Gabbing with Lewis Lapham circa 1999

29 Jun
Lewis Lapham (photo: TK]

Lewis Lapham (photo: TK]

Lapham Quarterly’s editor Lewis Lapham was born in San Francisco in 1935 and was educated at Yale and Cambridge Universities. After graduating college he worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and later for The New York Herald Tribune. His second stint as Harper’s editor began in 1983 where in 1995 his monthly essays won a National Magazine Award for their “exhilarating point of view in an age of conformity”. He was the host and executive editor of Bookmark, a weekly PBS literary program broadcast between 1989 and 1991 (which he still complains shouldn’t have been taken off the air). His books of essays include, The Wish for Kings, Money and Class in America, Fortune’s Child, Imperial Masquerade, Hotel America, The Agony of Mammon: The Imperial Global Economy Explains Itself To The Membership in Davos, Switzerland and Waiting for the Barbarians.

I sat down and chatted with Latham in 1999 on the occasion of the publication of Lapham’s Rules of Influence: A Careerist’s Guide to Success, Status, and Self-Congratulation. I, then as now, find Lapham’s citation from T. H. White’s Once and Future King,as Merlin offers young Prince Arthur a cure for melancholy a resonant truth:

The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then-to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never dream of regretting.

In what follows Lapham and I chat about celebrity, the state of journalism, the teaching of history, Yale University, Michael Thomas and illiterate CEOs and more.

RB: Is this book a change in strategy for you?

LL: Yes, but it’s not a deliberate change. It’s an accidental change in strategy. I had signed a contract five years ago, with Random House, to write a large book on Yale University. On what happened to Yale in the second half of the twentieth century—Henry Luce’s American Century— and use Yale as a stage in which to talk about the change in American order of values. And that was planned as a…

RB: Tome?

LL…tome. I actually went up and taught a class at Yale for a year in the English Department. I took a train every week. I’ d go up there and use it for my own purposes, to get to know the students but also to use the library and begin to do the research. And then it got so unwieldy, that I couldn’t do it and do the magazine at the same time. So I wanted to work off the contract. I wrote a column in the magazine, three or four years ago, that had some of these notions [rules of influence] in it. It had an invented professor in it as a device. Suddenly I got called up by 6o Minutes asking if they could put the professor on the show. I had to explain there wasn’t any professor. They were shocked. Three publishers also called wanting the name of the professor. So I thought what the hell, I’ll write a short book on it. I owe Random House two books to make up for the advance for the Yale [book]. They took this one and another yet to be named. So I’m going to be working off my debt for the next(laughs)…two years. So, that’s how it came up. It came up because of the response to the column and also because of my debt to the publisher.

RB: And what happens to your ‘Yale as metaphor’ book?

LL: Probably nothing. The only thing that could happen to that is…I’ll never write that tome because the scholarship is beyond me. I began to talk to people and the more I talked the more difficult and complicated it became. And I would have to stay two years in New Haven, talk to a lot more people. I’d asked to see the correspondence between [Yale] Presidents Griswald and Brewster in the sixties. And they brought me boxes. They would fill this floor. You’re up against that kind of thing. I conceivably could write a short essay, thirty thousand words. Maybe. Random House is not interested in that.

RB: They’re not interested?

LL: No, they were interested in…well I don’t know..

RB: The big book..

LL: They wanted a big book. Now, that was Harry Evans. He’s left. So, if this thing has any success. Maybe they will entertain the possibility of a thirty thousand word essay which I might be able to pull off. As long as it doesn’t pretend to too much. The tome was going to have to be large and ambitious and therefore you open yourself up to every conceivable kind of attack.

Lapham's Quarterly Collector's Set Vol. I

Lapham’s Quarterly Collector’s Set Vol. I

RB: I’m going to make some assumptions here but why would Random House think that a book on Yale would be commercially viable? That all Yale graduates would buy it? Is it possible there is a pure motive here and that a publisher simply wants to provide useful information to the world?

LL: I made the deal with Harry Evans when he was running it[Random House]. Evans is a very split character and his attitudes about the American Establishment…he comes from a mining family in Wales. He has all of the class suspicions of the Protestant elite in New York. On the other hand, he loves this country and he loves money and he loves glitz. There are contradictions in Harry. Which is one of the things that makes him a charming guy. When I first started to think about it, Beno Schmidt was then the president of Yale, and the place was in uproar. Light planes were flying over the campus towing signs saying, “Schmidt Happens.” The graduate students were on strike. The junior faculty was complaining that Schmidt was no scholar. Schmidt was trying to reduce the budget. It was a mess.

RB: He went from there to work on the Edison Project with Chris Whittle?

LL: Yeah. And he resigned. He told The New York Times before he told the trustees. Looking at it from the outside, the simple line of the story was “a once glorious bastion of Protestant morality and wealth descends into the pit of corruption and multi-culturalism…courses in pornography”. And Harry loved that plot line. He thought it would sell. Of course, the more I found out the harder it was to maintain the clarity of that line. I mean, yeah some of that is true but there are a lot of other things that are also true. When was the University any better? The more I got involved in the history of Yale…you could have said a lot of the things that are now being said , you could have said in mid nineteenth century. And there’s always the saving remnant. And the saving remnant is the students. And a few faculty guys. But that’s always the way it is. So it got more interesting but it got less polemical. Meanwhile, Harry had moved on…

RB: To his new position.

LL: (laughs)… to his new position. So, that’s in limbo. I don’t know if they would be interested in an essay on it. I could conceivably could write a book on the social history of golf. Which might satisfy them[Random House] because there is clearly a market. That’s a commercial possibility.

RB: No one’s done it?

LL: No, no one’s done it. There’s a book on golf every year. That’s probably gonna be my next book.

RB: Why have the book and magazine industries become large subject matters of their own? Why is there so much interest in the ‘inside baseball’ stuff on book and magazine publishing?

LL: I don’t know. I don’t understand it. I don’t know who the audience is, for example, for [now defunct]Brill’s Content. It would never occur to me to read that magazine. I don’t want to know. I’m willing to read The New York Observer and that’s about it. That’s like the shiny sheet, like the Gossip Gazette. It is the world of the Court. In other words, it becomes the Hall of Mirrors and they become preoccupied with themselves. And a form of self promotion. They are all like the court people, they’re insecure. Trying to make themselves more than, I think, should be made of them. It’s self absorption. And I honestly don’t know who the hell is interested in it beyond those of us that are in the racket or in the same maze. I don’t think it sells. I can understand Hollywood people selling. I mean Vanity Fair works because Graydon[Carter, editor of VF] makes sure Nicole Kidman or someone like her is in every issue or on every cover. That gives you lovely photographs…I can understand that about movie stars. But I can’t really care about Peter Jennings. Or William Safire’s love life is not one that I’m following closely. Its the emphasis on the self. It’s self absorption.

RB: Is it possible that once someone’s name appears in type and they some how move up into celebrityhood than it no longer matters what the original instance of their celebrity was? This is a farfetched example, Peter Jennings might be a celebrity to some people who don’t know who he is?

Lapham's Quarterly, Collector's Set Vol. II

Lapham’s Quarterly, Collector’s Set Vol. II

LL: Yea, its possible. He might become part of the repertory company. One of the minor divinities sitting around on Mt. Olympus with…that’s of course the premise of George magazine. (Laughs)

RB:(also laughs) Politics without the policy?

LL: Yea, politics with nothing but the celebrity part of it, nothing but the gossip part. No politics in it at all. But you may be right. You reach a certain magnitude of celebrity and it doesn’t matter any more. You are ‘Peter Jennings’. It seems to me that the media people are the seediest of the lot. I can understand it with sports figures. I can understand it with uh…Business guys keep trying to do this too. Become the great lord of creation…poor Mortimer Zuckerman is constantly hoping be anointed. He never quite makes it. I don’t understand why. He’s in print all the time and he’ll show up at any television camera….

RB: Charley Rose will have him on his show as a commentator…

LL: Charley Rose…yea, so. There was a period there when corporate CEOs were actually appearing the ads. Thy were trying to sell their tire or their house, airline…

Lapham's Quarterly, Collector's Set Vol. IV

Lapham’s Quarterly, Collector’s Set Vol. IV

RB: Remember Rula Lenska? She was the most obvious TV commercial person —I had no I idea who she was…

LL: I agree with you. I mean, “Hi, I’m whoever…” McCluhan makes the point in Understanding Media, that with the electronic medium, television, the actor takes precedence over the act. It becomes personality, it becomes celebrity. Then there is the illusion of immortality. Because you can be in four places at once. You can be in New York, but on cable in Mexico City. And some movie you’ve done your in Africa…

RB: Celebrity doesn’t take place in rea time.

LL: No. I can remember walking into a party at [George]Plimpton’s. One of Plimpton’s sixties’ parties. And it was the super model of the day, someone like Verushka. Here was Verushka in the room. And it was set up with tv cameras that were in several rooms. So I could be in the room with Verushka and I could see her on the closed circuit tv. And there was also an ad that was running had appeared. Then she had some small part in a movie and that was playing too. It isn’t real time and therefore it becomes like Mt. Olympus, the Immortals. Omnipresent. Traveling effortlessly. Because you never get a sense of how they got to Mexico City or got to the summit conference. They’re just there. Godlike. It has that kind of an element to it. So people who crave that seek that kind of limelight and the public apparently…its like the ancient Greeks, when the wood nymph or the stream or the tree was supposed to have a trace element of divinity in it. You can think of People magazine as our little woodland shrine. A small temple. Or GQ. Look at all the magazines that are now doing this. The New Yorker. GQ. Esquire. And so on. People believe that to be next to celebrity or to be next to someone of great wealth is to be, for the moment, anointed. I can remember when I worked for the Saturday Evening Post in the sixties. I was assigned to the White House press corps for about four months. With Johnson. In those days the press corps was still allowed to travel on Air Force One. There were several veteran reporters who were afraid of flying. But when they were on Air Force One they were happy because they thought that in an orderly universe that god wouldn’t strike down the president’s plane, “I am here with Zeus and therefore for the time being I am safe”. It’s the only time these guys had an anxiety free plane ride. And I’ve met people who feel the same way if they’re with a CEO whose net worth is over two hundred billion dollars.[laughs] There is some number at which god no longer dares to erase you from the sky. There is something like that about celebrity. They walk into a room and suddenly you feel like instead of being nowhere, suddenly you are somewhere because Tom Cruise is also here. Therefore this has to be real.

RB: And there is the corollary phenomenon of six degrees of separation.

LL: Yea. I can remember I went to a cocktail party when Kennedy was president. You take a girl to dinner and then maybe you end up at the girl’s apartment after dinner. She would have a box of White House matches on the bedside table. This is to improve her own…somehow you make love to the girl and you go through the golden door and you get connecetd to Kennedy. It was the same kind of…

RB: One slept with someone who might have slept with Kennedy. In one of your essays you bemoan the lack of interest in American history and the failure of schools to be able to present this American narrative. Is there a way in which current publications despite their celebrity worship are still engaged in telling the American story? That they are journalizing what is happening.

LL: I see what you mean. You mean, it’s contemporary, it’s current history. Yea, they’re telling the story. Some of them tell it better than others. Most of them don’t tell it very well. If you write a…. the celebrity profile is an extremely dull form. Because it’s so repetitious. Because you know that the celebrity is lying to the journalist and the journalist is lying…it’s a terrible..

RB: And the intercession of the publicist who has introduced any number of lies and preconditions…

LL: So you’re dealing with some totally false form that everybody in the room knows is a false form. On the other hand if you can have…if you can tell a story in the hands of a good writer who has been three months in Kosovo or is Barbara Ehrenreich…we do that , the Atlantic does that, the New Yorker does that, Rolling Stone does that and they come at you from all angles…but in the hands of a good writer on almost any subject…that does give you…it certainly gives you a current narrative. How it fits in the larger narrative—not many people do that and that’s hard to do on a deadline. But there’s good writing there, you take all the magazines together.

RB: What’s the challenge in publishing Harper’s, which has a quarter of the circulation of The New Yorker which has a eighth of the circulation of People?

LL: Your challenge is to—our circulation is 216,000—The New Yorker’s is around 700,000…

RB: 813,000…

LL: Vanity Fair is a million three, a million four. I do it for the readers. I don’t expect it to make or break elections or bring down Archer-Daniel-Midland. I started out in life wanting to be a history professor so I’m doing what you said. I’m trying to give an account of the world in which we all find ourselves. And I’m trying to do it in a way that will make…I’m doing for people who take pleasure in reading, who don’t read for data but who appreciate the uses of language. And you can do things in writing that you simply can not do in film. You can’t do it, it won’t work. I think of it as an audience, I don’t think of it as a market. There’s no product. It’s not like Road & Track. Or The American Beagle or Vogue. It presumes a literate curious and a knowledgeable reader. And that’s the person I think I’m writing for. Walker Percy wrote a piece for Harper’s magazine many year’s ago about the art of writing fiction. And he says the whole point is to tell it like it is between men and women, how it is within themselves, how it is with their relations between people, where we are now. And he thought of writing as a diagnostic—he was talking about Chekhov—so he was thinking of it in terms of [being] a doctor. It’s not therapeutic necessarily. It’s not necessarily going to cure you but it might help you find out where you are. A navigational device. I just enjoy it. I like finding good writing.

RB: Aren’t you frustrated that your observations and critiques don’t redirect or affect policy?

LL: No. If you get into that you’re lost. I come into…I’m 64. That was never in my mind when I got into writing. I had the notion that a writer or a journalist was not a policy maker. It was in order to see it and say what you saw and maybe what you think but not to direct politicians. That’s a wholly different…nobody that went into the newspaper business in the fifties—I won’t say nobody, there was Walter Lippmann, of course, pouring wisdom into the ears of kings—but for the most part when I started out at the San Franscisco Examiner in 1957, I was the only Ivy League guy in the whole building. I’d been to Yale, I’d been to Cambridge in England. We were all about telling stories. In the sixties, you began to get people from Harvard and Yale…

RB: And the era of Me journalism…

LL: Yea, that starts too. And money goes up. All of a sudden the communications industry begin to…when I first came to New York in 1960, if you wanted to think you were in the inner circle, where it was happening, you’d want to go to dinner with the chairman of U.S. Steel. Or General Motors, or Banker’s Trust Co. Five years later you’d want to go to dinner with Kate Graham or Arthur Sulzburger. So that reporters who were making $50 a week in 1955 were by 1965 were making $250.00 a week and the television guys are making three or four times that. So not only is the money moving them into the possessing class— in the fifties the point of view was the point of view of Will Rogers, the man in the bleachers. His suspicion of the ‘swells’ and the boxes[boxseats]. And nobody in the city room of the San Francisco Examiner ever thought that he or she would become a ‘swell’. Ten years later reporters are beginning to become ‘swells’. And they are showing up from Harvard and Princeton and they are bringing with them the bound volumes of the truth that they’ve been given. And they’re also having their suits tailor made and these guys start thinking about giving advice, “We know how to conduct the Viet Nam War and we know what the American people really think” and so on. I missed that, I was ten years earlier. I went into the newspaper business because I wanted to become a novelist. Because it was romantic…I was thinking of John O’Hara, the young Ernest Hemingway or even the young James Thurber…of all of the novelists who had started as reporters. I also was in it to learn. I had had a protected education… I didn’t really know how a city worked or where the water came from or how the lights went on or how you got bill through the city council or what a dead body looked like. It was a graduate school for me, also. But was there to learn and I’m still there to learn. When I write a column every month I know where I start it…I never know how it’s going to end. I’m educating myself in public and I learn from the writers. In a little way it’s like children because…the young ones, the old one’s— if they keep up their curiosity—the best way to cure your depression is to learn something. So the writers if they’re god are teaching you something—they’re themselves something, they’re teaching you something as your children will do. You learn more from them than they do from you. I promise you. Another cliche, but a golden one. It’s a little like that when you’re editing a magazine.

RB: You regularly make reference to Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Menken. And you are associated with that style of iconoclasm. Are there writers today who have that kind of attitude and social critique?

LL: There’s [Christopher] Hitchens. I’m an admirer of his. Others may not be , but I am. I admire him because he is fearless. And he writes well. I forgive anybody who writes well. Kurt Anderson writes some good things for The New Yorker. There not many…Hitchens comes right to mind.

RB: Michael Thomas [The New York Observer]?

LL: Michael Thomas. If only Michael Thomas would listen to me. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve tried to get Michael to write a piece for Harper’s magazine. Michael was my brother’s roommate at college. I think he is an enormously talented guy. I think Ron Rosenbaum is an enormously talented guy too. When he is talking about things he knows about…Shakespeare, Nabokov,theater…I didn’t read his book on Hitler so I don’t know. But Thomas…

RB: Am I confused, is there a Roger and a Ron?

LL: Oh no you’re thinking of Roger Rosenblatt who’s a horror. He’s the PBS guy. No, Ron’s at the Observer. If you want to really understand how to do a cliche read aloud the essays of Roger Rosenblatt. He’s the essayist on Lehrer or one of them…

RB: Let’s get back to Michael Thomas.

LL: Alright, Michael Thomas has great wit and is very fluent but he won’t get off attacking the same four rich Jews in East Hampton. He get’s started on a column and somehow he has to stab…

RB: Ron Perleman, Mort Zuckerman….

LL: And Kravits. Cramer. There’s a whole row of these guys.

RB:L When he not trashing Charley Rose and Barbara Walters, which he does really well….

LL: …he does really well. I’ve tried to commission him two or three times. There was an art show in Soho, the Hugo Boss show. Hugo Boss now thinks he’s an art collector. Right. And it was the worst possible modern art. And Michael really knows about painting. He was a young curator at the Met and he taught art history right after he graduated from Yale, at Yale. I said, ”Michael you’re always complaining about modern art. Go see the Hugo Boss show. Start there.” He had interesting idea about the infantilization of the culture. He had a large idea that everything has been made baby-soft and risk-adverse, the writing as well. He started the piece with three pages of driving to NY past the houses of Cramer, Kravits, all of the them. He stabbed all of them before he got into town. I said, Michael can we please cut the drive?” He wouldn’t do it…. Yes, he does have that edge.

RB: Anyone else?

LL: David Foster Wallace. Nick Von Hoffman? I don’t think Tom Wolfe has it. Somehow he never quite draws blood. Everybody gets off the hook at the end. He always on stage. You see this edge show up in the novels of Charles Portis. The dialogue of Elmore Leonard. [Carl]Hiassen can do it too. You start thinking about and you can come up with ten or twenty names. They’ re all working in different venues…

RB: Harper’s has corporate sponsors. Do you think that anyone at your corporate sponsors—from the marketing department to the CEO— reads your essays?

LL: No. I doubt it.

RB: So why do they support Harper’s magazine?

LL: We have a good salesman. Peter Kendall. There’s a way of selling it as a thought leader magazine… I wouldn’t expect the CEO types to read it. I know a number of CEO types, I see them…

RB: You’ve been to Davos..

LL: I don’t go to dinner with them. But I play golf. And nobody has ever mentioned anything about what I’ve written. Ever. They think it’s kind of curious and quaint that I’m the editor of Harper’s. No idea what’s in it. If I write a book on golf maybe they’ll talk to me. It is[Harper’s] addressed to people who read and a lot of those people don’t read. I can remember being impressed by that in the 70’s, as a member of the Council on Foreign relations. And I listened to Henry Kissinger one night. Talk about the Fashoda affair, Bismarck, and Metternich. He gave one of these seminars to a group of fifty very important corporate executives. And they listened to him with their mouths open. What Kissinger was doing was a kind of high table conversation you would have at Cambridge or Harvard. Perfectly routine bullshit. None of it held water. But it sounded great. And he has the accent. But it went down like chocolate ice cream. Because these people—at least in that group—didn’t know anything. They weren’t readers of history, they were so preoccupied with running their [business] affairs.

RB: In Waiting For the Barbarians, one of your essays makes mention of Governor Morris in revolutionary Paris saving himself from a frenzied crowd by waving his wooden leg as proof of his fighting for liberty. He, of course, hadn’t. But it’s a very amusing story that makes that era more real or human…The stories in history are every bit as vivid and funny and entertaining as prime time t.v. or trashy novel. Why hasn’t that message gotten across?

LL: We don’t teach it properly.[Benjamin] Franklin would fuck anything that moved. You could not leave a chambermaid in a room with that guy. Washington took a shine to a girl at a dance at Newport. The war was on. He was working his way slowly from Massachusetts back toward Long Island and eventually New Jersey and Valley Forge. The woman happened to be to married General Nathaniel Greene. At nine o’clock at night, by candle light Washington suddenly assigned Greene to an urgent message. The general was suddenly called away. These people drank…but we don’t teach it that way.

RB: Why the imperative to sterilize our history? Those who taught the teachers of history didn’t think it dull. The teachers don’t think it dull. How does it end up being dull and uninteresting.

LL: I don’t know. Part of it is because of the standardization of the texts. As recently as fifteen years ago if you wanted to teach 6th grade history in California you would have had a choice of possibly 16 texts. Today it’s down to four. The text books are geared to California and Texas, because they buy for the whole state …intellectually we want to present history as a science rather than an art…as a series of facts rather than as an always changing story. It’s the scientific approach to the humanities. With history, in the earlier grades, if you told stories you might offend someone. What do you mean George Washington drank too much? What do you mean 20% of the population of New York in 1773 were slaves? These people were being followed around by little black guys. That doesn’t show up. They don’t have time. They have to get through it in 13 weeks. I can remember my history teacher explaining the Battle of Cannae, where Hannibal triumphed over the Romans. He drew it on the blackboard and he took a week to explain. Today, they don’t have time…and what difference does it make anyway. So the story drains out of it…

Currently reading The Dog Killer of Utica by Frank Lentricchia (Melville House)

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