Scott Lahti: Personal Background

My early interest in essays, criticism and cultural journalism took me, prior to my early-1980s major in economics at New York University, to the writings of such paleolibertarian writer-editors of the interwar period as Henry Hazlitt (from whom my high school was across town), H.L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock; in 1983, to marveling with eyes ablaze in an upstate New York used-book shop, while on an end-of-semester libertarian-buddies’ Amero-Canadian road trip, over the intricate woodcuts illustrating the 1870s bound volumes of Harper’s which Nock had hymned so enticingly in the chapters devoted to his boyhood in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, my veritable hymnal each night in our motel rooms; and, in just the last year, to the covers, lush in the chromatic splendors of influences from Art Nouveau to French C18 rococo to Japonisme, of the old Frank Crowninshield Vanity Fair (1914-1936), and anthologies from the far-tonier-then-than-since 1922-1940 Reader’s Digest.

I first read of Encounter, the subject of my Wikipedia/ submission, round 1978 in the entry for “Best Magazine” in a much-thumbed paperback trivia book, then a couple of years later in one of the first book-length tours d’horizon of neoconservatism. After publishing in National Review in 1985 a short review of a mid-career anthology by the critic George Steiner, himself a veteran Encounter hand since the late 1950s, I lived for about nine months in Buckinghamshire, England, where, inspired by “Amateur Journalism”, Dwight Macdonald’s 1956 essay on the London weeklies, I wrote a follow-up feature essay for NR, a sort of Mr. Peabody’s Cultural History of literary journalism in New York and in London, in which I set the WABAC Machine first to the era of Mencken and Nock, and then to the golden age of khaki and pith helmet in setting the British-imperial stage, for the comparative advantages, to readers weaned on the sour pickles of their Gothamite and Beltwaysted opposite numbers, of The Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and Encounter.

On a Saturday afternoon in mid-July 1993, in the years when I was tied to the mast of the cash register of Brentano’s Pentagon City, selling books to divers Beltway grandees by day and reading John Jay Chapman at night by whale oil – when I could afford it – I directed a distinguished-looking seventyish couple to the Nancy Drew mysteries. As I rang up their volumes thus harvested, the name on the credit card I swiped verily blazed in flames of Gothic script after the close of Murnau’s Faust: IRVING KRISTOL. “That’s funny,” I said as though I had practiced for the moment since my school days, as, now I think of it, I had, “I’ve been following your work since Encounter in the Fifties.” “That’s funny,” said the magazine’s founding co-editor fully forty-two years my senior, as though in Gallagher-and-Sheen vaudeville-partner call-and-response – and, above all, privileged as no one before or since in the amiable unmasking of my anachronist Tom Sawyer posturing – “you don’t look that old!”

“And you must be Gertrude Himmelfarb,” I said to the fair historienne at his side whose hands of finest porcelain I consider myself still, twenty years on out of Wayne’s World, unworthy to shake, with all the residual courtliness I had first acquired over long nights poring over the Waldenbooks etiquette manuals – first written, if I recall, by Emily Post-Gazette and much revised – at least until the first Clinton inauguration rendered them set-pieces from a Ken Burns documentary on an all-but-inevitable Jurassic National Park.

As I slowed my book-bagging hands to an arthritic crawl, the better to allow my lightning round of shameless name-dropping from the divers Contents pages of the Encounter of its 1953-1967 belle epoque to flame itself out without excessive rug burns, I told Irving – now my newest among old friends – what a shame it was that the monthly he had with such high animal spirits shepherded through the emerald pastures of its aboriginal decade was now “one with Nineveh and Tyre” (or if not “and Tyre”, at least in part …).

He replied with becoming and stoic equanimity to the effect that all things human are destined to die.

In February 2011, I published on the letters page of The New York Times Book Review a short tribute to Encounter,  having noticed no mention whatever of the magazine in Paul Berman’s long lead review of The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009, a posthumous anthology of Irving Kristol essays edited by one … Gertrude Himmelfarb. Four months later, I was winning bidder at eBay on a bargain-priced lot of fifteen back issues of Encounter.

Six months after that, a friend alerted me to the vast treasure-house, newly-launched, of the historic online periodical holdings of So over the months ever after, already, I have passed many a dreamy moonlit evening refreshing my memories of the way we were, or at least of the way it, Encounter, was. And then seeing, upon the announcement in the spring of this year of the Historical Research Competition, that the entry at Wikipedia devoted to Encounter had over the first five-plus years of its life been a mere stub of 267 words or less, I discerned in that stub “the very nub of my gist” as John Cleese’s tax-hungry politician would put it.

Scott Lahti
North Berwick, Maine

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.