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A Literary Elder Statesman Savors Its Staying Power

By WILLIAM H. HONAN (NYT) 1406 words
Published: April 18, 2000

Correction Appended

The editor and the publisher of Harper's magazine, the oldest literary monthly in the United States, are not complacently waiting for the magazine's 150th anniversary to roll around in June. Starting tonight they are initiating a yearlong celebration, beginning with a Brooklyn Public Library exhibition of rare books, artwork and artifacts related to Herman Melville, Walt Whitman and other contributors to the magazine. The eveninglong event, which is for subscribers, friends of the library and invited guests, starts at 6.

And now in stores is Harper's 6-pound, 712-page anthology, ''An American Album: 150 Years of Harper's Magazine,'' edited by Lewis H. Lapham and Ellen Rosenbush with a foreword by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (Franklin Square, $50).

Among the book's 128 contributions are a chapter from Henry James's ''Washington Square,'' Mark Twain's ''Eve's Diary: Translated From the Original,'' William Allen White on ''The Country Newspaper,'' Virginia Woolf's ''Lady in the Looking Glass,'' H. L. Mencken on ''The Future of English,'' Rudyard Kipling's ''Gods of the Copybook Maxims,'' Leon Trotsky on ''What Hitler Wants,'' Eugene V. Rostow on ''Our Worst Wartime Mistake'' and Thornton Wilder on ''The Silent Generation.''

This well-orchestrated hubbub invites questions about what role Harper's plays in American life today and how it has managed to outlive competitors ranging from Scribner's and The Dial to The Century and American Mercury.

While Harper's remains a significant voice, it is not the kind of red-hot, must-read magazine that, say, Smart Set was in the late 1920's and 30's, when that publication served as a platform for the literary antics of Mencken and George Jean Nathan. Nor is it in the same league as The New Yorker of the early 60's, which set the nation's intellectual agenda with seminal articles like Rachel Carson's ''Silent Spring'' and James Baldwin's ''Fire Next Time.''

Harper's appears to be run on a tight editorial budget, filling space with clippings from other publications and letters from readers, using the work of young unknowns and holding back on the most expensive types of journalism, investigations and foreign reporting.

But the magazine is stubbornly intellectual, high-minded and independent. Mr. Lapham, who is serving his second term as editor (1976-81 and 1983 to the present), is considered a sharp intelligence with an intolerance for cant. This year he was named one of the Top 10 magazine editors in the country by The Columbia Journalism Review.

During his reign Harper's has helped ignite the careers of writers like David Guterson, who went on to write the best-selling novel ''Snow Falling on Cedars,'' and Michael Paterniti, whose article for the magazine about transporting Albert Einstein's brain across the United States is soon to appear in hardcover and perhaps as a movie.

Mr. Lapham has also published influential articles, including Francine Prose's ''I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read'' in September, a widely discussed attack on the contents of high school English classes; David Plotz's expose ''Busted Flush'' in August, which led to the shutting down of the $2.8 billion video poker industry in South Carolina; and Barbara Ehrenreich's ''Nickel-and-Dimed'' in January, in which she recounted working as a waitress in Florida to demonstrate the impossibility of living on the minimum wage.

Such articles have inspired Professor Schlesinger to praise Harper's as ''the longest-lived, thoughtful magazine of general interest in the United States.''

William Katz, a professor in the library school at the State University of New York at Albany who edits the journal Magazines for Libraries, commended Harper's for ''having sense enough to stay an intellectual magazine.''

Harper's was founded in 1850 by the four Harper brothers, who ran a large book-publishing plant on Franklin Square in Lower Manhattan. Harper's New Monthly Magazine would occupy the downtime of their newly installed steam presses and promote their books.

The brothers hired talented editors, their first managing editor being Henry J. Raymond, a journalistic, literary and political powerhouse who was also a founder of The New York Times and served as speaker of the New York State Assembly.

The magazine was almost an immediate success, later spawning Harper's Weekly and Harper's Bazaar, among others, and never ran into serious difficulty until after it was sold by the Harper interests to the Minneapolis Star and Tribune Company in 1965.

In 1967 the editorial reins were turned over to Willie Morris, a hard-drinking, charismatic and rapidly rising New York literary star from Yazoo City, Miss. Morris, who died in August, scored several editorial coups -- like devoting an entire issue to Norman Mailer's 90,000-word report on a Vietnam War protest march -- and developed a cult following, with headquarters at Elaine's bar and restaurant.

But Morris's Harper's -- much like Alfred Sheppard Dashiell's Scribner's a generation earlier -- got ahead of its readers, pumped up circulation artificially and lost money. Morris resigned under fire in 1971.

Harper's wobbled along, until in 1980 the owners announced that they were pulling the plug. At the last minute, John R. MacArthur and his father, Roderick, persuaded the boards of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Atlantic Richfield Company to make a grant to establish the Harper's Magazine Foundation, which now runs the magazine with John R. MacArthur as president and publisher.

In a recent interview, Mr. MacArthur said the foundation was financially stable and backed by an endowment of about $50 million. Circulation has leveled off at 220,000, he said, and though that is less than half the size of The Atlantic Monthly or The New Yorker (which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year), in magazine publishing less is often more because loyal subscribers cannot be readily bought and sold.

Mr. MacArthur also insisted that the editorial budget of Harper's, while smaller than The New Yorker's, was adequate to field correspondents overseas when necessary. ''Last May,'' he said, ''when we wanted to send not one but two writers to Cyprus at a cost of $25,000, the money was there.''

Mr. Lapham said: ''We take a lot of risks at Harper's. I don't want to read a writer's clips. I'd much rather take a chance on him if his proposal excites me. The big thing with me is a writer's passion, point of view and style. I like the writer who uses the first person rather than a well-qualified monotone.''

''Here's what I don't do,'' he said. ''I don't do special issues like The New Yorker's special fiction issue. To do that you have to assign eight pieces. Two will be works of genius and the rest are dogs. But you have to make them work because you've committed yourself. That makes it an editor's magazine, not a writer's magazine. I don't want that.''

Mr. Lapham discounts the impact that the Internet will have on Harper's in the future. ''That can change the method of delivery, but not the substance of the magazine,'' he said.

No one really knows how or why Harper's has lasted this long. Least of all Mr. Lapham, who in an uncharacteristically wordy statement in the anthology said that Harper's owed its longevity to the fact that all nine of its chief editors have shared a ''collective sense of an historical narrative as closely bound to time future as to time past.''

A Yearlong Birthday Bash

Here are some of the events in Harper's 150th-anniversary celebration:

The June issue, on newsstands May 23, will be double its normal size and include contributions from a wide range of writers including President Clinton, Nancy Reagan, Russell Banks and Jane Smiley.

On May 24 Harper's will take over Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal for an invitation-only gala featuring music from the last 15 decades, dancing, and remarks by the writer Tom Wolfe, the magazine's editor, Lewis H. Lapham, and its publisher, John R. MacArthur.

There will also be at least a dozen readings throughout the country by authors like John Kenneth Galbraith, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Darcy Frey.

Information: (212) 614-6559; www.harpers.org/ americanalbum.

Correction: April 24, 2000, Monday An article in the arts pages on Tuesday about the 150th anniversary of Harper's Magazine misstated the period when H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan wrote for Smart Set, one of its early competitors. The two writers left Smart Set in 1923 to found American Mercury; they did not remain at Smart Set in the late 1920's and 30's.

 

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