“To be a writer was an important thing” —Lapham


Excerpt from an interview with Lewis H. Lapham, editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine and founding editor of Lapham’s Quarterly. Courtesy of The Millions

Trouble is that writers have been discounted in the American scheme of things over the last 50 years now. I’m old enough to remember — I’m at Yale in 1952 to 1956, and to be a writer was an important thing. There was the belief that writers could change the world. And the heroes were people like Camus, Yeats, even Auden, and Hemingway, Mailer. The notion that literature was going to come up with important answers. Solzhenitsyn — the novel as heroic. And again, that’s an idea that comes out of the 19th century. That’s Victor Hugo in exile from the Second Empire in France. That’s what Flaubert was trying to do. Balzac was trying to do the same thing. Dickens. William Dean Howells in this country, Twain — the writer was a heroic kind of figure, or at least had that possibility. That’s what Mailer was trying to be.

And in the 1960s, they actually had writers on the cover of Time magazine. I can remember that really, before 1962, Time magazine had on the cover Mailer, Roth, Bellow, not Vonnegut yet, and maybe not Heller. And then it was all over — No, Updike. And then I don’t think they had another writer, then they had Solzhenitsyn on the cover somewhere in the ‘80s. And then for Christ’s sake, they come up with Jonathan Franzen, and compare him to Tolstoy. I mean, that’s farcical.

And part of that I think is the atomic bomb. Once you get the atomic bomb, then man now has it in his power to destroy the Earth. Oppenheimer, quoting Shiva: I am the destroyer of the worlds. That’s what he said looking at the nuclear explosion. And so the heroes of our age are essentially money guys or politicians with their hand on the button or cosmetic surgeons and scientists who are going to discover the way for us to live to 150 years, and the Silicon Valley people, you know, the magicians.

And so the writer seems to have less — Nader explained this to me once. Nader said that when he, in the ‘60s, published Unsafe at Any Speed, within a year, there were hearings, rules got changed, safety belts got put on cars. And this was genuinely true in the ‘60s. Protest the Vietnam War. The Civil Rights Movement — civil rights legislation goes in with Johnson. It had an effect. Now, it doesn’t have an effect. We all know that we’re being governed by crooks, but we make a joke out of it. That’s Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

Read the rest from The Millions