Harper's magazine, one of America's most culturally signifi-cant periodicals, was founded in 1850 under the name Harper's New Monthly magazine by the New York-based Harper & Brothers, the largest publishing company in nineteenth-century America. Initially conceived as a miscellany—a collection of reprints from other publications—consisting mostly of fiction, Harper's gained a broad middle-class audience by positioning itself as the Victorian reader's gateway to refinement and respectability. In the twentieth century, Harper's transformed itself into the magazine of choice for an elite, well-educated readership whose opinions and tastes have helped shape the nation's political debates and social trends.
With an antebellum circulation of two hundred thousand, Harper's was easily the best-read and most influential magazine of its time; its list of nineteenth-century contributors reads like a roll call of some of the era's finest British and American fiction writers. But in spite of its long record of prosperity, by the end of World War I, Harper's was in financial trouble, its circulation down to seventy-five thousand. Over the course of the first few decades of the twentieth century, the genteel, culturally ambitious, middle-class readership upon which Harper's had based its success had fragmented. A number of forces, including a widening income gap between rich and poor, increasing cultural diversity through immigration, the rise of the suburbs, and the impact of emerging technologies such as film and radio, split the relatively unified nineteenth-century reading public into lowbrow, middlebrow, and highbrow audiences. Those periodicals which were able to maintain a mass national circulation, such as Ladies' Home Journal or the Saturday Evening Post, did so by cutting prices and simplifying article content in order to appeal to the largest possible audience, while relying on extensive advertising to compensate for lost subscription revenue.
Rather than follow the lead of the mass-market magazines to try to regain its position as market leader, Harper's decided to redefine itself as the journal for the well-educated and well-read, seeking serious, though not scholarly, discussion of the issues of the day. In 1925, editor Thomas Wells redesigned the magazine, slimming it down and removing most of the elaborate artwork. The new Harper's assumed a distinctly progressive—never radical—political tone. Most significantly, the amount of fiction, long the magazine's hallmark, was reduced and replaced by nonfiction articles debating major social and political issues to satisfy its readership.
As its mid-century editor, Frederick Lewis Allen, noted, the types of issues discussed in the magazine's pages evolved with the changing interests of its audience. In the 1920s, Harper's was full of articles on the social upheaval of the modern era. Numerous articles voiced concerns about the role of the newly enfranchised and emancipated woman and her impact on family life. Other writers like James Truslow Adams in "Is Science a Blind Alley?" expressed fears about the decline of religion in the face of rapid technological change. By the 1930s, moved by the Great Depression and the specter of war in Europe, Harper's turned toward political and economic issues, such as the rise of German and Japanese power abroad and the possibility of social unrest among the unemployed at home.
The entrance of the United States into World War II solidified the magazine's increasingly global focus. Harper's wholeheartedly supported the war effort; Henry L. Stimson defended the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in its pages. Editor Lewis H. Lapham has noted that through the 1950s and the 1960s Harper's was a signifi-cant forum for America's cold-war intellectuals, including Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Van Wyck Brooks, Richard Hofstadter, and Henry Steele Commager. Later, as the role of the public intellectual waned, and as public cynicism waxed in the Vietnam and Watergate eras, Harper's responded again by changing to a more journalistic, exposé-oriented style.
In 1965 Harper's magazine was acquired by the Minneapolis Star and Tribune Company, which was buying up Harper & Row (the successor of Harper & Brothers) stock. By 1980 the magazine was once again in debt. When the new owners considered terminating Harper's, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Atlantic Richfield Company provided funds to set up the Harper's Magazine Foundation, headed by John R. MacArthur, to publish the magazine independent of its parent and make it less reliant on subscription and advertising revenue.
In 1984, under the leadership of editor Lapham, Harper's was again redesigned. In a pair of editorials, Lapham invoked the nineteenth-century origins of the magazine, comparing the situation of Americans of the 1850s facing a new national industrial economy to that of his own readers as the country became integrated into a new global economic order, and vowed to continue to provide a national forum for debate on issues of social and political importance. Interestingly, Lapham also reaffirmed Harper's original mission as a miscellany, but with a difference. While the editors of 1850 had offered their readers what they felt was the best in entertaining and useful information, Lapham announced new departments which would offer representative statistics, or small excerpts from significant publications or public documents in a context often designed to startle the reader and to demystify or even mock the offered text. That change alone, from a tone of Victorian earnestness to one of postmodern irony, speaks volumes about the altered self-image of the writer-intellectual—from ardent educator to alienated commentator—over the course of more than a century. Lapham also promised to continue what he suggested the magazine had tried to do since its inception, to steer a middle course between the banalities of mass-market journalism and the jargon of highly specialized publications.
The magazine's major goal at the end of the twentieth century—to provide a national forum for debate on those forces and trends with global origins and impact to an elite readership—is perhaps problematic. There is some difficulty inherent in identifying national interests as being those of this comparatively small group of readers. As of 1998, Harper's had a circulation of 216,630, a healthy and respectable number, to be sure, but hardly comparable to the million-plus circulations of mass-market periodicals, and only slightly more than the magazine's highest circulation in the nineteenth century. Whether Harper's magazine's fiercely loyal readers continue to represent, under rapidly changing conditions, what editor Lapham has called the nation's "general interest" is a question only the twenty-first century can answer.
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