Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Media | Sports

June 27, 2010

Lewis Lapham's Wide World of Sports

The former Harper's Magazine editor turns his quarterly's historical lens to the playing field.

Vincent Valk

Lapham's Quarterly is a quirky look at the historical context of things. Those things are usually pretty big—war, money, the environment. They're the sorts of Big Issues that keep us awake when our minds are left to wander—the stuff of philosophers and poets.

And, this month, sportswriters. The latest issue of Lapham's Quarterly takes a historical look at sports and games, ranging from Greco-Roman times to the present day. The 20 century's purple prose is here, as is celebrations of sports in the age of the Olympics (the first one), and a look at 21st-century sports betting. (Lapham also contributed to a new anthology of sportswriting in Harper's Magazine, where he served as editor for nearly three decades—Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine—which, like his quarterly, collects sportswriting going back to the 19th century.)

Lewis Lapham
"Sport is the level playing field that can't be corrupted by crooked politicians and so on. It's the soul of the democratic idea."

Lewis Lapham

In the following interview, edited for length and clarity, Lapham talks to Gelf about putting his quarterly together, sports in American society, and the evolution of modern sports and sports fans.

Gelf Magazine: Can you explain what, exactly, Lapham's Quarterly is? Frankly, I found it kind of confusing at first.

Lewis Lapham: There's an old Arab saying that goes something like, "We have less reason to fear what might happen tomorrow than to beware of what happened yesterday." Our attitudes towards war, money, nature, sport, and so on—these issues we've covered—they don't come out of nowhere. The only thing you have with which to make the future is the past and imagination. Cicero puts it another way—not to know what happened before one was born is to always be a child. The point is to introduce the element of history, to foster the acquaintance with history, and to suggest that the uses of the past are many and varied.

Gelf Magazine: How do you go about deciding which selections to include?

Lewis Lapham: I have a board of advisors that is on the masthead. When we decide to do an issue, I call them up and ask them about it, and they suggest things. We start that process early: We know that the fall issue will be on the city, and after that it will be the future. I've already started to solicit opinions on those. Most of the people on the advisory board are the kind of people who have lots of texts in mind. So we collect as many as 300 or 400 texts and then I have a young group of editors who are very good, and the criterion is not to be definitive or comprehensive—it's, is it good? That's it: Is it fun to read? That's the only criterion I have in my head. This is not a publication that would appeal to university academics—it is incomplete, arbitrary, and in many ways off the wall—but the point is, it should be fun to read.

Gelf Magazine: Why did you decide to do a Sports and Games issue?

Lewis Lapham: Because it's such a part of American culture. It's the metaphor, the language, its what we have in common. If I'm in an airport bar in Omaha talking to someone, nine times out of ten what I'll talk about is sport. Also there's Jefferson's notion of aristocracy of virtue and talent: Sport is the level playing field that can't be corrupted by crooked politicians and so on. It's the soul of the democratic idea. Look at our politics: We like the campaign, because it's a race.

Gelf Magazine: One of the quarterly's essays closes with the phrase, "we are all sportswriters now," noting that many of America's defining moments occurred in sports. However, many of today's fans adopt a somewhat ironic, sarcastic pose, aware of the ridiculousness of attaching emotional importance to the fates of groups of millionaire strangers. I know I do this, to an extent. Has the American attitude towards sports changed? Do we no longer take sports as seriously as we once did?

Lewis Lapham: Yes, I think so, and I touch on that in my lead essay. The American idea has been on a losing streak for the past 30 years—that's my sense of it. In the 1830s, James Fenimore Cooper said in an essay that the soul of democracy is candor. But when that begins to deteriorate into bullshit and adspeak, you take a more detached, cynical, sardonic view of things. I'm 75 and out of college I went to Washington and applied for jobs at the CIA, the White House, and the Washington Post. In 1957 you thought they were all on the same team. But then there's the '60s, the Vietnam War, Nixon, and 20 years later cynicism is starting to set in. Then you add to that the further divisions of class and money and rich and poor in the '80s, so democracy begins to look more and more like a sham democracy that is made out of convention balloons. And the same thing happens in sport. You begin to pour more money into it to try to preserve, shore up, the precious illusion. The guy who wrote that piece is 29 and is a complete sports fanatic, but he was writing it from a historical point of view.

Gelf Magazine: Your quarterly tries to maintain a sense of history. How have our attitudes about sports changed through time? How do Western attitudes differ from Eastern attitudes?

Lewis Lapham: I'm not sure I know the answer to that. It's curious that when we were looking for texts, it was very hard to find them before the 18th century. You come across things from the Greeks and the Romans, but then there's a big gap in the Middle Ages. There is a sense of children at play in the Middle Ages, more than organized sports. In the Renaissance, you get the idea of amateur sport, which is something you had to do to cut a respectable figure at court. But they are all forms of play and accomplishment and grace. That's not the same as Teddy Roosevelt and our idea of sports as brute strength. The amateur tradition is about how you play rather than winning or losing, but when you get to Roosevelt and then to Vince Lombardi, the only thing is winning.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think explains the evolution of our sporting preferences? For example, in 19th-century America, boxing and horse racing were wildly popular. By the 20th century, baseball had firmly taken hold as the national pastime, and today, football is the most popular American sport. What do you think explains these changes?

Lewis Lapham: Well, I think we lost the idea of the amateur. Bobby Jones, for example, never turned pro. It is also the desire for spectacle. As time went on, there was more of a demand for greater and greater spectacle.

Gelf Magazine: Much of the appreciation of sports contained in the issue is devoted to aesthetic, or even moral, qualities. What do you make of statistical analysis of sports? Can it enhance our enjoyment of games?

Lewis Lapham: I'm not interested in that part of it at all. People may develop passions for those kinds of things because they have the stats at their fingertips. But to me it's not part of the play, and I can't imagine it being very interesting to the players themselves. I'm interested in the game as a game. When you start doing the stat stuff, you get into the world of death and time. The sport world, once you are in the game, it is standing outside time, but stats are not a part of that.

Gelf Magazine: But in games like football and basketball, time is extremely important.

Lewis Lapham: Yes. I like baseball and amateur golf because there is no clock.

Gelf Magazine: Finally—in honor of the World Cup—why, in your estimation, has soccer not caught on in the US?

Lewis Lapham: Because it is uninterrupted. They play for 45 minutes and then there is an intermission and then another 45 minutes. You are not being constantly interrupted with advertising and nostalgia floating around the booth. I never played soccer and don't really understand it. I can see it gives you time to actually get involved in it.

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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