Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review: "Republic of Words"

Susan Goodman's Republic of Words: The Atlantic Monthly and Its Writers, 1857-1925 (University Press of New England, 2011) is an unconventional history of a magazine. "From the beginning," Goodman writes, "The Atlantic's authority rested on its contributors: the poets, novelists, essayists, political figures, scientists, geologists, explorers, social scientists, and their fellow writers in multiple fields, new and old" (xi). Most chapters focus on a particular episode of an Atlantic writer's career which was connected in some way to the magazine's story and "speaks in its way about the magazine's self-made responsibilities and the writer's sense of an underlying national consciousness" (xi).

Goodman focuses on the period from 1857 through 1925, from the beginning through the post-WWI era when the magazine found itself facing new rivals and a changing audience. A short final chapter looks beyond the 1920s to the big changes faced by the magazine since then, including the move from its original Boston home to Washington, D.C. in 2005.

The book's chapters may focus on seemingly small episodes in the life of the Atlantic, but Goodman also manages to create an overarching narrative of a publication changing over time, not just with the shifting preferences and tastes of successive editors, but also in response to the political, literary, scientific, and social climate of the day (even if in some cases it did take a while to catch up). It certainly helps to have such an intriguing stable of writers to choose from: among those profiled here are Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Henry James, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Robert Frost, W.E.B DuBois, and Amy Lowell (just to scratch the surface).

Among the most interesting chapters are those on the contretemps stirred up by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1869 when she insinuated that Lord Byron had slept with his half-sister, the debates between Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray over scientific theory, and on Mark Twain's unintentional (and poorly-received) "roast" of the magazine's founders at a dinner celebrating John Greenleaf Whittier's 70th birthday.

A few small errors have crept into the text (the author of Wild Animals I Have Known was Ernest Thompson Seton, not Thomas Seton, for example), but they do little to undermine this fascinating look at a publication which has survived through thick and thin, trying as ever to "be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea" (6).

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