Friday, August 07, 2009


Lewis H. Lapham (born January 8, 1935) was the editor of the American monthly Harper's Magazine from 1976 until 1981, and from 1983 until 2006. Since formally leaving that post, he has founded a publication about history and literature entitled Lapham's Quarterly, which continues to appear as a stand-alone enterprise.

While he was still running Harper’s, Lapham committed a notorious gaffe that has given rise to a new noun, Laphamization. Claiming to have attended the Republican National Convention in New York City, he included the following paragraph in his regular column in the magazine, for the issue bearing the date of September 2004:

“The speeches in Madison Square Garden affirmed the great truths now routinely preached from the pulpits of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal--government the problem, not the solution; the social contract a dead letter; the free market the answer to every maiden's prayer--and while listening to the hollow rattle of the rhetorical brass and tin, I remembered the question that [Richard] Hofstadter didn't stay to answer. How did a set of ideas both archaic and bizarre make its way into the center ring of the American political circus?”

This is the gist of his critique responding to the speeches at the Republican Convention--except that it was written and published before the Convention occurred. Unluckily for the overconfident pundit-editor, that particular issue of his magazine came out a little early, before any of the speeches had been delivered. Of course Lapham could probably assume that he would dislike the GOP speeches as they were being made. Still, as one commentator pointed out, “reviewing concerts you haven't attended, books you haven't read and movies you've never seen is right out of Unethical Journalism 101, and publishing the review of a speech before the speech is made is a sure way to flunk the course.”

Not surprisingly, Lapham’s deception attracted quite a bit of attention, and he apologized, or seemed to do so:

“… the rhetorical invention was silly. The mistake, however, is a serious one, and if I'd had my wits about me as an editor, I wouldn't have let the author mix up his tenses in manuscript or allowed him in page proof to lapse into poetic license. Both of us regret the injury done to the magazine and apologize, wholeheartedly, to its readers.”

OK, then. Well, I am afraid not, because of the nonsense about “a rhetorical device.” His piece was in a magazine dated September, and would reach most readers after the Convention was over--or so he thought. Is he saying that the phony commentary on the speeches he hadn’t heard (because they hadn’t occurred when he wrote about them) was never intended to imply that he had heard them? This really won’t do.

In his commentaries in Harper’s and elsewhere Lapham has consistently adhered to the left-liberal side of the spectrum. I would have no problem with this orientation, except for his self-righteousness and arrogant sense of entitlement.

A son of Lewis A. Lapham and his wife, the former Jane Foster, Lapham was born and grew up in San Francisco. His grandfather Roger Lapham was mayor of San Francisco, and his great grandfather Lewis P. Lapham was a founder of Texaco. He was educated at the Hotchkiss School, Yale University, where he joined the literary society St. Anthony Hall, and Magdalene College, Cambridge.

In 1972, Lapham married Joan Brooke Reeves, the daughter of Edward J. Reeves, a stockbroker and grocery heir, and his wife, the former Elizabeth M. Brooke (formerly the wife of Thomas Wilton Phipps, a nephew of Nancy Astor). Of their three children, one, Delphina, married an Italian prince; another, Andrew, married Caroline Mulroney, a daughter of former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

His background has lent a sense of entitlement and privilege, which he wears like a suit of armor. Hence his insufferable self-righteousness.

While bolstering his outsized ego, Lewis Lapham's family background and connections nonetheless did not suffice to maintain him in the style he deemed appropriate. In fact, no great family fortune has passed down to him, sadly enough. Referring to his perch at Harper’s he remarked, “I lived off this gig.” In 1997 his annual compensation from the magazine was $246,000; in 2004, $315,000

Lapham’s book “Pretensions to Empire” is a typical scissors-and-paste job, recycling old columns. According to Publishers’ Weekly “this book is a lament for the state of our society and a bitter condemnation of the Republican hold on power and the machinations with which that grip has been cultivated and sustained. Lapham's dense and self-assured style is rivaled only by that of William F. Buckley Jr. in delivering a whopping dose of sanctimony and affectation with each paragraph. Though more erudite than Ann Coulter or Bill O'Reilly, Lapham's essays are similarly bereft of a sustained line of argument. He also shares their irredeemably dark view of human nature, or at least of Americans, who we learn are ‘[w]arfaring people, unique in our gift for violence... killing anyone and anything.’ Above all, he seems to enjoy nothing more than to display his boundless contempt for all those who are not him.”

I would add a further comparison with an overrated scribbler, that mountebank Gore Vidal, whose political views more directly track those of his "patrician" companion in literary excess.

Lewis Lapham’s gaffe of 2004 has given rise to a new term, "Laphamization," defined by the online Urban Dictionary as “giving a dramatic eyewitness report of an event that hasn't happened yet. Laphamizers get busted either when the event goes down differently than reported or the article goes to print before the event happens. [The term is n]amed after notorious journalistic fabulist -- or talented psychic -- Lewis Lapham.”

Another observer has concluded that Lapham has perfected time travel. How else could he get to an event in the future, and then return to report on it? This being the case, Lapham need have no further financial worries: a quick trip to an upcoming horserace, then back to place a lucrative bet. Repeat as often as desired.

To be sure, there have been many examples of Laphamization before L.H.L. One instance I recall is when a noted Ezra Pound scholar gave an account of the poet’s funeral in Venice that read as if he had attended it, which he had not. There have been several cases where a music reviewer turned in a review of a concert, only to find the next day that the soloist had canceled because of illness.

Possibly there are degrees of Laphamization. Most would agree that the term is fully appropriate when someone publishes a full-scale review of a book he or she has not read. Still, in preparation for a review it is surely permissible to skip over dull or repetitive parts so as to focus on the actual argument of the work.

At all events, the term Laphamization is here to stay. It will last as the permanent marker of an arrogant, pretentious windbag.