Harper's Magazine, 1850-1980

The legacy of Willie Morris and Lewis H. Lapham
By MARCO TRBOVICH  |  June 26, 2010


This story was originally published in the June 24, 1980, issue of the Boston Phoenix.

It seems but a moment ago that the sound of Dylan and Baez, the Beatles and the Stones reverberated through a world bent on catastrophe. Has it been almost 20 years? Ah, yes, it has; a time when swilling beers and being one of the boys came face to face with war. Today's placidity makes those raucous years seen like life on another planet, and even more so the years before them, when we were not so given to taking such things as assassinations for granted.

President Kennedy made romantics of the newcomers to affluence; then Vietnam turned the inspiration inside out and sour. And if you were one of those who lived through the changes and watched for signs of meaning in them, chances are you read Harper's magazine. While Morris was the editor, and men like Larry L. King and David Halberstam were in his stable; and God, how they could ride out into the battlefield of conflicting events and pierce the confusion with their pens.

At an hour in the nation's history when the traditional cleavage between generations had widened into a chasm, King wrote a story about his father, called "The Old Man," that to this day I hesitate to read it for fear it will render me as boyishly tearful as it did then. And Halberstam, though less deft with the pen, was reporter emeritus, unraveling Robert McNamara's rigidity with revelations from his year's at Ford rather than with the easy rhetoric employed by critics of the war.

Morris, himself a skillful writer, knew how to bring out the best in the brightest journalists of his day. And if you were hot for the resurrection of an idealistic America then being crucified by war, the magazine veritably glowed like a votive light in your intellectual life. You could travel halfway across the nation, meet a new friend, and discover to your great and mutual delight that you were already compatriots of the mind in your appreciation of what Harper's had wrought. In those years, it was a journal as passionate and as reckless intellectually as the generation its writing nurtured – which made it splendid reading in its time.

The times changed, of course, and under a cloud of controversy Morris left. I can remember my ire at his departure, fired by the heat of antiestablishmentarianism that burned in so many youthful breasts. Inspired by the apocalyptic presumptions of the period, I readily concluded that nothing of the kind would ever grace Harper's pages again.

Nothing of its kind did; something better has. Lewis H. Lapham became Harper's editor. He has, with considerable erudition, fashioned a magazine into a journal of penetrating and provocative thought. There are countless examples of Lapham's editorial insights, but non so striking as an article he commissioned for last April's edition. In it, Jeffrey Record, a former Senate aid and senior fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, wrote forcefully that American military training is plagued by a preoccupation with technology and by a dearth of teaching in military history. Citing Clausewitz's belief that "in the whole range of human activities, was most closely resembles a game of cards," Record wrote that fortuna had decided more battles than not, and provided an arresting litany of historical examples to prove that luck – both good and bad – had had more to do with the outcome of conflicts than technology.

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 See all articles by: MARCO TRBOVICH