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:: By Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93

:: Images courtesy the Library of Congress

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Peer Review ::

Faces of the Atlantic

Robert Vare’s magazine anthology parallels American history.

At 700 pages, The American Idea: The Best of the Atlantic Monthly is part book, part doorstop. Editor Robert Vare, AB’67, AM’70, tried to keep its length in check. But with 150 years of issues—and contributors such as Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, W. E. B. DuBois, Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, Theodore Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. Kennedy—Vare’s task bordered on the impossible.


DuBois, Keller, Twain, and Teddy Roosevelt all wrote for the Atlantic.

The American Idea could easily be mistaken for a textbook designed for an American history survey. The fact is, its history-making writers and thinkers all wrote for the same magazine during their lifetimes. (The editors at the Atlantic Monthly were far-seeing but not omniscient, as Vare points out in the book’s introduction. They rejected poem after poem from an aspiring writer named Emily Dickinson.)

The Atlantic’s history spans 15 decades; Vare’s career as a writer and editor three and a half. But when he followed his high-school girlfriend to the University of Chicago in 1963, he thought he wanted to be a doctor. An indifferent reader, at Chicago Vare unexpectedly “fell in love with the written word,” he says. He studied Greek history and culture with David Grene and Hannah Arendt and the 20th-century novel with Saul Bellow, X’39. After earning two degrees in General Studies in the Humanities, Vare flirted with the idea of becoming an academic but decided he would rather write than teach. 

Vare had never written a newspaper article before. Nonetheless he found a job at the Record, New Jersey’s largest suburban paper, where he earned $100 a week to cover stories from school-board meetings to vandalism. After a year of journalism boot camp, he moved to the New York Post, then one of the most leftwing papers in the country.

Three years later Vare turned freelance. He arrived in Columbus, Ohio, in May 1972 with a Harper’s Magazine contract for an article on Woody Hayes, Ohio State’s infamously tyrannical, media-hating football coach. Fearing Hayes’s reaction to his beard, Vare had shaved it off, but the gesture proved insufficient. The coach’s first words were, “What the hell do you want?” followed by a tirade about the press, Nixon, and Watergate.

Then came a small miracle: Hayes demanded to know what Vare had majored in. Greek history, the writer replied. The coach was a lover of history and a believer in the Greek ethos of winning. Vare not only was able to write his story, but he also collected enough material for a book. Published in 1974 by Harper’s Magazine Press, Buckeye: A Study of Coach Woody Hayes and the Ohio State Football Machine was Vare’s first and last book. He still loved the written word but was tormented by writing. “I’m a perfectionist, a chronic rewriter,” he says. Editing came much more naturally and quickly. “One of the dirty little secrets of publishing is how much fun it is to be an editor—as long as you’ve got the right writers.” During the 1980s and ’90s Vare worked as an editor at Rolling Stone, the New York Times Magazine, and the New Yorker.

As an editor, Vare found a new love: narrative nonfiction, a form that uses the creative techniques of fiction to tell a true story. In 1997 Vare won a Nieman Foundation fellowship to study for a year at Harvard. He stayed on for three more years to teach narrative nonfiction. During this period, he began to wonder why Chicago didn’t have a similar program. The University had imported writers to teach fiction, poetry, and playwriting, but never nonfiction.

Vare proposed the idea to Dean of the College John Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75: “It was not a hard sell.” In 2000 he endowed the Robert Vare Nonfiction Writers-in-Residence Program, overseen by the Committee on Creative Writing. So far Vare personally has chosen all the writers in residence. Some of them he has worked with for years, such as Alex Kotlowitz (the 2001–02 writer in residence) and Ron Rosenbaum (2006–07). Others were writers whose work he has admired from afar, such as Dava Sobel (2005–06), author of Galileo’s Daugher. “I wish I had had access to something like that when I was at the U of C,” Vare says. “It would have saved me a lot of years of learning the hard way.”

Meanwhile Vare joined the Atlantic Monthly as an editor. In 2003 he edited Things Worth Fighting For, a collection of stories by his close friend Michael Kelly, an Atlantic writer killed on assignment in Iraq. While working on the project, Vare realized the magazine had a significant anniversary coming up—a good excuse to compile an anthology. 

The agent for the proposed book, Vare recalls, had limited expectations—perhaps a deal for 350 pages if they were lucky. To everyone’s surprise, Doubleday wanted 700. The Doubleday editors named the book The American Idea, quoting from an anonymous statement of purpose in the Atlantic’s first issue. (Vare’s working title had been Atlantic Passage, but the Doubleday editors thought it sounded like a book about the slave trade.) Vare started the editing process in July 2006, working seven days a week at breakneck speed, poring over leather-bound archives and reading through the night. “It was a crushing schedule,” he says, “but a fantastic experience.”

Vare, now the Atlantic’s editor-at-large, was determined to avoid two things that had annoyed him in other anthologies: He didn’t want the pieces to be printed cold; each one would have a researched introduction so readers could understand its significance. He also wanted a thematic structure rather than a “dull and plodding” chronological organization. He divided the readings into ten sections, including “Black and White” (on race relations, an abiding theme for a magazine founded by abolitionists), “Behind the Scenes” (narrative nonfiction), and “Crowd Pleasers” (hugely popular pieces).

Choosing the final selections was agonizing. Vare—whose book tour with several contributors hits Chicago’s Harold Washington Library October 22—had to trim longer pieces while trying to stay true to the original versions. A few living writers lobbied to be included and were peeved when they weren’t. Even with 700 pages at his disposal, Vare had to cut four pieces. When the galleys were printed a miscalculation was discovered, and three of them got back in: a Flannery O’Connor short story, a Garry Wills article on the Gettysburg Address, and Robert Dallek’s piece on John F. Kennedy’s chronic medical problems. The fourth piece, Benjamin Barber’s “Jihad vs. McWorld,” didn’t make it. In an anthology as selective as this one, perhaps nearly getting in is an honor in itself.