Friday, October 26, 2007

150 Years of The Atlantic Monthly

Wednesday night, writers and editors from The Atlantic Monthly gathered at Politics and Prose for an exciting event. The occasion was the publication of an anthology of collected essays from over the last 150 years. The edition is terrific and a survey of American history and literature. I wasn’t going to buy it, but by the end of the night I had.

First, some background (offered by Robert Vare, the current editor).

Scientific American began in 1845 and Harper’s Weekly and Town & Country just a few years before 1857, when the editors published the first issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Those founders included such luminaries as Ralph Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Lowell, Francis Underwood, James Cabot, John Motley and Moses Phillips.

Nowadays magazines have "an expected life more akin to 150 days, not 150 years." What accounts for The Atlantic Monthly’s longevity? The current editor attributes their vitality to two factors:

The first factor is that The Atlantic’s unusual genealogical tree set a high standard unlike other magazines. Founders were among the great intellects of the 19th century. And unlike other magazines, then and now, The Atlantic Monthly genesis was not in the business or publishing side of the industry. It’s a writers’ magazine founded by writers, and so it enjoys a culture that attracts writers.

Their pedigree includes

  • novelists (Henry James, Edith Wharton, Hemingway, Nabokov, Bellow);
  • humorists (Mark Twain, James Thurber, Mencken, Garrison Keillor);
  • poets (Robert Frost, Longfellow, Walt Whitman);
  • scientists (Einstein, Oppenheimer, Gould),
  • economists (John Maynard Keynes, Galbraith, Milton Friedman),
  • historians (Robert Caro, Bernard Lewis, Garry Wills, Arthur Schlesinger),
  • jurists (Oliver Wendell Holmes).

After buying the book, I noted this list is served up on the front page of the introduction. Most interesting to me were the future US Presidents wrote the magazine before they ever thought of running for the highest office - Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson (John F. Kennedy also had a speech printed posthumously.).

The second factor is the mission statement, the “Declaration of Purpose” that appeared on the back of the very first issue. The Atlantic Monthly deliberated and determined not to be slanted to parties or sects but rather favor “Freedom, National Progress, and Honor, whether public or private.” And, more essentially, the made a decision to “exploring, monitoring, and promoting what the editors called ‘the American idea,’” and they did this without defining “the American idea.”

Christopher Hitchens got up and spoke of Saul Bellow and Bellow’s career and the controversy around the publication in The Atlantic Monthly of “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” – a story about a black pickpocket in 1969. Bellow has been a Trotsky but moved to the right after the social upheavals of the 60s. And this story caused a brouhaha. Hitchens' presentation was shorter than expected, and he was thinner and more handsome too.

Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, read from his piece on Saddam Hussein, "Tales of the Tyrant" from May 2002. Bowden described it as a “plum line into Hussein’s psyche.” Hussein was a “deformed man corrupted by vainglory and power.”

He generously shared his struggles as a writer. Michael Kelly, editor at the time who subsequently died in Iraq (and wrote a terrific book on the first Gulf War, The Martyr’s Day) assigned the piece to Bowden six weeks before 9/11. And on that day, Michael asked him to drop it and focus on a piece on that event. But Bowden resisted in order to follow the advice of his mentor Gene Roberts, former editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the NYTimes, which was: zig when everyone else zags. So he said with his originally-assigned story on Saddam Hussein.

He also reported that all writers borrow from other writers they admire. Bowden had difficulty figuring out how to structure the piece. But he knew Ryszard Kapuściński’s book, Shah of Shahs (1982) which was impressionistic. Kapuściński, who died this past January, took an image and pulled data in around that image. So, inspired by that framework, Bowden took elements of Hussein’s speeches as jumping off points to incorporate the various and disparate anecdotes. This allowed the reader to get personal with Saddam Hussein.

The editor held up “The Fifty-First State,” by James Fallows as an exception to the otherwise more common very poor journalistic inquiry and coverage leading up the war in Iraq. Fallows asked questions of those who knew about occupations.

Published in 2002, Fallows was eerily prescient. I got to tell him personally that the parts about the electrical grid in Baghdad and their vulnerabilities haunted me. I vividly remember reading that work which constructed scenarios of American invasion and occupation. Fallows wrote several follow up pieces which are collected in a book, Blind into Baghdad.

Fallows noted proudly and awkwardly, he’s been at The Atlantic for 1/5 of those 150 years. He can even remember the 100th Anniversary edition and his father reading James Thurber to him as a boy. He added that he felt that the current owner was the best of the three he has worked under. He also noted that they have to do much of their research and writing 6-8 months out from publication. This requires a particular kind of vision – to find topics that will be interesting and at the same time not done to death in other media.

After 9/11, The Atlantic considered two places for William Langewiesche - to cover the Northern Alliance or to cover the recovery of New York City. He went to New York first and got unique access to the obscure city agency in charge of the clean up. Observing the hand buckets, human chains of workers, he'd asked, "Who's bringing in the heavy equipment?" The DDC was the answer. He learned that was the Department of Design and Construction. Kenneth Holden, the head of the DDC, got a cold fax from William Langewiesche, and it turned out the Holden was a fan of Langewiesche's work. He was in. And the only one in.

From that pivotal connection, a three part, 70,000-word piece, the longest ever published, appeared and won a National Magazine Award. That writing has been compiled in American Ground.

By that time, William Langewiesche had been working for The Atlantic for 10 years. A former pilot he was tired of airline stories and declared he'd never write another one. Sarcastically, he suggested one about how to turn an airplane. That story, The Turn, published in 1993, turned out to be very well received. (One wonders who read that exactly).

The idea for his work following 9/11 was to put a guy on the ground for nine months and follow "the garbage, granted emotional garbage, big garbage."

I remember his writing vividly. "The scene was not strange to him, but familiar. " And with that he had my full attention. He echoed my feelings about New York City. I grew up in its shadow east in New Jersey. The sun rose over there, down the hill from Summit. Langewiesche called New York City - the supreme, the ultimate city on earth. It's part of America but not. It's New York. Very New York. Learned committees were out; soldiers excluded. Civil servants performed excellently. Money was flowing, but that was not the motivation. At every level there was action and invention. People worked 7 days a week, and Langewiesche did too.

If he had one regret it was that with that intense immersion, he had no idea what else was going on in the rest of America. He had no time to read newspapers. This gave him an optimistic point of view. Probably overly optimistic. He regretted that he had not been more aware and should have acknowledged in some way the broader perspective. For me, the optimism reflected in the stories around the clean up of that disaster heartened me when I read the three lengthy pieces.

Langewiesche conclude by recommended the essay "The Illusion of Security" by George Kennan.

Carla Cohen concluded the evening, noting that the night was a celebration of writing.

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