The latest episode in the continuing soap opera known as Harper's proves nothing so much as that the twists and turns of office politics in the magazine business are beyond the ken of man or beast.

After floundering about for nearly a decade in the slough of editorial despond, and after going eyeball to eyeball with the grim reaper, Harper's has made a remarkable recovery; yet even now, with things looking so good, it bids fair to go slipping and sliding right back into the slough.

Just how good things have been lately is made evident in the July issue of the magazine. A note from the publisher informs readers that Harper's "has won the 1983 National Magazine Award for General Excellence in our circulation category (100,000 to 400,000)." The note correctly points out that these awards "are considered the most prestigious in the magazine industry" and proudly points to the screening panel's description of Harper's' 1982 issues as "truly outstanding." The award citation said that Harper's "is not afraid to explore subjects of serious intellectual content and lasting value, and to write about them with skepticism, verve and humor."

There is a rather considerable irony in the appearance of this note "To Our Readers" in the July issue, for that happens also to be the last issue edited by Michael Kinsley--who, more than any other individual, was responsible for the Lazarus-like rebirth of Harper's. Kinsley left the editorship of Harper's several weeks ago after prolonged wrangling with its board of directors over everything from his own salary to broad matters of policy; later this summer he will take over the "TRB from Washington" column in The New Republic. His departure leaves the Harper's board with critical decisions about the future character and mission of the magazine.

To understand where Harper's is or is not going, it is necessary to understand where it has been. It was founded more than 130 years ago by the publishing firm now known as Harper & Row (with which it is no longer connected) and soon reached an eminence comparable to that of its rival in Boston, The Atlantic. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was a significant instrument in the shaping and legitimizing of a nascent American literature; it published such "controversial" writers as Stephen Crane and Sherwood Anderson, and in so doing brought their work into the parlors and drawing rooms of polite society.

Harper's continued to be a significant voice through the Second World War, but gradually it came to place ever greater emphasis on what was polite and ever less on what was iconoclastic. By the early 1960s it was amiable and dull; a couple of hundred miles away, The Atlantic was less amiable--there's nothing quite like Bostonian self-adoration--and even duller. With circulation flagging and revenues declining, Harper's decided to attack its problems head-on. Its owner, the Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co., installed as editor a young Mississippian, Willie Morris, and gave him what amounted to carte blanche.

Morris seized it, and then some. He rolled out the big guns of the "new" journalism, most celebrated among them Norman Mailer and David Halberstam, and turned Harper's overnight from a dowdy old granny into a miniskirted swinger. Harper's under Morris could be infuriating--old-shoe readers weren't the only ones who seethed when he turned an entire issue over to one of Mailer's self-celebrations--but it was never dull. In tone and character Harper's was not unlike The New York Times Book Review, which at the same time was undergoing a similar housecleaning under the editorship of John Leonard. Both publications were energetic, unpredictable, imaginative; both editors were young and their publications lapsed from time to time into the indiscretions of youth, but that was a small price to pay for the excitement and enterprise that each new issue brought.

But it's hard to maintain so high a level of energy: Leonard went back to his own writing, and Morris resigned after a spat with his bosses. Harper's eventually was turned over to Lewis H. Lapham, a splendid and provocative writer--the newspaper column he now writes is absolutely first-rate--but, on the evidence of Harper's in the 1970s, an uninspired editor. His own contributions to the magazine were invariably interesting, but many of those by free-lance writers were merely flat; perhaps the most memorable exception was the two-part "Panic Among the Philistines," Bryan F. Griffin's pointed if choleric attack on the literary establishment.

By the time those articles appeared, Harper's had been rescued from certain death by the MacArthur Foundation, which provided enough money to prevent its collapse and turned over management of its affairs to the newly created Harper's Magazine Foundation. It was the board of directors of this foundation which, after Lapham's somewhat mysterious resignation in 1981, hired Kinsley away from The New Republic.

It seems that, in hiring Kinsley, the board got more than it had bargained for: Not merely a gifted and inventive editor, but one to whom the idea of an impolite magazine was far from unappealing. Certainly the "skepticism, verve and humor" cited by the National Magazine Award were characteristic of Kinsley's editorship. Harper's went after everything from the Educational Testing Service to Joyce Carol Oates, and it did so in a swashbuckling style that was said to cause discomfort in some quarters. But beneath the sassiness and impertinence of Kinsley's Harper's was a genuinely serious magazine, one that respected the intelligence of its readers and was willing to take on complex, difficult issues; Harper's had its faults under Kinsley, but he made it into the best general-circulation magazine in the country.

Still, nobody's perfect. Kinsley may be a superb editor and writer, but he is no diplomat and he seems skilled at the art of pouting. Last year he took a junket to Jerusalem, and nearly got himself fired after attempting to explain it away with blithe insouciance. Then, this spring, he outdid himself by writing a whiny, puerile letter to the Harper's board in which he (a) boasted of his "sacrifice" in cutting his own salary from $80,000 to $55,000; (b) complained about paying "$1,100 a month for a very ordinary one-bedroom apartment in an unfashionable neighborhood"; and (c) demanded restoration of his self-imposed salary cut "as a sign of confidence." When the board, not surprisingly, chose to ignore his threats and insults, Kinsley picked up his toys, showed his heels to his unfashionable neighborhood, and went back home to The New Republic.

He also, though this does not seem to have been his intention, left Harper's at a crossroads. Its board must find a new editor, and in so doing it must make a fundamental choice: Will it continue to follow the courageous, irreverent course that Kinsley charted, or will it retreat comfortably into the safe, sure and dull? Will it take risks, or will it settle for the familiar? The answers may come soon; the hunch here is that if the board takes the easy way out, it will be opening the door to the grim reaper--and this time he will leave no survivors.