American magazine, 1850–
Harper’s New Monthly Magazine appeared on the American scene in June 1850, the creation of four Harper brothers—James, John, Joseph Wesley, and Fletcher—who had been in the book publishing business since 1817. The magazine was, at first, largely an advertising vehicle for the firm’s book publication, though the Harper brothers declared in the first issue their intention to bring “within the reach of the great mass of the American people, an immense amount of useful and entertaining reading matter,” most of which was otherwise inaccessible to these potential readers. The magazine was designed to be eclectic, a compendium of materials found in other periodicals. And because the Harper brothers—especially Fletcher, who was the real animating force behind the magazine—believed that Americans were not completely ready for a purely nationalistic fare, it was also an early goal of the magazine to present English fiction (especially serialized novels) and articles to an American audience for whom writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Whittier were too highbrow. (In 1857, this group of Yankee humanists would help found the Atlantic Monthly.) Such presentations were easy to accomplish, since international copyright laws had not yet been created and American publishers could pirate all the writings they wanted from English books and periodicals. Within six months of its birth, Harper’s, under the editorship of Henry J.Raymond, had a circulation of 50,000.
While Fletcher Harper and the early editors (Raymond and Alfred H.Guernsey) relied heavily on English writings, they were also quick to recognize, at a time when most American magazines focused on localism, the possibilities of a national publication. It took only a few years for Harper’s not only to find for itself a greater purpose than advertising, but also to transform itself into a magazine with something approaching a national audience. Neither as highbrow as the Atlantic, nor as newsy and up-to-theminute as Harper’s Weekly, which Fletcher Harper added in 1857, it was a general family magazine aimed at a large common denominator of American readership. Among its nonfiction, it carried battle sketches from the Civil War, as well as travel essays about trips to the Western frontier by prominent writers such as Horace Greeley and John Muir.
Henry Mills Alden assumed the editorship in 1869, and after Fletcher Harper died a few years later Alden was chiefly responsible for the growing dignity, distinction, maturity, and range of the magazine during the later years of the 19th century. Alden would remain editor for 50 years, until 1919. Under his guidance and within the growing genteel tradition of middleand upper-class American culture, Harper’s steered away from mass popularity and became a select magazine for respectable and well-to-do gentlefolk of nice tastes. It was, in fact, preeminent in the golden age of the old-fashioned family magazine, rivaled only by the younger Century and the still younger Scribner’s—with the Atlantic Monthly as a somewhat more austere competitor.
In the 1890s and the early 1900s, new magazines began to appear which pinpointed the middle class, or the average 20th– century Americans—unintellectual and half-educated, but wide awake, confident, and ready to spend their money freely. Many of the new magazines of that time were sensational, vulgar, and venal. But they were such financial successes that they were eventually able to buy the best authors away from Harper’s, Scribner’s, and Century.
In 1925, Harper’s was saved by a daring move by the editor Thomas Bucklin Wells (1919–31). Wells realized it was no longer practical to appeal to a class or group that was supposed to combine wealth, discrimination, and literary taste. Too many people now had enough money to buy nationally advertised products, and they were mostly satisfied with the journalistic fare provided by the mass-circulation magazines. So he aimed at a somewhat different though overlapping public—thoughtful and discriminating people, of whatever income bracket, who appreciated fine quality, felt a deep sense of responsibility for the national well-being, and possessed genuine intellectual curiosity. He pulled the illustrations out of Harper’s, put it in a plain brick-orange cover, and went in for a new program focused upon human, energetic, and often controversial articles on the burning issues of the day.
Wells was pointing the magazine not so much toward well-to-do gentlefolk as toward readers who combined brains and taste with a more-than-superficial concern with public affairs. Such was also the direction followed by editors Lee Foster Hartman (1931–41) and Frederick L.Allen (1941–60). In 1955, Allen said that Harper’s deliberately edited for a minority of educated (though not necessarily formally educated), responsible, intelligent people. In defense of the magazine’s relatively small circulation compared to slicker publications, Allen said, “The ignition system is a very small part of an automobile.”
Harper’s has been an important outlet for essays since its inception. From 1870 to 1920 its important essayists included Henry James (many of his travel pieces appeared in the magazine), Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Brander Matthews.
E.B.White, one of the most influential personal essayists of the 20th century, contributed a monthly column called “One Man’s Meat” from 1938 to 1943. He was living on a farm in Maine and, from that quiet, rural vantage point, turned a discerning and often humorous eye on a world plunging into war.
Harper’s editors from Alden to John Fischer (1960–67) to Lewis Lapham (1976–81, and 1983–) have long insisted that the magazine is “a journal which traffics in ideas,” a description borne out in many of its essays about art, politics, and science: Faulkner on segregation in 1956; E.M.Forster’s “Art for Art’s Sake” in 1949; Russell Lynes’ famous “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow” in 1949; Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson’s important 1947 piece, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb”; Vicki Hearne’s 1991
“What’s Wrong with Animal Rights?”; Gerald Early’s 1992 “Their Malcolm, My Problem.” At the same time, Harper’s—especially under the influence of Lapham—has long insisted on a novelistic approach to journalism, in which the writer’s function “is to describe and tell a story, not shove an idea down people’s throats.” The late 1960s and early 1970s saw Harper’s, under the editorship of Willie Morris (1967–71), become a primary outlet for the New Journalism, including writers such as Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and Tom Wolfe.
Columns have long been an outlet for essayists, and Harper’s’ “The Easy Chair” (now called, for Lewis Lapham’s essays, “Notebook”) is the oldest column in American journalism. Produced over the years by barely more than half a dozen writers, it has served, in the words of “Easy Chair” contributor John Fischer, “as a lens with a reasonably fixed focus on American life.” Though originally intended to be “an agreeable and entertaining collection of literary miscellany,” it soon became, and has remained, a place for political and cultural critique, often argumentative in tone and provoking significant controversy.
Like the New Yorker, though without the extensive influence on the tone of casual American writing, Harper’s has a long tradition of publishing humorous essays. Besides Twain and White, humorists such as James Thurber, Stephen Leacock, Roald Dahl, Leo Rosten, and Jean Kerr have appeared in the magazine.
A major overhaul of the magazine in 1983, the fifth of its existence, refined its treatment of essays. Led by Lapham, Harper’s set out to become, in Lapham’s words, “an interpretive rather than an investigative instrument.” In contrast to the mass media which Lapham saw as necessarily superficial and lacking in any individual voice or story, Harper’s strengthened its traditional bias in favor of the essay and short story. Wanting to build even further on Harper’s’ place as the oldest of America’s monthly magazines, Lapham said that “if the American experience is about people embarked on the trials of discovery, then both the essay and the short story present themselves as the most useful of the available literary forms—brief and experimental, convenient to the arts of improvisation, easily adapted to different tones of voice or modes of feeling, quickly changed into a confession, a treatise, or a traveler’s tale.” Harper’s grasped more firmly onto the essay to counterbalance the less speculative forms of expository prose which it continued to publish. In the mid-1990s, perhaps its most typical essayists are those who range widely over intellectual terrain, incorporating personal stories with incisive ruminations on the defining issues of the times—essayists such as Barry Lopez, Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, and Stanley Elkin.
Because of financial straits, before 1992 Harper’s limited itself to printing essays (as well as stories) of no more than seven or eight pages. In 1992, however, with the 1983 overhaul deemed a success (circulation was up to 202,000, from 140,000 in 1983), the magazine instituted a four-times-a-year section called “Folio,” in which it began to publish essays and stories of substantial length. As an objective sign of its recent high stature in American literary nonfiction writing, Harper’s has had more of its essays chosen for inclusion in the annual Best American Essays series (begun in 1986) than any other magazme.
Gentlemen, Scholars and Scoundrels: A Treasury of the Best of Harper’s Magazine from 1850 to the Present, edited by Horace Knowles, New York: Harper, 1959
Harper Essays, edited by Henry Seidel Canby, New York: Harper, 1927
Humor from Harper’s, edited by John Fischer and Lucy Donaldson, New York: Harper, 1961
Six in the Easy Chair, edited by John Fischer, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973
Baldwin, Neil, “Lewis Lapham,” Publishers Weekly, 5 February 1988:75–76
Dowgray, John Gray Laird, Jr., A History of Harper’s Literary Magazines, 1850–1900
(dissertation), Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1956
Lapham, Lewis, “Notes on a Newer Journalism,” Harper’s, January 1984:10–12
Lapham, Lewis, “In the American Grain,” Harper’s, February 1984: 6–10
Lapham, Lewis, “Happy Anniversary,” Harper’s, March 1987: 10–11
Lapham, Lewis, “New Directions,” Harper’s, October 1992:6–9
Morris, Willie, New York Days, Boston: Little Brown, 1993
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