There had been an Atlantic magazine founded in 1824, but this was not The Atlantic Monthly that we are familiar with today or discussing on this page. The earlier magazine, founded by Robert Charles Sands would become the New York Review as soon as 1825 when Sands partnered with William Cullen Bryant.
The Atlantic Monthly that we’re more familiar with was founded in 1857 at a pretty famous meeting of the minds between Francis H. Underwood, who had the idea for the magazine as early as 1853, and literary giants such as James Russell Lowell (The Atlantic Monthly’s first editor), Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, along with a few other less notables. Besides these sponsors the fledgling magazine also had guarantees of contributions from Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe and other writers of the period. Surely this Murderer’s Row of nineteenth century writers would assure the immediate success of Underwood’s baby, but who could have thought back then that the magazine would still be regularly published on the eve of its 150th Anniversary?
At this founding meeting it was decided that all articles and stories in The Atlantic Monthly would be published anonymously. Emerson had said “The names of contributors will be given out when the names are worth more than
the articles” (Tebbel 24). Certainly an admirable sacrifice of ego, but one which has made life a little more difficult for collectors of The Atlantic Monthly today! I do mention a source for these early bylines towards the bottom of this page.
The first issue, published November 1857, printed the Atlantic’s Declaration of Purpose which promised that the magazine was to “be the organ of no party or clique” and would “not rank itself with any sect of anties: but with that body of men which is in favor of Freedom, National Progress and Honor, whether public or private” (A History of the Atlantic Monthly). While founded on anti-slavery notions, The Atlantic Monthly rather preferred to provide escapist entertainment during the Civil War and thus did not allow the War itself to monopolize its pages. Still, the magazine did publish war reports from the front by Nathaniel Hawthorne and in the February 1862 issue published Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” so it’s not as though the young magazine ignored the war altogether!
James T. Fields, who established payment for writers upon acceptance rather than the then customary payment upon publication, was editor after Lowell. It was under Fields’ editorship that The Atlantic Monthly published Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “The True Story of Lady Byron’s Life”. This article was the result of Stowe’s previous friendship with Byron’s widow and in response to the publication of Byron’s mistresses’ memoirs, which had portrayed his widow very poorly. Stowe’s article told of Byron’s incest with his half-sister and the child that was born of this forbidden affair-the public wasn’t ready for anything so juicy at the time and the article ended up severely damaging The Atlantic Monthly’s reputation. Circulation was cut in half and Fields was let go. Fields was replaced by his assistant editor, William Dean Howells, who would open up The Atlantic Monthly to submissions from western writers such as Bret Harte during his distinguished decade at the helm.
Howells certainly kept himself busy. He later penned the “Editor’s Study” (1886-1892) and “Editor’s Easy Chair” (1899-1909) columns for Harper’s Magazine, and before that published classic novels A Modern Instance (1881) and The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), which are both required reading in 19th Century literature courses. But Howells first came to prominence after writing a campaign biography of Lincoln which led to his meeting Fields, Lowell, Holmes, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Emerson in 1860. He must have made a most favorable impression on these powerful literary figures as he was named assistant editor of The Atlantic Monthly in 1866, a post he held until being elevated to editor after Fields’ dismissal in 1871. Howells published work by Henry James and Mark Twain among others in his time as editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He left in 1881, which leads neatly into the time period that those most famous novels of his were published.
Ellery Sedgewick would be editor from 1909-1938 and push The Atlantic Monthly into national prominence. I can’t help but to look at those dates and think of what an interesting time in both terms of American history and culture to be in a position where you were able to help shape thought. As Sedgewick took over interest in longer serials was fading and he began to publish mostly short stories instead. This led to publication of early work by some 20th Century giants in The Atlantic Monthly.
O. Henry Award (est. 1919) Winning Stories Published by The Atlantic Monthly
- 1994 “Better Be Ready ‘Bout Half Past Eight” by Alison Baker (January 1993)
- 1985: “Lily” by Jane Smiley (July 1984)
- 1971: “Twin Bed Bridge” by Florence M. Heckt (May 1970)
- 1969: “Man in the Drawer” by Bernard Malamud (April 1968)
- 1967: “In the Region of Ice” by Joyce Carol Oates (August 1966)
- 1962: “Holiday” by Katherine Anne Porter (December 1960)
- 1958: “In Sickness as in Health” by Martha Gellhorn (?)
- 1948: “Shut a Final Door” by Truman Capote (August 1947)
- 1946: “Bird Song” by John Mayo Goss (February 1946)
- 1943: “Livvie is Back” by Eudora Welty (November 1942)
- 1919: “England to America” by Margaret Prescott Montague (September 1918)
In The Magazine in America: 1741-1990, Tebbel tells an interesting story about The Atlantic Monthly being the first commercial American magazine to publish Ernest Hemingway with “Fifty Grand: A Story of the Prize Ring” in the July 1927 issue, but it must be noted that his classic Nick Adams story “The Killers” was published by Scribner’s in their March 1927 issue which surely went on sale before the July issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The 1994 “A History of The Atlantic Monthly“ on Atlantic Monthly’s own web site also credits The Atlantic with first publishing Hemingway’s short fiction in the U.S. It’s complete speculation on my part, but I find it hard to believe that no one knew about “The Killers” appearing in Scribner’s prior to 1994, so perhaps The Atlantic Monthly was simply the first American magazine to accept and make payment on a Hemingway story? The dates are close enough where this at least seems possible to me, but again, that’s merely my own speculation.
What is interesting about the appearance of “Fifty Grand” is that how it faced repetitive rejection before The Atlantic Monthly finally accepted it, having been spurned by Ray Long at Cosmopolitan, at Scribner’s by Hemingway’s own future editor Maxwell Perkins whose request for cuts fell on deaf ears, then passed on again by both the Post and Collier’s, before finally being accepted by Sedgewick for The Atlantic Monthly. Tebbel notes “It was not the first Hemingway story in print, in any case a matter of some dispute, but it appears to be the first in a magazine of general circulation” (202). While knowledge of the March 1927 issue of Scribner’s kills that claim, it still makes for an interesting story.
Another interesting occurrence during the Sedgewick years leads to the story of an issue that became collectible upon publication. The January 1928 issue contained the first article by William Z. Ripley examining underhanded tactics in stock dealings. This issue of The Atlantic Monthly was directly advertised on Wall Street by a sandwich-board man and quickly sold out. A black market for the issue developed and it was soon selling for $1, which in my mind makes it an example of an early collectible and must surely make it a tough issue to come by today, especially in nice condition as I’m sure that anyone in the financial crowd that got their hands on it thumbed through it quite a bit before passing it along to one of their peers who would do the same. Ripley continued to write articles for The Atlantic Monthly about the evils of Wall Street and his exposes are credited to some degree in leading to the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 1934.
After Sedgewick, Edward Weeks would be editor of The Atlantic Monthly from 1939 until he left to become editor of The Atlantic Monthly Press in 1966. Perhaps the most famous piece published while Weeks was editor was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in the August 1963 issue.
In terms of The Atlantic Monthly as a collectible this seems as good a place as any to cut off their history. As collectors we now have access to many online sources to help us shop for vintage magazines. If you have the chance to purchase a 19th Century issue without knowledge of its contents then the Cornell University web site helps out quite a bit with their online collection of complete contents of The Atlantic Monthly ranging from the first issue in 1857 through 1901. You first have to click on a year and then the specific issue, but from there you are rewarded with not only the complete index of an issue but the contents itself should you wish to click further. Those couple of clicks make a little work in finding exactly what you’re looking for, but how often have we seen vague auction listings of a lot of four vintage issues of The Atlantic Monthly, Jan, Feb, Apr 1873 plus Nov 1875? If a listing like that piques your interest then Cornell’s checklist will be a big help in deciding what’s worthwhile.
If you know the story you’re after or are just collecting an author in general than The FictionMags Index is the way to go, not only for The Atlantic Monthly, but for all periodicals. This list is loaded with 20th Century entries as well and allows you to search it in several different ways including by story title and by the name of the author. Some of the pages are a little long, so a helpful hint if you have some idea of what you’re looking for is for Internet Explorer users to utilize the “Edit: Find” button in their browser once on the appropriate FictionMags Index page and users or other browsers to use their equivalent of the “Edit: Find” search function.
Like Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly is often found by collectors in bound volumes. I don’t want to discourage you from picking up the old bound volumes as they are collectible and are a handsome way to display a run of The Atlantic Monthly, but at the same time I prefer the romance of holding the individual issue in my hands as it was published. You can often purchase single issues in reasonable condition dating back the the 1870’s-90’s for just $4-$5 each if you look hard enough. And chances are if you look into that issue a little more than the person who sold it to you then you can turn around and sell it for $8-$10 if you wish. As for bound volumes, the Vintage Magazines Price Guide lists unremarkable six-month bound volumes of The Atlantic Monthly at $68. This seems to be on the high end by my experience and you can often pick them up for as little as $25-$30 if they are truly unremarkable. E-commerce certainly creates a buyer’s market, so my advice to collectors is to pick up anything in strong condition at those prices, but pay more attention to high grade single issues and seek out those high spots whenever possible.
Early 20th Century editions of The Atlantic Monthly, again similarly to Harper’s, suffer in the market due to their plain-Jane covers featuring a textual listing of contents under the magazine’s title on a solid background. During a period where many other magazines had colorful art deco covers and illustrations by famed artists, The Atlantic Monthly suffers in comparison on the collectibles market. The one benefit to these covers though is a clear view of the contents, which is what we’re trying to mine as collectors and dealers. Still, even with this easy access, many sellers won’t spell out the contents for you. I have spent a good deal of time squinting at my computer screen doing my best to distinguish the distinguished from the nobodies, and sometimes I’ll still flub! If you’re looking for value, zero in on groups of issues offered in lots with images displaying fantastic condition and descriptions glossing over the contents with barely a mention. You’ll make some money on these if you write them up properly yourself. By the mid-20th Century The Atlantic Monthly began publishing more interesting covers consisting of photographs and/or illustrations. This point gives collector and resellers alike one more reason to go after these magazines, as interest and price wanes with each passing year, but oftentimes the contents are just as desirable and valuable.
Certainly for collectors, The Atlantic Monthly, like Harper’s Monthly, offers a fair share of uncharted ground to search for potential reward. Certainly the very worst thing that can happen is you leave your purchase with an issue that’s interesting in some regard.
- “About W.D. Howells.” The William Dean Howells Society 10 Jan 2006. < http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/howells/hbio.html >
- “A History of The Atlantic Monthly.” The Atlantic Online 29 Nov 2005. < http://www.theatlantic.com/about/atlhistf.htm >
- McCullough, David. “The Unexpected Mrs. Stowe.” AmericanHeritage.com Volume 24 Issue 5 (1973). 10 Jan 2006. < http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/1973/5/1973_5_4.shtml >
- “Men Without Women and A Farewell to Arms.” The Speiser and Easterling-Hallman Foundation Collection of Ernest Hemingway 10 Jan 2006. < http://www.sc.edu/library/spcoll/amlit/hemingway/hem4.html >
- Russell, Richard and Elaine Gross Russell. Antique Trader Vintage Magazines Price Guide. Iola, WI, Krause Publications: 2005.
- Tebbel, John and Mary Ellen Zuckerman. The Magazine in America, 1741-1990. New York, Oxford University Press: 1991.