In Praise of Lewis Lapham

The venerable editor of Harper’s magazine, Lewis Lapham, recently announced his semi-retirement. The most alarming consequence of this decision is that he plans on writing his monthly “Notebook” essay only six times a year. This is like saying you will henceforth be limited to every other breath of air. Lapham’s essays aren’t merely good reading. They’re necessary. I fear that without his mordantly incisive commentary on the state of our republic, things will somehow get worse than they are.

Lapham is a furious writer. He’s not merely piqued or vexed or annoyed. He’s furious. This is not to say he’s a grouchy and irascible old ogre who’s angry at the usual fodder for second-rate stand-up comedy: checkout cashiers and meter maids and anyone else who crosses him. Lapham is incensed at the con-men, thieves, bullies, mendicants, and hypocrites that run — and are ruining — our great country. He believes in democracy. He believes in liberty. He believes in America. And he’s profoundly offended at what has and is happening to a nation undergoing history’s greatest political experiment. Other political writers share Lapham’s rhetorical grace — Hendrik Hertzberg at The New Yorker can be counted on to deliver beautifully wrought indictments of our leadership’s wrong-headedness — but no one, it seems, has the reservoirs of passion that Lapham draws upon in his monthly dissections of the powerful and the corrupt.

Some smart people I know find Lapham’s writing too dense, too clogged with subordinate clauses, to be enjoyed easily. I think his writing is beautiful; it’s complex and challenging, laden with metaphors and historical references, and each paragraph unfolds like a miniature novel, climaxing with a sense of QED that leaves the reader laughing or crying. He’s our century’s Mark Twain, only better educated.

I’ll miss Lapham’s monthly rages against venality and myopia. But like a lover’s kiss that’s been withheld by a lengthy absence, I expect each of his semi-monthly missives will read even sweeter.

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