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Atlantic turns to the Pacific

July 12, 2003|TIM RUTTEN

Los Angeles' bright galaxy of stars is about to increase by three.

There's already a lot of talk about Gary Payton and Karl Malone, of course, but don't overlook Benjamin Schwarz. He may not have a shoe contract, but in the world of American letters he's definitely got game.

Since taking over as the Atlantic Monthly's literary editor three years ago, the 39-year-old Yale- and Oxford-trained historian has reshaped the venerable magazine's book section into the shrewdest, best-written and most surprising cultural report currently on offer between slick covers. Now, Schwarz plans to break with 146 years of tradition and move the Atlantic's literary editorship from Boston, where the magazine was founded and will continue to publish, to set up shop in Los Angeles.

In part, Schwarz said by phone, the move -- which will occur in September -- was prompted by the realization that many of his most valued regular contributors either live in L.A. or came to the magazine through connections here. "I just know more interesting people in Los Angeles than I do in any other city," Schwarz said. "In a way, that's unsurprising, since nowadays there are many more independent intellectuals doing much more interesting work in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the country."

Still, it's a surprising choice for a storied but formerly staid magazine that once was home to the transcendentalists and the abolitionists, that published not only its founding editor, James Russell Lowell, but also Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain and Bret Harte, who in 1871 was paid the then-unheard-of sum of $10,000 to produce 12 stories.

Atlantic contributor David L. Ulin, who edited "Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology," compares Schwarz's move to the one William Dean Howells made in the 1890s, when he left Boston and the Atlantic for New York, thereby ratifying that city's status as a new center of serious writing.

"Ben wouldn't claim Howells' stature," Ulin said. "But with this move, he's created a moment that's interesting on two levels." The first, said Ulin, is pragmatic. "In the current age, there is less and less reason for publications to be centralized, particularly those that deal with a national media -- like books -- or culture. In other words, you no longer have to be anywhere in particular to do this work. So, in that sense, it's a less radical step than it might appear."

Second, said Ulin, is the cultural and intellectual significance of the move. "It could well be a radical step. Ben already is alive to the possibilities of the place. His sense of Los Angeles and how it works is keen and thoughtful. He has a deep respect for the place and its nuances. I think you already see L.A.'s influence in his taste for smart but accessible writers and in a broader sense of what is culturally relevant than you usually find among literary editors." (One recent issue, for example, had an essay on the phenomenon of the sexless marriage by Los Angeles-based contributing editor Caitlin Flanagan. An upcoming issue will contain a reflection on Lucille Ball by bestselling novelist Mona Simpson, and on Hollywood and politics by Marc Cooper.)

For Schwarz, the move represents something of a homecoming. After completing his academic training, he worked as an analyst for the Brookings Institution and then, for eight years, at the Santa Monica-based Rand Corp., where he produced studies of the El Salvadoran civil war, Chinese military modernization and terrorism. "History is a great field for a generalist," he said, "and my interest in diplomatic, military and intellectual history was good preparation for the work we're doing at the Atlantic."

Like its major rivals, the New Yorker and Harper's, the Atlantic has entered a new era of vigor and relevance, regularly publishing not only hard-edged, intensely reported pieces on politics and foreign affairs, but also sophisticated explorations of popular culture by writers with distinctive voices.

"We sensed from the beginning, that a book section is a terrific way to engage a wide range of ideas and developments in academe and in both high and popular culture," Schwarz said. "One of the things I wanted for this section from the beginning was stylish, intellectual writing about popular culture. This is ground none of our competitors was tilling, not the New Yorker nor the New York Review or the New Republic. I'm convinced that popular culture -- the manners and mores of a lot of our readers, in other words -- is something worth delving into."

Why not do it, as others do, from New York?

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