Harper’s is the oldest continuously published magazine in the United States. Launched in June 1850 as Harper’s New Monthly Magazine by New York book publisher Harper & Brothers, it serialized novels and over the years featured provocative articles by writers as diverse as Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, and Leon Trotsky. Harper’s and its sister publication Harper’s Weekly created America’s modern image of Santa Claus, and in their pages cartoonist Thomas Nast invented the symbols that America’s two major political parties still use, the donkey for Democrats and the elephant for Republicans.
The magazine was an immediate success — its circulation reaching 50,000 within six months and 130,000 after three years. In 1925 its name was shortened to Harper’s Magazine, popularly known as Harper’s.
During the 1960s and 1970s Harper’s was frequently the first publication to excerpt the latest provocative books by Norman Mailer, William Styron, David Halberstam and other best-selling authors, or to introduce emerging counter-cultural writers and controversial themes — such as Seymour Hersh’s allegations of American atrocities in Vietnam.
But the magazine was sold in 1965 by Harper & Row publishers to the Minneapolis Star and Tribune company, because it was struggling financially. By 1980 it was losing nearly $2 million per year when principal stockholder John Cowles, Jr. agreed to let the magazine be sold.
Problems plagued the magazine. Editor John Fischer was replaced in 1967 by Southern liberal Willie Morris, who was too critical of America to please Harper’s traditional readers but was unable to attract many new younger ones, despite big spending on famous writers. After Morris departed in 1971, a succession of editors — Robert Schnayerson (1971-1975), Lewis H. Lapham (1975-1981), and Michael Kinsley (1981-1983) — failed to establish a successful new voice or audience for the magazine.
In 1980 John “Rick” MacArthur and his father persuaded the boards of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and of the Atlantic Richfield Company to fund a Harper’s Magazine Foundation to acquire and operate the magazine. Rick MacArthur maneuvered to take control of this foundation. After becoming Harper’s publisher, he brought back Lapham as Editor in 1983. In 1985 they reshaped the magazine into what some have called a liberal “Reader’s Digest for intellectuals” with shorter articles and quotable features such as the Harper’s Index of odd facts.
Harper’s today reflects a combination of MacArthur’s ideologically left views and Lapham’s more sardonic disdain for American values and leaders.
“It is false to make Stalin’s indirect killings born of political ideology equal to Hitler’s direct murder born of hatred for an entire race,” wrote publisher MacArthur in Harper’s in December 1998. “If Stalin was as bad as Hitler, then [anti-Communist Senator Joseph] McCarthy’s depredations against civil liberties and common decency become more palatable. I suspect today’s neo-anti-communist movement is in part fueled by a profound desire to wipe out the tattered remnants of both the old and the new left.”
“The Bush Administration’s imperialist policy amounts to little else except another name for terrorism,” wrote editor Lapham in the July 2004 Harper’s, “precision-guided and digitally enhanced but otherwise similar in its objectives to the action-movie sequence that destroyed Manhattan’s World Trade Center.”
In 2004 Harper’s claimed a monthly readership of approximately 210,000. Between 2001 and 2004, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation gave more than $10.3 million in grants to the Harper’s Magazine Foundation.