Lewis H. Lapham

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Lewis H. Lapham was the editor of Harper’s Magazine from 1976 to 1981, and again from 1983 to 2006. In the early Seventies, he began writing the Easy Chair, which he renamed “The Notebook” in 1984. His columns received the National Magazine Award in 1995 for exhibiting “an exhilarating point of view in an age of conformity,” and, in 2002, the Thomas Paine Journalism Award. Lapham founded Lapham’s Quarterly, of which he is also editor, in 2007. He is currently editor emeritus of Harper’s and was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame in February of 2007.

In 1984 Lapham led the redesign of Harper’s, which included the creation of the Index, Annotations, and Readings—inventions intended to “incite acts of the imagination rather than facilitate the transfers of data, not to provide ready-made answers but to say, in effect, look at this, see how much more beautiful and strange and full of possibility is the world than can be dreamed of by the mythographers at NBC and Time.

Lapham is the author of numerous books, including Waiting for the Barbarians (1997), Theater of War (2003), Gag Rule (2004), and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire (2006). He hosts the weekly Bloomberg Radio program The World in Time. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe compared him to Montaigne.

Article — From the May 2012 issue

Ignorance of things past

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Who wins and who loses when we forget American history

Article — From the April 2011 issue

Democracy 101

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Mark Twain’s farewell address

Notebook — From the November 2010 issue

Figures of speech

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Notebook — From the May 2010 issue

Doing the laundry

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On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.

In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.

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“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
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“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
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