Q&A with Lewis Lapham

(Joe Tabacca for the Globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Jeffrey MacIntyre
November 4, 2007

MACHIAVELLI PREDICTED THE Blackwater debacle. The Qing dynasty's homeland security experts knew Great Walls make for great neighbors. Riding the rails was safer in Joseph Conrad's, not today's, Congo.

Few literary heavyweights cast their wit about like Lewis Lapham, 72, and fewer still are capable of publishing an independent historical journal that wears its anachronisms so gleefully. The journalism legend and erstwhile Harper's editor is launching a new print journal, Lapham's Quarterly, that will be available at major bookstores on Nov. 13.

Lapham's Quarterly, alongside a companion radio show and weekly blog, extends his abiding interest of recent years: the theme of history's revenge upon those who ignore it. "Everything I've written," he told Kurt Andersen in 2005, "is a chronicle of the twilight of the American idea." Using historical texts to plumb our political, cultural, and economic moment, Lapham is now aiming to add a new chapter to his career-long act as ruling class scold.

Born in San Francisco, grandson of a city mayor, and great grandson to a founder of Texaco, Lapham was educated at Yale and Cambridge. During his Harper's tenure, the magazine received 14 National Magazine Awards, including one recognizing his own writing. His 28-year editorship of Harper's remains an astonishing feat of longevity, even if the magazine itself is nearly 160 years old. (Roger Hodge succeeded him as editor there two years ago.) Earlier this year, the American Society of Magazine Editors accorded Lapham its highest honor, inducting him into its Hall of Fame.

"The best storyteller I knew was my grammar school history teacher," recalls Lapham, who would listen for hours, transfixed by his teacher's accounts of faraway lands and ancient times. Each themed issue of Lapham's Quarterly - the first three concern war, money, and man in nature - finds Lapham the pupil, and a platoon of historian advisers, scouring the historical record, reaching to recreate that childhood rapture. The weave of voices is threaded through separate chapters exploring a concept or motif, with the intention of casting readers into the deep back catalog of culture and thought - "whether you count history as a poem, chronicle, manuscript, totem pole, or painted ceiling" - before arriving at the connections to our present-day headlines.

IDEAS: Not many publications can tout Shakespeare and Thucydides on their masthead.

LAPHAM: You're right. This is really my finest masthead.

IDEAS: There's an instructive quality to a viewing of the present rendered through the past.

LAPHAM: Twain said that history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. What I'm doing here in this new magazine is listening for the rhyme, and you can hear it, whether it's through Saint Augustine or Joseph Goebbels. The first issue, "States of War," includes historical addresses made by a British general in 1917, exhorting his troops that they are liberating, not conquering, Baghdad, and by Pope Urban, centuries earlier, summoning the faithful to war with the "Wicked Turk." The echoes of our present day are everywhere and they do instruct and inform us - if we're listening.

IDEAS: You've written a lot about imperial history, and the way empires, past and present, regard themselves through periods of ascendance and fall. Do you see yourself using the historical record as an editorialist?

LAPHAM: Mine is the sense of a history that defends the future against the past. I'm not trying to teach dates. My purpose is to foster and encourage and delight in the acquaintance with history. Not to know our own story, after all, is to be at a severe loss. You become easily frightened. And I, for one, would not know how to read the newspapers. I'm not being polemic; I'm trying to open it out. I want to say: Behold dear reader, what a wonderful archive and treasure one can find in the history of our long journey across the frontiers of four millennia.

IDEAS: But you are not working alone here.

LAPHAM: I'm an enthusiast. I have an editorial board and am always widening my range of acquaintance among historians. I pick their brains. For the first issue, I went around the circle and asked what I should be reading, where I should be looking. For instance, in my first issue, to illuminate the concept of rules of engagement, they indicated a certain exchange in the very elegant correspondence between William T. Sherman and the Confederate officer John Hood.

IDEAS: Your radio show is described on your website as "discussing the events of fifty or 500 years ago, not Meet the Press politicos or This Week pundits grappling with the events of last week."

LAPHAM: One of the problems with contemporary media is it's without context. In the eternal now of 24-seven, there is no past and no future. The news comes in short phrases or paragraphs, and it's without the backstory. Without that, how can you write the front story?

This is a point that McLuhan makes in "Understanding Media." Print is based on narrative, cause and effect, and there are consequences, or a history. Instead, our media tends to move in circles, drumming up emotion, regardless of the subject matter.

IDEAS: Is this something you've seen in the decline of long-form journalism?

LAPHAM: It's a fact. For at least 15 years, I was a judge of the [National Magazine Awards]. You go up to Columbia and they have this pile of magazines. Scanners and readers have been through it and judges are presented various nominees. Nevertheless, you get to see the full array. Over time, I saw that pile getting shorter and shorter.

IDEAS: You've been involved in small publishing much of your career. What is your take on the prevailing winds in independent publishing today?

LAPHAM: I think it's a matter of finding a niche. Small circulation numbers don't discourage me at all. It's a mechanical thing, an equation to get to break even, or even profitable. The economics are not daunting to me exactly because this magazine is not a mass-market product.

IDEAS: What are your plans with LQ on the Web?

LAPHAM: I hope it would be a means of attracting contributions. I would hope to set up some kind of interactive community for like-minded people to contribute historical sources. During my years at Harper's I kept up a very extensive correspondence with many of our readers. A remarkable number of really wonderful letters from people all over the country. That's the same kind of community I'd like to establish with the Web. It's one of the Web's great virtues.

IDEAS: Two years ago, you claimed you still didn't own a computer. Did you ever buy one?

LAPHAM: I now have a computer. I probably don't use it to its full capacity and I don't use it to write on, but it is my search engine.

IDEAS: There are many theories of history: the Great Man thesis, Hegelianism, Spengler's declinism. What's yours?

LAPHAM: I don't have a pet theory. If I get to do this for a while, I might develop one!

Jeffrey MacIntyre, a freelance journalist in New York, writes on culture, science, and technology for publications including The New York Times, Slate, and Wired.

more stories like this

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Save this article
  • powered by
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.