Atlantic Magazine leaves Boston For Washington DC.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

May 2, 2005
OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
The Lost Continent of The Atlantic
By MATTHEW PEARL

Boston — With The Atlantic Monthly’s recent announcement that it is moving its editorial offices to Washington, there has been sad talk here about the magazine’s indispensable role in shaping the intellectual life of the city. But it is harder to preserve a meaningful cultural memory of how much the city was once a part of The Atlantic. In its early years, the magazine was a product of a distinct literary regionalism that was not only unparalleled in American history, but most certainly will never recur.

When The Atlantic Monthly was chosen as the title of a new magazine in 1857, some in the literary community objected to using "Atlantic" as an adjective in such an odd way, but its founders were in the mood for an aggressive and novel aesthetic. They did not see the magazine or their other burgeoning publishing ventures as regional endeavors, but rather saw their region as one that encapsulated universal ideas and artistry.

The magazine’s title was meant to signify the bridging of Old and New England, and that New England could intellectually encompass both. It was suggested by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the writer and Harvard medical professor (and father of the Supreme Court jurist), who would soon label Boston (in The Atlantic’s pages) the "hub of the solar system" – a term that eventually evolved into "Hub of the Universe."

That popular designation captures not just a cultural pride, but also how closed off that universe around The Atlantic could feel. For intellectual New England in the mid-19th century, almost all roads ran through similar backgrounds, and crossed through Harvard Yard. This was the case for Holmes and his fellow poet James Russell Lowell, the first editor of The Atlantic. Both men were Harvard graduates who had become Harvard professors. Lowell and the first overseers of the magazine did not explicitly limit their search for Atlantic material to New Englanders, but from today’s vantage point they were stingy in their use of outsiders like Walt Whitman and Herman Melville and demonstrated a grudging recognition of Mark Twain.

When Dr. Holmes joked in a letter in 1864 that he was thinking of "leaping into the Atlantic," he made sure to specify he meant the ocean rather than the magazine. The periodical had become that much an extension of their geography. It even provided a way for Bostonians to organize themselves socially, through The Atlantic Club. At periodic gatherings, it was said, members would receive copies of the latest issue fresh from the printer and each turn immediately to read his own articles. It was a fashionable game to try to guess who wrote all the articles and poems, which were printed anonymously, but it proved pretty easy for literati who were friends with most contributors.

This insularity extended, with questionable ethics, to the magazine’s relations with the larger publishing business; the magazine glowingly "puffed" books being published by Ticknor & Fields, which had acquired the magazine early on. Its strong harmony with surrounding social, academic and commercial interests also made The Atlantic a provocateur for other literary regions looking to develop their own sense of separateness. New York City’s cutting-edge writers and their new magazine, The Nation, found a voice in part by attacking The Atlantic’s.

From the beginning, there was a sharp awareness around The Atlantic of shaping literary history, as well as a self-conscious attempt to balance the components of the subtitle’s broad mission, "A Magazine of Literature, Art and Politics." Shortly before the magazine’s current owner, David Bradley, disclosed his plan to move the magazine from Boston, the editors announced they were stopping the regular publication of fiction, at least in the print version. This is a major transformation for a magazine that in its first issue began serializing "The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table," a meandering fictional travelogue of Boston life by Holmes.

We cannot separate that latest philosophical move from the magazine’s physical move to Washington, a place with little visible awareness of its own literary history and, in the shadow of politics’ swift movements, little sentimentality for the slower intersections that develop between literature and life, between writing and place.

Boston, still a congenial home for writers, also still carries its sense of literary history, but it seems more a part of the city’s trade in American nostalgia than of any continuing cultural coherence. (The space that once held the "Old Corner Bookstore," The Atlantic’s historic home under Ticknor & Fields, keeps a photographic tribute to its history for passers-by to view in the window, but is otherwise empty.) Nor does New York stand much for regional literature, instead serving as an amalgamated headquarters for all publishing activities – a matter of efficiency and economics that can also be seen as the cause of The Atlantic’s passage into its parent company’s Washington offices.

While there are American authors today who identify themselves regionally, that is often an individualistic and even idiosyncratic sign, not one of larger geographic-literary claims. These days, groups of writers and thinkers brought into regular personal contact with one another do so not usually from deep cultural ties but because of geographical happenstance (and, often, generous stipends from university writing programs).

This isn’t all bad: shaking up the link between upbringing, education and publishing opportunities lessens the risk of creative homogeneity and the sort of literary protectionism that obstructed Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe in the 19th century. But that also implies the unlikelihood of literary community. Thus Washington seems an appropriate new home for a magazine that once seemed to grow right out of the landscape of another city; the nation’s capital is a mutable conglomerate for "representatives" of every part of the country, a place of mock-ups of regional communities.

Symbolism aside, there are few established literary publications remaining in America for which the place of publication would matter. The evocative fact is not that The Atlantic will change so much once outside of Boston, but that it probably will not.

Matthew Pearl is the author of "The Dante Club."

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