After 150 years in Boston, the Atlantic Monthly has made a jump to Washington, D.C.—and it might be losing critical, longstanding Harvard links

One windy afternoon nearly 150 years ago, Harvard professor James Russell Lowell, class of 1838, started on his daily walk from the University to the offices of the magazine he edited. As he crossed the Charles, a sudden gust disrupted his routine­­—and that of his newly-founded magazine, “The Atlantic Monthly.” The wind blew Lowell’s top hat off his head and into the river, carrying away the magazine manuscripts he stored in it.

The current quickly swept the drafts down the river and away from Harvard. In 2005, after a century and a half of maintaining close ties to the campus, the magazine made a similar move.

With the relocation of its offices from Boston to Washington, D.C., “The Atlantic” has begun to reexamine its connection to the University, hiring more non-alums and focusing on covering current events rather than engaging in more theoretical debates. Yet however the magazine changes, editors and writers promise that “The Atlantic” will always retain the intellectual rigor of the institution where it grew up.


A list of early contributors to “The Atlantic Monthly” demonstrates the close ties between Harvard and the magazine at its founding in 1857. Writers for the first few issues include Lowell; Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., class of 1861, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, class of 1821.

Even today, alumni are a strong presence on staff. Atlantic editor Marc J. Ambinder ’01, a former Crimson Associate Managing Editor, recalls the prominence of Harvard-educated writers when the magazine was starting up their blogs this year.

“We couldn’t believe how utterly stereotypical it was when we realized all five bloggers were Harvard graduates,” Ambider says. “It wasn’t even intentional.”

Ambinder calls Harvard a conduit for journalists, citing the particular kind of education it offers as a critical factor in graduates’ career choices.

“There’s just something about Harvard that produces an insatiable intellectual curiosity,” he says.

Yet John Cullen Murphy, Jr., the transitional editor of “The Atlantic” during its move to Washington, says that the close relationship between Harvard and “The Atlantic” might be incidental.

“The real point is not that ‘The Atlantic’ has had a ‘Harvard thing’ but that it has had a ‘higher education thing.’ In other words, historically ‘The Atlantic’ has drawn its contributors not only from the world of journalism but also, importantly, from academe.”


The 2005 move particularly challenged the magazine’s relationship to Harvard—despite the fact that a University alumnus was the driving force behind it. David Bradley, the new owner of “The Atlantic” and a graduate of the Business School, says he decided to move the magazine in an effort to reduce costs. He also owns the Washington-based National Journal Group.

Former “Atlantic” writer Carl M. Cannon points out that the move cut ties as well as costs.

“When you move out of Boston to Washington, it’s inevitable that the Harvard ties will lessen,” says Cannon, a former writer for the Atlantic and current White House Correspondent for the “National Journal.”

Ambinder says he sees the change as a positive opportunity.

“It’s probably a good thing to stop some artificial channel,” he says, referring to the high number of Harvard students who go on to write for the magazine. He adds that he hopes to use the move to recruit a more diverse staff.


Aside from altering the magazine’s relationship with Harvard, some have claimed that the move has fundamentally altered the original essence of “The Atlantic.”

Although the early years of “The Atlantic” featured plenty of left-wing political discourse, with abolition consistently a prominent issue, the magazine also had a strong literary focus.

“The people who founded it founded it with the idea that Boston had developed the first American literary culture,” says Ellery Sedgwick III, ’64, who wrote a history of the magazine and whose grandfather, Ellery Sedgwick, class of 1894, was the editor of “The Atlantic Monthly” from 1909 to 1938.

Holmes was the first person to call Boston “The Hub,” because of his view of the city as the center of American cultural life. But according to Sedgwick, the founders of the magazine envisioned their new publication as an example that would lead a literary revival throughout the nation, and even, perhaps, internationally.

“It was supposed to reach across the Atlantic,” Sedgwick says, explaining the magazine’s name.

With the move away from “The Hub,” “The Atlantic” also moved away from its literary roots. It stopped regularly publishing fiction when it moved to Washington, instead putting out a yearly fiction supplement.

Some journalists perceive more sweeping changes.

“Two years into its DC incarnation, the Atlantic is changing, arguably for the worse,” Adam Reily wrote in “The Boston Phoenix.”

“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,” he said.


Although the focus of the magazine’s coverage has shifted, several people closely connected to “The Atlantic” argue that its intellectual aim isn’t compromised.

“It’s a departure from some of its recent pieces, but it’s not a departure at all from its historic mission,” Cannon says of the move to more topical articles.

Cannon pointed to a cover story he wrote for the magazine last year called “Why Presidents Lie” as an example of depth of thought that topical coverage can achieve.

“I had been working on that piece for six months,” says Cannon. In the tradition of “The Atlantic,” the article was very historically based, but Cannon rewrote part of it at the last minute to incorporate presidential fibs regarding the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld.

“I think readers want both. They want something they’ve never seen anywhere else, but they also don’t want something too ephemeral,” Cannon says. “In the past you didn’t need a newspeg. However, it was always about what was happening and a topic in civil discourse.”

Cannon added that the shift to more time-sensitive coverage was hardly new. He says he wrote a piece on Bill Clinton’s legacy for the magazine about seven years ago.

But the increased prevalence of the topical articles has come at the expense of the more eccentric pieces “The Atlantic” was known for in the recent past.

“One thing that drew me to it immediately was its sheer diversity—its willingness to take on any subject, including things that weren’t on the news,” says Murphy, the transitional editor. “Sure, there was always great journalism, but there was great criticism too, and articles about science, pop culture, religion. And oddball articles that were just plain fun.”


Even though the past few years have been particularly tumultuous, the origins of the change may go back even further.

“It isn’t just this move to Washington—it’s been happening since my grandfather’s time,” says Ellery Sedgwick III. “Starting in the late 19th century and accelerating under my grandfather during World War I the focus shifted away from literature—it no longer had a literary core.”

Despite the criticism that recent changes have drawn, Sedgwick says he’s optimistic about the future of “The Atlantic.”

“It will continue to be a thoughtful magazine with an independent view, not adhering to any sort of orthodoxy or program, willing to publish things that might not be published elsewhere, that not only entertain but make you think. That’s what I like about it. That’s what was really its original intention.”