Back from the Dead

We are not filled with hope for Harper’s when we recall that it was founded, in 1850, to import English cultural life to New York. Early issues syndicated articles from English periodicals, serialized English novels (Jude the ObscureReturn of the Native, Dickens, and more Dickens), and published a dispatch from Thackeray on his visit to Tintern Abbey.

While Harper’s was trying to reproduce the culture that New York didn’t have, the Bostonian Atlantic, founded in 1857, was trying to create one that didn’t exist. An early Atlantic prospectus declared that “the best interests of this nation demand of literature a manly and generous action, and . . . an elevated national American spirit will always be found illustrated in these pages.” When that masculine ingenuity was imperiled, one hundred and fifty years later, by the collapse of the American magazine industry (which the Atlantic had practically founded), it revived itself by dredging up certain truths about its origins. The inflammatory, fundamentally conservative cover stories the Atlantic now runs to provoke female readers are not an arbitrary last resort. Call it the B-side to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: cashing in on stereotypes about female readers, and female nature, is the foundation on which the Atlantic was built.

When the Atlantic was founded, most readers of popular magazines were female. So, too, were their writers, and Atlantic editor James Russell Lowell took women writers—among them Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe—and their considerable name recognition on board when putting together early issues of the magazine. Others involved in the magazine, like Thoreau, considered such work beneath the Atlantic’s mission. Charles Eliot Norton allegedly informed Lowell that “he heard the Atlantic roundly abused in some academic circles for publishing second-rate love stories.” Norton did not have to spell out for Lowell that these stories were written by women.

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