Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Mister Lewis is an Essayist

Lewis H. Lapham is an essayist's icon. He is also a writer's nightmare, at least for some of us. In absentia, he'll turn you into a better writer, whether you think you can be, or not. And even more painful is the notion he can make a writer write essays. Essays? That's work. Oh for heaven's sake, be kinder that that.

He did and is just that to me. After reading Mr. Lewis, as I like to call him here at the ranchito, for a mere month or so, I'm addicted. The first piece I laid eyes on was "Imperial Masquerade", a book of essays which is, to be precise, extraordinary. He writes of the 1980s, arguably a decade bringing more mass confusion than had ever befallen the American public. He has it "down" - deciphered, demystified, and declassified, all in a compilation of essays about his victims whom he effortlessly pulls on to his delightfully large collection of skewers. No one living escapes, and if they're already dead, well, they're still meant to suffer. In a way, the entire book might be re-dedicated to his former and uncanny prescience, recently certified in his new article in Harper's, Bombast Bursting In Air, skewering the entire band of puppets and one billionaire, minus one socialist, running in the 2016 election, so far.  

Lewis is not only an incredible writer in every respect, and an essayist of immeasurable proportion, but arguably the best author of his generation still living in the United States. I'm still in a sort of wonderful, daily, continuing shock, even after only a month discovering him. Words have failed me until now. And it's still adoration time.

In absentia, Mr. Lewis has unwittingly seated me square in front my very own defining door to the structure of writing, the one I have searched for and circled around all my life. I never identified the opening, nor really examined the content, but he went up to it, dusted off the sign, and even knocked on it for me.

Now, at 67, I'm impatiently writing like an intern all day, with a break or two, especially in the early afternoon when age briefly catches my attention, and I hope there is surely more to come than a blog. But if this is it, that's OK too. I've been the jack of all trades, but that's not so interesting to me now. The last time I really did much real writing (other than 20 years of technical writing) was in 1995 after boarding up a small and lively Midwest weekly I started almost three years earlier in Mishawaka, Indiana. I liked the work, but it was a financial black hole. My newspaper and I were both subject to the Rule of Decline and Death, an economic tenet specified for all small newspapers that didn't have a hundred-year history. In other words, for rags and dummies like myself.

While Mr. Lewis' work has consumed my thoughts and nearly all my reading, above all it's finally forced my writing hand back to work, and this time I believe, in full concert with a brain. (The pen in hand, of course, has now doubled to ten pecking fingers).

You should know, by no surprise, Mr. Lewis has never heard of me. I'm actually glad of that, because I want to get the adoration out of my system as soon as possible. As a writer, I've never been one of the elected, nor one who ever submitted. The process is far too gruesome to even imagine, and even as I head out to the burn barrel (yes, it's allowed here, thankfully) with my How-to-Write and where-to-send-it and what-to-do-to-get-it-published books, I still care whether I've said anything at all after it's read. So against the wind I will be throwing my pixelated paper airplanes, scribblings, essay-like I hope, on to this little blog I started just a few days ago. 

My decision. I hope I don't regret it. If you come back and give me hell, it will be much appreciated, and if you say something nice, then I will probably try to be as nice as The Donald says he can be, especially when he is in his throw-around-the-money mode. I wish I could, but I don't have money to throw around to get readers. What is read will have to do.

In the meantime, the question is if you are not a member or associate of the Lapham-skewered group, and if you decide to read or even if you have read "Mister Lewis", how can you, provided you are a human, not love this man?


In the introduction to the 2014 winter issue of his quarterly magazine, Lapham's Quarterly, Lewis provides a personal account of his first Sunday in the autumn of 1948 at (Hotchkiss) boarding school in Connecticut, a few years after he accompanied his grandfather, Roger, mayor of San Francisco, to speeches he gave during WWII. Roger's father and my maternal great-grandfather Henry George Lapham were first cousins and friends, so I have heard. In an excerpt lifted and pasted below from the full essay, Lewis notes he had never set foot in Connecticut before entering Hotchkiss. Brings a story (an essay?) to mind, but that is for another day.

I never thought it would happen, this writing I am doing. If I died tomorrow, I can say, right now, I finally woke up before my time came. 

Muchas gracias.

"Arriba Mr. Lewis!"
The Solid Nonpareil
by Lewis H. Lapham

Well, humor is the great thing, the saving thing, after all.
—Mark Twain


This issue of the Quarterly relies on sources predominantly British or American, many of them drawn from within the frame of the last two centuries, because I can hear what isn't being said. Usually, not always. Even in one’s own day and age it’s never a simple matter to catch the drift in the wind or judge the lay of the land. Lenny Bruce (Los Angeles, page 153) remarks on the collapse of his off-color nightclub act in front of a milk-white audience in Milwaukee—“They don’t laugh, they don’t heckle, they just stare at me in disbelief ”—and I’m reminded of my own first encounter, at the age of thirteen,with a silence casting me into an outer darkness in a galaxy far, far away.

In the autumn of 1948 on my first Sunday at a Connecticut boarding school, the headmaster (a pious and confiding man, as grave as he was good) welcomed the returning and newly arriving students with an edifying sermon. Protestant but nondenominational,the chapel had been built to the design of an early-eighteenth-century New England spiritual simplicity—white wood, unstained glass, straight-backed pews set in two sternly disciplined rows before an unobtrusive pulpit. The students were arranged alphabetically by class, seniors to the fore, preps, myself among them, fitted into the choir loft above the doors at the rear. My family 
having moved east from California only a few weeks prior to my being sent off to school, I’d never before seen a Connecticut landscape. 

More to the point, I’d only twice been inside a church, for an uncle’s wedding and a police chief ’s funeral.The latter ceremony I’d attended with my grandfather during his tenure as mayor of San Francisco during the Second World War, one of the many occasions on which, between the ages of seven and eleven, I listened to him deliver an uplifting political speech. Out of the loop within the walls of the chapel, I assumed that the headmaster’s sermon was a canvassing for votes, whether for or from God I didn't know, but either way a call to arms, and as I had been taught to do when an admiral or a parks commissioner completed his remarks, I stood to attention with the tribute of firm and supportive applause.

The appalled silence in the chapel was as cold as a winter in Milwaukee. The entire school turned to stare in disbelief, the headmaster nearly missed his step down from the pulpit, the boys to my left and right edged away, as if from a long-dead rat. Never mind that my intention was civil, my response meant to show respect. During the next four years at school, I never gained admission to the company of the elect. I’d blotted my copybook, been marked as an offensive humorist from the wrong side of the Hudson River. 

In the troubled sea of the world’s ambition, men rise by gravity, sink by levity, and on my first Sunday in Connecticut I had placed myself too far below the salt to indulge the hope of an ascent to the high-minded end of the table—not to be trusted with the singing of the school song, or with the laughing at people who didn't belong to beach clubs on Long Island. The sense of being off the team accompanied me to Yale College (I never saw the Harvard game) and shaped my perspective as a young newspaper reporter in the 1950s. A potentially free agent, not under contract to go along with the program—able to find fault with an official press release, put an awkward question to a department-store mogul—I was looked upon with suspicion by the wisdoms in office. The attitude I took for granted on the part of real-estate kingpins and ladies enshrined in boxes at the opera,but I didn't recognize it as one adjustable to any and all occasions until the winter night in 1958 when the San Francisco chapter of Mensa International (a society composed of persons blessed with IQ test scores above the ninety-eighth percentile) staged a symposium meant to plumb to its utmost depths (intellectual, psychological, and physiological) the mystery of human gender.

Wine and cheese to be served, everybody to remove his or her clothes before being admitted to the discussion. Dispatched by the San Francisco Examiner to report on the event, I didn't make it past the coat racks on which the seekers of the naked truth draped their fig leaves. But even with the embodiments of genius, Mensa wasn't taking any chances. Confronted with a display of for the most part unlovely and decomposing flesh, the doorkeepers distributed identifying wrist bracelets, blue silk for boys, pink velvet for girls, one of each for gays, lesbians, and transsexuals. What was wonderful was the utter seriousness of the proceeding. Nobody laughed or risked the semblance of a smile; the company of the elect looked with proud disdain upon the fully clothed reporters standing around in unpolished shoes. 

Lewis H Lapham, Lapham's Quarterly, Winter 2014, in introduction to the issue, "Comedy"

1 comment:

  1. I think you are on to something George... I see a lot of similiarity with earlier things you have written (some with no intention of having anyone see what you wrote) but even in articles for the Monitor... and...... I can tell you are having a lot of fun writing... like the dogs in Mexico... I can see your stride and the confidence behind it. :)