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Once Upon a Time in the West

How Mark Twain turned frontier humor into literature:

It wasn’t easy. The notion that literature could emerge from the frontier’s barbaric yawp encountered violent resistance from America’s literary establishment. It didn’t help that tall tales abounded in vulgarity, drunkenness, and depravity, not to mention perversions of proper English that would make a schoolteacher gasp. Proving the literary power of the frontier would be a central part of Twain’s legacy, and a pie in the face of the New England dons who had dominated the country’s high culture for much of the nineteenth century. He wasn’t immune to wanting their approval, but he came from a very different tradition. His ear hadn’t been trained at Harvard or Yale; it was tuned to the myriad voices of slaves and scoundrels, boatmen and gamblers.

PUBLISHED: March 21, 2014
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3653 words)

Swiping Right in the 1700s: The Evolution of Personal Ads

Our latest Longreads Member Pick, by Noga Arikha, author of Passions and Tempers, on the the history of personal ads. The essay was first published in Lapham’s Quarterly.

PUBLISHED: Feb. 21, 2014
LENGTH: 12 minutes (3200 words)

'What a Sad Business, Being Funny': A Brief History of the Tortured Comedian

From Charlie Chaplin to the pantomime clown Joseph Grimaldi, a look at the link between depression and comedy:

Chaplin had hoped to cultivate the mind of his young wife, which he found “cluttered with pink-ribboned foolishness.” According to Harris, this meant he read long, boring books out loud and rehearsed the tragic roles he harbored secret ambitions to play. Mildred once mistook something he said for a joke and began to laugh, but soon realized her error as he flew into a fury and called her names. When they divorced in 1920, on grounds of mental cruelty, she received $200,000. “It has been said that a comedian is only funny in public,” she complained to the Washington Times. “I believe it. In fact, I know it. Charlie Chaplin, who has made millions laugh, only caused me tears.”

PUBLISHED: Dec. 22, 2013
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3537 words)

Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Our story picks of the week, featuring The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Motherboard, Lapham's Quarterly, and a guest pick from Nicole Greenfield.
PUBLISHED: Dec. 13, 2013

What Does It Mean to Have a 'Good Death'?

A neurologist helps watch over her patient as she dies at home, and wonders: Do we ever not die alone?

In twenty-first century America, there is no such “how to” manual on dying. Nor does our state-of-the-art modern medicine offer much help.

Fact: Seven out of ten Americans wish to die at home, die the Good, the Valid, Death.

Jane abhorred whispering, so Steve and I included Jane in our discussion of the mechanics of her death.

Fact: Seven out of ten Americans die in institutions, intubated, infiltrated, invalidated.

“This is a treatable problem,” Steve said.

“Yes,” I said, “but she is going to be worse off afterward.”

PUBLISHED: Dec. 12, 2013
LENGTH: 12 minutes (3229 words)

Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Our story picks of the week, featuring Esquire, Wired, BuzzFeed, The New Republic, Lapham's Quarterly, and a guest pick by Sari Botton.
PUBLISHED: Sept. 27, 2013

Last Meals

Our relationships between food and death. A history of the last meal:

"In America, where the death rows—like the prisons generally—are largely filled with men from the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, last-meal requests are dominated by the country’s mass-market comfort foods: fries, soda, fried chicken, pie. Sprinkled in this mix is a lot of what social scientists call 'status foods'—steak, lobster, shrimp—the kinds of foods that in popular culture conjure up the image of affluence. Every once in a while, though, a request harkens back to what, in the Judeo-Christian West, is the original last meal—the Last Supper, when Jesus Christ, foreseeing his death on the cross, dined one final time with his disciples. Jonathan Wayne Nobles, who was executed in Texas in 1998 for stabbing to death two young women, requested the Eucharist sacrament. Nobles had converted to Catholicism while incarcerated, becoming a lay member of the clergy, and made what was by all accounts a sincere and extended show of remorse while strapped to the gurney. He sang “Silent Night” as the chemicals were released into his veins."
PUBLISHED: Sept. 19, 2013
LENGTH: 17 minutes (4397 words)

One of Us

On how humans have thought about animal consciousness:

"In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin made the intriguing claim that among the naturalists he knew it was consistently the case that the better a researcher got to know a certain species, the more each individual animal’s actions appeared attributable to 'reason and the less to unlearnt instinct.' The more you knew, the more you suspected that they were rational. That marks an important pivot, that thought, insofar as it took place in the mind of someone devoted to extremely close and meticulous study of living animals, a mind that had trained itself not to sentimentalize. Even at so intimate a range of scrutiny, looking not just at apes and dogs but also at birds and worms, Darwin rediscovered that feeling, which even children know. Or which children believe, as a mechanist might say."
PUBLISHED: March 21, 2013
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3524 words)

Players Club

A brief history of Shakespeare and alcohol:

"Shakespeare didn’t just enjoy the interplay of drinking, fantasy, and theater at his favorite taverns, he also enacted this productive relationship onstage. Shakespeare began his popular comedy The Taming of the Shrew with a curious framing device, one that bears little relation to the famous barbs of the lovers’ plot. The play opens with the drunken tinker Christopher Sly arguing with a tavern hostess. He has broken beer glasses and refuses to pay. As she heads to fetch the constable, Sly falls into a stupor; upon waking, he finds himself dressed and pampered as a nobleman. This transformation has occurred because a passing Lord, who stopped at the tavern for refreshment, saw the drunken Sly and came up with a plan for his own amusement: he would take the tinker to his 'fairest chamber' to be pampered with 'wanton pictures' and 'rose water.' Sly then struggles comically to adjust to his dramatically changed circumstances. The prologue ends as the Lord insists that Sly enjoy himself and take in a play."
PUBLISHED: Dec. 19, 2012
LENGTH: 18 minutes (4682 words)