Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Harper's Chief Justice Quits

Supreme Court seats are changing hands (or cheeks), which is worrisome enough. But Harper’s Magazine is, too. After thirty-odd years editing the last liberal monthly of any stature (minus a brief interruption) Lewis Lapham stepping down is like William Brennan retiring from the Supreme Court in 1990 (after thirty-three years that had him rubbing robes with Justice Harlan in the 1950s all the way to Antonin Scalia beginning in 1986), or like William Buckley doing the same from National Review’s pillories last year. Liberalism is not losing Lapham’s voice quite yet. He’ll continue to write his monthly column. But one wonders whether his Texan replacement will preserve Harper’s unapologetically liberal philosophy or fall prey instead to the soft porn of moderate miasmas that please the establishment and its conservative silencers, because it would mean that one more organ of enlightened skepticism will have been neutered. That miasmic middle is where most of the bien pensants readers and their advertisers are, it’s where ideas croak so the business can survive, where intellect’s creative insurrections give way to shareholders’ law and order and their many cloned spin-offs. It happened to Esquire in the 1970s, to the New Republic in the 1980s, to the New Yorker in the 1990s (it never needed to happen to the Atlantic, which only posed as a liberal magazine for a few years before submitting immoderately to middle-of-the-roadism in the 1980s). It hasn’t yet happened to The Nation, and maybe the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which owns Harper’s, won’t let it be so commonly fouled: The foundation saved Harper’s from the grave in 1980. It’s not likely to dig one for it now, although one of the MacArthurs is sending a grating signal: “I think it is very important to ramp up the journalism in the magazine and develop a more serious presence in Washington,” he tells the New York Times. The last thing American journalism needs, it seems to me, is more journalists in the Washington feedlot. Harper’s has done well to send its journalists away from the Beltway. It’s what’s kept its eyes seeing more clearly, its writing more compelling, its datelines more relevant. Let’s hope that’s not about to change. But you can hear the voices of pseudo-liberalism snapping at the old magazine every chance they get.

Five years ago when Lapham was celebrating Harper’s 150th anniversary, the New York Times featured the occasion, but not without the obligatory slap from 43rd Street: “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."” (The Times later corrected itself, Mencken and Nathan having left Smart Set in 1923 to start their American Mercury, making the Times’ judgment both moot and silly, but the slap smarts no matter how much you apologize for it). The Times is at it again in tomorrow’s editions, in the article announcing the elevation of Roger Hodge to executive editor, beginning with that tendentious phrase of the ideologically correct, left-leaning. It’s as if the Times fears the word liberal, or fears being associated with such a left-leaning publication as Harper’s by identifying it, as the Times is so often (and so wrongly) identified, as liberal: “The left-leaning Harper’s… is selling better on the newsstand than it has in 20 years, in part because it tends to dish up the kind of stories that attract people who are unhappy with the Bush administration. It may be a viable journalistic niche, but the magazine is not a threat to become a business, or at least one that makes money, anytime soon.” Note as well the dish up (a derogatory association with gossip and muckraking rather than serious journalism), the condescension of that  may be a viable journalistic niche, to say nothing of the word niche itself (this for a magazine circulation of 227,000, as the third-from-last paragraph finally reveals, making it hardly a niche, considering that the Times, a daily, draws just four times that many, and falling), and finally that crescendo of punches, not a threat to become a business, or at least one that makes money, anytime soon.  One, two, three. With friends like these, it’s a wonder Harper’s has survived this long. But maybe it has done so because it has something so rare in modern publishing, at least in such rich quantities—that something Rebecca West pointed out in the centennial issue of the magazine: “The consistent character which Harper’s has maintained through the century—it is as like itself as a man is at different stages of a highly accidented life—suggests that integrity is something which one can count on to be shown by some people in vastly different circumstances; and an agreeable flavor about that character suggests that maybe these people cultivate integrity because they find it fun.”

Intellect, integrity, fun: Now there’s an original formula for a magazine. Going strong at 155. Keep it going, Hodge.