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Harper's made its debut in June 1850, the brainchild of the prominent New York City book-publishing firm Harper & Brothers. The initial press run of 7,500 copies sold out immediately, and within six months circulation had reached 50,000.
The earliest issues consisted largely of material that had already been published in England but the publication soon began to print the work of American artists and writers — among them Horace Greeley, Horatio Alger, Stephen A. Douglas, Winslow Homer, Mark Twain, Frederic Remington, Theodore Dreiser, John Muir, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Booth Tarkington, Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Jack London.
The magazine reported important events of the day, such as the publication of Herman Melville's new novel Moby-Dick; the laying of the first trans-Atlantic cable; the latest discoveries from Thomas Edison's workshop; the progress in women's rights.
In subsequent years, the magazine published Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill long before either man became a political leader. Theodore Roosevelt wrote for Harper's, as did Henry L. Stimson when he defended the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In the 1970s, Harper's broke investigative journalist Seymour Hersh's account of the My Lai massacre and devoted a full issue to Norman Mailer's The Prisoner of Sex.
Over the years, the magazine's format has been revamped, its general appearance has evolved considerably, and ownership has changed hands. In 1962, Harper & Brothers merged with Row, Peterson, & Company to become Harper & Row (now HarperCollins). Later, the magazine became a separate corporation and a division of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune Company. In 1980, when the parent company announced that Harper's would cease publication, John R. MacArthur and his father, Roderick, urged the boards of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Atlantic Richfield Company to make a grant of assets and funds to form the Harper's Magazine Foundation, which now operates the magazine.
In 1984, Lapham and MacArthur — now publisher and president of the foundation — redesigned Harper's. Acknowledging modern readers' limited time, they introduced such original journalistic forms as the Harper's Index (a list of statistics chosen and arranged, often for ironic effect), Readings, and the Annotation to complement its fiction, essays, and reporting.
Helmed by Lapham and MacArthur, the magazine, with a circulation of slightly more than 200,000, has continued to publish a good deal of literary fiction by authors like John Updike and George Saunders, and has emerged as a particularly vocal critic of America's domestic policies and foreign policies. Lapham's monthly Notebook column lambasted Bill Clinton's administration as well as that of George W. Bush; and since 2003, the magazine has paid special attention to representing both sides of the war in Iraq, with long articles on Fallujah and America's economic plan for Iraq.
- An American Album: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Harper's Magazine, a 712-page illustrated anthology with an introduction by Lewis H. Lapham and a foreword by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
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