For starters, it's been in print since 1850 (the year Zachary Taylor suddenly died in office -- if that's any help, perspective-wise). And no one could teach either an American Lit or Journalism class that banned the works of Harper's writers. Currently the list of contributing editors includes Francine Prose, John Edgar Wideman, and Tom Wolfe, and even newly departed Walter Cronkite graces the masthead as Honorary Member of the Board.
But the August issue doesn't rest on laurels. Wideman has a "Notebook" piece in here, a searing essay on black fathers entitled "Fatheralong." He tilts the prism a bit by writing not about Emmett Till -- the Chicago boy murdered in Mississippi in the 1950s -- but focuses instead on Louis Till, who was hanged by the U.S. Army when his son was only four. And then Wideman hits his stride: "Race is myth. When we stop talking about race, stop believing in race, it will disappear." I had the bizarre experience of reading this piece on a commuter train, as a loud woman nearby complained to her seatmate about her neighbor's parties by explaining, "And kids of all races come and go, not that it matters, because it doesn't matter to me." Thus the cosmos provided the punctuation for Wideman's words.
Not every page is so heavy. The "Readings" section, for example, offers shorter takes from a variety of voices, such as Wallace Shawn on sex. But like most good magazines, Harper's has a way of providing much-needed context to news we've already absorbed.
This issue's cover story -- "End of the Road" by Ben Austen -- may very well emerge as the definitive obituary for the American automobile industry if G.M. and Chrysler can't pull out of their nosedives. And the accompanying illustration of the tailfins on a '59 Caddy perfectly melds form and content, extolling fading beauty and excess at once.
It's not serendipitous this piece leads directly into the center portfolio, a collection of photos from abandoned American cities, including a stark image of a burned car. "These Mean Streets" by Will Steacy showcases photography so stunning you'll scrutinize the pixels to confirm it wasn't produced with oils and canvas.
And then there's Harper's fiction. True, Mark Twain and Henry James were published here, as were Theodore Dreiser and Jack London. But there's no need to wave ancient credentials, since in more recent times the magazine also has printed T.C. Boyle and Mary Gaitskill, Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace.
What's particularly interesting about "Too Much Happiness" in this issue is that author Alice Munro has frequently been compared to Chekhov, the master of the sparse plot, and this novella features two expatriate Russians in the late 19th century. It's a lovingly rendered portrait, but at 20 full pages, one wonders where else it would find life on a newsstand these days.
Which segues into the most fascinating question of all: Can Harper's endure in a country in which reading itself is increasingly under fire? Sure, it's good to see A-list advertisers like Shell and Lufthansa. But the standard practices of 21st century magazine publishing clearly haven't gotten traction here: Narratives are long and complex and unbroken by sidebars or boxes or Venn diagrams. It's hard to think of another major American magazine, including The Atlantic and The New Yorker, that relies on so much black ink on white pages.
But, oh, that ink. At a time when the briefest book reviews in some magazines can be tucked inside a fortune cookie, Harper's gives William H. Gass an eight-page spread to examine "The Third Reich" by Richard J. Evans (no lightweight itself at 926 pages). The descriptions of the German occupation of Soviet territory are haunting -- and surreal. Gass doesn't bludgeon modern readers with these 70-year-old lessons, but the relevance is made clear: "'Partisan resistance prompted further reprisals, leading more to join the partisans, and so the escalating cycle of violence continued.' This inevitability, ironically, seems to have escaped the notice of present-day nations. What is the use of an upper hand if you can't spank someone with it?"
Harper's is serious reading, and in fact it's serious even when it's funny (and Wallace Shawn comparing the big toe to the penis is pretty funny stuff). But a troubling factoid is wedged into this issue's "Harper's Index," that signature page of random-but-not-really-random-at-all list of statistics. Almost lost among the data on U.S. home purchases and stockpiled nuclear warheads is this nugget: "Number of years by which the median age of a Penthouse reader has increased during the past five years: 5."
Let's hope the same trend isn't occurring at Harper's.
Published by: Harper's Magazine Foundation
Frequency: 12 times per year