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War Stories

January 10, 2008 By:
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It was Gen. Douglas MacArthur who supposedly said, "Old soldiers never die; they simply fade away." I began wondering recently if there were some commensurate phrase that might sum up the fate of old editors, since in the case of at least one, he's refusing, rather insistently, to fade away.

These notions popped up while I was perusing Lapham's Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1, dated Winter 2008. Topping out at 224 pages and selling for a rousing $15, it's the handiwork of Lewis H. Lapham, who retired not long ago after editing Harper's for nearly three decades.

Consulting the masthead, it becomes fairly evident that Lapham had to nearly put together an empire in order to get this new journal published. We're told that it's a product of the American Agora Foundation in New York City. Not surprisingly, Lapham is the group's president and CEO.

Those of you up on your ancient history may remember that agora -- which can be used to designate a general gathering place -- was, in fact, the name of the marketplace in Greece. Which brings us to the conception behind this entire enterprise, at least as reflected in this first issue.

The theme is "States of War," which is announced via the only headline on the cover. When you turn the magazine over, you find that among the contributors are Thucydides, Shakespeare, Sun Tzu, Voltaire, Walt Whitman, Saint Augustine, George Orwell, Homer, Tolstoy, Abraham Lincoln, Goebbels and Mark Twain. (And that's just a fraction of them.) So Lapham's Quarterly obviously conceives of itself as a "marketplace" of ideas -- and this time out, the subject is war.

None of this is particularly objectionable, though it is a bit rarefied. I did wonder who the target audience might be, considering that potential readers would have to shell out $15 for what is, in essence, a series of snippets they could find in other places, possibly even in books that already exist by their bedsides.

Lapham told The New York Times last week that the quarterly "is not aimed at academics. This is for general readers. This is for people who want to improve, bolster their education, and there are a great many of these people."

In addition, he noted that, though the magazine isn't aimed at a mass audience, "he was encouraged by the popularity of the History Channel and by sales of books like David McCullough's biography of John Adams."

The Times reported that not everybody's impressed. Roger Kimball, editor of The New Criterion, a conservative monthly, used the word "pretentiousness" to describe the first issue, adding that Lapham's "command of inconsequentiality has elicited comment for years."

Still, the quarterly has 6,000 subscribers and printed 20,000 copies on its maiden voyage. The publisher, Louisa Daniels Kearney, told the Times that the "response on the newsstands has been terrific both in the United States and Canada" -- which is really amazing because, way up north, the magazine goes for a whole buck more than it does down here. 

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