Now this is good news — James Marcus at Harper’s!


Risen to glory

Writer, translator, critic, and editor James Marcus will join Harper’s Magazine as deputy editor next month.  This is great news indeed.

James has been an intelligent, genial presence in my life for some time now. I can’t even quite remember how we met … well, “met” … we’ve communicated by phone and by email for years, but have never had an actual face-to-face.  I suppose it was way back when I was working on Joseph Brodsky: Conversations.  Something bonds all former students of the Nobel laureate — in some cases, epiphany, in other cases, trauma.  In still other cases, both.

I quoted James’s description of his experience in my introduction:

James Marcus, while attending Columbia University, heard rumors of a student in the previous term whose work Brodsky had ridiculed so mercilessly that she burst into tears in class.  In a short reminiscence posted on, Marcus recalls Brodsky’s first day of class: Brodsky, wearing a corduroy jacket, had “thinning reddish hair and the sort of pale skin, stippled with freckles, that seemed never to have been out in the sun…” He lit a cigarette–the first of many.  “Throughout the seminar he would bum cigarettes from the few addicts in the class, tearing the filters off with his teeth before applying a match.” Brodsky explained his worldview to his students: “Poetry, in his estimation, was the glue of civilization, and language the repository of time itself.” Later in the semester, after assigning a short page for class, he warned them, “Assume that this may be the last thing you write … Don’t forget, you could get hit by a car after you hand it in. Keep that thought in mind.” While it may have been “grandiose nuttiness” from anyone else, Marcus concludes that Brodsky was merely extending his own “high seriousness about writing to his students” — few of whom deserved it.

We connected next when I was doing the Czesław Miłosz: Conversations — I reprinted his short, lively email interview with the the Polish Nobel laureate, from the days James was working as resident critic for


After the Amazon experience, he wrote Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot-Com Juggernaut, but they’ve forgiven him. He is a noted translator of Italian, particularly Calvino, as I recall.

He is also an editor-at-large at the Columbia Journalism Review; his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and Salon.

More good news: He started blogging again a few days ago with this post at House of Mirth: “Just as there is no reason to start blogging, there is no reason to stop. So I’ll get rolling again with two savory snippets. First, an observation: there are moments when the writing life seems like a parade of small degradations. Can any other profession take such a toll on the ego?”

(Here’s even more good news:  Mark Sarvas’s Elegant Variation has also been revived, after a more sporadic absence. Does life get any better than this?)

Postscript on Oct. 24:  Coincidentally, James’s current (Oct. 21) post over at House of Mirth is on Brodsky, his interview with Sven Birkerts, and Watermark.  Scroll down if James refreshes the page — I can’t provide a link to just that post.

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3 Responses to “Now this is good news — James Marcus at Harper’s!”

  1. David Brown Says:

    That’s great. I’ve always been an admirer of James and just loved Amazonia. I hope that he would have a great time at harper’s.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    True confessions: I didn’t read Amazonia. I’ll have to add it to my list now, on your recommendation!

  3. David Brown Says:

    I am happy to know that you decided to check out Amazonia. It is a truly remarkable account of the author’s five year stint as an editor at For amazon fans like me, the book presents an insiders view of a colorful life behind the web site. This will be a fun ride for you if you enjoy rags to riches stories.