April 19, 2013

Benjamin Schwarz out at The Atlantic


In a little-reported move, Benjamin Schwarz has left The Atlantic. Since 2000, Schwarz has edited the Atlantic’s books and ideas section, which published reviews and essays by Christopher Hitchens, B.R. Myers, Caitlin Flanagan, Perry Anderson, and Clive James. He was officially the magazine’s literary and national editor.

The news of Schwarz’s departure first surfaced in a Daily News report, which announced Schwarz’s replacement, Ann Hulbert, formerly of The New Republic and SlateNow, it seems Schwarz no longer has an Atlantic email account, has been dropped from the masthead, and is being identified as the magazine’s “former literary and national editor.”

As recounted in a 2002 Columbia Journalism Review feature on The Atlantic by Scott Sherman, Schwarz joined the magazine in 1997 as a correspondent and was later given the assignment to revitalize the magazine’s book section. He did so by recruiting an impressive roster of critics, including Christopher Hitchens, who filled a column every month until his death. According to Sherman, Schwarz served as “the magazine’s in-house intellectual… [and] claims his only true political passion is animal rights.”

Before coming to The Atlantic, Schwarz wrote book reviews (winning the NBCC’s Nona Balakian Citation for reviewing in 1999) and worked as an analyst at the RAND Corporation. 

In 2003, Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten called Schwarz’s section “the shrewdest, best-written and most surprising cultural report currently on offer between slick covers.” And it was not only a book section. Schwarz expanded his beat to cover popular culture and, more surprisingly, domestic and sexual politics, most memorably in essays by Caitlin Flanagan and Sandra Tsing Loh. 

One irony of Schwarz’s tenure is that his coverage of marriage, family, children, and other domestic matters—which he covered brilliantly, agree or disagree with the essays he published—came to be a focal point for the Atlantic. The magazine eventually followed Schwarz’s interest in domestic stories to a new place entirely, publishing endless variations on theme, which led to much criticism. The magazine further capitalized on their successes with domestic themes with an online vertical called “The Sexes,” which has pumped out a lot of silly posts about domestic topics, presumably without much input from Schwarz. The subjects being covered may have been the same, but much of the sophistication of the Atlantic in the early 2000s evaporated.

As I noted once before, in recent years Schwarz’s section came to look like an artifact from a different magazine. The section fit naturally in the Atlantic when it was edited by Michael Kelly and Cullen Murphy—but much less so in recent years, as the magazine has been been gobbled up by trend stories and wonkery of all kinds under the leadership of James Bennett. 

As it happens, I think the old Atlantic was a much better magazine all around. Indeed, without Schwarz’s section, I can barely imagine reading it at all.



Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.