Our Pasts, Ourselves


Lewis Lapham is the editor of Lapham's Quarterly, which he founded after ending a decades-long stint as editor of Harper's in 2006. The glossy magazine mixes new essays with historical works, focusing on Western history and culture. reason.com Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie spoke with Lapham in January. Watch video of this interview at reason.com.

Q: What's your aim in curating things from the past?

A: To know our past is to discover our self. 

Q: Do you feel that that's more urgent now?

A: Yes.

Q: Is this always a constant? Because you are quite curmudgeonly. You lament Google for inadvertent censorship in the way search engine optimization buries good stuff with dross. You've said that "Facebook has many of the properties of the Holy Inquisition…the [Soviet secret police] NKVD and the Gestapo were content aggregators." But you too are a content aggregator. So how are you performing a different function than Facebook?

A: I'm trying to open doors to readers of all kinds. I'm trying to make available a resource. I'm not trying to data-mine it to sell something. Television is advertising, and increasingly advertising gets onto the Internet. It's a pitch. I'm not making a pitch. I'm saying here's something you can learn from. See how beautiful this is. 

Q: Television or video entertainment has changed where now people strip out the ads. One of the things that's interesting is streaming video with HBO. It's always a commodity. But commodities, including Lapham's Quarterly, aren't a bad thing, right? 

A: No.

Q: You brought a historical perspective to Harper's as well as Lapham's. Is this just the latest turn of being a Cassandra, that things are just getting worse and worse in America? Or have we actually reached a point where we're no longer capable or historical self-examination? Are you worried that we're going downhill?

A: No. Well, downhill. I don't know about downhill.

Q: I mean intellectually, economically, socially.

A: I don't think so. You have Henry Ford saying history is for the most part bunk. You have Richard Hofstadter writing in the '50s on the anti-intellectual tradition in America. You have the Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s. It shows up in Tocqueville too. The antagonism towards fancy learning, long words—that's a strain. On the other hand, the people who founded the country in the late 18th century considered themselves natural philosophers. These were people who studied beetles, who collected birds, who wanted to know about agricultural methods. So we have a very strong educational, self-improving strain in the American society. The two things exist together.

Q: Put against the broad array of the Internet and this explosion in access to text, do more people have more access to more of the past? Or do they just get lost in the clutter? 

A: That's the reason for curators. I'm a curator here. I'm like a museum director. A lot of people who run blogs are the same. If you got to Truthout, or Truthdig, or TomDispatch—essentially these are curated compilations, anthologies. And there's going to be more and more and more of that because as the Internet becomes so crowded it's incomprehensible. So you're going to have to find some source that you can trust. This, of course, is the secret of all successful American journalism. That's the Reader's Digest. That's Time magazine.

Q: Poor Richard's Almanac.

A: Poor Richard's Almanac. I can do with [Lapham's] what I couldn't do with Harper's magazine, which is to get different points of view on the same theme.