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

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)
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“Also it was fun,” he says.

“Here history was this vast resource; I mean truly generative. I figure that if we’re going to find our way into answers to, at least hypotheses to, the circumstances presented by the 21st century, that our best chance is to find them floating around somewhere in the historical record. I mean Lucretius, for example, writes in the first century B.C. and was rediscovered [in a monastery!] in 1417 and becomes a presence in the main work not only of Montaigne and Machiavelli but also in the mind of Diderot and Jefferson. So that history is...a natural resource as well as an applied technology.” An app!

Actually then, to call Lapham a Renaissance man is more metaphorically than chronologically accurate. He’s an Enlightenment man who embodies the spirit of the great encyclopedist Diderot, each issue of the Quarterly being a kind of idiosyncratically entertaining encyclopedia of its subject. A vast repository of clues to the mystery of human nature for the alert and erudite detective.

“In some ways you are finding a way to recreate a vision of Garside’s—your mentor at Yale....”

“Oh, I can’t do that, no I can’t,” he demurs.

“But with a staff?” In addition to 11 dedicated in-house seekers of wisdom, and an erudite board of advisers suggesting texts, he’ll recruit the occasional distinguished outside essayist.

Here’s the great Princeton scholar Anthony Grafton, for instance, taking a somewhat contrarian view (in the “Politics” issue) about the much maligned 15th-century Florentine theocrat Savonarola:

“In America now, as in Florence then, the fruit of millennial politics is a mephitic mixture of radical legislation and deliberative stalemate. Savonarola’s modern counterparts, show little of the humanity, the understanding of sin and weakness that was as characteristic of him as his desire to build a perfect city.”

Lapham speaks about his rescue mission for the sunken treasure of wisdom (not just Western—plenty of Asian, African and Latin American voices). “I can open it up to other people—again that’s my function as an editor. Somebody comes across it and reads it and thinks ‘Jesus’ and goes from a smaller excerpt in the Quarterly to the whole work by Diderot. In other words, it’s to open things up.

“We learn from each other, right? I think that the value is in the force of the imagination and the power of expression. I mean...the hope of social or political change stems from language that induces a change of heart. That’s the power of words and that’s a different power than the power of the Internet. And I’m trying to turn people on to those powers and it’s in language.”


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