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Life After Lapham

The chronicler of the American twilight is going into semi-retirement. Will Harper’s magazine become less of a lefty echo chamber?


Rick MacArthur, Roger Hodge, and Lewis Lapham.  

Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s, is very old-school. He wears a beautiful dark suit and a necktie tight around his buttoned collar. He not only still smokes (Parliaments, the recherché brand of Bond girls), he smokes in his office. He was educated at Hotchkiss and Yale and Cambridge. His manner, personal as well as literary, is Gore Vidalian, a patrician alloy of faint amusement and grand disappointment. He runs a 155-year-old, self-consciously old-fashioned magazine that’s all about plain text, not packaging or pictures. The frothiest magazine he reads regularly is The New Yorker. He reads nothing at all online.

“I don’t have a computer. I may have to get one.”

Why now? Lapham turns 71 next month.

“Maybe I don’t,” he says, seeming suddenly relieved. “But there may be an interim period where I am without secretarial services.”

These days, a decade is a long time to be editor of one magazine, and Lapham has been editor-in-chief at Harper’s for 28 of the last 30 years. But now he is handing the job to his deputy, a man whose byline—Roger Hodge—I once assumed to be a twee Canterbury Tales pseudonym. It turns out Hodge is not only real but intelligent and thoughtful. He grew up on his family’s ranch in Texas and started at Harper’s as an intern at 29, in 1996.

Hours before the succession was announced last week, Lapham left the country. He wanted to be in Amsterdam for the European premiere of The American Ruling Class, a satirical quasi-documentary he wrote and in which he stars (along with James Baker III, Walter Cronkite, and Arthur Sulzberger Jr.). The Europeans must like him, I remark. “They do. They call me le prince rouge.”

He says he “never intended to become an editor.” He’s been a pretty good one, though, sometimes great. He mentions a few writers he discovered—Fareed Zakaria, Annie Dillard—but neglects to brag about all the future editors-in-chief he trained or the pieces he’s run (by Tom Wolfe, David Foster Wallace, Barbara Ehrenreich) that became celebrated books.

“The Harper’s Index”—the wittily reductive stack of quantitative facts—was his great idea. “Readings,” the section of short excerpts and found texts, is consistently smart. And Harper’s still publishes excellent longer pieces, such as Cynthia Gorney’s well-reported, unusually clear-eyed deconstruction last year of the medicine and politics of late-term abortion. It’s often a good magazine; it just hasn’t been a “hot” magazine for a long time. Its bigger glossy-intellectual rivals, The New Yorker and The Atlantic, have managed to achieve moments of heat during the last decade, in part by getting youngish new editors-in-chief.

And also, maybe, because they’ve seemed less single-mindedly partisan and smug. In fact, most of Harper’s is not fusty and Euro-lefty, Lapham’s “Notebook” column notwithstanding. But because his 2,500-word essays lead each issue, they tend to color one’s sense of the whole magazine. And they all amount to pretty much the same contemptuous, Olympian jeremiad: The powers-that-be are craven and monstrous, American culture is vulgar and depraved, the U.S. is like imperial Rome, our democracy is dying or dead. All of which is arguably true. But, jeez, sometime tell me something I didn’t know, show a shred of uncertainty and maybe some struggle to suss out fresh truth. “Everything I’ve written,” he says, “is a chronicle of the twilight of the American idea.” He seems so committed to the decline-and-fall critique, and so supremely uninterested in the novelties and nuances of everyday life and culture, it’s hard to take his gloom altogether seriously.

Back in the seventies and eighties, as Jack Shafer has noted in Slate, Lapham did publish right-wingers like Norman Podhoretz and James Q. Wilson. But these days, his magazine almost never runs features with which liberals would disagree. If Harper’s has evolved, it has narrowed.

“That’s what’s happened to American journalism in general,” Lapham says. “In the seventies, I thought a lot of the right’s criticism of the doctrinaire liberal positions of the sixties was acute and witty. After they came to power in the middle eighties,” however, “they didn’t want to talk to anybody but themselves. The media broke up into audiences on whom they can rely.”

Exactly. Public discourse now takes place in echo chambers, each side preaching to its own choir. And that’s bad, isn’t it?

“Yeah, that is bad,” he says. “Most obviously so in the success of Fox News.” His answer suggests that he doesn’t really regret ideological balkanization as much as the associated rise of the right-wing media.

I ask if he’s heartened by the lifting of the post-9/11 chill on debate and dissent. “It’s heartening to me,” he says, “when I see Frank Rich or [Paul] Krugman write about this gang. The question is, will it lead to political change? We still have Time putting Ann Coulter on the cover.”

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