Quintessential man of letters Lewis Lapham still believes it's all about the writing

Tall and robust at 79, Lewis H. Lapham has been a bold-faced type of New Yorker since the days of handset linotype. Arriving in Manhattan from his hometown of San Francisco, where he was ushered into the hardboiled world of daily journalism at the San Francisco Examiner, he joined the New York Herald Tribune in 1960. After two years there, he was a founding editor of USA-1, a monthly news magazine, “and a magnificent one,” he adds. Later, Lapham was a contract writer for the Saturday Evening Post until that reigning magazine’s demise, and then to Life, where he traveled the world again under contract as a writer. But you more likely associate him with Harper’s magazine, where he was the managing editor from 1971-1975, editor from 1975-1981 and, after a busy inter-regnum of writing for the Washington Post and other places, was again editor from 1983-2006.

"Serious writing is an increasingly rare and precious commodity, but the love of words, the love of literature is not necessarily for the mass market."

To the manor born in 1935, Lapham’s great-grandfather was a founder of Texaco. His grandfather was a mayor of San Francisco, whose Time magazine cover (May 29, 1944) is framed and displayed in Lapham’s office. Lewis’ parents sent him East for school, first at Hotchkiss, then at Yale. He has since spent his life savoring words, ideas, histories, and stories as a writer and an editor.

We meet at his office at Lapham’s Quarterly, the rich, thematic journal he created in 2008, which shares a floor of a downtown office building with The Nation. Wearing a pinstriped suit and an oversized pair of glasses, his eyes frequently flicker to his overstuffed bookcases, much as a benevolent kindergarten teacher oversees her slightly energetic students—they don’t need her all the time, but it’s important to keep watch. A jar of Parliament cigarettes sits on a shelf, and an artful version of a blue and white Parliament pack, which says “Lapham” in the brand’s logotype, is framed on the wall. In his office, he is newly converted to the electronic cigarette. “It’s really not too bad,” he says, exhaling, though he still smokes Parliaments—if fewer than before—outside.

His small and young staff of editors is present, all under the age of 31, ”which I did on purpose,” he says. “I hire young people because I can learn from them as much as they can learn from me. It’s a two-way street, education.” This is the staff that tweets, blogs and uses Tumblr, maintaining a healthy presence for Lapham’s Quarterly in social media—more than 23,000 followers on Twitter as of this writing. Staying active and surrounding himself with much younger people appears to be a tonic for Lapham. He has participated in The Moth story evenings, produced and hosted two documentaries (“America’s Ruling Class” made in the late 1990s still sells, he remarks), and has been hosting a weekly podcast called “The World in Time” for Bloomberg for five years, featuring interviews with historians and scholars. All in all, one is presented with a modern, up-to-the-moment approach which allows for quick digestibles of arcana and wit, history and apercus excised from their original homes in old texts. (In the current issue, dedicated to Animals, the writers range from Tolstoy and J.K. Ackerley to Burkhard Bulger. Actress Alison Pill is the voice of this issue’s podcast.)  

He comes to the office of Lapham’s Quarterly every day. And he is still married to his original wife, with whom he has three grown children.

Lewis H. Lapham

Lewis reading at his desk.

Lewis H. Lapham

Lewis at his desk, holding a copy of The Intoxication Issue (Winter 2013) of Lapham’s Quarterly.

Lewis H. Lapham

Books stacked up on a desk in Lewis’s office at Lapham’s Quarterly.

Lewis H. Lapham

Lewis in his office, electronic cigarette in hand.

We talk about the survival of good writing in an era of short attention spans, defunct magazines and tweets. Lapham doesn’t seem too worried. “Serious writing is an increasingly rare and precious commodity, but the love of words, the love of literature is not necessarily for the mass market,” he says. “I don’t think the answer is in the form, it’s in the writer—the he or she, and whatever form the he or she can find. I don’t care what form it is if the writing’s good.” He is particularly excited about the biography he is reading of John Hay—secretary to both presidents Lincoln and McKinley (and present at both assassinations), and Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

Today’s particular brand of memoir—someone has a secret that he or she suddenly wants to exploit—is of no import to Lapham. “Donald Trump could write a memoir; I’m sure he’s written two. I don’t care.” He’s laughing. “It would never be something I would be interested in. The ‘as-told-to’ political biographies? I’m never interested in those either. I wouldn’t be interested in a Kim Kardashian memoir.” Another chuckle. “I would be interested in someone like Edna O’Brien or James Salter.” I see a small reverie. “Then it’s a joy to behold.”

With a husky voice that still betrays the countless packs of tobacco cigarettes he’s smoked since 1952, he takes a puff of his electronic cigarette and says, “I’ve thought all writing is seductive. You try and seduce the reader into continuing to turn the page. So first sentences in novels, or first scenes…how does it open, that’s always been a problem. Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V—‘O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend /The brightest heaven of invention,’” he intones dramatically. “It’s like that. I think anybody writing is telling a story—so you want to seduce your audience. You’re an entertainer.” 

"Donald Trump could write a memoir; I’m sure he’s written two. I don’t care."

And on the subject of entertainment, Lapham is looking forward to the Quarterly’s second annual Decades Ball, held on June 3rd at Capitale. The theme, as if for an edition of the magazine, is the 1950s, and like a copy of the Quarterly, reflects an interest in culture both high and low. Tony Kushner will read William Faulkner, Tom Hanks and Patricia Clarkson will tackle some Alfred Hitchcock and Martha Plimpton and Jesse Tyler Ferguson will perform a script from “The Honeymooners.” Last year’s gala was devoted to the 1920s, and featured flappers, Ann Hathaway reading from Dorothy Parker, Benjamin Walker reading Hemingway and goody bags of Hendrick’s Gin and Sinclair Lewis’ books. “The gala is very entertaining,” he says drily. “I tend to like everyone in the room.”

Entertaining though it may be, the Decades Balls is still a fundraiser, and an important one at that. “The Quarterly is a six-year-old foundation. We get the publication into schools and libraries. I believe in it, and I don’t mind asking people for money.” The very first issue of LQ was devoted to “States of War” in the winter of 2008. With the Summer 2013 edition “The Sea,” the Quarterly has 21,000 paid subscribers, plus another 10,000 individual copies sold at bookstores—quite a success story in the age of attrition. 

It’s time to go. Lewis Lapham regards his books again, and recommends a novel he thinks I’d like, Empire by Gore Vidal. He finds three other paperback novels by Vidal, whom he favors over John Updike as a stylist who weaves cultural history in with his storytelling. If he hadn’t already loaned it out, he says, he would have offered his copy to me. But, still, he wants me to read it. “You can get it at Barnes & Noble.”