Harper’s Has (Yet Another) New Editor, This Time Without All the Drama

Christopher Beha, the magazine’s fourth top editor in the last six years, is taking a six-month book leave… and promises he’ll be back

In six weeks, Harper’s Magazine’s current top editor, Christopher Beha will go out on book leave at the start of November and return six months later. At most publications, this might amount to the most mundane of office bulletins. But at Harper’s, which has gone through quite a bit of masthead turbulence in recent years, hearing that the editor is leaving and then coming back passes for a man-bites-dog moment.

When Beha took over in October 2019, he was the third new editor of the magazine in the previous four years (or four, if you count the previous Harper’s editor, Ellen Rosenbush, who was tapped as interim editor twice in that span). Christopher Cox, who was named editor in 2015, only lasted three issues. He was followed by James Marcus, who lasted just over two years before being fired, he claimed, because he objected to running Katie Roiphe’s 2018 essay, “The Other Whisper Network: How Twitter feminism is bad for women.”

For the staff who remained through it all, there has been no shortage of other recent bumpy moments. Amid last year’s protests against police killings of Black people, Harper’s published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which was widely criticized as tone-deaf for linking opposition to police brutality with “ideological conformity” and “the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.”

This editor switch won’t be another unsettling moment, Beha said, and he said it won’t be a permanent change. He announced his departure internally at an in-person staff meeting on July 28 — three months in advance — to try to settle their nerves. While he’s away, Matthew Sherrill, who was last promoted to deputy editor in July, will step in as acting editor, beginning with the January issue which closes in November.

Beha’s leaving to write a book about reading atheist literature, tentatively titled Why I Am Not an Atheist: Confessions of a Skeptical Believer. “It’s a sort of history of atheist thought,” said the devout Catholic, “with some elements of it being a memoir of my working through said history.” He owes the book to Penguin by the end of next year and didn’t think he could get it done in time while working his full-time job. “I’ve written several books while I’ve worked at Harper’s and I kind of imagined that I could manage this,” he said, but “two things have happened since the last time I wrote a book: one, I’ve got a bigger job here than I used to, and two — actually, this is the bigger thing — I’ve got two kids now.”

So Beha went to talk with Harper’s publisher John R. MacArthur, known almost universally as “Rick.” “He was kind enough to offer me leave,” Beha said. That generosity speaks to the unusual stability of Beha’s relationship with MacArthur, who, by most accounts, is the primary cause of the recent chaos at the magazine.

After MacArthur fired editor Roger Hodge in 2010, his successors found themselves in an increasingly precarious editor’s chair. Rosenbush, who’d been at the magazine since 1989 and had a talent for appeasing MacArthur, then deftly steered the publication for five years. Following her retirement, Cox said he was surprised to be promoted to the top job after serving on the bargaining committee of the magazine’s short-lived union. But he came in ready to hold his own. Hodge had advised him to show MacArthur early on that he couldn’t be pushed over. This soon backfired when Cox was pushed out following disagreements with the publisher over a cover redesign Cox wanted to implement — and which was largely adopted after he was ousted. (Disclosure: This reporter was a Harper’s intern at the time.)

Beha has been much more adept at eluding similar dramas. “Beha was better at navigating the Rick relationship, always,” Cox said. Departed staff members have watched the relative lack of apparent controversy between the editor and MacArthur and marveled. “Beha’s good at picking his battles,” a former permalancer told Off the Record.

Beha’s success at wrangling MacArthur may spring from some key shared contrarian instincts. Beha secured the publication of the controversial (despite its blandness) so-called Harper’s letter last year. Following its publication, Beha tried to bridge the difference between MacArthur, who signed the letter, and those on the staff who vehemently opposed it. In an email obtained by The New York Times’s Ben Smith, Beha told his staff that he was trying to “make the parts of the office that are under my control as open, respectful and tolerant of difference as I could, while insulating my staff as much as possible.”

Beha and Sherrill insist that very little will change in the editor’s absence. “Chris is going to be gone for six months, which, when you’re at a monthly magazine, is not that long of a time,” said Sherrill, who was hired as an assistant editor in January 2015. “We’ve spoken quite extensively about what those six issues are going to look like, so I see myself as just trying to maintain the standards that he’s set for the magazine, to maintain a sense of continuity until he’s back.”

Warned that outsiders would be scouring future issues for signs of Sherrill’s influence — perhaps a decreased focus on Catholicism and an increased interest in the poetry of the long nineteenth century, the focus of the soon-to-be acting editor’s Ph.D. thesis — Sherill laughed. “I’d be eager to hear what you think those differences ultimately are,” he said.