The first issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, Lewis Lapham’s new journal of history, features, on its back cover, a list of some of the issue’s contributors:
Thucydides - William Shakespeare - Queen Elizabeth I - Eugene Sledge - Sun Tzu - Voltaire - Walt Whitman - Saint Augustine - George Orwell - Homer - General George Patton - Leo Tolstoy - Abraham Lincoln - Julia Ward Howe - Joseph Goebbels - Mark Twain.
Go ahead and take a moment to widen your eyes at the arresting grandeur of it all. Or to, you know, roll them.
Regardless, those names only scratch the surface. Through 223 pages of historical texts, paintings, fiction, Erudition, charts, maps, photographs, Pomp, poems, diaries, song lyrics, and Collected Wisdom in Various Forms, the journal enlists, it declares, “the council of the dead.” As Lapham, the Harper’s editor emeritus, writes in the Quarterly’s “Preamble” (pause for another moment of eye-widening/-rolling), which he’s titled “The Gulf of Time” (pause), and which begins with a quote from Goethe (pause), the journal aims “to bring at least some of the voices of the past up to the microphone of the present”—and in so doing to counteract “the blessed states of amnesia” of a culture that worships at the altar of Newness.
Each of the Quarterly’s issues will be organized around a theme, and Lapham’s inaugural effort explores, fittingly, “war.” (“Heraclitus named war ‘the father of all things,’ and so it is with the first issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.”) The issue packages war wisdom from historical figures both famous (Winston Churchill, Joseph Heller) and infamous (Hitler, Osama bin Laden)—and punctuates it with four essays that explore the connection between the history the journal presents and present history. The package, to be sure, is not without its faults, many of them originating from the storied editor himself: Lapham’s preferred color for his prose is purple. He puts the “amble” in “Preamble.” And let’s not get started on the Quarterly’s motto—“finding the present in the past, the past in the present”—which is suited to a History Channel billboard, perhaps, but not to this.
Still, you have to admire the gumption of a guy who takes on the task of editing Herodotus and Tecumseh and Jessica Lynch and Pope Urban II and Kurt Vonnegut and Homer and Woodrow Wilson into a coherent, if not entirely cohesive, narrative. “This is really my finest masthead,” Lapham has said of the Quarterly. And—apologies to the Harper’s staff throughout the nearly thirty years of Lapham’s stewardship—it’s hard to disagree.
But it’s easy to dismiss the Quarterly overall as, among other things, pretentious, conceptually flimsy, and soporific. Dubbing the magazine “the new Ambien,” Gawker noted that the Quarterly “should have the billion-dollar sleep-aid industry soiling its collected trousers.” The New Republic’s Francesca Mari put it slightly more kindly, calling it “a magazine for the type of person who can’t write an email without an epigraph.” Slate’s Timothy Noah put it, well, less kindly: “None but a pompous bore would seem qualified to subscribe.”
It’s questionable, though, the extent to which these generally dismissive reviews reflect the magazine itself, as opposed to its editor—one, for better or for worse, whose propensity for polarizing puts Bill O’Reilly’s to shame. Lapham’s may be a deliberate (and more defensible) divisiveness, born less of an incurious conviction in his own worldview than of a steady, studied confidence in his own intellectual habits; still, though, most would call him either “genius” or “atrocious,” period. Noah, for example, reviews Lapham’s Quarterly not by, you know, analyzing it, but by mocking its editor’s penchant for pomposity. On the other side, here’s (the Laphamphilic) Jeff Bercovici: “Lapham’s Quarterly will change the way you think about thinking,” he wrote in Portfolio’s Mixed Media blog. The next line? “Mind you, I haven’t actually read it.”