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John Fischer

John Fischer, the editor in chief of Harper’s Magazine from 1953 to 1967, “made the magazine an instrument of rigorous social inquiry, publishing some of the best and most constructive political thought of his era,” according to Harper’s editor emeritus Lewis H. Lapham; “in his own writing he was constantly offering modest but useful suggestions about the ways in which people might improve their lot.” These suggestions were tallied in such Easy Chair columns as “Money Bait,” “How to save some of your tax money,” and “How to save a few million lives—and Save Money at the Same Time.”

Fischer wrote six books, including Why They Behave Like Russians (1947) and The Stupidity Problem (1964). He pilloried The National Review, the National Organization for Decent Literature, and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. He served as a witness for the prosecution in a Lenny Bruce obscenity trial, and he befriended Mark Rothko, who told him he had accepted the commission for the Seagram Building’s Four Seasons restaurant so as to “ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.” In 1953, the same year he assumed the top position at Harper’s, he edited Richard Wright’s The Outsider, which the Library of America would later reissue as “a text that restores the many stylistic changes and long cuts made by [Wright’s] editors without his knowledge.” (Wright left soon after for Doubleday, to reunite with a more trusted editor.) An editor’s decisions, Fischer wrote fifteen years later, are “essentially authoritarian”: “The authority of any editor, even of the most ephemeral publication, tends to corrupt, just as surely as the more awesome forms of political and sacerdotal power which Lord Acton had in mind when he wrote his famous letter to Bishop Creighton.”

By 1966, he was referring to himself as a “tired liberal,” and he stepped down as editor in chief the following year, though he remained a contributing editor until his death in 1978. “I have no wish to make of him a statue in a public park (he detested anything that had about it the stale and metropolitan air of the sentimental, the pretentious, and the grandiose),” Lapham wrote in a remembrance of Fischer, “but the courage of his mind and the cheerful compassion with which he looked upon the perversity of his fellow men offers an example of which a great many people, myself among them, stand sorely in need.”

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November 1975