Figuring out what's wrong with Harper's magazine.

Figuring out what's wrong with Harper's magazine.

Figuring out what's wrong with Harper's magazine.

Media criticism.
Sept. 15 2004 7:06 PM

Lewis Lapham Phones It In

Figuring out what's wrong with Harper's magazine.

(Continued from Page 3)

Lapham declines the advances, but between Harper's stints, he met with the executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation, Michael Joyce, at Kristol's suggestion. Joyce was planning the magazine that would eventually become the New Criterion, a publication its backers hoped would "rebut and confound the ravings of the New York Review of Books," Lapham writes.

Lapham writes that Joyce offered him $200,000 a year to edit the new publication, to be paid even if he quit or retired. In a telephone interview, Joyce says he discussed the startup with Lapham in early 1982 but denies having offered him such an extraordinary sum or the job itself. "I was hardly in a position to offer him anything," Joyce says. The job went to Hilton Kramer in April 1982.


Lapham stands by his $200,000 story. "I reported the conversation the best that I remember it," he insists in a telephone interview. "It was an astonishing offer. And I can remember being astonished."

The story is made all the more astonishing when you run the numbers through an inflation calculator: $200,000 in 1982 dollars works out to $386,178 in 2003 dollars. Does any editor in foundation-financed journalism make that sort of money? Does anybody at the New Criterion make that sort of money today? The Form 990 filed for 2002 by the New Criterion's Foundation for Cultural Review lists Editor and Publisher Hilton Kramer earning $107,000 and Managing Editor Roger Kimball earning $137,265—a far cry from the sum Lapham claims to have been offered.

Is Lapham guilty of phoning the New Criterion story in? Or is he just engaging in poetic license and rhetorical invention?

Reviewing a Lapham book for the Wall Street Journal in 1988, David Brooks described Lapham as he once was, a "freethinker, free to the point of formless and self-contradictory. Sometimes he sounds like Abbie Hoffman, and other times like Milton Friedman; sometimes like Allan Bloom, other times like the lead guitarist of Iron Maiden."

Although Brooks is knocking Lapham, he inadvertently captures the multiple-personality disorder that made him an interesting editor. Lapham's magazine once contained multitudes, and so did he. But not anymore.


Disclosures: 1) I worked for two and half years in the early '80s for Inquiry magazine, which was funded by the libertarian Koch brothers. 2) Michael Kinsley, who hired me before Slate's launch, replaced Lapham as editor of Harper's,and he was replaced in turn by Lapham. Kinsley and Lapham snipe and snarl at one another from time to time, but I have no dog in that fight. Send your disclosures to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)