Lewis Lapham traces his path from newspapers to Harper’s Magazine and Lapham’s Quarterly—and reflects on the true nature of history, and how we frame it in our minds.
As a cub reporter for The San Francisco Examiner in 1957, Lewis H. Lapham’s first assignment was the stuff of nightmares for many the aspiring journalist. Some reporters take up the pen because they want to delve into the vast underbelly of politics; others want to go behind the scenes of films and sporting events; still others yearn to document anything that might yield them a prize or enduring fame.
Lapham’s stated goal? Simply put, as he has said, “I couldn't imagine anything more exciting to do than to try to put words on paper.” He wanted to learn to write. So when his editor gave him a fluff assignment to cover a flower show in Oakland, he did just that: He wrote.
A basic newspaper article tends to run around 300–600 words. Lapham went to the show—and then he returned to his desk, hit the page, and turned in 4,000 words to his editor.
There aren’t many cut from the literary cloth like Lewis H. Lapham. And in a TL;DR hummingbird era when in-depth articles that would otherwise be regarded as magazine pieces of modest length are relegated to the dreaded moniker of “longreads,” words have become “content” and art and design pieces have become “assets,” the Laphams of the world seem perhaps more critical than they ever have before.
A predilection for the written word seems to have long surged within him. At the age of 6, he made a deal with his mother: She agreed to read him Moby-Dick, but if he couldn’t keep up with the book, they would switch back to something more suited to a child of his age, such as Peter Rabbit. Outside the confines of his home, Lapham would regularly observe his grandfather, the mayor of San Francisco, living a life of public service—and doing it in a way that was uniquely his, pledging to only serve a single term so that he could call the shots as he saw fit, to the irritation of the establishment.
Lapham went off to school, intending to be an historian. But after he returned home from Yale and Oxford (where he had studied with author C.S. Lewis), his father—who had worked as a journalist before moving on to financially greener pastures as a banking and shipping executive—wasn’t thrilled about his son’s new plans. Lapham stayed true to them.
He spent the 1960s writing for Life and The Saturday Evening Post, the latter of which even sent the young journalist to India to cover The Beatles’ Transcendental Meditation studies at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. (As the only journalist permitted inside, he would later document the experience in detail in the book With the Beatles in 2005.)
Lapham then joined Harper’s in 1971 and took its helm in 1976—kicking off a rare, career-defining pairing of an editor brilliantly in sync with his publication. Leading a magazine that began in 1850, maintaining and growing its circulation and hiring the next generation of writers to follow in the footsteps of Herman Melville, Jack London, Roald Dahl, Horatio Alger, Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger is no small feat. But Lapham did so masterfully, winning a host of National Magazine Awards—the industry’s equivalent of the Academy Awards—for everything from feature writing to essays to fiction to criticism, including the top honor or General Excellence in 1983 and 2006, the year he retired from Harper’s.
After leaving Harper’s, the man who once fancied a future as an historian arguably came full circle when he founded the nonprofit Lapham’s Quarterly, a journal in which every issue carries a theme—such as music, luck, death, magic shows, celebrity, the future—and is comprised, brilliantly, of abridged historical texts, alongside contemporary prose on the subject. The result is comprehensive, stirring, often cathartic studies of massive topics. And again, his editorial oversight delivers, with pieces from the Quarterly finding homes in Best American Travel Writing, Best American Essays, Best Food Writing.
The magazine was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in 2011, and Lapham’s own writing won one in 1995, with his output being recognized for showcasing “an exhilarating point of view in an age of conformity.” And that is what Lapham has always been—in addition to, in some ways, seeming a bit like the last of his kind.
The last of the great working journalists who grew up a cub reporter charged with procuring daily bourbon from people in City Hall for the veteran journalists on the beat. The gadfly, a thinker hailing from a long line of thinkers to prod and challenge authority and the world around him with eloquence and elongated word counts. An editor living by his own rules, an unrepentant chainsmoker, puffing away with “a childish unwillingness to go along with authority, really.” A believer in his craft, and a keeper of the transcendent power of the past—as he told The Millions, it’s a cultural shame that writers don’t wield the power that they once did: “To be a writer was an important thing. There was the belief that writers could change the world. And the heroes were people like Camus, Yeats, even Auden, and Hemingway, Mailer. The notion that literature was going to come up with important answers. Solzhenitsyn—the novel as heroic. That’s an idea that comes out of the 19th century. That’s Victor Hugo in exile from the Second Empire in France. That’s what Flaubert was trying to do. Balzac was trying to do the same thing. Dickens. William Dean Howells in this country, Twain—the writer was a heroic kind of figure, or at least had that possibility.”
When he had to write about a flower show, he wrote 4,000 words. And today, that is an important thing.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
Books by Lewis H. Lapham
Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy
Money and Class in America
With the Beatles
Pretensions to Empire: Notes on the Criminal Folly of the Bush Administration