THE ANNOUNCEMENT that publication of Harper's magazine has been suspended was received with appropriate expressions of regret and then, the obsequies done, we at once returned to the daily recital of all the real and fake events which are considered to be of such national importance.
But the huge financial loss which Harper's has recently incurred, and the failure to find anyone willing to put up the money to save it, ought to be the occasion of more than a passing interest and little wave of regret. It is one of those happenings which are usually put into the footnotes of history, but which the great historians like Gibbon or Macaulay promote from the footnotes as the expression of a whole age.
It has been observed on all sides that Harper's is only the latest of the "general interest" magazines to bite the dust in the past two decades. Even in the comparatively short time in which I have know this country, Look and Life, the Saturday Evening Post and Life have all had their heads put on the auctioneer's or the executioner's block. Those which survive lead precarious lives. Not only Harper's but also the Saturday Review and Atlantic have been on the market in the past year, and no sensible person would today wager much on the survival of the last two. The owner of The New Republic is today bearing losses of the same order as Harper's. It is true that the names of Life and the Saturday Evening Post have reappeared on the newsstands, but sadly on the covers of magazines which are scarcely even pale reflections of their once sturdy predecessors, just as Esquire has survived only by offering much less strenuous reading than in the past.
These general interest magazines are being replaced by "special interest" magazines. To give but one illustration, not only are there now magazines which cover sports in general, but there are more and more magazines which are devoted to only a single sport, usually more than one for each of them.The newsstands today reflect the tastes of a population who as individuals have only the very narrowest interests and concerns.
But no one has pointed out that this proliferation of single-interest magazines has occurred at the same time as the development of the "single-issue" politics which is today so much bemoaned. The two are related. In both politics and journalism in the past two decades, the person of general interests has been disappearing. People are becoming one-dimensional in ways that Herbert Marcuse did not describe.
The main reason for this is obvious. Our societies increasingly treat people as no more than consumers. The advertisers like the special interest magazines because advertising in them has at least a calculable impact. Similarly, our politics has become so much a greedy scrambling of individuals for the benefits which the state has to distribute -- cut all federal programs except those that benefit oneself -- that politicians now appeal to them as if to avaricious consumers in a nation which is becoming one huge shopping mall.
The breed of congressmen who began to enter the House of Representatives in 1974 look and sound like and, indeed, are little different from floorwalkers in the boutiques that are today covering the land from the Gallery in Philadelphia to the Galeria in Houston to the Broadway Plaza in Los Angeles.
But let us return to the suspended publication of Harper's to look at it all from a different angle. Perhaps I should, like a member of Parliament in Britain, declear my interest. I have spent my life in writing for general interest magazines, on both sides of the Atlantic, which have been able to lay claim to at least some literacy. I have long since grown accustomed to the fact that a career built on such foundations is as shaky as they are themselves. But if the freelancer's life has always been one of feast or famine, the decline of the general interest magazine holds forth the prospect only of famine.
But apart from that self-interest, I am at the same time a reader. I now often stand in front of a newsstand and can find no general interest magazine, which seem to me paltry publications for anyone who reads newspapers for himself.) Once I have grasped Harper's and the Atlantic and Commentary at the beginning of each month, four weeks of a lunar desert is the only landscape which the newsstands offer. They are crowded and gaudy, but with nothing solid to read.
I am beginning seriously to wonder -- and I am not alone in this doubt -- whether many people can read anymore. By reading I do not here mean the ability to make something out of the printed work, which ought to be, but increasingly is not, taught to it from the time the infant begins to pass into childhood. I mean the ability and willingness of intelligent and supposedly well educated persons to follow a sustained argument in consecutive sentences over an extended number of pages.
What the born-again Life and Saturday Evening Post and the present Esquire do not provide, for example, is the long read on subjects of general interest which used to extend into page after page at the back of each issue. Those were the days when the Saturday Evening Post, if it carried an article on politics, naturally published 4,000 words or so by Stewart Alsop, and that was for the same popular audience which now can just manage to flick over People.
The magazines which are today in imminent danger of following Harper's to the graveyard are those which will provide the spaciousness which ideas and argument need. Commentary may survive because it is subsidized by the American Jewish Congress, but Encounter, which is its counterpart in Britain, has had no such sponsor since the Congress for Cultural Freedom (i.e., the CIA.) Its editor comes periodically to America as a mendicant, ready to humble himself before the rich for the pittance he needs, and going away with very little, if anything, in his pocket. pYet Encounter is still one of the few really good magazines left in the English-speaking world.
(It is worth saying in passing that there was nothing conspiratorial in the CIA's sponsorship of Encounter. The CIA was an idealism reflecting the idealism of America then, and it brought to life in devastated Europe after the war not only Encounter, but Der Monat in Germany and Les Preuves in France, both magazines of great distinction.)
If the American Jewish Congress can keep Commentary going, then why cannot the National Council of Churches, or the Roman Catholic Church in America, or the vast commercial enterprise of its Protestant Churches, do the same for a magazine of such literacy and generally high quality? It is true that the Jesuits in America keep Commonweal going, and a consistently thoughtful and literate periodical it is, but to mention it is merely to illuminate the darkness around it. It appears that a foundation offered to buy Harper's, but a foundation would stifle any magazine. But a lack of suitable and generous sponsors is secondary to the main point. What should concern us is the decline in the audience for magazines which require the ability and willingness to read more than three paragraphs, and so the increase in their financial losses to a level which not one even the most saintly patron can be expected to bear.
Looking at the abysmal deterioration in the quality of popular newspapers in Britain, Auberon Waugh is known to wonder seriously if there has not been a genetic deterioration in the intelligence of the British people. Even is one resists such an explanation, it is hard not to respond to it. The popular newspapers in Britain today are far less literate and serious than they were when many fewer people went to school for as long as most do now.
I believe that there is an explanation particular to Britain: the persistence of a class society which keeps the masses in their place. But it is no less true in the United States that the popular audience today seems capable of less sustained reading than in the last century, when it thought nothing of combing through volumes of long sermons and the equally long speeches of its politicians. I have no doubt that this reading made them a more mature and stable and reflective people than now.
But if this is true at the most popular level, it is becoming no less true at more literate levels, until one is tempted to wonder at least this with Waugh: If people now engage so little in the habit of sustained reading, will not the skills needed for it indeed atrophy from generation to generation, as do any organs and aptitudes which are less and less used? Is not our youth today the first generation of habitual nonreaders? To be as frank as is necessary, I am appalled by the general ignorance of the literature and history of even their own civilization of young journalists who are now entering the profession, even while they ask to be read.
For it is the habit that counts and that is now almost lost, a habit inculcated as soon as the infant leaves the cradle, and a thousand and one examples could illustrate the point. William Morris had read all of the novels of Walter Scott by the age of 9, with a lasting influence of his work, one inspiration that never failed of the marvelous generosity of his vision. Vachel Lindsay had read "Paradise Lost" by the age of 8, had Dante and Grimm and Poe at his elbow as a child, and was very early presented by his father with Robertson's "History of Egypt," and the influence of this too may be found in his work.
These are more out-of-the-way examples than one could offer. But the very fact that Vachel Lindsay does not stand in the forefront of poets helps to make my point. He may not have been the greatest of poets. But as an outsider I find it shocking and sad that he is so little read or appreciated in America now, with his "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan" and his "Kallyope Yell," simply because the literary critics in the universities who have taken over literary appreciation in America do not find him significant -- which is not surprising, since few of them appear to know how to read.
But why should the decline of the habit matter to us? Why should we not just say that Marshall McLuhan was right, that the reign of Gutenberg is over, that linear prose and so linear thinking have had their day? Cannot the present the future generations not experience as much from the movies and television, from the visual arts, from music and dance, and of course from those now celebrated disciplines of touch and feel, as from the printed pages?
The answer is that it is only literature among the arts, it is only the word on the page, into which one cannot just put one's own self. The reason why all the other arts are today enjoying not their legitimate but a false popularity is that they can all be used simply to project one's self in them. This is in fact an abuse of them, but to this extent they are passive. Literature is much more prickly.
The printed word resists the intrusion of one's self. Try and do no more than find yourself in it, and it rolls up in a ball like a hedgehog. You will get nothing out of it. The point of its grammar and its syntax and its definitions -- its rulebooks and its dictionaries -- is that their exactness is meant to make our responses exact. We cannot just find our own wishy-washy feelings reflected in it.
It is true that some who today try to pass for poets seem bent on taking this prickliness out of their words, and one can watch people at today's suspect poetry readings let the sound and "mood" of the poetry just wash over them. They might be listening to Muzak. But they could not do this if the words were being used as words and not as paint or mere sound. More than any other of the arts, literature tells of what is other than oneself, and can take one out of oneself.
I believe that here is the connection between the single-interest magazines and single-issue politics which now thrive together. They are both manifestations of a society which encourages and, indeed, nourishes its members to see themselves as their own universes. They are made selfish in the issues that concern them, i.e., in their politics -- but only when first made self-centered in their interest -- i.e., in their culture.
The difficulty but also the uniqueness and virtue of literature is that there is nothing there but the words on the page: strings of letters in strings of words in strings of sentences, all of which are in themselves as abstract and as lifeless as the symbols in mathematics. There is no picture into which one can walk, no sound into which one can just sink. Reading calls for a ceaseless and complex, almost acrobatic, act of the imagination, because it is always representing what is not simply ourselves. For one thing, its rules and definitions come to us from the past, which is other than us. To know how to know the past is to know what is other than oneself in the present.
The key lies in that seductive question, whether we could not experience as much in other ways as by reading, by having to pay attention to all its ambigious complexities. The answer is that it is not experience -- especially what passes for experiencing now -- which words can and are intended to provide.
It was all said by Chaucer. To this most modern of poets in his own time, books were generally "olde books." Through them one could pay the reverence that was due to antiquity, to the gathered wisdom of worlds other than our own, which once existed and so cannot be made over simply as reflections of ourselves. Books to him were what he called "Authority"; they stood naturally in conflict with "Experience."
There is the difference between our present generations and all past generations, between the cultivated man of the past and the mere consumer of today, between the general interest magazine and the special interest magazine, between the single-issue voter now and the complex-issue voter yesterday. Authority has to surrender to experiencing. But it may also reflect a difference more grave than all these, between societies which were also civilizations and a society now from which civilization is finally evaporating.
Journalism may only be a poor relative of literature which has to earn its living on the streets. But the death of magazines like Harper's ought to disturb our thoughts about the kind of people we are becoming.