Lewis and Snark

Lapham’s new journal: an embarrassment of riches…or just an embarrassment?

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.”

Indeed. Lapham has cultivated enough of a reputation in his years as a public intellectual (or, if you prefer, public bloviator)—in his rage against the Iraq war, in his intellectual/cultural elitism, in his verbal dexterity (or, if you prefer, pomposity)—that he has become, at this point, predictable. So much so that, apparently, you don’t even have to read his journal to know exactly what it’s about. (Mari’s assessment was also, she admits, written pre-read.) It’s an understandable assumption: Lapham’s editorials throughout his years at Harper’s—most notoriously “Tentacles of Rage,” the vitriolic tirade against American conservatism that appeared in the September 2004 issue and raised questions about not only Lapham’s rhetorical ability, but his journalistic integrity—have belied Lapham’s belief that history is on his side. And with Lapham’s Quarterly, that belief has become his brand. One of Lapham’s most significant editorial decisions—one of questionable wisdom, it turns out—was to name his new journal after himself. This isn’t history for history’s sake, the journal’s own title concedes; this is history with an agenda. And that agenda, of course, is Lapham’s. And Lapham’s agenda, as The Walrus’s Ken Alexander had it, is specifically to “search the historical record for truths that will inspire the American empire to be less sure of itself.”

Take one of the most striking historical texts republished in the “States of War” issue, a proclamation to the people of Baghdad:

Our military operations have as their object the defeat of the enemy, and the driving of him from these territories….Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies but as liberators.

The kicker? The text was issued in 1917 by the commander-in-chief of British forces in Mesopotamia. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and all that.

The entire journal is predicated on this kind of conceit-laden Epic Irony: the failure of the Now in light of the Then. And vice versa. Puckish even in pomposity, Lapham brings a lord-what-fools-these-mortals-be sense of censure to the Quarterly’s history; smugness seeps through its pages. The inaugural issue, indeed, is less about the history of wars themselves and more, through Lapham’s curatorial posturing, about the (ironic) history of humans’ (ironic) inability to keep from fighting them. (Where, oh where, is Alanis Morissette when you need her?)

And while you can argue that there’s never a bad time to remind ourselves of war’s folly (“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought,” Lapham quotes Einstein in the issue, “but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones”), there’s still a fine line between appreciating history and fetishizing it—one that Lapham is always on the verge of crossing. The history here, for all its supposed spunk, has the musty air of a textualized museum; and, like most museums, its content is often more interesting than revelatory. (We don’t need to summon The Collected Wisdom of the Ages, after all, to be convinced of man’s inhumanity to man. We need only read newspapers.) As history, Lapham’s Quarterly is little more than a textbook—a slick and spiffy one, to be sure, but a textbook nonetheless. It’s stuffy, in every sense of the word.

Where the Quarterly shines, however, is in its capacity as a work of journalism. In blending journalistic genres—one part magazine-of-ideas, one part niche journal, one part historical textbook—Lapham’s Quarterly is extending the bounds of what contemporary journalism can look like. Lapham is challenging the anti-intellectualism that the rise of to-the-minute, rapid-fire journalism has both engendered and exacerbated—one that has turned the word “academic” into, often, an insult—and extending a (perfectly manicured) middle finger toward this current of the modern media business. As Lapham told The Boston Globe:

One of the problems with contemporary media is it’s without context. In the eternal now of twenty-four-seven, there is no past and no future. The news comes in short phrases or paragraphs, and it’s without the backstory. Without that, how can you write the front story?

Lapham is using journalism to challenge an illusion that history, as Ken Alexander wrote, has already defeated:

The ignorant, dangerous, and useless conceit that everything has not already happened; that it has not already been said, written, and experienced; and that there is little to be learned by rooting around in the archaeology of mind and matter.

Whatever else might be said about Lapham’s Quarterly, that fight alone—that challenge to complacency born of arrogance—makes the publication worthwhile. Because, as Mark Twain once wrote, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

I read that in the Quarterly.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.