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Harper's Lappham:good-bye, long tale

By Christopher SwanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 1985



New York

IT was 1965. Lyndon B. Johnson had just started his second term; and an editor at The Saturday Evening Post began to wonder what was happening to the social scene in Washington as Johnson's homegrown Texas life style eclipsed John Kennedy's Camelot. So, he set star writer-reporter Lewis Lapham up in the posh Hay-Adams Hotel across from the White House.

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A couple of weeks later, Lapham called to say there was no social scene worth writing about, but he would like to do a profile of Johnson himself, a piece that would take at least three months to research and probably would run into thousands of words. Without skipping a beat, the editor OK'd as many days as Lapham needed in one of Washington's most expensive hotels and whatever expense money he might accumulate.

``Those were the great days of magazines,''Lapham muses today, sitting in his smallish editor's office at Harper's magazine: the days when a Life photographer on assignment with him in Miami hired the Goodyear Blimp for one shot of the beachfront; the grand days of long articles, voracious readers, and the writer's art.

Now, Lapham says, only the television networks have the kind of money and clout the great magazines used to have; and the flickering image has replaced the durable word as the lingua franca of American thought.

Lewis H. Lapham is known these days as the man who has squeezed much of the written word out of Harper's. Last year, he rejiggered the 135-year old literary institution -- which once published the likes of Melville, Twain, and Henry James at full length -- into a breezy compendium of Sesame-Street length ``readings,'' snippets, arcana, and a handful of longer pieces.

Sitting behind a cluttered desk, backgrounded by a modest shelf of books (``Heroic Imagination,'' ``Editors on Editing,'' Evelyn Waugh, W. H. Auden), with a typewriter at his side, Lapham gazes out at the elderly, gracious buildings that still dominate this piece of New York City real estate -- buildings that are fast being replaced by glass and steel skyscrapers.

The tall, rangy editor, who looks a bit like film director John Huston and thinks a lot like a renaissance man, says he has simply bowed to ``the incredible pressures on people's time'' in making the magazine into a highbrow Reader's Digest.

The result has been called ``salted peanuts for the mind'' by the Dallas Morning Herald. Lapham acknowledges that he is now editing and writing for a generation groomed on television with little time or forbearance for negotiating lengthy, discursive sentences, no matter how illuminating the journey or how profound the conclusion.

For Lapham -- who once wanted to write novels, and who left the San Francisco Examiner because he was disillusioned with the length of newspaper articles and their ``inability to get at the more interesting elements of character and event'' -- it took a long time to kiss long-form journalism goodbye.

You can easily find examples of this kind of journalism in Lapham's book, ``Fortune's Child: A Portrait of the United States as Spendthrift Heir.'' This collection of essays also includes three pieces from the days when he did the long, densely-reported article. One piece deftly exposed the foibles of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when the Beatles were sitting at his feet. Another is an exhaustive, detailed account of the notorious Candace Mossler trial, in which he spins testimony, lawyers' speeches, and crowd dialogue into an engrossing, lengthy yarn.

``He used to get very involved in things and like to go into them in great detail,'' recalls Otto Friedrich, his former managing editor at The Saturday Evening Post. Now a senior writer at Time magazine, Frederich says Lapham never wore his patrician upbringing (he comes from a wealthy San Francisco family) on his sleeve. He was, according to syndicated columnist Jimmy Breslin who worked with him on the Herald Tribune, ``very energetic . . . good, terrific.'' Was he friendly, ambitious, arrogant, accessible, rude, headstrong? ``All of those . . . and more. All part of his energy.''