The first issue of Meanjin was published at Brisbane in 1940, containing the poems of Clem Christesen, James Picot, Brian Vrepont and Paul Grano. Christesen was the founding editor and remained in that position until 1974, attempting to produce a 'journal of ideas, built around books, to encourage free expression and intelligent criticism, to put forward "advance guard" material, develop contacts abroad--a Literary Lend-lease'. To this end, Christesen attracted a diverse group of writers from Australia and overseas. In the 1940s Australian writers included poets such as Harold Stewart, Harry Hooton, Peter Hopegood, Max Harris, Rex Ingamells, Hugh McCrae and R. D. FitzGerald ; critics such as Vance and Nettie Palmer, A. R. Chisholm and R. G. Howarth; fiction writers such as Xavier Herbert and Katharine Susannah Prichard; and a variety of other commentators such as Norman Bartlett, Lloyd Ross, Brian Fitzpatrick and Manning Clark. Overseas writers whose work appeared in Meanjin included Anais Nin, Arthur Koestler and Jean-Paul Sartre. Accompanying the work of these writers were sketches, designs and woodcuts from a number of visual artists, including Margaret Preston, Frank Medworth, Noel Counihan and Roy Dalgarno.
Following an offer by Melbourne University to publish and manage the magazine, Christesen and his wife, Nina, moved to Melbourne in February 1945. Despite the financial security and institutional support, circulation dropped during the next twelve months. Christesen was forced to seek sponsorship from other sources to supplement the contribution from the university. By the late 1940s the distinct business connection with the university had ended but infrastructure was still provided, maintaining Meanjin 's institutional home.With the onset of the Cold War, Communist Party sympathisers were being increasingly targetted and Meanjin was no exception. The Christesens were regularly under surveillance and were implicated in the Petrov Affair in 1955. But despite this adverse attention (threatening the approval of literary grants) and the destruction of many friendships, the circulation of Meanjin remained strong throughout the 1950s. In the late 1950s and 1960s, Christesen continued to attract the work of some of Australia's best writers and intellectuals, building a strong group of regular contributors, including A. D. Hope, A. A. Phillips, Judith Wright, Jack Lindsay, John Morrison, Robert D. FitzGerald, James K Baxter and David Martin. Meanjin also contributed to discussion on the visual arts with regular contributions from Allan McCulloch, Ursula Hoff and Bernard Smith. In addition, Several important series were produced in the 1960s with titles such as 'Australian Heritage', 'Godzone', 'Pacific Signposts', and 'The Temperament of Generations'. But with the growth of a new generation in a rapidly changing culture, and Christesen's flagging energy, Meanjin began to lose the distinctive tone that its long-time editor had fostered. The future of the magazine became a concern.
The historian Jim Davidson had been acting as editor for some time before he was officially instated in 1975. During his eight-year term Davidson attempted to attract a new generation of readers to Meanjin, with special issues on Papua and New Guinea, Women and the Arts, and Aboriginal culture. Davidson also introduced interviews in a new format that brought the first change in size to Meanjin since 1951. In the first issue of 1982 Judith Brett was acknowledged as Associate Editor, taking over from Davidson in the next issue. Like Davidson, Brett responded to changes in Australian culture, extending the discussion of women writers begun in the late 1970s and introducing a focus on migrant writers. Throughout this period Meanjin continued to print the works of many of Australia's best creative writers. Contributors during this period included Bruce Dawe, John Tranter, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Tom Shapcott, Jennifer Maiden, Les Murray, Patrick White, Frank Moorhouse, Morris Lurie, Laurie Clancy and Michael Wilding. In addition to established writers Meanjin also published the work of new writers, including Tim Winton, Nicholas Jose, Marion Halligan and Garry Disher.
Throughout the 1990s Meanjin went through several changes to format and faced a number of financial challenges. Jenny Lee's term as editor brought a more academic tone to the magazine and introduced regular thematic issues (but this has not always pre-determined the selection of creative writing). Many issues focused on cultural studies, postmodernism, postcolonialism and the state of the humanities. Other issues explored landscape, music, women's knowledge, Aboriginal issues and the Pacific region.
When Christina Thompson became editor in 1994, she brought another shift in tone, suggesting that Meanjin had become too academic, and pushed for a greater clarity in the contributions. Issues explored during Thompson's term included Canadian studies, corporatisation, suburban life, the Pacific region and queer studies. In the mid 1990s Meanjin faced severe financial setback when regular government funding was significantly reduced. Despite seeking outside funding, the diminished budget had an immediate effect. With inadequate funds to support productions costs, only three issues were produced in 1997. Thompson also experienced strong opposition from some Meanjin board members and did not seek reappointment.
In 1998 Melbourne University bought Meanjin to avoid its closure, imposing stronger control of the magazine's business dealings. Stephanie Holt, with a background in visual arts journalism, was appointed editor. During Holt's term, Meanjin explored issues on travel, crime, reconciliation, and revisited the idea of the cultural cringe. Former editor, Jim Davidson, later remarked that Holt had made Meanjin 'absolutely contemporary again'. But Holt faced some opposition at the end of her term and was controversially replaced by historian Ian Britain in 2001, causing several board members to resign in protest. Britain has since produced themed issues on museums, life writing, drugs and food.
'In a previous issue of Meanjin, Winnie Dunn wrote, ‘A critically conscious reader can see Australia through the literature that is missing just as equally as they can through the literature that exists.’ For Dunn, the literature that is ‘missing’ is work by Australians from minority and migrant communities, Indigenous Australians and people of colour or those from non-Anglo backgrounds. While I do not disagree with Dunn, I’d like to suggest that a critically conscious reader—whether in Australia or elsewhere—will further ask: what is missing when we read literature as a reflection of national boundaries, as a site where national identity is represented and given narrative shape? This is an important but deeply challenging question since the field of literary studies has long used the nation to categorise fiction, and has explained literature’s function through its capacity to define a nation’s culture and identity.' (Introduction)
'During the past 80 years Australian poetry has developed some distinctive characteristics. In the next 80, however, will it survive our passion for narratives of enlargement?' (Introduction)
'When asked to write a nonfiction piece for Meanjin’s 80th year, I welcomed the chance to finally channel my inner futurist. I began to imagine what Australia could look like in 80 years. Then I remembered how much I like to write about the past. So I envisioned an essay that looks back and forwards. And then I went to see a movie at the cinema.' (Introduction)
'At 80, I’m just a bit older than Meanjin.
'Born into the British Empire, we both started out in Brisbane where, in December 1940, journalist Clem Christesen AM OBE published the first Meanjin Papers. Days later (3 January 1941) the 6th Division of the 2nd AIF, which, like the 1st Australian Imperial Force of 1914–18, had been training in Palestine, engaged with Italian forces at Bardia, the first occasion where our ground troops were seriously committed in World War II. I’d arrived in the preceding October, the month in which the Battle of Britain ended. Some 35 Australian pilots (ten died) flew in that conflict over Will Shakespeare’s ‘sceptered isle’—this fortress built by nature for itself against infection and the hand of war—that my Essex-born, Brisbane-resident maternal grandparents, Bert and Emma Byford, still referred to as ‘home’.' (Introduction)