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Q&A: LEWIS LAPHAM

Highlights from Issue 22: The Downfall of American Publishing

Photograph by WARREN DARIUS AFTAHI

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Monday, August 15, 2005

By JC Gabel


Stop Smiling: You started your career as a reporter at The San Francisco Examiner. Do you find it strange that going to journalism school has become such a prestigious accomplishment? When you were coming up, it was much more a trade profession where you learned on the job. Do you think that might be what's wrong with journalism today?

Lewis Lapham: Yes, I do. In 1957 when I went to work as a reporter of the lowest grade as a cub at the Examiner, I was the only Ivy League kid on the premises. I probably was the only college educated kid on the premises. It was a trade, a craft. By and large, the attitude of the city room was more in tune with the folks in the bleacher seats at the ballpark rather than with the folks in the box seats. I came to New York in the winter of 1960 and went to the Herald Tribune and that was still by and large the tone at the Herald Tribune. It was when Walter Lippmann was still writing for the paper, but by and large again, it was people that were in it for the hell of it and who did not take themselves or their profession too seriously. Nobody in New York in 1960, at least on the Tribune, would have identified himself as a journalist. Journalism was a word reserved for Englishmen. One was either a newspaperman or a reporter, and again the tendency was still to identify oneself with the have-nots rather than with the haves.

That all changes in the Sixties, and journalism becomes a glamorous profession. In 1960, before Kennedy's election, I am at an Upper East Side cocktail party and a very pretty young girl from Smith or Vassar or something says to me, “What do you do?” And I say, “I'm a newspaperman.” She looks at me with contempt and says, “Yes, but what are you going to do when you grow up?” That was the attitude. Journalists were below the salt. There were a few exceptions. There is still, at least on my part and on the part of a number of other people, a romance to it. The notion that the way that one learns to become a novelist is to spend a few years working for a newspaper, a la Ernest Hemingway or James Thurber or John O'Hara. There were a number of the writers who came out of the Twenties and Thirties that started as newspapermen. That all changes in the Sixties. It begins to change with the election of John Kennedy. Suddenly journalism becomes a high-end profession.

SS: Is it because of broadcast journalism?

LL: Part of it is television. Part of it is the disappearance of the avant-garde and the erosion of the idea of literature. Before 1960, Time magazine had on its covers the young John Updike, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, Norman Mailer and Philip Roth as heroes of our time. This was all before 1960. It is now 45 years later, and they are still iconic figures of American letters. I leave out Nabokov. There was an avant-garde in the Fifties. There was the belief among young people that literature was the way to find meaning and answers to the important existential questions in life. In the Fifties, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett — all these plays are opening on Broadway. As late as 1960, there are what were then known as the Seven Lively Arts. The word media had not yet come in to use. That doesn't begin to come in to use until Marshall McLuhan publishes Understanding Media in 1964. In 1960, when I started working at the Herald Tribune, the Seven Lively Arts were distinct. There's literature, theater, music, opera, dance, painting and film.

Somewhere in the mid-Sixties, these distinctions get lost and it fuses into something called media. At the same time you see the ascension of television. The avant-garde disappears. I went to Yale University from 1952 to 1956 and I spent a lot of weekends in New York City going to jazz clubs, going to plays, going to see Miller, going to see Beckett, and so on. Going to sit at their feet to hear E.E. Cummings and Dylan Thomas. There was still a notion of literature as this saving grace. People were hoping to become writers. Conversations in the cafes in Greenwich Village are about form or about meaning. You could have a lot of arguments about whether or not the sestina as a poetic form is superior to the heroic couplet or whether you're going to write an epistolary novel, a novel in the manner of Joyce, in the manner of Dickens, etc. Technique, forms — these were the problems of the would-be artist. By the Seventies those questions are gone and the questions are about who is raging and how do you sell it to the movies. Enter the notion that one can have it all; that you could be not only a great writer, but also very rich. This is an idea that never would have occurred to most people in the Fifties. By the Seventies, this has become a more common belief, and it becomes even more exaggerated in the Eighties with the great Reagan promise that everybody can get rich.


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