After reading my first issue of Harper's, I felt like I had just spent time with some very intelligent people ... excellent writing.
Harper's has been in business since 1850 and has published some of the greatest American- writers , from Mark Twain on down. Its editor and tone- setter is the veteran journalist Lewis Lapham. It publishes fiction, and articles including interesting symposia on many aspects of American economic, political and cultural life. It attracts the big - names in all areas, and also provides a lot of human - interest material, statistical curiosities, historical information and stories.
For some reason which I do not fully understand it has never been my great favorite. And in the old days I preferred 'the Atlantic' and the 'Saturday Review of Literature ' to it. Of course one of the features of 'Harper's is its book- reviews done by among others today, John Leonard.
I suppose what has soured me a bit on 'Harper's' is its bias to the political left.
But that withstanding it still provides a rich mix of articles of high quality.
The topics are usually interesting and the articles are often though provoking. Unfortuantely, the quality of the writing is erratic. While one article might be excellent, another will sort of fade out half way through. Someone needs to seriously tighten down on the editing.
Harper's seems to go back and forth between featuring articles with fairly decent critical thought, and shock-value wackiness (their famous Index is a great example). I subscribed to this for two years, let it lapse, and think about resubscribing occasionally. Works as a fun suppliment to other magazines (Atlantic, New Yorker).
OK, this is major league journalism and if you want a leftist progressive perspective it's about as good as it gets. But what turns me off--even though I still reluctantly read it--is the level of cynicism that typically pervades its pages. It ought to be called "Sardonica." No matter what, they will criticize, they will find fault, they will give reason for despair. Sometimes the editors rise out of it, as when they did an article on how capitalism might be saved in which they included the brilliant thoughts of a number of well-spoken visionaries. But in general the cynicism drags it down. There's also a kind of stylish decadence about it, an undercurrent of futility. I mean, when GWB was elected, all the conservative publications were like "Here's our chance. Let's make the most of it." Obama's hasn't even served a year yet and Harper's has already run a feature article about how he is going to fail. With friends like that, who needs....Harper's!
It is a well-known maxim of leftists that all conservatives are stupid. Being a right-winger myself, I am normally on my guard for opportunities to dispel this myth, but because the following factoid is crucial to my review, just this once I am going to pander to the stereotype: I, a conservative, subscribed to a magazine without ever having read a copy.
That magazine was Harper?s, and everything I had ever read about it placed it as a rival of The Atlantic. I greatly enjoy The Atlantic, and I don?t feel that being a conservative prevents me from doing so: it is not a political magazine, and when it publishes a piece that does touch on politics, the piece is just as likely to come from a moderate right-winger as a moderate left-winger. The Atlantic publishes general-interest articles of interest to any intelligent reader, no matter what his politics. So I subscribed to Harper?s, thinking it would be like getting two Atlantics in my mailbox every month.
Folks, Harper?s is no Atlantic Monthly. Harper?s is a leftist rag, through and through. The editor, Lewis Lapham, is an unabashed leftist, and usually devotes his monthly column to attacking President Bush. Earlier this year (2001), they famously ran a piece by Christopher Hitchens calling for Henry Kissinger to be put on trial for war crimes for his role in Vietnam. Essays and articles routinely denounce corporations, the rich, and America (I?m not a big fan of corporations and the rich, but my distaste stems from rather different reasons from Harper?s?.) The fiction is invariably of the unintelligible post-modern variety.
And lest you get the impression that Harper?s is among the mainstream liberal publications, let me make clear: the editorial opinion of Harper?s is not the liberalism of Tom Daschle and Hillary Clinton, it?s the far-leftism of Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, and the like. You might as well subscribe to the Utne Reader. For example, it may surprise you to learn that although the typical Harper?s writer detests Bush, he?s no fan of Bill Clinton either. To the Harper?s crowd, Bill Clinton wasn?t nearly liberal enough; he was a sell-out, a pawn of the corporations just like the staunchest Republicans. These people are so far to the left that from their vantage point, event moderate liberals are conservative.
Now, before I descend to the level of a senseless rant, I must give Harper?s a little bit of credit. They do occasionally publish a worthy piece. As the only right-winger I know who despises SUVs, I took secret glee in a recent piece criticizing their popularity and chalking it up to, as the writer put it so well, people?s ?obsession with bogus ruggedness.? And an essay on the state of the English usage wars by the novelist David Foster Wallace was a fun read, if a little rambling and disjointed.
While I do think it would be nice if we lived in a world where no one shared the opinions commonly expressed in Harper?s, I can concede some validity in having it around. Because I think their opinions are not only wrong but somewhat pernicious, I cannot honestly say I recommend Harper?s to anyone, but I will say that if you?re left-of-center, you?ll probably love it. If you want to subscribe, be my guest. Do not, however, mistake Harper?s for a general-interest literary and cultural magazine like The Atlantic. I had heard it described as such from several different sources, and they were wrong. The Atlantic is The Atlantic, and Harper?s is Harper?s and ne?er the twain shall meet?at least not in my mailbox anymore.
I used to be a subscriber and an avid reader. Recently, perhaps in the last two years or so, the quality of the writing has become rather poor. The selection of articles is uninteresting, and sometimes half the articles themselves are so poorly written as to be unreadable. The fiction is simply mediocre, and the entire magazine seems to be infected with editor Lewis Lapham's shrill and ever-growing Notebook (does the man ever have anything interesting or original to say?). In short, Harper's is not the magazine it once was. I would suggest the Atlantic Monthly if you want a magazine that is interesting, informative, and well-written, cover to cover.
I used to read Harper's when I was a cynical 20-something. Now that I'm a somewhat less cynical 30-something, I just can't take the nearly hysterical atmosphere of gloom that pervades it. Life is grim for many around the world--always has been, always will. Wallowing in that grimness isn't in anyone's interest. Additionally, Harper's doesn't give voice to alternative political viewpoints--if they had their way, the editors would pack the courts, congress, and White House with liberals no matter the cost. This is a pluralist society and a magazine with the intellectual firepower of Harper's at its disposal should be strong enough to admit a range of views. Let the Harper's politburo have their funereal fun and read The New Yorker instead.
Don't read this magazine if you are expecting unbiased reporting and truly independent viewpoints.
For example, Philip Morris Inc. is the top advertiser in Harper's. Not once in the last ten years has there been an in-depth feature critical of the tobacco industry. Anti-smoking ads have even been withheld from the magazine in order to allow for "competeitve separation" from tobacco advertisements.
Can you, then, resonably expect honest reporting from these guys?
I would like to classify myself as a moderate but I probably lean conservative. Because of that, I subscribed to Harpers so that I could read good writing that would challenge my beliefs and stretch my mind in new ways. I got that, more or less, at first, but over the course of a couple of years the magazine drifted further and further to a leftist propaganda screed, the worst of which was Louis Lapham's bitter drivel editorials. It got to a point where the writing was incredibly predictable; I knew exactly what position (read: left of Pelosi) the writer--any writer in Harpers--would take on whatever the issue was, and I had a pretty good idea of what the line of whining would be.
If you attend dinner parties on the Upper East Side; if you drive a Prius to the Oscars; if you think commercial organic farming is an environmental travesty; if you've ever desecrated a Starbucks, then look no more--this magazine is for you.
However, if you're dumbfounded at how the Republicans can keep winning elections--and then you realize they have the Democratic party as opponents; if you realize the genius of George Bush and Karl Rove is in getting liberals to underestimate George Bush and Karl Rove; if you want to read smart, insightful writing that will inform and entertain, then try The Atlantic Monthly (which, by the way, I am surprised to see reviewers describe as a liberal magazine; I think it is moderate, and if anything, a bit on the conservative side.) Needless to say, I let my Harpers subscription lapse.
Two stars, tho, for the Harper's Index--however, that wasn't worth the price of a subscription (it got to be the only thing worth anything for the price of the subscription).