Most interviews with Lewis Lapham employ a standard biographical sketch, reciting the well-known chorus of his first-class education (the Hotchkiss School, Yale, Cambridge), patrician bearing and manners (he never travels outside of his jacket, tie and pocket square), sterling silver prose (with which he has ‘carried home U.S. National Magazine awards in a wheelbarrow’), and, most especially, his estimable knowledge of the history of Western civilization, which he deploys reflexively and with staggering acuity. The portrait is so refined and appears so consistently as to be self-sustaining, the source of its own truth; except that it sits uncomfortably next to Lapham’s own description of the journalistic ideal, which bears little resemblance to the goods advertised on the press box:
‘[The press is necessary] precisely because it is an afflication, by reason of its ugliness rather than its imagined beauty… for exactly those reasons that require of it little understanding and less compassion, no sense of aesthetics, and the gall of a coroner.’ (Mandate From Heaven, 1973)
The man who greets me in the offices of Lapham’s Quarterly, the historical anthology Lapham founded in 2007 after thirty years as editor of Harper’s Magazine, is a happy composite of these two ideals. He is endlessly polite, and speaks in the congenial growl befitting a man who once told a reporter ‘Cigarettes are life itself’. He edits the Quarterly from a tiny office suite teeming with books and papers (most of which display historical interest), three interns tucked against one wall, three cubicles pressed against the other. Lapham’s office is enclosed by a glass partition at the end of the room (behind which he sifts through still more literary detritus), and while waiting in the lounge across the hall (in the offices of The Nation, a sister publication to the Quarterly), I marvel at the egalitarian spirit captured by a note affixed to the sink: ‘You’re going to help save the world…and you can’t even wash your own dirty dishes?’
Wither verisimilitude? Not on Lapham’s watch, which has been continuous since 1957 when he took-up as a reporter with the San Francisco Examiner. Lapham moved to the New York Herald Tribune in 1960, and remained in the city as a contract writer for various publications before becoming editor of Harper’s in 1976. His experience over the past fifty years, combined with his appreciation for the historical perspective – ‘I wouldn’t know how to make sense of the newspapers unless I had a sense of history’ – is such that it takes nearly thirty seconds for Lapham to manage a response to, ‘When was the last time you were surprised by something you read in the newspaper?’ He finally offers, deadpan, ‘Well, I get surprised all the time’, referencing a number of recent political scandals (Eliot Spitzer’s adventures in prostitution, a Chicago governor auctioning a senate seat) before summarizing, ‘I’m constanly surprised by the outlandishness of American politics. In praise of folly, so to speak.’
‘In praise of folly’ might be the most apt summary of Lapham’s view of the American experience, which he has likened to living in ‘the land in which money never dies’, amongst post-war generations born to such immense prosperity that they have come to treat liberty as a trust fund, an inheritance best preserved by limited use of the invested capital. Lapham’s essays have been collected in fourteen books over the past twenty-five years, a suite of variations on the theme of ‘United States as spendthrift heir’, a country that long ago exchanged its history books for full-length mirrors. Lapham’s ‘praise’ thus commonly assumes the satirical form, such as when he concludes at one part of the interview that ‘The two great American literary forms are the sermon and the sales pitch.’
The American obsession with self-promotion – Lapham had a field day when American scholar Francis Fukuyama declared ‘the end of history’ – is also why Lapham’s influence has remained comparatively slight. (A reporter once observed that Lapham had ‘some difficulty [making] a list of who in America pays attention to him.’) Lapham knows exactly why he’s not more popular in the editorial columns or the talk show circuit. ‘I’m not apt to know what I’m going to say, and they need people they can rely on. Your opinions have to be a commodity that can be trusted to measure up to the contents named on the box. You know what Rush Limbaugh’s going to say, you know what Paul Krugman’s going to say, and so on. God help them if they should change their minds.’
Lapham’s approach to journalism is determinedly, even romantically different. ‘I write slowly’, he says, ‘I write with a pen.’ His preferred format is now the essay, which he begins without any real idea of where he will finish. ‘I really don’t know where it’s going, or in which sense it’s coming from, until I see the words show up on the page.’ He works through six or seven drafts, and finishes somewhere less than where his accolades suggest. ‘The best that I hoped for was a manuscript that required not only the shifting around of a few paragraphs but also the abandonment of its postulates and premise.’
Speaking of essays, Lapham retains vivid memories of his first tutorial at Cambridge. ‘I’m wearing a gown, there’s tea, it’s a damp day in October’, when his tutor begins, ‘Perhaps you could spare a few minutes for the twelfth century?’ In response to Lapham’s ‘few large-minded generalizations’, his tutor posed a number of very specific questions – How many forms of coinage then circulating in Europe? How long to travel by sea from Dover to Marseille? – to which Lapham had, ‘of course, no answers at all’.
It was at this point that the tutor delivered unto Lapham the most polite critique he had ever received. ‘You know, it’s wonderful. You Americans have a truly enviable, a magnificent grasp of the large abstraction, the grand simplification. It’s a talent that we endlessly admire; however, in England, it’s tiresome, but before climbing to the heights of understanding, we try to pack at least a few facts.’
At this Lapham laughs heartily, in praise of folly, even his own.
The website for Lapham’s Quarterly is: www.laphamsquarterly.org