The Intellectual Situation
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 Obscure, Return 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.
Even Beecher Stowe, often identified as part of the magazine’s founding circle, was put to the use women contributors often have been: when early attempts to fund the magazine faltered, prospective donors were encouraged by “the cheering news that Mrs. Stowe would be among the first contributors.” When the magazine celebrated its twentieth anniversary, Mrs. Stowe was not invited. No woman was. Reporting on the event, the New York Evening Post reflected that
the Atlantic Monthly’s staff of writers is much more largely masculine than is that of any other magazine in the country. It is, in a certain sense, our masculine magazine, and has always been so. A bigoted bachelor insists that this is because the Atlantic Monthly confines itself more wholly than any other magazine does to literature in the strict sense of the term, neglecting all the little prettinesses of household interests and all the gushing sentimentality which . . . women mistake for literature.
A hundred and fifty years has not been long enough to throw off this association: of the masculine with the serious, the feminine with the frivolous. And it is this original schism—original sin—that simmers beneath every article extolling the virtues of print and lamenting the waning of its empire. For what was it that made magazines so good, anyway? What was their private and singular claim to the truth, and the authority to tell it? That they were not like the stuff women read, or wrote.
And so it is that two magazines, which have responded to the advent of online publishing with two entirely different models, nevertheless manage to reproduce in their responses an identical worldview. It is that men and women continue to belong in particular social roles, and that this traditional structure of gender relations will never be transcended—that such a transformation is not only impossible, or improbable, but fundamentally unimaginable.