Lewis Lapham, Iconic Editor of Harper's, Mesmerizes Audience at Redwood Library

Lewis Lapham speaks to a standing-room-only crowd

On a lazy, late summer afternoon, writer and former Editor of Harper’s Magazine (and longtime Newport summer denizen) Lewis Lapham spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at the Redwood Library, serving as the final speaker in their summer salon series entitled, the "The Life of the Mind".

Mr. Lapham assumed the podium with the casual, understatedly confident air of a man who has spent much of his life giving such talks; indeed, his adroit command of the English language shone brilliantly throughout his remarks, serving to remind us of how such eloquence is becoming a true rarity in today’s world, and illustrating the major question posed throughout Lapham’s discourse that evening: what is the role of language in today’s modern and evolving technological culture? Or, the official title: The Pleasure(s) of Reading and its Future.

Peter Pochna, Nel Roberts, Lewis Lapham, Diana Oehrli,

Lisette Prince

His rather intimidating verbal elegance and far-reaching historical and cultural contextual points cannot possibly be replicated here, but we’ll share some of the highlights we took away with us from the talk:

As an editor and as a reader, Lapham searches singularly for “the human voice” in everything he reads, and is no longer reluctant to discard a book shortly after starting it if he finds it does not speak with this voice, which is really a search for an understanding of human character in writers. He waits three years before reading any book which has received unanimous acclaim, or which claims to be an “insider’s story.” He doesn’t believe the reviews.

In this era of new technology and multimedia, news comes so quickly to hand that we are “smothered” – the time is always now. Finding “educated citizens” nowadays was compared to seeking the immortal unicorn. Lapham disagrees that “a photo is worth a thousand words” but notes that today's youths think in images rather than in language, attributing this change to the modern visual culture of iPhones and iPads, television, laptops, movies, and video games. The American public seems to prefer “sensations” to the written word, and the “promise of redemption” to the “play of thought.”


Ken Brockway & Steve Walk

He averred that we are experiencing an absence of a national theater of ideas. In previous times, scientists and writers were familiar with each others’ works: Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin were cited as examples. He noted that the play of ideas “is never easy, seldom popular, and always suspicious to the established order” and that “nature does not require writers of consequence,” but laments that “the USA can poison the Earth, but does not wish to know itself.”

Amongst the “infinite noise” of the internet, it’s difficult to find a source of information you can trust. There is no such thing as “one public” in this country; there are thousands of publics, made up of disparate groups in their own cultural niches. Media and internet language repeats itself in the form of ritual, making it tough to translate into sensible politics, whereas print media has a cause-and-effect dynamic that forces it to be more accountable. When Lapham asserted that he believes “we will still have books” going forward, tremendous applause ensued. Part of the reasoning: books are lovely items, and “paper survives” – unlike certain other mediums, microfilm being an example.

Dodo Hamilton, Bettie Blake & Maureen Donnell

The gentleman was acutely quotable and unafraid to express his views: “Education essentially is our inheritance: not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” “This visual culture has killed our vocabularies.” “Culture is more important than politics in terms of meaningful exchanges.” “Human nature changes very slowly or not at all, which is why we can read Greek drama written millennia ago and still understand it and relate to it so profoundly.”

His weaving together of modern arguments and ideas between a context of ancient cultures and figures was also quite striking. There wasn’t enough time in the salon for every audience member to ask the questions they wanted to ask at the end.


Delphina Boncompagni Ludovisi, Kimberly Skeen-Jones,

Lewis Lapham


Attending the salon were Yusha Auchincloss, Mary and Doug Riggs, Dodo Hamilton, George Herrick, Lapham’s daughter Delphina Boncompagni Ludovisi, Bettie Blake, Maureen Donnell, Lisette Prince and daughter Diana Oehrli, as well as son Guillaume de Ramel and wife Molly de Ramel, David Thalmann, Kimberly Skeen-Jones, and Steve Walk, among the crowded audience.

As we departed the historic library, Newport Seen found itself wistful for a bygone time when such intelligent discourse and beautiful language were not so exceedingly rare in American culture.


                                                             -- Amanda M. Grosvenor



Cyrus Woolard & mother Nancy Austin

George Herrick

Chatting before the lecture

Library statuary

Carolyn DuPont thanks attendees

Doug Riggs introduces the speaker

Lewis Lapham speaks

Lewis Lapham speaks

A hushed crowd

Lisette Prince, David Thalmann, Molly de Ramel

Yusha Auchincloss

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