This week, I listened to this Longform podcast with Lewis Lapham, who was editor of Harper's for the better part of 20 years and founded Lapham's Quarterly. In truth, I'd been avoiding it. It's hard to listen to journalists talk about working before, say, the 1990s. Their lives were so good! I get insanely jealous. (I read David Remnick's piece about the scandal at the Bolshoi with the same level of envy: Oh, to have been a bureau chief in Moscow right before the fall.)
As a writer, Lapham had near-total freedom and a bottomless expense account, it seems. His editor at the Saturday Evening Post would send him places and say "See what you can find." He had the luxury of time to figure out what the story was. The Post put him up in the Hay-Adams hotel for three months so he could cover the Lyndon Johnson administration right after Johnson's '64 election. He basically lived in Juneau to cover an entire session of the Alaskan legislature. His editor, Otto Friedrich, told him to go to India and follow the Beatles to the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi because he'd heard the Beatles were kind of a thing. It doesn't make me any happier to know that the Saturday Evening Post folded soon after.
Lapham said he tried to do the same thing as an editor at Harper's. Many journalists hold the years Lapham edited Harper's with a kind of reverence that would put the transcendental meditation folks to shame. It produced some of the country's best journalists and writers, most notably David Foster Wallace. But many of the heyday Harper's folks are writers I've always associated, unfairly now I realize, with a dude-ish writerly swagger that I find off-putting. (I really love Wallace's nonfiction, but his imitators I don't like.) And the truth is, of course, there was no heyday for female journalists.
Imagine my surprise when Lapham pointed to two of the writers he credits himself with discovering, Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez. These are two of my absolute favorites, introduced by one of my dearest family friends and former teachers, the woman who taught me English in middle and high school. The only English course I took in college was "Nature Writing and Environmental Concern," primarily because they were on the syllabus.
Still, the podcast, which is worth a listen, mostly made me sad that I'm no longer on a magazine staff. I was sad anyway, but I had that kind of freedom and trust at the Prospect. I knew where and how I should attack the reporting of a story, but finding the person to profile and the narrative arc was the hardest part. I didn't always do it well. But it was nice to have. Figuring out how to do that now—externally, and before I commit to a story—is hard. Though I'm doing it, slowly but surely.