con-

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