Profiles

Illustration by Jason Polan

Nothing Is off the Record, Because I’m Not Coming Back

After 26 years writing Harper’s Notebook, Lewis Lapham talks about history, essays, and modern journalists.

Most interviews with Lewis Lapham employ a standard biographical sketch, reciting the well known chorus of his first-class education, patrician bearing and manners, sterling silver prose, and, most especially, his 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 is rent almost immediately by striking verisimilitude when the first thing Lapham wants to talk about is the transcript.

“Will you write this up at the end? I mean, it’s not going to be a literal transcript, right? It will probably be filled with hesitations, bad choices of words, and so on.”

It takes a while to realize that if Lapham’s persona is not quite the stuff of myth and legend, it is at least partly sustained by other peoples’ dreams. All of the set pieces are present in his office—the clothes, the bearing, the books—but like most other people in the world, he remembers quotations partially (and tells me that he has done so on this day from Jefferson and Kierkegaard), and he tells some stories better than others. Before I leave, Lapham gives me two essays about writing, beautifully rendered, from which I discover he has paraphrased some of his responses to my questions. He concludes the interview by apologizing for his entire performance, or for being merely human: “I’m sorry, I’ve expressed some of these thoughts better in writing than I have into your tape recorder.”

If Lapham’s performance differs from the front-page advertising, it seems entirely appropriate, for Lapham has made a career of telling people that life is little more than rough drafts and revised editions, and don’t believe much of what you read in the newspapers. In one way or another, this has been the moral of every “Notebook” essay, Lapham’s famous preface to each issue of Harper’s Magazine, where he was editor for almost 30 years before leaving to found, in 2007, a historical anthology called Lapham’s Quarterly. (Now 75 years old, Lapham laughs, “That’s why I left Harper’s, to do this, you know, before I died.”) The November issue of Harper’s carried the final Notebook column, since 1984 the principal residence for Lapham’s political and cultural exegesis, what he has called his “chronicle of the twilight of the American idea.”

On this day, however, Lapham is clearly struggling to remember just what he thinks this means. Getting back to the transcript, he wants to know whether he’ll have a chance “to change a word here or there,” then recants this almost immediately. “I don’t have to, I don’t need to, I trust you.”

“Just clean up the grammar and the sentences.”

 

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It should come as no surprise that Lapham’s press clippings are a rough draft of the man sitting opposite me in a non-descript office building near Gramercy Park. Lapham’s tenure at Harper’s spanned the administrations of five American presidents (Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush), and prior to this he reported for the San Francisco Examiner, the New York Herald Tribune, and worked on contract for the Saturday Evening Post and Life magazines. Over the past 50 years, Lapham has communed amidst the giant redwood trees with the Bohemian Club in San Francisco, witnessed the Beatles practicing transcendental meditation at an ashram in Rishikesh, India, and was almost certainly the only guest at Truman Capote’s Black and White ball who had also attended a rally led by Malcolm X.

As a rough gauge of the depth of Lapham’s experience, it takes him almost 30 seconds to formulate a response to the question, “When was the last time you were surprised by something you read in the newspaper?” He eventually responds, deadpan, “Well, I get surprised all the time.” He refers to some recent political scandals (Eliot Spitzer’s adventures in prostitution, Rod Blagojevich’s attempt to auction a Senate seat in Chicago) and summarizes, “I’m constantly surprised by the outlandishness of American politics. In praise of folly, so to speak.”

Lapham is endlessly polite, and speaks with the congenial growl befitting someone who once told a reporter, “Cigarettes are life itself.”“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 postwar 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 14 books over the past 25 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.

The American obsession with self and self-promotion—Lapham had a field day when Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history”—is one of the reasons Lapham says he’s not more popular in the op-ed 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.”

A preference for commodities is also the reason Lapham concludes at one part of our discussion that, “The two great American literary forms are the sermon and the sales pitch.” In what surely gives the lie to his claim of being “surprised all the time,” three days after our interview a front-page story in the New York Times features a sex scandal involving a minister in Atlanta who drives a Bentley, owns a million-dollar mansion, and favors Gucci sunglasses, expensive jewelry, and Rolex watches.

 

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Lapham 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. While waiting for our interview in the lounge across the hall (in the offices of The Nation, a sister publication to the Quarterly), I count five bags of cat food atop the refrigerator, and 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?”

Then there is the man himself. Lapham is endlessly polite, and speaks with the congenial growl befitting someone who once told a reporter, “Cigarettes are life itself.” When I ask for water instead of the proffered coffee, in deference to the late-September heat, Lapham replies, ingenuously, “I don’t think we have water.” His office is unencumbered by any computer; his mail tray contains printed copies of email correspondence.

While parts of Lapham’s press caricature are clearly drawn from very near the source, other aspects have been given a more cavalier treatment, especially in light of Lapham’s own thoughts on the subject. For instance, the New York Times has described Lapham as a journalist in a fairy tale, “etched from a sepia-toned New York of late nights at Elaine’s…and writerly camaraderie.” Lapham, by contrast, thinks the press is useful “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)

In person, Lapham appears much closer to his own description, smart suits notwithstanding. Never one to be spoiled by office, he recalls being on assignment for the Saturday Evening Post and telling President Johnson’s press secretary, “As far as I’m concerned, nothing is off the record, because I’m not coming back.” (Tellingly, Lapham says it was the press corps, not the White House, which took issue with his approach.) Lapham’s interests are far too prosaic to fill the seats at the local cineplex (“Very little of interest happens on television, unless you look at C-Span”), but this is precisely the reason his essays obtain such wry, critical purchase. Talking about news that he does find surprising, Lapham alights upon the supply of drinking water in New York City: “The big pipes that supply New York from its reservoirs are, in most instances, a hundred years old, and need to be refurbished. But they’re afraid that if they turn the water off long enough to rebuild, the whole thing might crack. I mean, they’re working on it, but it’s a much more imminent weapon of mass destruction to the city of New York than something that might be done by a terrorist.”

 

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When Lapham writes an essay, he begins with an issue generally current in the news, then lets his pen wander, not quite aimlessly, but enough that he tells me, “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.” The result is well known to readers of his Notebook essays, which are presented less as Polaroid truths and more as symphonic orations, including the presumption that the audience will withhold any applause until the end of the last movement. This is at least Lapham’s approach to his own work, of which he writes in his final Notebook essay, entitled “Figures of Speech,” “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.”

“They’re like seagulls,” he says, referring to the daily print and television press. “The fish are being dropped into their mouths, and they take it every time.”The Notebook rubric made its debut in 1984, initially intended to make clear to readers the presuppositions of the magazine’s editor. (Lapham chuckles, “Sort of along the lines of the warnings on a medicine bottle, or prior to movies made for mature audiences.”) Over the years Lapham has used the space to skewer all manner of popular and (especially) political institutions. Perhaps most memorably, Lapham published two books’ worth of essays impugning the Bush administration after Sept. 11 (Theater of War and Pretensions to Empire, the overflow from which he bound into a separate polemic called Gag Rule), pouring invective over the leaders of his failed state and the parties responsible for their installation. “Who can say that the President doesn’t embody the American dream come true?” (“The Simple Life,” December 2005)

While Lapham’s observations are routinely, even relentlessly apposite, there lingers about his writing an air of refined observation, and, indeed, Lapham readily admits to trafficking in generalities. In “Figures of Speech,” he emphasizes that his essays were frequently grounded in “nothing much beyond what I’d seen on television or read in the newspapers.” For much this same reason, Lapham calls himself “a failed historian,” something he discovered as early as his first tutorial at Cambridge. “It’s tiresome,” Lapham recalls hearing from his history tutor, “but before climbing to the heights of understanding, we try to pack at least a few facts.”

 

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All of which brings us to Lapham’s critics, mostly other journalists, with whom it is surprising Lapham has any relationship whatsoever. (“They’re like seagulls,” he says, referring to the daily print and television press. “The fish are being dropped into their mouths, and they take it every time.”) Lapham’s writing has been dismissed as a weary fin-de-siècle refrain, deployed disingenuously and even recklessly, the latter claim gaining considerable purchase after Lapham’s notorious September 2004 essay “Tentacles of Rage.” The essay purported to describe the scene at that year’s Republican national convention (Aug. 30-Sept. 2), except that the September issue of Harper’s reached subscribers in early August, meaning the text of the essay was probably written sometime in July. In response to much online criticism, Lapham (sort of) apologized, telling the Washington Post, “It was a mistake, but to my mind a minor one,” and the preface to Pretensions to Empire, written in March 2006, still describes the essay as published “soon after the Republican Nominating Convention.” (Emphasis mine.)

Critics have also made light of Lapham’s prose style. In 1999, Slate ran a Lapham sentence through various online translation programs, hoping to discover its “allusion-shrouded meaning” in French, German, and various cartoon dialects, including Elmer Fudd and the Muppets’ Swedish Chef. In 2007, the website started with the same passage, cherry-picked a handful of other “signature” Lapham quotations (each a surfeit of history and metaphor), and drily mused, “How many times can a man write the same sentence?”

Ironically, over the years Lapham has recycled numerous of his more colorful turns of phrase, such as when he waited just two years between declarations that, “The triumph of the American Dream presupposes the eager and uncritical consumption of junk in all its commercial declensions.” (“The Old School,” April 1989; “Achievement Test,” July 1991). Such is the danger of collecting monthly essays into books, or just of writing memorably, and of course Lapham can only reuse ideas in proportion to the value of their present-day currency. (Lapham first used his “gall of a coroner” description of the press in 1973, and it remained sufficiently valid to reappear 30 years later, in Gag Rule in 2004.) In response to his critics, Lapham can at least claim to practice what he preaches, “salvaging from the wreck of time what [he finds] to be useful or beautiful or true.” (“Adagio, ma non troppo,” March 1995; “The Gulf of Time,” November 2008; “Figures of Speech,” November 2010)

 

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In the second of his Four Quartets, called “East Coker,” T.S. Eliot characterized the course of life, and so of history, in terms with which Lapham might well agree but which seem, in the days after our interview, perfectly apposite to the man himself.

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

Armed with little more than this, Lapham and the rest of the world lay siege to present circumstances, assured of each other’s imperfection in the approach, the occupation, and the inevitable denouement. If Lapham’s writing appears more didactic than quixotic, it’s largely because he sees the American experience denying so strenuously what Eliot saw as not just timeless but quintessentially human. What else but this for the remit of Lapham’s Quarterly, determined, as Lapham says, “to bring the voices of the past up to the microphone of the present.”

With Lapham’s Notebook finally closed, the question is whether his current venture will meet with much or any success, leaving Lapham little choice but to concur with Eliot, that, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”