A few weeks, one sandstorm, and several malfunctioning helicopters later, eight Americans became the sad victims of the system of training that Harper's has so aptly criticized.
But it was Lapham himself who provided the magazine's most compelling reading, Replacing John Ciardi in "The Easy Chair," a column that runs in the front of the book, Lapham chronicled month in and month out what cannot be characterized as anything other than the decline of culture. With the sagacity of a man who understands history's importance to the present and future, he gave meaning to events. Thus he could write last summer: "In the same way that the press chose to ignore for 20 years the pathological disfigurement of Richard Nixon, so it also continues to hide from itself what it doesn't want to know about Teddy Kennedy, as well as distressing flaws of character in Mr. Carter's family and privy counselors."
Oh, he could err – as any writer can – by ranging too far afield, as indeed he did in a piece on Teddy Kennedy and the romanticism of death: speculation on some point becomes as thoughtless as petty attention to detail. But his errors came always in the pursuit of understanding, in stretching the limits of knowledge instead of accepting prevailing nostrums. Indeed, nobody has been better at marking the madness of a culture so preoccupied with preserving youth that it betrays a childish innocence necessarily ignorant of the complex workings of the contemporary world. Nor has any other writer or editor so consistently uncloaked the disparities of a society that rushes mindlessly toward selfish individualism while growing increasingly dependent on professional "servants" to do its thinking.
Lapham's work has been in the finest tradition of Harper's, a magazine during its lifetime has published the work of Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope, a life that dates back to 1850. Now, the newspapers tell us, Harper's is going out of business. That's a bit of journalistic impersonality that doesn't quite capture the full dimension of the fact it reports; for Harper's isn't going out of business, it is dying. Dying because ideas will be laid to rest when the last edition is wrapped up; dying because ideas are not commodities; dying because ideas are something American newsstands are not much alive with these days.
The end must be a particularly bitter irony for Lapham, for he has become a victim of the disease he has so accurately diagnosed: contemporary mindlessness. It is difficult not to mark the passing of Harper's as another symptom of this disease. And what does it say about a culture that pumps life into People while letting Harper's die? What it says, I think, is that television has "taught" us to like impressions and pictures more than rational thought. After all, isn't that what being children is all about?
In 1962, Marshall McLuhan wrote "Short of some catastrophe, literacy&ldots;could bear up for a long tie against electricity and 'unified field' awareness". Maybe not so long as McLuhan thought.