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When the owners of Harper's magazine decided to shut down the 130-year-old institution, the oldest magazine in the country, they made one mistake. They forgot to muzzle the mule.

"The Big Mule" is what one close friend and fellow writer calls Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's. No one had reckoned with Lapham's stubborn belief that a great literary tradition like Harper's -- the magazine that had first published Mark Twain, whose pages had glittered with the work of Dickens, Thackeray, Joseph Conrad, Kipling, Aldous Huxley, Willa Cather, and Conan Doyle -- should not die on June 17, 1980.

That was the day its owners, the Minneapolis Star and Tribune Company, announced at 3 p.m. (Eastern standard time) that the magazine had stopped publication because it was losing $1.5 million a year. There were appropriate literary obituaries and memorials to a great magazine in all the news media. Even Walter Cronkite said that's the way it was.

"But no one thought to ask Lewis Lapham whether he was going to put the next issue out -- and out it came," says Michael Macdonald Mooney, one of Harper's Washington editors. "There was no one left at Harper's by then -- the Minneapolis people had come through the halls offering severance [pay] to everyone who would leave that day [the 17th]. No one stayed except the Big Mule , with bags under his eyes, and a couple of others, like Matthew Stevenson [the associate editor]. There was just no staff left, not even anyone to open the mailbags. But Lewis put out an issue with stuff he'd saved in a drawer. . .. He was determined the next issue was coming out. Now if that ain't a mule, what is?" Mooney says.

Lewis Henry Lapham doesn't look like anyone's idea of a mule.He looks like a thoroughbred, and is. His grandfather was mayor of San Francisco, his father president of the family shipping business, then president of Grace Lines, later president of Bankers Trust.

He looms in his doorway at Harper's, a tall, elegantly rumpled man with a tough handshake. The door is at the extreme right of a corner room overlooking Park Avenue from the 18th floor. Just beyond the door, on either side of a teak desk piled with newspapers, magazines, books, galleys, and letters, are two chairs. I start to sit in the nearest one, black with rust stripes, and there is a dismayed silence in the room. "That's my chair," he says quietly. I feel like Goldilocks discovered sitting in Papa Bear's chair. No one is going to dislodge Mr. Lapham from his editor's chair, even momentarily. When we settle in place, I ask him whether he really thought last June 17 that Harper's was going down the tube.

"Yeah, I must say that by that time I was convinced that that was the end. . .. I didn't give it up, but I still thought the odds were fairly small."

The magazine was saved in a last-minute "Perils of Pauline" rescue, just as the train thundering down the track seemed about to hit it. It was nearly three weeks after the magazine had been closed down, on July 9, as the August and last official issue was about to be mailed to subscribers, that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation of Chicago rescued it.

The $750 million foundation, based on the fortune of an insurance billionaire , bought the magazine for a reported $250,000 (plus the debts and losses) in a partnership with the Atlantic Richfield Foundation, which agreed to help supply Magazine Foundation which governs the affairs of Harper's.

Meanwhile, the mailbags that had stacked up were full of letters from bereft readers: A man from Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, offered the magazine cost-free 11,000 square feet of space in his unoccupied mill; an airline pilot from Portola Valley, Calif., said he'd be glad to pay a much higher subscription for the magazine that educated and inspired him; a reader from Beaumont, Texas, said each edition had given him "a new suit of mental armor that had helped ward off the maurauding illiteracy that is pervading our indolent society." And novelist George V. Higgins wrote from Boston on its revival: "As Kermit the Frog puts it: YEAAA!"

Lapham, in addition to putting out the phantom September issue, had been busy trying to buy the magazine himself with a group of other people, in a syndicate. But the Minneapolis owners turned them down. He also says in his low-key way that he had been having "some conversations with the [MacArthur] foundation. . .. I continued to lobby on behalf of the magazine."

Now that Harper's is alive and well and holding its own at No. 2 Park Avenue a year later, what is it that has been saved? In July, when news of its revival was announced, Lapham jubilantly called it "a victory for the best instincts of the American people and for the highest hopes of American pluralism and democracy. . .."

The phoenix of Harper's magazine has risen from its ashes, and Lapham is the fire within. He will not let it die. His credo as an editor is the reason. Lapham, the writer of Harper's monthly "Easy Chair" column and the book "Fortune's Child: A Portrait of the United States as Spendthrift Heir," is a lapidary craftsman, one who obviously polishes and rewrites until the prose shines. He is uncomfortable talking about his credo off the typewriter, where he cannot chip and buff, and burnish the words. But here goes:

"Yeah, I do have a credo.It's hard for me to articulate it, but I mean I try and give as much space to the human and individual voice as possible. So much of what appears in the press and the media is an institutional voice. And the people that write for the magazine tend to write in the first person, even if -- I don't mean they carry it to extremes, not that they're preoccupied with self -- but it is quite clear in any article in the magazine that it is an author who has seen something and formed an opinion and based his authority not on his institutional connection but on his own thought and experience and observation. And therefore the magazine is open to arguments from all quarters of the compass of opinion. And there is a freedom to writing for the magazine, and people can publish things in the magazine that might not be as easily published elsewhere. I mean they're welcome to their own feelings, thoughts, and opinions, is what I'm saying."

Then he doesn't try to cast the magazine in his own image so that it reflects only his own ideas?

"No. Well, I mean it obviously reflects certain biases and opinions. I mean , I like to read some things and not others. But I don't try to make writers speak for me. . .. I have the advantage of being able to write a column every month. So that I can say what I want to say and I therefore don't have to make surrogates out of other people."

He says he emphatically does not want to create on someone else's typewriter by rewriting others' copy: "That is a very good pit to avoid. I don't do that at all. And I won't knowingly publish nonsense. [With] anybody that appears in the magazine, it's good stuff or as good stuff as I can find in that particular month. But I mean we've had arguments on various sides, liberals, conservatives , so on. That's not where I think the main argument is, anyway."

Some of the criticism of Harper's today springs from the belief that it may not be as liberal under him as under previous editors, like Willie Morris, who led a palace revolution in the early '70s. This criticism may come in part from segments of the publishing world which are left of center and disapprove of a magazine without their own focus, viewing it as too right-wing, even neoconservative. It might be eclecticism, to use the critics' word, which causes this, or what Lapham sees as the spectrum of opinion. "I tried to open the magazine to as many points of view as I could. . .. I assumed I was writing and editing for consenting adults who could come to their own conclusions," Lapham has said.

Since its revival last year, Harper's has reflected a diversity of opinions on subjects as far-ranging as: the wreck of the auto industry, the nationalization of American universities, Russian disorders and the end of the Soviet dream, the guerrillas in El Salvador, the high cost of the "Ministry of Culture" (the Arts and Humanities endowments), a TV religious empire, the alchemy of the Hunt brothers, Los Angeles's never-slaked thirst for water, the buying and selling of book reviews, National Public Radio, cures that kill, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's memoirs as campaign autobiography, James Joyce, union busting, marketing pollution, ERA's opposition from women, the Hollywood right, and war in the Sahara. The writers have ranged across the spectrum from conservative Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York to Alexander Cockburn of the very unconservative Village Voice.

Mr. Lapham has broken with the traditional alignments, so that those who argue that his magazine is too political or not political enough miss the point. "I think the argument is not liberals-conservatives, Democrats-Republicans, or left-right, the argument is between past and future," he says."That's where the line forms: What is regressive and what weighs you down -- [the] too-old or stultified or barbarous notions -- and what takes you forward and gives you a hope of discovering a change, the freedom of the imagination.

"And I find that these qualities have relatively little to do with politics. In other words, I'm as suspicious of the idealogues on the left as I am of those on the right. Not because I dislike them, but because the ideology gets in the way. So they end up talking like recorded announcements."

On this particular day, a dark, rainy Wednesday, he is talking with his head in his hands. His friends tell me later that this is not a characteristic position, that he is relaxed, affable, casual. But there he sits, his elbows propped up like knitting needles on his desk, his head of thick, pewter-gray hair in his hands. As he talks he runs his fingers distractedly through his hair, as though editing it for length.

The most extraordinary feature in his even-featured, attractive face is his eyes. They are the grayish-green of sage, what one friend calls "those heavy-lidded eyes" that suggest the reporter who's seen it all. But the expression is lively, amused, with occasionally a flash of the child who says, "Show me, surprise me with something new." I am told that back before he became an editor he dressed in the rumpled comfort of most writers -- sweaters, frayed or torn at the elbows, casual clothes. As editor he has shrugged into an appropriate charcoal gray suit, white shirt, black tie. There is a single yellow wood pencil in his jacket pocket. He is as uncomfortable at being interviewed as a white tiger being stalked by a photographer. He growls a little but laughs a lot more. He loves to talk about the magazine or his three small children, loathes talking about himself. It may have something to do with how he says you can tell a true writer:

"My idea of a writer is that the writer is more interested in what he is trying to say than in how he looks when saying it. For some people, they're so filled with their idea and they want to explain and show and teach and reveal or whatever word you choose. And it's this, whatever it is, outside of themselves, that is more important than their own style or their own image or their own preoccupation. So that they get taken out of themselves and become preoccupied with the subject at hand. And those are usually the good ones.

"The not-so-good ones are the ones that are always concerned about me.m Me, me , me. Right? And the result is that it's always much easier to edit a good writer than a bad writer. The good writer always is much more willing to take changes, advice, cuts, suggestions, revisions, and so forth than the bad writer. And the reason is that the good writer is interested in what it is that he's trying to say. And any way that it can be said better or made clearer or more specific or concrete or effective or powerful, he is grateful to you for that. We don't rewrite people. . .. I read a manuscript and I say, 'Why don't you do this or that, or this isn't quite clear.' And a good writer will listen very attentively to that. Because, again, he's interested in the writing and not in the self. Right? Not in his own persona as a writer."

Lapham has a long, illustrious career as a star writer, for the San Francisco Examiner, the Saturday Evening Post, the New York Herald Tribune, and Life, before joining Harper's. He has been on both ends of the editing pencil. He says of writers and editors: "They're all sensitive, all vulnerable. You've got to be very careful when you're dealing with anybody. It's a sensitive relation, editor to writer.

"I'm not saying that writers are more sensitive than other human beings, but in that particular exchange they are, because they're feeling as if . . . If they're any good, they're taking some kind of chance, and they need affirmation and encouragement and they're anxious about it. They bring their child in, and they want you to like it, pat it on the head. Really, you don't say to them, 'Take the brat out of here!' right? You don't feel like that. But again . . . you're dealing with people. I'm presuming I'm talking about people who are again speaking from their own guts and experience and observation. It's not boilerplate. It's not like lawyers, who couldn't really care less, a lot of them. I mean there are a lot of nonwriters who write, who therefore don't have the investment in the manuscript."

Careful readers of Harper's will suspect that behind the diversity of opinion the magazine publishes is a single-minded integrity. It is there, as concentrated as the light in a laser, and it is based on the concept that is not popular in publishing now.We had been talking about novelist John Gardner's book , "Moral Fiction," and I asked Mr. Lapham how important he thought morality is in editing and writing.

"It's essential," he said. "When you get down to making a judgment, there's no question that essentially it is a moral one. I don't think you can divorce morality from aesthetics. But that is now the fashion, to do that.

"When one is deciding why is this manuscript good and why is this other manuscript bad, what you're really saying ----feels it and has experienced it. And that goes together with morality. And the other author is doing a trick of one kind or another, and that's what I mean by nonsense. It's nonsense, it doesn't coincide with what the author knows, feels, has seen, thought. And that's the basis of any artistic decision, or aesthetic decision. It is also a moral decision. And you can get away from it by saying on the one hand this, on the other hand that. It has to do with [the fact that] there has to be a point of view.All things do not weigh equally.

"One of the problems with the writing and much of what goes on now is that the scale that is used is simply a scale of celebrity, and in the scale of celebrity the ax murderer weighs as heavily as the Nobel Prize laureate. The man who writes cheap trash is as much of an 'artist' as the man who tries to tell the truth. I don't mean that there's an absolute truth, that would be hard to discover. But the truth in terms of his or her own noblest experience or conception of it. That's what's missing in the movies. That's what's missing in most of the books that get published, fiction or nonfiction."

Earl Shorris, a Harper's contributing editor, says that concern is reflected in the magazine under Lapham. "I think some interesting things have happened to the magazine since Lewis became editor," Shorris says. "It's a more thoughtful magazine, and that's Lewis's influence, without a question. The magazine began to look at the moral issues in our society [because of] Lewis's moral concern. . .. Not in a Moral, Majority sense, but in the sense of caring, what can we do, and what responsibilities do we bear for our actions. The commitment Lewis brings to the magazine is greater in Harper's than in any other major magazine. He's open. You can't say he's a doctrinaire liberal or a doctrinaire conservative. He steps back from that and says, 'I want to be a moral man,' and that makes me more interested in writing for Harper's than for any other magazine.

"Also, he's not in the business to become a celebrity or to make a million dollars. He intends to do it this way [with a moral imperative] and asks others to do it, too. That's tough in this society and doesn't necessarily win a lot of friends for you. He has an optimistic view of the world, meaning that he's always willing to say where things can be improved."

But there is no marshmallow cream in Lapham's writing. He is instead something of a swashbuckler with words, who uses the glinting sword of his writing style to battle society's enemies as he sees them. In an "Easy Chair" column on "The Despotisms of Everyday Life" he slashes away at the new barbarism:

"Barbarism shows itself in many forms -- in the heroin traffic between Iran and Los Angeles as well as the interest rates charged by the Chase Manhattan Bank. The hope of liberty demands a ceaseless struggle against the tendency to confuse freedom with license to exploit, against the temptation to define self-destruction as self-fulfillment, and the willingness to think that getting one's way is synonymous with inner peace, against the notion that what is wrong with the world is inside oneself or that truth is a disease for which the doctors can find no cure."

With a quiet, gleaming rage he inveighs against his favorite theme, the prodigality of the United States as a spoiled rich son bankrupting generations to come. He takes caustic swipes at a variety of targets, including "the druids of the environment," the New York Times, President Reagan as Napoleon III, much of California, Norman Mailer, Mobil Oil, Washington's courtier journalists, and Frank Sinatra.

As a reporter, he has a peerless eye, a novelist's gift for drama and character. Among the best pieces in "Fortune's Child" are: "Love Heals All," as devastating as the Candy Mossler murder trial which it chronicles; "Talking to the White Rabbit," a searing observation of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation summer camp for the Beatles and other celebrities in India; and "Tiny Giants," a Brechtian biography of the failed musical "Kelly."

But the subject for which he seems to have been born is California; he writes of it often, with mingled acid and longing. "California is like summer or the Christmas holidays. The unhappy children think that they are supposed to be having a good time, and they imagine that everybody else is having a better time. . .." And "given the high levels of disappointment in California, people retire to the screening rooms of their private fantasies."

He was born in San Francisco, in what he writes of as "the dream-like torpor" of that city. It was a privileged, affluent life. He grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth, his friend Michael Mooney says, and it's still there. But the spoon isbent beyond recognition by his life in journalism, that great leveler. He may have gone to Hotchkiss and Yale and Cambridge and belong to the clubs that the tastemakers aspire to --the kind of journalist, Mooney says, who carries a social conscience with him, who points out that three-quarters of cities like Washington and New York are so poor they can't survive, who can tell you the current street price for burning down a tenement.

As Lapham talks in a low, foggy voice, the horns of New York taxis float up from the street below.Outside, soot mixes with rain in a slate gray sky. His white office is bright and cheerful, with a wall full of photos and drawings of his children, crowded bookshelves, framed Harper's magazine covers. Three directors' chairs huddle as though in conference in one corner. A long, rust-colored couch is decorated with proofs and galleys like antimacassars. But there is all that gloom outside. How could he leave California for this?

He talks of his ambivalence about California: "Oh, it's beautiful. It haunts me, it's such a beautiful place. I'll never get over that. The landscape, the trees, the light, the valley, the coast, the whole thing. It's a beautiful state. And also there's so much the sense of promise in California that never seems to quite get realized. . .."

He goes on to say that in essays suggesting there's nothing going on there, he should amend that to say he believes there is, if you get involved in the university life, or in the technologies. But for writers, he feels "it's such a narcissistic place. San Francisco . . . is lotus land, it's so easy to kind of rot gracefully on the sun deck looking at the Bay. It's very seductive, a very seductive place."

Readers of Harper's find California a touchstone for articles in the magazine , partly because a high proportion of its 325,000 readers live there, partly because of its editor's fascination with it. And perhaps partly, too, because California is good copy, as they say in the business. When Barbara Grizzuti Harrison wrote a brilliantly funny piece on "Hotel California," or her stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the hotel responded with an impassioned letter rebutting her story with a guest list that looked like half the celebrity register.

That's the sort of thing that brings on the "sly smile" his agent, Mort Janklow, and other friends treasure. They call him witty, philosophical, stoic, and urbane. Shorris says if he has a flaw, apart from the mule-headedness Mooney talks about, it's that "he really doesn't want to say a cruel word to anyone. Sometimes it causes awkwardness." He is a man who doesn't enjoy gossip, does enjoy Bach, golf, and backgammon.

He met his wife, the former Joan Brooke Reeves, at a dinner party -- it was pretty close to love at first sight, he admits -- and married her a year later. "She's not a writer, but she's interested in it. She's just a marvelous woman, which is a lot. But I don't discuss my writing with her at all, I don't burden her with that. It's not a literary conspiracy at all." He laughs.

When the next question about marriage comes up, he shifts, frowns, says, "Look, how long is this interview going to be?" Long enough to fill up the tape is the answer. He laughs again. "Well, the secret of a happy marriage is, I guess, to pretty well assume that my wife is always right." (His wife decides she doesn't want to be interviewed about him.)

"That's one of the secrets. The other, of course, is to be sure you marry somebody you can talk with. And also we have a common purpose, with the children, so it is a joint enterprise.I'm delighted with my marriage."

Lapham says he's become more interested in politics since he had children. "I never used to write about politics at all, and I began to be interested in politics for that kind of reason: OK, what kind of world are the kids going to grow up in?"

William Whitworth, editor of the rival The Atlantic Monthly, says, "I think that probably for the last couple of years, at least, The Atlantic has been a little more interested in poetry, fiction, and covering the arts, and Lewis has been more interested in politics and a kind of strong argumentative approach to problems. . .." Because Lapham's magazine is not a huge bureaucracy, Whitworth says, "Lewis can get it absolutely the way he wants it to be, and he has done that."

Has he done it well?

"Yes. I think he has not been given enough credit for what he has done in the magazine."

When Lewis Lapham is asked to describe himself, he declines, but suggests what he would like to be: "Hopeful, tolerant, and kind."

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