Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 9. Harper’s Monthly Magazine

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XIX. Later Magazines

§ 9. Harper’s Monthly Magazine

Harper’s Monthly Magazine, the first of the greater illustrated magazines, was established in 1850 by Harper and Brothers, publishers, of New York. It was founded, as a member of the firm said, as a “tender” to the publishing business. At first the contents were taken from English journals. The prospectus, issued in 1850, announced:

  • The Publishers of the New Monthly Magazine intend … to place everything of the periodical literature of the day, which has permanent value and commanding interest, in the hands of all who have the slightest desire to become acquainted with it.… The magazine will transfer to its pages as rapidly as they may be issued all the continuous tales of Dickens, Bulwer, Croly, Lever, Warren, and other distinguished contributors to British Periodicals: articles of commanding interest from all the leading Quarterly Reviews of both Great Britain and the United States: Critical Notices of the current publications of the day: Speeches and Addresses.… A carefully prepared Fashion Plate, and other pictorial illustrations will also accompany each number.
  • Borrowings were for a time credited to their original sources, but soon this credit was omitted. In a business way the venture was immediately successful, the circulation being given as fifty thousand after six months, and one hundred and thirty thousand after three years. Other magazines, especially those which published chiefly the work of American authors, resented this new competition and the attitude of Harper and Brothers toward international copyright. The American Whig Review for July, 1852, prints a long Letter to the Publishers of Harper’s Magazine signed “An American Writer,” which expresses with some show of temper sentiments that were not infrequently uttered. After asking, “Is such a publication calculated to benefit American literature? and secondly, is it just?” the writer continues:
  • Your publication, gentlemen, with all others of the same nature, is simply a monstrosity; and the more widely it is diffused, the more clearly is its moral ugliness revealed. It is an ever-present, ever-living insult to the brains of Americans, and its indignity is every day increasing in intensity. Heading a select band of English republications, it comes into our literary market month by month, offering a show of matter which no other magazine could present were it fairly paid for, and effectually shutting out the attempts of American publishers from even the chances of a sale. Its contents are often attractive, although, considering the unbounded range of your pillage, I have wondered that they were not better; it displays a large number of well-printed pages, and generally boasts a few thievings from Punch hardly up to the style of that very amusing sheet; and it pleases the economical tastes of its readers. As a scheme for making money, I cannot too highly commend your enterprise. It is a manifest improvement of the shopkeeper’s maxim of buying in the cheapest market and selling in the dearest, for you do not buy in the market at all. You walk through the array of literary wares which the English nation spreads before you, taking what you please, and giving neither money nor thanks in return. You reproduce what you have so cheaply obtained, and are thus enabled to undersell your more scrupulous competitors. By this process of appropriation and sale, you prove your right to the enviable title of sharp business men, but you also show yourselves utterly destitute of regard for the literary talent of your own countrymen, and for those national opinions and sentiments which are only partially disseminated by the newspapers, and which it is the peculiar province of English literature to supplant and destroy.
  • In time Harper’s came more and more to take the work of Americans, and it has long made a practice of printing only original contributions. If during its early career it sinned by ignoring and discouraging American authors, it seemed at a later date almost to sin in the opposite direction. At times it has published so many contributions from a young author of growing popularity as to raise the question whether it was not encouraging hasty and ill-considered writing. Among writers of tales whom it exploited in this way were Richard Harding Davis, Mary E. Wilkins, and Stephen Crane.

    The first editor of Harper’s Monthly was Henry J. Raymond. Henry M. Alden, his successor, was editor for fifty years (1869–1919). Fletcher Harper, a member of the firm, habitually contracted for the serials and for much other fiction, and a great share in determining the contents of the magazine. Of the special departments which are distinctive of Harper’s Magazine the most important is “The Editor’s Easy Chair.” George William Curtis assumed control of this in 1853, and his essays which appeared under this head are among the most delightful of his works. The most distinguished of Curtis’s successors in the “Easy Chair” is its present occupant, William Dean Howells. Another department, “The Editor’s Study,” has been conducted at different times by William Dean Howells and Charles Dudley Warner. Among the men in charge of “The Editor’s Drawer” have been Lewis Gaylord Clark and John Kendrick Bangs.