Two things stood out when the book tour for an impressive new anthology, The American Idea: The Best of the Atlantic Monthly (Doubleday), rolled through town this past month. The first point was that the occasion was bittersweet. The Atlantic was founded in Boston 150 years ago, but decamped for Washington, DC, in 2005. This made the confab at Cambridge’s First Parish Church Meetinghouse part anniversary party, part memorial service.
The second point was that no one wanted to engage the first point. There was brief mention of the move to Washington, and former managing editor Cullen Murphy made passing reference to New England’s reputation (unjust, he said) for provincialism. But no one tackled the question that was, in all likelihood, on almost everyone’s mind: how had the Atlantic’s departure from Boston changed the magazine?
Perhaps the panelists and the audience avoided this subject out of a shared sense of decorum. Suggest the Atlantic had changed for the worse, and you might disrupt the celebratory vibe; suggest it hadn’t changed, or that it was actually better, and you’d risk retroactively tarnishing the magazine’s long Boston tenure.
But the awkwardness of the question doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be broached. After all, two years into its DC incarnation, the Atlantic is changing, arguably for the worse. The magazine’s long-time claim to fame has been erudite literary nonfiction that “breaks ideas,” as correspondent James Fallows put it in Cambridge. Today, though, the Atlantic seems drier, wonkier, more focused on grabbing readers (and advertisers) by following the stories of the day, and less interested in examining subjects no one else is talking about. And while the move from Boston doesn’t deserve all the credit — or blame, depending on your perspective — for this change, there’s reason to think the magazine’s relocation is playing a major role.
Compare issues of the Atlantic published this year with issues published in 2005, the magazine’s last year in Boston, and a few telling differences emerge. For one thing, the cover-story sensibility is shifting. In 2005, the Atlantic devoted covers to (among other things) David Foster Wallace’s musings on talk radio; Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Tocquevillian tour of the US; and an imagined history of the war on terror by Richard A. Clarke, pegged to hypothetical future attacks and presented as a 2011 lecture at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Chances are, none of these three pieces would ever show up on the cover of Time or Newsweek — even if those magazines had the space to accommodate them. In contrast, the Atlantic’s 2007 incarnation seems, pretty clearly, to be emphasizing hard politics and current events: recent covers have included David Samuels’s story on Condoleezza Rice’s ascendancy; Joshua Green on Karl Rove’s exit from the White House; and a Jonathan Rauch piece on philanthropy hooked to the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative.