“He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living hand to mouth.”
During my years as editor of Harper’s Magazine, I could rely on the post office to mark the degree to which I was living in what Goethe surely would have regarded as straitened circumstances. Every morning at ten o’clock, I sat down to a desk occupied by five newspapers and seven periodicals (four of them embroiled in politics, the others concerned with socio-economic theory or scientific discovery), three volumes of ancient or modern history (the War of 1812, the death of Christopher Marlowe, the life of Suleiman the Magnificent), a public opinion poll sifting America’s attitude toward family values and assault weapons, and at least fifteen manuscripts, solicited and unsolicited, whose authors assured me in their cover letters that they had unearthed, among other items of interest, the true reason for the Kennedy assassinations and the secret of the universe.
The afternoon mail added to the weight of evidence making the case for what I didn’t know and wasn’t likely ever to know, and, over a period of years, I came up with a risk-assessment model wired to the sound of the human voice. If, on first looking through a dispatch from the Yale University library or the White House Situation Room, I couldn’t hear the voice of its author, I let it go the way of the Carolina Parakeet. The device operated as a loophole through which I escaped the tax of having to read most of what rolled out of the presses in any given year in one or another of the dead languages designed for television broadcast or the teaching of better business management. The volume of email traffic and the expansions of the Internet over the last two decades have broadened the market for “multimedia interfacing” and “innovative delivery strategies,” brightening our horizons with “quicker access to valued customers,” accelerating the transmission of unintelligible messages written in academic cipher or ideological code. The surfeit of new and newer news, “prioritized” and “context-sensitive,” now comes so quickly to hand that, although we may wish it otherwise, we’re smothered in the feathers of the stuff—on air, in print, online; as broadcast, podcast, broadsheet, blog. Within the wind tunnels of the high-speed electronic media, the time is always now; the data blow away or shred, and what gets lost is all thought of what happened yesterday, last week, three months or twenty years ago. Unlike moths and goldfish, human beings deprived of memory tend to become disoriented and easily frightened. Not only do we lose track of our own stories (who we are, where we’ve been, where we might be going), but our elected representatives forget why sovereign nations go to war.
On the assumption that the blessed states of amnesia cannot support either the hope of individual liberty or the practice of democratic self-government, Lapham’s Quarterly grounds its editorial premise on the risk-assessment model that allowed me to edit Harper’s Magazine. If the words on the page translate into the sound of a human voice, I don’t much care whether the author sets up the mise-en-scène in 1740s Paris or Harlem in the 1920s. Some years ago on its editorial page, the New York Times handed down the ruling that, “Great publications magnify beyond measure the voice of any single writer.” The sentence employed the wrong verb. The instruments of the media amplify a voice, serving much the same purposes as a loudspeaker in a ballpark or a prison. What magnifies a voice is the force of mind and the power of expression, which is why Shakespeare’s plays still draw a crowd in Central Park, and why we find the present in the past, the past in the present, in voices that have survived the wreck of empires and the accidents of fortune.
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