WHILE HARPER'S MAGAZINE'S politics and aesthetics, broadly speaking, are rather different from my own, I subscribe to Harper's because of the possibility of surprise it continually offers. It is the only general-interest magazine that reads as if edited using the sole criterion of its editors' interests. It rarely has buzz (The New Yorker) and it doesn't make a spectacle of itself (Talk); neither is it overly high-minded (The New York Review of Books), excessively rational (The New Republic), or boring (The Atlantic Monthly). Month after month, it simply publishes long, interesting, often surprising literary articles, setting it apart from any other magazine currently published. Lewis Lapham visited Seattle recently as part of a reading tour for An American Album (Harper's Magazine Foundation), a 752-page coffee-table book celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of Harper's Magazine, which he has edited for some 22 years. I spoke to Lapham about the history of Harper's, the state of the quality magazine business, and the contemporary prospects of satire.

Josh Glenn, who publishes the zine Hermenaut, claims that Harper's Magazine is in fact more zine than magazine, something put out for personal pleasure rather than market concerns.

That is largely correct, with a few qualifications. There is an audience that I can sense if not define, a small audience: about 225,000, which for American magazines is small. I edit Harper's Magazine for a reader that I have in mind. It's a person who is intelligent, who looks at writing as a pleasure--not as data to be processed, but as words to be appreciated and to enjoy. And I edit it--as do the other editors at the magazine--to seek our own idea of the good, the true, and the beautiful. We do not publish pieces that we don't like, even if we think those pieces might sell more copies on the newsstand.

To that extent, it is like a zine. We're prepared to take a lot of chances, the kinds of chances more likely to be taken by a small literary journal than to be taken by, let's say, Time or Vanity Fair. I'm not interested in policy pieces; I'm not trying to promote a particular candidate; I have no prescriptions for how to save the country. I'm interested in the narrative voice. I don't have to agree with what the author is saying, I just have to know or think that the author is saying what he or she honestly knows, feels, thinks, has seen, heard, thought. So I like the first-person singular. And I have no idea what will sell on the newsstand.

And you have that luxury, because Harper's isn't supposed to make money. Most of the magazines that somebody somewhere likes, whether it's The Nation or The Weekly Standard or The New Republic or you or The Atlantic Monthly, are run at a loss.

That's true. In a good year we make a little money, in a bad year we lose a little money, but we're not a money-making operation by any means. There's not a market for magazines of ideas. The New Yorker loses substantial sums of money, so do the Atlantic, The New Republic; The Weekly Standard, I'm not sure, I'm pretty sure it loses money. But these magazines all have patrons: They're like 18th-century orchestras, and instead of working for the Esterházys you're working for Murdoch or Newhouse or the Harper's Magazine Foundation or Mrs. Peretz.

I wanted to ask you about the literary mode of satire. It seems to be a favorite of yours in your own writing, and it's an increasingly unpracticed art. How do you rate its chances in our current era?

There is some satire, but the country is at the moment so.... The answer to the question is historical. You could go back to the '30s and the '20s: This is a heyday for satire in American magazine writing in general. It's not only Harper's Magazine but it's The New Yorker and it's the original Vanity Fair, it's Mencken's American Mercury--certainly The New Yorker.

Satire in the '20s and '30s has two elements to it. One, it's usually the have-nots making fun of the haves, and secondly, it exists in a country that doesn't take itself that seriously. Then comes the Second World War. The United States wins the war and suddenly becomes the supreme power in the world--possessing the atomic bomb, richest country, biggest military establishment, lots of comparisons to Rome, the British Empire--and suddenly for some reason we begin to take ourselves extremely seriously.

You can see this in all of the magazines. The New Yorker becomes solemn, almost, in the '50s, concerned with the destiny of mankind and the fate of the earth and so on. The same thing happens to Harper's, it happens to the Atlantic, and satire moves into the nightclubs.

But we've been taking ourselves awfully seriously now for the last 50-odd years. You could call Saturday Night Live satirical. A show like Politically Incorrect to me is deeply unfunny--that doesn't strike me as really good satire because there's a shift: Now it's the haves making fun of the have-nots. So you get people like Letterman, where the complaint is about the orange juice being no good in first class, or it's like Jerry Seinfeld, where the heroes of the show are the comfortably off, affluent crowd, and all of the humor is about the unpleasantness that's going to occur when they come up against realities that are routinely inflicted on people less fortunately placed. So it's not a very satisfying kind of humor as far as I'm concerned.

Has that in turn drawn you to some of the newer publications that have been coming out that have aspects of satire like The Baffler or The Onion or McSweeney's?

Yes, yes. I like The Baffler, I like The Onion, I like McSweeney's, I like [David] Foster Wallace. The answer is yes, I am drawn to that.

Are you drawn to it mostly in a literary sense? Do you think satire has a political content that's valid now? Does it come from a particular angle?

It's not so much a political thing. If you can laugh at yourself, if you can laugh at the way of the world, I find it life-giving. I think of humor as implying a sense of wisdom, implying some sense of proportion, implying a proper attitude towards the absurdity of the human predicament.

So you wouldn't claim, as some do, a role for humor that has some kind of--I dunno--radical content?


--It's more like a coping mechanism?

It's a coping mechanism. I don't think it has a political.... I wouldn't claim that kind of role for it; I think it just helps me get through the day. Seriously, I don't think it brings down governments or makes political movements. The people who tend to change the world politically, they're very humorless. You don't think of Lenin or Hitler or Ralph Nader as being wits.

Hitler had a couple of jokes, but they were really awful.

They're not good jokes [laughs]. I mean, people that have too much of a sense of humor are not likely to end up with political power. Politics so often is about lying to people, and too much of a sense of humor is not [helpful]. Wit in a politician is usually disastrous. Buchanan is an example; Adlai Stevenson is an example on the other side of the aisle. You've got to wear the mask of power with dignity.

John McCain was pretty funny.

Yeah, but see what happened to McCain. He uh, [laughs] was gone in the twinkle of a... he had the political life of a fruit fly. He lived for about two months on the cover of Time magazine.

Notwithstanding your claim, there is a certain spectrum to the politics of Harper's.

I think the constant political argument is the argument between things as they are and things as they might become. So Harper's tries to be on the side of things as they might become. I'm not so interested in the ideology as I am in the sense of possibility. You have to be an optimist to be an editor, because with every manuscript, there is the hope of discovery. The writer begins and doesn't really know where he's going. If you know at the beginning exactly where it's going, then it's a campaign speech or it's a TV commercial, and that's not as interesting.

It's like watching a high-wire act--often the writer misses their footing and falls 4,000 feet to the death of an idea [laughs]. The thing that's good is the sense of discovery in the author, and the author's honesty about what he or she knows and what he or she doesn't know. Montaigne's essays are still wonderful to read 400 years later because he's asking himself, "What do I know?" So you have a sense of a human being, an individual, questioning himself. I find encouragement in seeing that happen. It gives me the sense that I am not alone in the world. My weakness, stupidity, whatever you want to call it, is not unique.