First issued on November 1, 1857, The Atlantic Monthly is in the midst of its 150th birthday celebration. To mark the occasion, the magazine has crafted a present for its readers in the form of an anniversary issue that explores “the future of the American idea.” The issue brings together figures as diverse as John Updike (writing about “The Individual”), Arnold Schwarzenegger (“Coming to America”), Frank Gehry (“Building Dreams”), Arianna Huffington (“Pursuit of Happiness”), Nancy Pelosi (“Youth”), Stephen Breyer (“Wise Constraints”), Cornel West (“Niggerization”), Joyce Carol Oates (“The Human Idea”), and Tom Wolfe (“Pell-Mell”)—thirty-four in all, with additional contributors featured in the Web version. The magazine complements the whole “wise, amused, pained, and impassioned cacophony,” as its editors call it, with photographs and illustrations—including a particularly poignant Richter work called “September 11”—that further articulate the ideas the issue’s writers explore in words.
The whole thing is lofty, certainly; some might argue, on the other hand, that the theme is a little broad. Still, there’s something electrifying about having the thoughts and words of so many leaders—intellectual, cultural, political—brought together on the same pages. Collections like this highlight the value of the magazine of ideas in a media environment as volatile, crowded, and precarious as ours. They also help explain why The Atlantic has weathered the storm when so many similar publications have floundered. The Atlantic’s editors may be on to something when they write, in their introduction to the issue, “Only a magazine devoted to understanding change could have thrived through so much of it. Only a magazine that consistently questions its own assumptions about the American idea could remain true to that idea’s potential.”
Here’s to another 150 years.