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
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
Lapham seeks to provide readers with a more complete portrait of current events by using historical documents to reveal how we got here.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
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
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
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
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