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AN AMERICAN ALBUM One Hundred and Fifty Years of Harper's Magazine; Edited by Lewis H. Lapham and Ellen Rosenbush; Franklin Square Press: 712 pp., $50

August 20, 2000|ANDREW STARK | Andrew Stark teaches management at the University of Toronto and is the author of "Conflict of Interest in American Public Life," which will be published in September by Harvard University Press

We live in a time in which the word "literally" routinely gets used metaphorically. "The deputies are literally walking on air," a Texas policeman recently exulted in response to a pay raise. So perhaps we should not be surprised when the word "metaphor" gets used in a bluntly literal-minded way. In "An American Album: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Harper's Magazine"--a collection of essays, stories and poems culled from the monthly's 1,800 issues dating to June 1850--authors frequently stop the action to tell us when a metaphor is about to happen, is happening or has just happened.

In an image-strewn 1975 essay on the Galapagos Islands, Annie Dillard interrupts herself to explicitly announce: "This is not science; it is metaphor--I'm dealing in imagery, working toward a picture." Writing in 1990, Richard Rodriguez does not say that San Francisco "is the farthest-flung possibility, the end of the line"; what he says is that San Francisco is "a metaphor for the farthest-flung possibility, a metaphor for the end of the line"; he also speaks of himself as someone who "respond[s] to the metaphor of spring." "It's almost too easy," Pico Iyer worries self-consciously in his 1995 article on Los Angeles International Airport, "to say that [the airport] is a perfect metaphor for L.A." No wonder that Harper's current editor Lewis Lapham, in an introductory essay to "American Album," describes the magazine's writers over the generations as all "caught up in the making of metaphors, with which to find the spirit of an age that they could recognize as their own."

If any single thread connects the works in "American Album"--they range in topic from morality in international affairs to Aimee Semple McPherson, from the 1969 "soccer war" between El Salvador and Honduras to Gertrude Stein--it obviously could not be their subject matter. Instead, it would have to be their style. Having so literally called our attention to the matter, "American Album" raises this question: Is there any such thing as a Harper's metaphor--a unique and persisting way with simile or imagery, of painting a picture of the world through words? In fact, because the magazine's writers--from Wharton and Dreiser to Tom Wolfe and David Mamet--have defined the "American character and turn of mind," as Lapham puts it, "American Album" raises an even broader question. Is there any such thing as an American style of metaphor? Fortunately, the book also provides an answer: Indeed there is.

Two things stand out in the imagery that Harper's writers have employed over decades. First, there is the use of places or spaces, of rooms and terrain, as metaphors for almost anything. People who are "against equality because of race or color," William Faulkner writes in a 1956 essay, are like folks who live "in Alaska and [are] against snow." James Baldwin, visiting Martin Luther King Jr. in 1958, surveys the "wilderness" of paper on King's hotel-room desk. A newspaper's police beat, Murray Kempton declares in a 1974 piece, is a "backwater" whose denizens know its "every weed and mud-bank." In Thornton Wilder's 1953 essay "The Silent Generation," the U.S. Army becomes an "echoing gallery of out-dated attitudes and sentiments." Even time can become a place: The era of biblical creation in 4004 BC, Annie Dillard says, is like a "small room" in which "[w]e were all crouched--against the comforting back wall."

When James Meredith registered at the University of Mississippi in 1962--the first black person ever to do so--the white students, Walker Percy writes in a 1965 retrospective, reacted "as if he had been quartered in their living room"; a few lines later, Percy likens white Southern towns to "one big front porch." In Alice Walker's 1973 story "Everyday Use," the main character describes her yard as "not just a yard. It is like an extended living room." And here's Tee Rodgers, searching for a way of explaining his life as an L.A. gang member during a 1989 Harper's forum: "It's like this: there's this barrel, okay? All of us are in it together, and we all want the same thing. And if a homeboy rises up--and it is not so much jealousy as the fear of him leaving me--I want to come up with him--but when he reaches the top of the barrel, I grab him by the pants leg and I pull him back down."

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So in "American Album," almost anything at all can get metaphorically transformed into a place or a space, from barrels to small rooms, from wilderness to Alaska. But a second way with imagery also pervades the book: People--whether fictional or real, famous or obscure, singly or in groups--can get transformed metaphorically into almost anything at all.

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