Lewis Lapham: His new journal is dedicated to providing historical perspectives that align perfectly with his own





In Philip Roth's latest book, Exit Ghost, Amy Bellette has to be hauled out of the New York Public Library kicking and screaming. Her lover, the fictional writer E.I. Lonoff, isn't represented among a display of America's best authors, and Bellette is furious--not only at his absence, but also at the authors included instead. More than anything, Bellette is enraged by the cost of political correctness. "It started with the colleges," she later says, "and now it's everywhere. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison, but not Faulkner."

This complaint is shared by Lewis Lapham, the legendary former editor of Harper's. In 2006, Lapham carped to a newspaper interviewer that in American universities, if a text doesn't reach "a politically correct standard on one or more of [the issues of race, gender, or class], it doesn't exist." But the social forces causing the degradation of literature to social commentary don't stop there. They extend from the news Americans receive to the government's selective disclosure of information. And there, the consequences are cause for alarm. "The people selling the great research on the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq certainly did not tell the truth," Lapham said. "It's advertising. ... That's the result of the politicization of research."

Lapham's zeal to combat the creeping debasement of truth in the culture, combined with his passion for history, drove him to leave Harper's after nearly thirty years and found Lapham's Quarterly. The Quarterly is billed as a historical journal and looks something like The Paris Review. Each issue, Lapham chooses a single theme--it premiered with "war" in November, "money" follows in March, and "nature" is slotted for the summer--and assembles a set of relevant texts. The material is wonderfully eclectic: Not just the stuff of history books, but pop-culture lists, CIA assassination manuals, and vintage memorandums proposing, for instance, a way to demoralize the Cuban people by spreading unflattering photos of an overweight Fidel Castro. This scrapbook of "literary narrative and philosophical commentary, diaries, speeches, letters, and proclamations" as Lapham describes it in his preamble, is essentially a 172-page expansion of the Harper's Readings section, itself a Lapham innovation from the start of his second term as editor in 1984. There's also some new content: four essays in the back by contemporary historians, each about 2,000 to 3,000 words long. But for all those essays, the journal's clearest message is this: Its editor's interest, and his genius, lies not in editing, but in curating.

Lapham seeks to provide readers with a more complete portrait of current events by using historical documents to reveal how we got here. The issue dedicated to war, and more specifically to the abhorrent (in Lapham's view) war in Iraq, presents excerpts including Henry V heroically landing on the beaches of Normandy, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and an excerpt from the Bhagavad-Gita about the "sacred duty of a warrior." Lapham wants both to offer literature on its own terms and to stimulate the reader's own thoughts. But he does this with the supreme confidence that after reviewing the texts, a reader will come to his same conclusions. Lapham might detest the use of literature for social commentary, but in Lapham's Quarterly he practices just that, in its most developed form--disguised in the words of others....

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