Lewis Lapham

On this date in 1935, Lewis H. Lapham was born in San Francisco, Calif. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University in 1956, and attended Cambridge University (1956–1957). Lapham’s journalism career had an early start: after graduation, he worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner (1957–1960), and at the age of 25 became the U.N. Correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune (1960–1962). He later became managing editor of the prominent literary journal Harper’s Magazine (1971–1975) and was soon appointed its editor (1976–2006). He was a prolific journalist who wrote articles for many publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. In 2007, Lapham founded and became editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, a history magazine. His many books include Waiting for the Barbarians (1998) and Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy (2005). Lapham was also the host of the television show “Bookmark” (1988–1991). He received the 1994 and 1995 National Magazine Awards for his journalistic contributions to Harper’s Magazine. In 2007, Lapham was included in the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame. He married Joan Brooke Reaves in 1972 and they have three children: Anthony, Elizabeth and Winston.

“As an unbaptized child raised in a family unaffiliated with the teachings of a church, I missed the explanation as to why the stories about Moses and Jesus were to be taken as true while those about Apollo and Rumpelstiltskin were not,” Lapham wrote of his lifelong nonbelief in “Mandates of Heaven,” the introduction to the Winter 2010 issue of Laphams Quarterly. He continued: “[French philosopher Michel] Onfray observes that ‘a fiction does not die, an illusion never passes away,’ situating Yahwey, together with Ulysses, Allah, Lancelot of the Lake, and Gitche Manitou, among the immortals sustained on the life-support systems of poetry and the high approval ratings awarded to magicians pulling rabbits out of hats.” He expressed his disdain for the intersection of church and state in America, saying: “The dominant trait in the national character is the longing for transcendence and the belief in what isn’t there—the promise of the sweet hereafter that sells subprime mortgages in Florida and corporate skyboxes in heaven.”

“God is the greatest of man’s inventions, and we are an inventive people, shaping the tools that in turn shape us, and we have at hand the technology to tell a new story congruent with the picture of the earth as seen from space instead of the one drawn on the maps available to the prophets wandering the roads of the early Roman Empire.” 

—Lewis Lapham, ww.laphamsquarterly.org/preamble/mandates-of-heaven.php

Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

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