November 2005

Pauls Toutonghi


With the Beatles: An Interview with Lewis Lapham

People bring it up so much that these days that it’s almost certainly a cliché – the idea that contemporary American society lacks any widely-read, mainstream voices of social criticism.

But, all in all, this is probably a cliché for one reason – it’s true. The landscape of contrary voices does seem fairly empty; TV shows like Hannity & Colmes – with their rapid-fire format and glorification of the soundbite – are the closest thing we have to a measured public dialogue.

Yet there are, here and there, critical voices – writers who are willing to look carefully at the way we live.

Perhaps the strongest of these voices belongs to Lewis Lapham – the long-serving editor of Harper’s Magazine. Lapham is the author of numerous, clearly-argued collections of essays. And he’s worked at Harper’s for nearly thirty-five years – the last twenty-four as editor-in-chief. Lapham’s previous book, Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy, is a careful look at the role of the media in the post-9/11 political landscape.

But, now, Lapham’s career has moved in a different direction: He’s written a book about the Beatles.

Sort of.

Melville House Publishers has just issued a reprise of his 1968 essays on The Beatles, essays that appeared serially in the Saturday Evening Post. Melville House is a new press; they’ve only published a few books. This will be their most widely-distributed text to date.

First of all, I have to admit that I was nervous when I started reading this small, 147-page book. The Beatles didn’t seem – to me – to be fertile territory for a writer working in today’s literary and cultural landscape.

But I was wrong. Within pages I was hooked by the momentum of Lapham’s narrative. His writing is funny, poignant, entertaining and – at times – quite beautiful. With the Beatles rewards its readers with plentiful insights into human nature; it also stands as an impressive historical document. It catalogues one of odder moments of late-‘60s pop culture: The residency of The Beatles at the Transcendental Meditation ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the Himalayan foothills.

It also does what good writing can do: Bring you to unexpected places through implication, by simply giving you the facts – the key details – of a situation.

The plot is straightforward. A young reporter is dispatched by his editor at The Saturday Evening Post to the ashram in rural India. His mission: Catalogue the goings-on in this new corner of the pop culture landscape.

The writing is elegant throughout – quick and factual and vivid. Though Lapham takes pains to be objective, he can’t help but skewer the depthless way that the meditation idea is embraced by the more glamorous members of the Los Angeles music scene. (Says Al Jardine of The Beach Boys: “To groove it, you don’t have to be a musician or wear Indian silk or any of that.”)

What he discovers on the Indian subcontinent, however, is a very human assortment of characters. Ultimately, he exposes the Transcendental Meditation movement as an offshoot of nearly every other dream of human utopia: A mix of charlatans, flakes, and some very earnest people – people who are striving for a real and deep understanding of their place in the world. As Lapham writes when he leaves the ashram:

On the near shore of the river it had begun to rain, but as Geoffrey had said, the weather that morning was as strange as the light in an El Greco painting, and on the farther shore, clearly visible in the forest of teak and seshum trees, the two figures were standing in bright sunlight, holding flowers in their hands, listening to the voice of the cosmos.

Lapham puts words together in a measured and melodic way. There’s poetry in the prose, but a kind of poetry that does not overwhelm the detail-based, journalistic style of the essay.

Perhaps the book’s greatest flaw is the brevity of its final section. In Part Three of the narrative, Lapham takes the opportunity to reflect on the moment in time that he’s just described, as well as his own role as a writer:

Nearly 40 years later I still can bring the scene vividly to mind… The scene retains its force because I now know that it occurs at almost the precise moment, late February 1968, at which the flood tide of generous thought and optimistic feeling that formed the promise of the 1960’s turns on the ebb…

The reader yearns for more summation, for more insight into the way that time has changed Lapham’s perception of the events of 1968.

Harper’s Magazine publishes – on a regular basis – a kind of interesting, engaging, narrative nonfiction that isn’t available in other nationwide periodicals. Lapham’s latest book, then, is more evidence that the magazine’s editorial principles come from the top.

I spoke with Lapham in his offices at the magazine in early November. He offered his thoughts about the writing of the book, as well as writing, in general.

The publisher of Melville House Books – Dennis Johnson – has said that: “Lewis wasn’t the one taking acid, but he was taking notes.” Can you talk a little about these notes and about the process of reconstructing a manuscript from them – nearly forty years after the fact?

Absolutely. As you know, a much shorter version of this book appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1968. I was a contract writer for the Post during that time and it was my habit to carry a portable typewriter with me wherever I went. I’d take handwritten notes all day and then sit up at night and transcribe them. I’d do it immediately – otherwise the images would fade from my mind.

My logic was just that if I did it that night, then the next morning became a tabula rasa. I could start the whole process over again. So – while writing this book – I relied heavily on these transcripts.

E.M. Forster said that the difference between story and plot is that a story asks “and then what happened?” while a plot asks “why did that happen?” Do you feel that, in the writing of a nonfiction work like this one, you have to focus on either story or plot, particularly?

The emphasis in this manuscript is on the story. Admittedly, in order to put the story in some kind of context – nearly forty years later – I tried to add some extra structure to the piece. I don’t think it rises to the dignity of a plot. But it does try to give the whole thing a beginning and end…and leave the story itself as a “middle.”

What I do in With the Beatles is go back to the original assignment. I try to set the scene a little bit, giving some sense of what it was like to work for Otto Friedrich and The Post. That’s the beginning frame. The end frame is the notion that the winter of 1968 was a turning point – the end of the hopefulness of the late ‘60s, and the beginning of the move towards its tragic and ironic antithesis: the assassinations of MLK and RFK. The spectacle of President Johnson not running for a second term because he knows that the war has become that unpopular. The Democratic Convention riots. And, of course, the Tet Offensive.

You mention the Tet Offensive. How prevalent were the concerns of the Vietnam War at the ashram in February of 1968?

At the ashram? Nonexistent. Though the war was the primary concern of so many people in Europe and America, it was barely a ripple at the ashram. It belonged, you see, to the terrestrial realm, and not the spiritual realm.

Can you talk about the tone of the book? Are you striving for a detached, journalistic tone?

Yes. I wasn’t trying to write a polemic. I was trying to keep myself out of it, as much as possible.

I think there’s definitely a parallel in a book that I wrote a few years ago, The Agony of Mammon. In that book, I go to the yearly meeting of the world’s two thousand leading capitalists in Davos, Switzerland. I spend a week there and simply try to describe the scene as I encounter it. The story tells itself, in a way. I’m not there to argue a point. And there are some further parallels between these books, as well. In both instances, for example, we have high mountains and a higher realm of consciousness. (Laughs.) Anyhow, it’s a form of writing that I like and I don’t get to do enough of it.

When I became the editor of Harper’s, I taught myself how to write the monthly essay. I like that format, sure. But writing a narrative is more fun. It’s fun to tell stories.

Speaking of stories, what do you think of the rise of first person in fiction? Do you think that first-person narrative fiction is encroaching on the territory staked out by this type of reportage journalism?

Not necessarily. I like the first-person singular because you get a sense of another person talking to you, telling you something that’s important to them. Whenever I read something – any kind of manuscript, whether it’s a history book or a short story or a satire – I listen for the originality of voice. If the voice is there, I’ll read anything. I’ll read, for example, about giant ants in Peru. Or schemes in the White House basement. The subject is less important than what I can sense as the integrity of the voice.

What I’ll ask myself is this: Is this a writer who is trying to tell me – quite simply – what he or she feels? Because this has becomes increasingly valuable. Especially when so much of our language is pre-recorded and canned. Especially at a time when the individual voice is getting lost, when the individual mind is being obscured behind a hedge of cliché. And so people who are experimenting with the different forms of the first-person singular – whether in fiction or nonfiction – are trying to get at the sound of the truth. And I’m for that, no matter what form it takes.

Finally – after writing a series of deeply political books – did you have doubts about writing a book on The Beatles?

No, not at all. Dennis thought it would be a fun thing to do and I agreed. I’m very upfront in the book about my lack of inside knowledge of the band. And, in many ways, I’m not focusing on The Beatles, exactly. I’m writing about a moment in time, and the four musicians who were the biggest celebrities in the world in 1968. I’m not trying to fool the reader, in any way.

You see, I’d just like to gather the reader’s trust. If you can do this – and it can be done in any number of ways – you will succeed. Having an honest voice is the most important thing. If you have that, then I believe that you can write almost anything.