Books

Meditations on Celebrity Over Millennia

Lapham’s Quarterly is a quarterly (duh) publication edited by Lewis Lapham (also duh), former Harper’s Magazine editor from 1976 to 1981. Each issue of the staid, stately magazine focuses on a single theme; previous themes have included “The City,” “Sports & Games,” and “About Money.” Drawing on writers and source texts from throughout history, Lapham’s provides a unique perspective on its chosen topics by sheer editorial insight, pairing eras and authors to best highlight the similarities and contrast between changing perceptions. It’s the proximity of all of these authoritative voices that gives Lapham’s its historical heft, but it’s the lightness of their touch that makes the text fun, an adventure and a time machine in the reading.

The theme of the 2011 Winter issue of Lapham’s is “Celebrity,” focusing not so much particular celebrity personages as the idea of celebrity itself: what it means to be famous, what it takes to be famous, and how to bear fame gracefully. One look at the back cover will tell you the place to which Lapham’s aspires, and the company it puts itself in. “Among the contributors,” it reads, in an elegantly serif font (seen above), Cicero, T.S. Eliot, Giorgio Vasari, Truman Capote, Lord Byron, Thomas Aquinas. All there for the grace of the editors, though none may have actually chosen to be included. It’s a robust company of staff writers Lapham’s has, and the magazine is free to prune and excerpt their texts at will, given that the authors are largely no longer with us.

With their freedom to draw from the entire history of the written word, Lapham’s has come up with some fantastic juxtapositions to explore the idea of celebrity. Each essay or excerpt is marked with its date of writing, location and a short bio of the author; the reader is fairly bludgeoned with diversity. On one page, the reader will encounter a Cicero essay (Rome, 50 A.D.) on hearing tell of his own promotion while on an anonymous journey, political reputation preceding the man. The next page has a short story from Mark Twain on an ambitious young man discovering that his religious devotion may not get him to where he wants to be (Hartford, 1875), across from a sidebar listing some objects in the possession of celebrities and the prices that they fetched at auction. Elvis Presley’s peacock jumpsuit? $300,000 in 2008. Such is the value of celebrity.

For a hefty intellectual exercise of the kind expected in a college term paper, Lapham’s is surprisingly engaging and easy to read. The source texts are chosen as much for their clarity and readability as for their content; there’s nothing to intentionally trip up a viewer here. The volume doesn’t lack for engagement with the present either; particularly memorable are a conversation between Truman Capote and Marilyn Monroe and an excerpt from the 1950 play Sunset Boulevard, capturing some of the dying sheen of Beverly Hills. Celebrity and tragedy often mingle. At the back, a “Further Remarks” section collects essays and analysis from contemporary writers.

More than anything, what’s fascinating about Lapham’s Quarterly is that it shows how though times, and politics, and contexts, may change, humanity really doesn’t. We all think about the same things, meditate on the same inner conflicts and play out the same tiny dramas. For that alone, Lapham’s is worth a look.

Lapham’s Quarterly is available at fine bookstores everywhere and through the publication’s website. The Spring 2011 issue is now out; the theme is “Work.”

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