by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
In 1857, just before the Civil War, an all-star cast of New England’s most respected writers worked together to launch a new publishing venture: a literary magazine called the Atlantic Monthly. All of these men were highly respected on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean (hence the title of the magazine), and all of them had three names. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell were the most famous members of this group. They wanted to provide intelligent, cultured reading material for the rising professional class. They got other well-known authors to write for them: for example, Samuel Clemens (known popularly as “Mark Twain”). To spice things up, they wrote anonymously, giving readers the fun of trying to guess the author (M. A. DeWolfe Howe, The Atlantic Monthly and Its Makers (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1919).
Over time, the Atlantic began giving bylines to the regular articles but, just for fun, they kept one section of each issue anonymous. Authors could rant and clear the air and make controversial statements in this section without ruining their reputations. They called it the Contributors’ Club, and it soon became the most talked-about section of the magazine. Over the years, it was not only a forum for the already-famous (Mark Twain, Sarah Orne Jewett, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, D. H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov) but was also a good place for aspiring writers to break into the business. As one reader noted years later, the Contributors’ Club was “the nearest thing to a Welcome mat ever thrown across the pathway of aspiring writers” (Irene Bertschy of Rhame, North Dakota, quoted in Philip B Eppard and George Monteiro, A Guide to the Atlantic Monthly Contributors’ Club (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1983), p. xix).
This was especially true during the editorship of Ellery Sedgwick. By the early 20th century, the Atlantic had become the most respected American magazine that nobody subscribed to. Muckrakers’ journals like McClure’s and Collier’s were the big-name magazines now. The Atlantic still stood for quality, but it just wasn’t popular… until Sedgwick, a young hotshot editor, bought the magazine in 1908 and turned it around. He didn’t have a lot of money in the beginning, so he solicited aspiring writers, giving them a chance to get started in the Contributors’ Club. He had a good eye for talent, and he made helpful suggestions to his writers – those who were lucky enough to work with him.
Of course, the Contributors’ Club was anonymous, but that was the beauty of it: it gave unknown writers a chance to show what they could do. Ever heard of Ralph Bergengren… or Elizabeth Woodbridge Morris… or F. Lyman Windolph? They were just a few of the anonymous members of the Club in 1917.
How about Lloyd C. Douglas? He joined the Club that same year.
Actually, he had aimed higher. A letter from “The Editor” dated a year earlier (October 26, 1916) seems to indicate that Douglas had sent a full article for publication. “This is racy and interesting,” Sedgwick told him, “and yet it really belongs in the Contributors’ Club.” Having Ellery Sedgwick speak so highly of the piece must have been encouraging, but having the essay demoted to anonymous status in the Contributors’ Club was probably not good news. And Sedgwick also wanted Douglas to do some heavy editing. “Is it too dampening a suggestion to say that, if there were some means of syncopating the piece so that it would be not more than 1600 words, we might use it there [in the Contributors’ Club]? You see, the first editor of the Atlantic has passed down to his successors the tradition that the first rule of the Club is to have no one take up too large a share of the talk, and even when the discourse is so interesting and sprightly as this, it ought not to be quite so long.” But he left it up to Douglas to figure out how to trim it. “Is there not a page or two which might come out of the paper toward its center? Of this, you are a better judge than we.”
There is no record of Douglas’s reaction to this letter. We don’t know what the piece was, so there’s no way of telling if he ever resubmitted it. But he didn’t give up; over the next eight years, he contributed five essays to the Club and was proud to call himself a Club member. I’ll talk about those contributions in my next post.
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