Arts - Summer 2005

Into the Swamp

How will The Atlantic fare when it leaves the capital of dissent?

By Ted Widmer | June 1, 2005

The recent news that The Atlantic Monthly was pulling up stakes and moving to Washington from Boston, its home since 1857, came as a disappointment but not exactly a surprise to New Englanders who have been losing electoral clout since the Electoral College was created. Boston has lost a lot lately, which might help outsiders appreciate what the Red Sox victory meant last fall. Gillette, the great shaving manufacturer, whose factory has guarded the approach to South Station for generations, has been acquired by Procter & Gamble and will be managed from Cincinnati. Fleet Bank has been acquired by Bank of America, forcing a renaming of the Fleet Center, just as Bostonians were getting over the loss of the name Boston Garden. In 1993, The Boston Globe was acquired by The New York Times , which became especially confusing when the Times acquired a minority interest in, yes, the Boston Red Sox. So the World Series provided a sweet revenge of sorts, and a sense of coming home to a real locality that will always be there, no matter how many people cash out.

But truth be told, the tradition of leaving Boston is almost as historic as Boston itself. It may even precede it—for the impending decision of the great British Puritan John Cotton to leave his ministry in Boston, Lincolnshire, led to Boston’s founding in 1630 and galvanized the Great Migration to New England in the decade that followed. Since then, the list of people who have fled Boston reads like a who’s who of American history. Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams were excommunicated. Ben Franklin ran away to Philadelphia and never looked back. Paul Revere’s departure on horseback in April 1775, to warn his countrymen about the British soldiers who were also leaving Boston (albeit more slowly), is one of the founding exits of our nation. When the British finally left in 1776, it led to the creation of an official state holiday, still celebrated, called Evacuation Day. Not only is it one of America’s best-named holidays, but, by an amazing coincidence, it takes place every year on March 17, perfectly timed for the Saint Patrick’s Day revels. Since then, who has not evacuated? Edgar Allan Poe, Horatio Alger, Henry Adams, John F. Kennedy, the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves, and Malcolm X were all X-Bostonians.

So there is a long and healthy precedent to The Atlantic’s decision to head south, to the opposite end of Amtrak’s northeast corridor. It makes sense for a million reasons. The capital of a great empire, Washington stretches its tentacles around the world in both directions and currently meets at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, where literary culture began. Washington has expanded so rapidly into neighboring Fairfax County that one could argue that Jefferson’s Virginia did, in fact, become the capital of the United States, and we never needed the fiction of the District of Columbia. And it goes without saying that Washington is the center of the political universe. As the seat of all three branches of government, the military and its dependencies, and what feels like thousands of law offices, Washington is the undisputed home of The Man. Boston is the home of Manny Ramirez.

Both cities punch above their weight. They have nearly identical populations, according to the 2000 census, but rank lower than you might think—Boston is America’s 20th biggest city, with 589,141 and Washington is 21st, with 572,059. Yet when you factor in metropolitan areas, Washington suddenly becomes the fourth largest, growing twice as fast as Boston (13.1 percent between 1990 and 2000, to Boston’s 6.7 percent). It has three airports to Boston’s one. Though founded in a swamp, the place once lampooned as “The City of Magnificent Distances” is metastasizing in all directions. Meanwhile, the ocean that gave Boston’s magazine its name effectively limits all eastward growth. (The Atlantic was nearly called “The Orient.”)

So the decision to uproot a century and a half of tradition is reasonable if you look at life as an urban planner. But still, The Atlantic ’s move represents a sea change worthy of the name. Boston will be a lesser city without its principal literary ornament. Washington will not be proportionally greater. And something intangible will be lost for the nation as a whole, deprived of a strong magazine in our Capital of Dissent. Some would object to that phrase. Certainly other cities have as many Democrats, and Boston has more than its share of defense contractors and young Republicans. The Atlantic has not been noticeably dissenting for a generation or two; but it has been publishing first-rate journalism.

If you consider the whole of American history, there has always been a healthy countercurrent flowing out of Boston that was important for correcting occasional errors in the course charted by Washington. It was true in the 1980s, when Tip O’Neill restrained the excesses of the Reagan Revolution. It was true in the Watergate era, when it was a rare Karmann Ghia in Boston that did not sport the bumper sticker “Don’t Blame Me—I’m From Massachusetts.” It was true in 1812 and 1846, when opposition to expansionist wars was centered in New England. And it was true in the earliest negotiations over the republic-to-be, when Bostonians made it clear to Virginians that their views of the new nation were not entirely, as they say, on the same page. A Montague- and-Capulet quality enhances the beauty of the Jefferson-Adams friendship.

Which is not to say that Massachusetts and Virginia could not come together meaningfully when the stakes were high and patriotism demanded it. Virginians bravely supported Boston’s revolutionaries in their long struggle against the crown, although they might have diplomatically avoided it. When George Washington took command of the American army, he did so, fittingly, on Cambridge Common. Daniel Webster’s great reply to South Carolina’s Robert Young Hayne, which schoolchildren were once required to memorize, celebrated exactly this point—that the best moments in American history come when North and South act in concert. Still, as Tocqueville argued, from the earliest days there have been two different branches “in the great Anglo-American family, which have hitherto grown up without entirely commingling.”

For nearly four centuries, America’s original City upon a Hill has been dedicated to a set of ideas about words, ideas, and action, originating in Puritanism but translated through the centuries into more acceptable language. It could be argued that New England began with The Word—the basic act of reading scripture that defined the dissenters who came across the ocean. The first printing press in the future United States was launched in Cambridge in 1638, a mere eight years after Boston was founded. By the 18th century, Boston was the second publishing city in the English-speaking world, its printers churning out sermons and political tracts and broad-sides like so many autumn leaves. You don’t have to find these works interesting to be impressed by their joy of expression and commitment to the marketplace of ideas. It makes sense that the American Revolution originated in Boston—with so much paper serving as tinder, all that was needed was a few incendiary arguments.


The Atlantic Monthly originated, according to local lore, at an 1857 dinner at Boston’s Parker House, a hotel that still exists and is reputed to have employed both Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X as busboys. Dissent was already in the atmosphere when the first Atlantics were published. The great cause of the day, of course, was slavery, and the magazine was formed specifically to bring the public an elegant package that combined fine literature, poetry, and unyielding opposition to human bondage. To an extent, its commitment to abolition was undermined by a sanctimony that Southerners found suffocating and by a Boston-centric view of the world that was already growing stale in 1857. Famously, Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Atlantic called his city “the hub of the solar system,” a claim as ludicrous then as now. The front page had an engraved image of John Winthrop with no identification, as if readers could be expected to recognize him instantly (in the blotchy printing style of the day, he looks a little like Johnny Damon).

The first issue included a feature on “New England Ministers,”—a subject not exactly designed to send issues flying off the newsstand. But very soon a lively topicality intruded that still palpitates faintly inside the brittle pages of original copies of the magazine, available in antiquarian libraries across New England. I found a long and lovingly preserved nearly complete run in the Providence Athenaeum, where the dark green covers of the original binding suggest the color of a brackish fish tank whose water has not been changed recently.

Politics came quickly to The Atlantic . In 1860, the magazine pushed hard for Lincoln’s election, and after his victory, a piece in January 1861 gave an early assessment of “Washington City,” as the capital was known. It was also described as “The Sevastopol of the Republic” for its inability to resist sieges by contractors and claim-agents— ancestors of lobbyists. The article offers an unblinking portrait of a city wallowing in corruption and self-importance but one that is also fascinating to priggish Bostonians. A strange diagram of three interlocking rings (the Circle of the White House, the Circle of the Hotels, the Circle of the Mudsill), resembling a DNA diagram, explained the city’s social patterns.

Boston came to Washington again in July 1862, when Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a vivid documentary portrait of life during wartime in the capital. The short essay, “Chiefly about War-Matters” (written under the pseudonym “A Peaceable Man”), remains difficult to find, an aftershock of the degree to which Hawthorne scandalized Boston sensibilities. His crime was modest: he wrote about the war effort too frankly, and he had the audacity to find sympathy for the mass of Southerners who had no idea what they were fighting for. Arrestingly, he inserted the thought that the fabled Mayflower had become a slave ship immediately after depositing the Pilgrims in Plymouth. One passage about John Brown so outraged The Atlantic’s editors that they added a footnote: “Can it be a son of old Massachusetts who utters this abominable sentiment? For shame.” But the important thing is that they held their nose and printed it. The essay, Hawthorne’s final published piece, shows how realistic this romantic could be. It is a classic example of what made The Atlantic great: Boston’s ability to criticize its own pieties.

The Atlantic found its voice with the editorship of William Dean Howells, whose study was always crowded with literary friends (Bret Harte joked, “Why, you couldn’t fire a revolver from your front porch anywhere without bringing down a two-volumer!”) But Howells moved to New York in 1881, and as Alfred Kazin noted in On Native Grounds, that was the exact moment when New York became the intellectual capital of America. Yet The Atlantic continued on with no seeming difficulties, and thrived under a succession of brilliant editors. True, things could get a little snug with Harvard, Cambridge, and Boston— different ways of saying the same thing—but for the most part, it was a fine magazine immersed in the life of its time.

H. L. Mencken hilariously defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.” But so narrow a definition fails to get at the full complexity of Boston Puritanism, a form of dissent that continued to thrive long after the old religious dogmas had been shed like an epidermis. The Atlantic never lost this spirit of agreeable disagreeableness. There were muckraking articles near the end of the 19th century, including a piece or two from Theodore Roosevelt, and great essays on all the moral crises of the 20th, including the Sacco and Vanzetti case, which pitted two versions of Puritanism against each other (WASP orthodoxy vs. principled liberalism). The residue of Puritan dissent was clear in Emerson’s tribute to Thoreau in August 1862 (“he was born protestant”). It was no less present a century later, in August 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. published his brilliant “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It is present whenever a new voice challenges our relentless presentism—not an easy thing to do inside a magazine culture that lives and dies for the next trend—and forces us to reconsider the complicated reasons that people came across the Atlantic and all the other oceans to get here in the first place.

Can the new Atlantic maintain this august tradition? There will be challenges, beginning with the fact that the title is now a misnomer. But oxymorons never hurt the Utah Jazz or the Los Angeles Lakers. Just as the magazine was always a little federal during its long tenure in Boston, so an Atlantic-on-Potomac can Boston-ize Washington by remaining true to its past and retaining the healthy skepticism that distinguished the magazine’s earliest coverage of the capital. From the 1861 essay I cited earlier:

Washington is the Elysium of oddities, the Limbo of absurdities, an imbroglio of ludicrous anomalies. Planned on a scale of surpassing grandeur, its architectural execution is almost contemptible. Blessed with the name of the purest of men, it has the reputation of Sodom. The seat of the lawmaking power, it is the centre of violence and disorder which disturb the peace and harmony of the whole Republic. . . . It is a city without commerce and without manufactures; or rather, its commerce is illicit, and its manufacturers are newspaper-correspondents, who weave tissues of fiction out of the warp of rumor and the web of prevarication.

But perhaps that is too harsh a final note. Another classic Atlantic article from the first decade was Thoreau’s essay “Walking,” submitted just after he had died in May 1862. Its central premise is that relocation is desirable, because civilizations ultimately enclose and fossilize their inhabitants. That same piece reflects on the Atlantic, for millennia a barrier to exploration, and on the lost civilization of Atlantis, “a sort of terrestrial paradise,” enshrouded by the past and the ocean itself, more remembered than seen, eternally “enveloped in mystery and poetry.” Those phrases may now apply to the ancient Bostonian civilization The Atlantic sprang from. But we should be wary of the writer’s tendency to overripe nostalgia and needless classical allusions. Boston will survive. New magazines will flourish. And though Thoreau would surely disapprove of our swollen capital city, any nature writer can understand the impulse to move closer to the object of his scrutiny.

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