9781879957534 / 1879957531

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About the book:

An American Album surveys the illustrious past of Harper's; perhaps the most consistently well-written and self-important magazine in American history. It's a book as heavy as The American Heritage Dictionary, as taxing as the Bible. Assembling works by authors as varied as Herman Melville and Mary Gaitskill, this massive coffee-table tome crosses genres, categories, and moods to create a remarkably complicated tapestry--or the kind of picture where the closer you look, the more you see.

Lewis Lapham edited the anthology and also writes a long, detailed forward. Surveying the successes and failures of the past with an impossibly authoritative tone, Lapham is like a teacher rapping on his desk: All right class!! He writes about the '60s with quaint phrases like "the go-go expectations of the Age of Aquarius." Later he talks about writing that is "appropriately human." Readers of Lapham's monthly essays will recognize his obscure, demanding take on what is "appropriate." They will also recognize the rich world of his magazine, which through its layout, presentation, and content usually manages to announce itself with understated gusto and pitch-perfect dramatics--as in one cover package titled: "DOES AMERICA STILL EXIST? Looking for Reasons To Believe."

A word of warning: An American Album will frustrate readers who like to know where they are at all times. Although selections are divided by decade, no attempt is made to label pieces by category. Shorts stories, essays, and unsigned editorials exist side by side, each leading into the next. Paging through, it's unclear whether you're reading a piece of fiction, opinion, or fact. If Harper's were the kind of magazine that aspired to the blurring of boundaries, I'd understand these omissions. There's something interesting and unnerving about getting three paragraphs into an Alice Walker piece and still wondering: Is this a short story or a confession? Since Harper's has always been a vessel of clarity and big, confident pronouncements, I attributed this smudging of categories to careless oversight, not postmodern conceit. Either way, the reading is good, sometimes great. It matters. --Emily White

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