In Philip Roth’s latest book, Exit Ghost, Amy Bellette has to be hauled out of the New York Public Library kicking and screaming. Her lover, the fictional writer E.I. Lonoff, isn’t represented among a display of America’s best authors, and Bellette is furious--not only at his absence, but also at the authors included instead. More than anything, Bellette is enraged by the cost of political correctness. “It started with the colleges,” she later says, “and now it’s everywhere. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison, but not Faulkner.” 

This complaint is shared by Lewis Lapham, the legendary former editor of Harper’s. In 2006, Lapham carped to a newspaper interviewer that in American universities, if a text doesn’t reach “a politically correct standard on one or more of [the issues of race, gender, or class], it doesn’t exist.” But the social forces causing the degradation of literature to social commentary don’t stop there. They extend from the news Americans receive to the government’s selective disclosure of information. And there, the consequences are cause for alarm. “The people selling the great research on the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq certainly did not tell the truth,” Lapham said. “It’s advertising. ... That’s the result of the politicization of research.”

Lapham's zeal to combat the creeping debasement of truth in the culture, combined with his passion for history, drove him to leave Harper’s after nearly thirty years and found Lapham’s Quarterly. The Quarterly is billed as a historical journal and looks something like The Paris Review. Each issue, Lapham chooses a single theme--it premiered with “war” in November, “money” follows in March, and “nature” is slotted for the summer--and assembles a set of relevant texts. The material is wonderfully eclectic: Not just the stuff of history books, but pop-culture lists, CIA assassination manuals, and vintage memorandums proposing, for instance, a way to demoralize the Cuban people by spreading unflattering photos of an overweight Fidel Castro. This scrapbook of “literary narrative and philosophical commentary, diaries, speeches, letters, and proclamations” as Lapham describes it in his preamble, is essentially a 172-page expansion of the Harper’s Readings section, itself a Lapham innovation from the start of his second term as editor in 1984. There’s also some new content: four essays in the back by contemporary historians, each about 2,000 to 3,000 words long. But for all those essays, the journal’s clearest message is this: Its editor's interest, and his genius, lies not in editing, but in curating.

Lapham seeks to provide readers with a more complete portrait of current events by using historical documents to reveal how we got here. The issue dedicated to war, and more specifically to the abhorrent (in Lapham’s view) war in Iraq, presents excerpts including Henry V heroically landing on the beaches of Normandy, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and an excerpt from the Bhagavad-Gita about the “sacred duty of a warrior.” Lapham wants both to offer literature on its own terms and to stimulate the reader’s own thoughts. But he does this with the supreme confidence that after reviewing the texts, a reader will come to his same conclusions. Lapham might detest the use of literature for social commentary, but in Lapham’s Quarterly he practices just that, in its most developed form--disguised in the words of others.

At Harper’s, Lapham writes in his preamble, he “came up with a risk-assessment model wired to the sound of the human voice.” (To translate: He likes writers with a strong voice.) Lapham uses that model here, too. “If, on first looking through a dispatch from the Yale University library or the White House Situation Room, I couldn’t hear the voice of its author, I let it go the way of the Carolina Parakeet,” he writes in his preamble. (That parakeet, by the way, is extinct--a lot like that expression, before Lapham exhumed it.) 

Although most of his contributors--everyone from Thucydides to e.e. cummings--are crumbling in their caskets, they rarely sound stilted. Lapham's talent is to take these voices, flawed and otherwise, and to arrange them so that they harmonize at a pitch that perfectly complements his own politics. The journal’s first two excerpts, for instance, directly address the war in Iraq. It opens with British Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins’s call to arms in 2003. Taken alone, the lieutenant colonel’s words are conscientious--“If someone surrenders to you, then remember they have that right in international law and ensure that one day they go home to their family”--and gently funny--“The ones who wish to fight, well, we aim to please.” But if a reader weren’t already skeptical of the mission in Iraq, then the next excerpt, “The Proclamation of Baghdad,” written eight days after British forces captured the city in 1917, would provides a hint of Lapham’s view: “[O]ur armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies but as liberators.” Liberators now, liberators then. These writings, which alone sound with tragedy, together sound with tragic irony.

There are two types of politically correct--politically correct and politically correct. The first, more commonly used, is the behavior, judged externally, of cultural sensitivity. The second, internally measured, is striving, with regard to politics, to be consistent with facts and beliefs--to be, with regard to politics, correct. Lapham largely forgoes the former in pursuit of what he believes will make the strongest case for the latter. Five of the eighty-eight readings are from women, which, since it’s a survey of history, is understandable. But, where it’s reasonable to expect equal representation, in the original content contributed by contemporary historians, there are no women at all. Fringe demographics, women and minorities, are rare. But fringe ideas, such as the 19th century art critic John Ruskin’s contention that war gives birth to art, or Betran de Born savoring the sweetness of war in Eastertime, are not. And Lapham, true to his word, treats them on their own terms, as exhibit pieces with their contextual information printed after them. But even concessions such as the excerpts he includes in praise of war are calculated to lend an air of careful consideration to his enterprise. In the endeavor to extend the truth, to be politically correct, even the politicization of research is permitted.

The bulk of Lapham’s Quarterly makes for enthralling reading even for those who might disagree with its strong editorial stance. The concluding essays, though, sometimes sound like Aesop’s Fables For Adults--except here the morals come with crippling qualifications. As opposed to the elegant suggestions of the juxtapositions in the rest of the magazine, past events are stretched into direct correlation with current ones, often snapping like a stale rubber band. After spending five pages paralleling World War I Germany and the present United States, Fritz Stern writes, “Our nation is not like imperial Germany, and great as our dangers are, they can’t be compared to the horrors of that earlier time.” He concludes, “By distant analogy, we too might learn a lesson about the dangers and follies of imperial hubris.” By making Lapham’s political arguments explicit, the essays actually limit interpretation. In daring to do more, the essays do less.

Lapham says the journal is “meant to be read around in. ... To be picked up again and again.” That’s the least arduous request of the reader. But something might be lost if one merely meandered through the journal’s contents. Each section of historical documents is its own exhibit, laid out just so. Sure, a reader might skip the pieces that don’t seem that interesting. But with a magazine that demands focus and engages intellect in order to elicit persuasive emotions, it’s worthwhile to walk the curated path.

Francesca Mari is the assistant to the literary editor of The New Republic.