Lewis H. Lapham II ’52 is an author and essayist, and was, for nearly a quarter-century, the editor of Harper’s Magazine. His latest venture is Lapham’s Quarterly, a magazine based on the notion that an acquaintance with history teaches us lessons useful to an understanding of the present.
At Hotchkiss Lapham, an undisputable man of words, turned his childhood delight in reading into the learning how to write. In his prep year Carl Parsons taught him “how to construct a sentence, assemble a metaphor, hold the line of a thought, and compose a paragraph.” The school bookstore in those days carried the Modern Library editions of the world’s great books, and during his four years at school Lapham read through the whole of the collection in the store’s inventory. “I loved words; I enjoyed writing sentences, but I had no idea what kind of writer I might become.”
Lapham admits, “I didn’t bring the same eagerness and enthusiasm to my classroom studies because to do so would not have been seen as stylishly cool, the attitude then deemed socially correct within the student body politic. Fortunately, in my senior year I came across Charles Garside, a young graduate student at Yale on temporary assignment to the Hotchkiss English faculty. He was a brilliant teacher who made me see how much of an educational opportunity I’d missed. I entered Yale in the fall of 1952, determined to become a student of all the subjects to which I was introduced.”
Armed with the thought of becoming an historian, Lapham went to Cambridge after Yale to study medieval history, but notes, “I didn’t have the temperament for scholarship and footnotes, and I abandoned all hope of an academic career.” Back in the States in the fall of 1957, Lapham took a job in his hometown as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner. “I figured that if James Thurber and Ernest Hemingway had learned to write on newspapers, so could I.” Three years later, in 1960, Lapham returned to the east coast to work for the New York Herald Tribune, which at the time was the best of what were then nine newspapers in the city. By 1962, beginning to chafe at the limitations of daily journalism, he signed a contract to write eight pieces a year for the Saturday Evening Post. “I was assigned to travel to different parts of the world and encouraged to write articles at a length of 10,000 words. It was a glorious job during the era of what was then touted as ‘the new journalism.’”
When the Post folded before the end of the 1960s, driven out of business by the advent of television as the new instrument of mass-media communication, Lapham shifted to Harper’s Magazine and initially contracted again to write long articles on various topics of current interest. He recalls, “In 1971 the then-editor, Willie Morris, resigned in a dispute with the magazine’s owner, then the Cowles publishing conglomerate in Minneapolis; so did most of the magazine’s editorial staff. Having been in the magazine’s office only twice (to deliver a completed manuscript), I wasn’t party to the dispute.” He chose to stay with the magazine, and within a matter of days became the de facto managing editor, and eventually in 1975, the editor. “An accident, a fluke, not an intended career move.”
When the Cowles family sold the magazine in 1980 to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Lapham continued as editor during the transition but was fired soon afterward for being “disinclined to welcome President Reagan’s bright new morning in America.” Lapham comments, “I’d spent two years in exile, writing occasional pieces for other magazines and a column that ran every two weeks in the Washington Post. When I was invited to return to Harper’s Magazine as its editor in 1983, I did so on the condition that I could reconceive and redesign the magazine. For the next 23 years I wrote a monthly column, teaching myself the art of the essay.” He also published 13 books, among them Money and Class in America, The Wish for Kings: Democracy at Bay, Theater of War, and Waiting for the Barbarians.
Still loving history at the age of 72, Lapham left Harper’s in 2006 and spent a year raising money to establish Lapham’s Quarterly. “I wanted to spend the rest of my life reading great writers,” among them Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Balzac, and Benjamin Franklin. In his new venture, Lapham pours the old wine into new bottles, bringing an historical perspective to topics currently in the news—sex, death, war, politics, religion, and the rise and fall of empires. Until recently he also produced a weekly podcast for Bloomberg News, “The World in Time,” in which he spoke at length with the authors of newly published history books. The podcast soon will be shifted to the Quarterly’s website, which embraces several other new technologies, among them a contract with an online education company to produce historical content for sixth-grade public school students in all 50 states.
Lapham looks to history as both a natural resource and an applied technology, the inheritance that the poet Goethe had in mind when he said, “He who cannot draw on 3,000 years is living hand to mouth.” “If you don’t know where you’ve been,” Lapham says, “it’s hard to know who you are or where you might be going.”
Hotchkiss holds its own historical importance for Lapham. Not only did his father graduate from Hotchkiss in 1927, but also his son Winston is a member of the Class of 1999. For his many professional accomplishments, in 2001 Lapham received the School’s highest honor, the Alumni Award.
Among the writers who have both inspired and hugely influenced Lapham is Mark Twain, who not only delights Lapham but also serves as a constant companion of sorts. “Twain knows how to read his fellow human beings, which is why his writing passes the test of time, why so much of what he has to say is still relevant. I think it is because he is a man at play with the freedom of his mind.” One might say the same about Lewis Lapham.