Republic of Words: the Atlantic Monthly and Its Writers, 1857 – 1925, by Susan Goodman

The history of the Atlantic Monthly is also the history of America.  Susan Goodman’s Republic of Words: the Atlantic Monthly and Its Writers, 1857 – 1925, traces the intellectual and editorial history of the magazine.  Conceived by luminaries including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, and James Russell Lowell, the Atlantic began with an adamant pro-Union perspective.  Lowell, the first editor, brought together numerous contributors associated with the Abolition and Transcendentalist movements.

Goodman excels at bringing American history to life, charting the course of the magazine and the nation through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and the First World War.  Throughout the book a cavalcade of the famous passes before the reader.  These include novelists, humorists, poets, environmentalists, journalists, and philosophers.  With biographies of Edith Wharton (an Atlantic contributor) and William Dean Howells (an Atlantic editor), Goodman has a firm grasp on her subject matter.  The history of America proceeds either in lock step or in counterpoint with the history of the Atlantic Monthly.  The magazine undergoes periodic transformations with each successive editor.  As an example, Howells slowly changed the perspective of the Atlantic from a more East Coast, Boston-area, Harvard-educated milieu to one that looked westward.

The book ends in the Roaring Twenties, the Atlantic battered but enduring in its commitment to act as a purveyor of culture.  Two insurgent forces threatened its mission of mass appeal, the Crisis, the militant African-American magazine helmed by W.E.B. du Bois and the elitist New Yorker.

A final note, Republic of Words sports a playful cover by the artist Jonathan Wolstenholme.  Wolstenholme’s book-centric illustrations, like Republic of Words, will delight anyone with a passion for literature and American history.

 

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