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Lewis Lapham, the legendary former editor of Harper's, who, beginning in the 1970s, helped change the face of American nonfiction, has a new mission: taking on the Great Paradox of the digital age. (Neville Elder / Corbis)

Lewis Lapham’s Antidote to the Age of BuzzFeed

With his erudite Quarterly, the legendary Harper’s editor aims for an antidote to digital-age ignorance

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Lapham traces his inspiration for this venture, his sense of mission, to the spellbinding influence of one mostly forgotten soul, an intellectual historian he met at Yale named Charles Garside Jr. who dazzled him with his polymath ability. With the very idea that becoming a polymath, coming closer to knowing more about everything than anyone else, was something to strive for.

“He was an inspiring figure,” Lapham says, recalling long, late-night disquisitions in an all-night New Haven diner. “It was like I found a philosopher wandering in the academy.”

It took Lapham a while to find his way into that role himself. His great-grandfather had co-founded the oil giant Texaco and his grandfather had been mayor of San Francisco. After graduating from Yale, he got his first job as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, where he got a grounding in life outside books from covering the police beat, crime and punishment on the streets. He also found himself in the golden age of bohemia. “Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey were already gone but Allen Ginsberg was still there, Kenneth Rexroth was still there and so was [beat poet icon Lawrence] Ferlinghetti.”

He left the Examiner to do a stint at the legendary New York Herald Tribune, known then as “a writer’s paper” (Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Charles Portis, et al.). “I liked the raffishness” of that kind of newspapering, he says, but it wasn’t too long before he found himself disillusioned by the world of journalism and media.

“The election of Kennedy changed everything,” Lapham recalls. “No longer were people interested in talking about ideas—it was about access. After Kennedy’s election suddenly you had journalists wanting to be novelists and thinking that they are somehow superior to politicians. There once was [thought to be] some moral grace to being a journalist—which is of course bullshit....”

When I suggest to him that journalists had at least an edge on moral grace over, say, hedge-fund operators, he says, “Jefferson and Adams, though on opposite sides of policy, always supported the right of unhindered speech. Though they regarded journalists as vicious.”

“You believe in viciousness?”

“Yeah I do. In that it’s [journalism’s] function. But I just don’t think that’s necessarily moral grace.”

As the editor of Harper’s from 1974—with a brief interruption—to 2006, Lapham attracted a unique cast of new and celebrated writers (Tom Wolfe, Christopher Hitchens, Francine Prose and David Foster Wallace, among others) and freed them from the shackles of the third person to write in their own voice and offer readers their own truths. (It’s remarkable how many of the excerpts from the classical age in the Quarterly are in the first person. It’s ancient as well as modern.) I was fortunate to write for him, so, not being entirely objective myself, I asked New York University professor Robert S. Boynton, head of the literary reportage program there and author of The New New Journalism, to describe Lapham’s significance: “He pushed the idea that the memoir form might influence ANY piece—an essay, report, investigation—and make it more, rather than less, true. Another way to put it is that he attacked the false gods of ‘objective journalism,’ and showed how much more artful and accurate writing in the first person could be.”

Lapham left Harper’s in 2006 to found the Quarterly; he says he’d been thinking about the idea for the magazine since 1998. “I had put together a collection of texts on the end of the world for the History Book Club,” he recalls. “They wanted something at the turn of the millennium and I developed this idea by looking at the way the end of the world has ended [or been envisioned to end] many, many times and how predictions of doom have been spread across time. Whether you’re talking about the Book of Revelation or tenth-century sects. So I had this wonderful collection of texts and I thought what a great idea.

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