Wednesday, January 05, 2005

A Lewis Lapham Mystery

One of many literary mysteries hushed up over past decades which should now be brought to light is the firing of Harper's Editor Lewis Lapham in 1981. (He was brought back in 1983.)

The firing happened shortly after a two-part article ran in the magazine, written by a "Bryan F. Griffin," entitled, "Panic Among the Philistines."

When I was producing my notorious newsletter in the 90's, New Philistine, someone brought the old Griffin article to my attention. (While we both criticized the lit world, our criticisms came from opposite directions, and we used the "philistine" word in different ways.)

Griffin's article came from a conservative, upper-class direction, knocking writers like Updike and John Cheever, of all people, for their vulgarity and the crassness of their writing. Griffin, in fact, went after nearly every prominent writer of the day. (Most of which are still writing, unfortunately. They were no good then, even less so now.) I looked up the two-part article in a university library. It made for an interesting read-- as did the aftermath.

Amid the outrage, speculation was rampant that Bryan F. Griffin was a pseudonym. Suspects ranged from regular Harper's contributor Tom Wolfe (but why would that egomaniac hide his identity?) to Hilton Kramer to Lewis Lapham himself. Shortly after, Lapham was fired.

In 1994, after having been embroiled in another literary detective story, I looked into the Bryan F. Griffin matter. I could find no evidence of Griffin's work other than the Harper's article, and a later book based on it, published by Regnery in 1983. I wrote Regnery requesting contact info for Mr. Griffin, but never received a reply.

While believed to be a liberal, in the early days of his eternal stint at Harper's Lewis Lapham published many articles which were culturally conservative. A couple interesting points to add context to the puzzle:

-Lapham took great offense at Willie Morris's memoir of literary life in New York, without being specific about what in the Morris book offended him. (Morris was Lapham's predecessor as Harper's Editor.) The Griffin essay incidentally went after several of Morris's friends.

-When the conservative arts journal New Criterion was being planned (the early 80's?), Lewis Lapham was offered the job as Editor, for an alleged $200,000 a year. Did they know something about him which we don't?

I'll speculate that someone at New Criterion today still knows people at Regnery, and knows the identity of the mysterious Bryan F. Griffin, who has dropped off the face of the earth.


Anonymous said...

Do you have anything new to add to this entry? After opening some old boxes in my brain, I recall reading the original article in Harper's. It's funny how essays like this or John Gardner's On Moral Fiction and B.R. Myers's A Reader's Manifesto create a stir and quickly fade away.

j. morris said...

Bryan F. Griffin was quite real. He dies this Monday, Dec. 23, at the age of 64. Here is the death notice from the Washington Post.

King Wenclas said...

Thanks for the heads-up. The new mystery-- why did he make such a provocative, and largely true, attack, then remain silent for decades? Another critic stifled? Seems like a waste.

j. morris said...

No, no one could stifle Biff, as he was known to his friends. He simply found more rewarding (and less contentious) ways to live his life.

Melanie Griffin said...

Bryan was my brother, and as posted above, he did indeed pass away in 2013. He was outgoing and gregarious with his friends, but treasured his privacy.

He told the story of Lapham calling him from a cocktail party and putting some editors on the line who had been questioning my brother's existence. I think Biff (Bryan) enjoyed the mystery surrounding him.

But he had real reasons for dropping from sight, some of which I may write about some day, having picked up his writing bug (but not his conservatism). Maybe, maybe not. Keep guessing...