Lewis Lapham on Mark Twain

As editor of Harper’s magazine and the winner of a National Magazine Award for his “Notebook” essays, Lewis Lapham has been credited with bringing out an exhilarating point of view in an age of conformity. He has written for more than 20 North American newspapers and magazines, and is a frequent lecturer and talk show guest. His most recent book, Gag Rule: On the Stifling of Dissent and the Suppression of Democracy, was published by Penguin Press this month.

Journal: Tom Wolfe once compared you to Montaigne, who was most famous for saying, “I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself.” How do you feel about that comparison?

Lapham: I could possibly go for the monster part, but not the miracle part.

I’ve read that you are a big fan of Mark Twain. Do you have a favourite work by him?

Well I like his Letters from the Earth and I like his Connecticut Yankee. I also like his Innocents Abroad, and then I like a lot of his sketches and short speeches...that he gave over a period of 30 years. He used to write for the Hartford Current. He was a man of enormous breadth. The more I read of Twain, the more I think of him as the greatest of the American writers.

Would you call him your biggest influence as a writer?

Well, yeah. I mean, I don’t quite come up to his standard, but he would be, certainly. Sometimes, in the mornings, I read a little bit of Twain just to get my heart started, so I kind of know what tone of voice I’m trying for.

In your book, Money and Class in America, you discuss the polarization of class structures in the United States. Do you notice any marked differences in class structures between Canada and the United States?

Yeah, I think Canada seems to me to be more egalitarian, more democratic. Because what’s happening in the United States has happened over the last 30 years. The difference—the gulf—between rich and poor has become ever wider since, let’s say, about 1980. So it becomes noticeable. And I find it much more noticeable in the United States than I do here [in Canada]. I don’t think that the gulf between rich and poor is so wide here. I may be wrong, but that’s my impression.

Your latest book is entitled Theater of War and is highly critical of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. And you’ve said in interviews that the Bush administration has attempted to appeal to the weakness and fear of the American people, as opposed to their courage and strength. What role do you feel the media plays in perpetuating this cycle of fear?

Well, I think the media—the big media in America—conceives of itself as an instrument of the government, and tends to reiterate, mouth and parrot and take the same stand as whatever they are told to take. Well, I mean, that’s a little bald. But generally the collective attitude of the big media is to want to flatter the wisdom in office, and to uphold the cherished American myths: that our armies are invincible, our virtue unassailable and our artists capable of masterpieces and so on. And the media is a promotional service.

How have your experiences as a reporter at the San Francisco Examiner and the New York Herald Tribune tempered your view of the media?

It was an education. It was a way of learning firsthand some of the rudiments and mechanics of a democratic society. I got to cover city hall, state legislature, you learn something about police, and you get to see all kinds of different people. In those days—and we’re talking about the fifties and the first two years of the sixties—journalism didn’t take itself so seriously. In the last twenty years journalists have begun to confuse themselves with statesmen, and nobody at the Tribune or the Examiner, that I knew, made that kind of mistake. It was more fun, and I learned a great deal.

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