Champion of ModernismPrint
A literary life on the edge
By John Tytell
December 10, 2014
“Literchoor Is My Beat”: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions, by Ian S. MacNiven, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pp., $37.50
James Laughlin was one of the heroes of modern publishing and an avatar of the best in small-press Jeffersonianism. “Literchoor Is My Beat,” the first life of Laughlin, is written with genuine feeling for the material, with a supple, lucid prose, quite free of the newspeak of academic jargon, and with a scrupulous documentary insistence. And the narrative Ian MacNiven has to work with is remarkable.
Laughlin (1914–1997) had the sort of pedigree formerly associated with British and American publishing. On his maternal side were officers who fought in the American Revolution and an ensuing D.A.R. legacy. His father’s family, Irish potato farmers, emigrated early in the 19th century. A fortunate marriage for the first James Laughlin in 1837 enabled a career in banking, leading to the manufacture of steel in Pittsburgh. The Laughlins consorted with and sometimes married Fricks, Carnegies, Mellons, and other millionaire industrial barons of Pittsburgh.
The Laughlin fortune was forged by fabricating the iron rails used to connect America after the Civil War, and by 1900, Jones & Laughlin was the second-largest steel producer in the country. Although his father was a playboy, his mother reinforced a strict Calvinist code that left him, as Laughlin put it, with a sense of the “moral responsibility to uplift people [and] to improve the world.”
MacNiven argues that such service may have also been a function of guilt, an expiation of privilege. Laughlin’s grandfather kept a yacht in Nantucket, his father drove a fire-engine-red Pierce-Arrow (his grandmother had two gray ones), and he was given his own 30-foot motorboat at the age of 15 and a Model A Ford at 17. Laughlin was raised in several opulent households, but to avoid his father’s mental decline, he spent a year in the Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland, one of the most exclusive boarding schools in Europe, where all instruction was in French.
His preparatory education continued at Choate, where he was near a favorite aunt in Connecticut, and where one of his instructors was Dudley Fitts, a musician, poet, translator, and scholar who opened the pathway to the modernism of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, E. E. Cummings, and William Carlos Williams. In 1932, Laughlin graduated from Choate at the top of his class and, despite paternal tears, chose Harvard over the usual family destination, Princeton. Eliot was the poet-in-residence at Harvard, and Laughlin probably audited classes he offered, devoted in part to the poetry of Pound. After Fitts wrote a letter of introduction to Pound, Laughlin asked whether he could visit the poet in Italy, and, famously, Pound’s terse, gnomically imagist response from Rapallo was “visability [sic] high.”
Pound’s exhilarating fulminations on the state of world politics and American writing continued in correspondence, letters written in Pound’s spectacular homemade frontier dialect, a peculiar pungently unorthodox flow of invented language and cockeyed orthography. Reminding Laughlin of the importance of American poets like Williams, Pound had become a mentor—the odd title of MacNiven’s biography signifies this. Laughlin, writing for The Harvard Advocate, got Pound’s philippic “Ignite Ignite” printed in the magazine, as well as an essay by Williams. Laughlin would continue to try to place Pound’s work, purchasing a used handset press to further that process, and after his second year at Harvard, he sailed to Europe for an informal tutorial at what he called the “Ezuversity.”
By the fall of 1934, he had reached Rapallo, where he was fascinated by what Pound called the “eddycashun,” a digressive exfoliating monologue, delivered mostly at mealtimes, on economics, politics, and literary ancients and moderns, all packaged in Pound’s slangy, cracker-barrel idiom, his hilarious mimicry of high and low dialects, and his wicked burlesque of class affectations. Pound was quick to offer suggestions for reading. One book that would prove particularly provocative was Tropic of Cancer, which Henry Miller had sent to Pound: “[A] dirty book that’s pretty good” was Pound’s recommendation.
Pound—whose motto was “Make it new!” and whom Laughlin addressed as “Boss”—also advised that Laughlin do something useful in his life. As if steel lacked sufficient utility in the poet’s eyes, he told Laughlin to start publishing an annual poetry anthology and gave him a list of writers to include. This project would evolve into New Directions, the publishing company Laughlin founded with money he had inherited. Laughlin had also resumed his studies at Harvard and persuaded his fellow editors of the Advocate to include a piece by Pound on religion and a story by Miller. The issue was seized by the Cambridge police, resulting in scandalized reports in the Boston and New York papers.
More cautious as a publisher, Laughlin would subsequently only print Miller’s nonfiction. Still, Laughlin deserved his reputation as the American publisher who pursued the avant-garde and took the greatest risks. He published Pound, both William Carlos Williams and Tennessee Williams; crucial novels that otherwise might never have appeared such as Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood and Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky; and an amazing list of contemporary American poets such as Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (whose Coney Island of the Mind sold almost a million copies). Furthermore, he commissioned many translations of European writers, including Bertolt Brecht and Herman Hesse, and of South Americans like Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges, a continuing commitment that helped diminish American provincialism and insularity. Such efforts often lost money for New Directions, and from the beginning Laughlin compensated losses with his own funds.
MacNiven’s biography is enlivened by reports of Laughlin’s encounters with many other figures vital to 20th-century literature: the arch-elitist Vladimir Nabokov; the sweetly devotional Thomas Merton; the impecunious Dylan Thomas, who complained that his family had no money for food; the irascible and often contentious Kenneth Rexroth, who took him hiking in the High Sierras and reinforced his interest in Asian literature; and the explosive and sometimes delusional Delmore Schwartz, who helped run New Directions for a time.
Laughlin possessed considerable grace, civility, and intelligence, rare qualities in his world. He was a towering eminence in American publishing and not just because he was almost six and a half feet tall. An avid skier who developed a resort in Utah, who traveled in socially prominent circles, Laughlin was passionate about poetry, wrote it himself quite skillfully, and at one point, caught in the folly of youthful literary idealism, drove around the United States with a car full of books, trying to peddle to local bookstores the little-known writers whose work he had published.
There was as much sadness in Laughlin’s life as dedication and accomplishment—marital incompatibilities, the suicide of a son at 27, his own fear that he had inherited his father’s bipolarity. To his credit, MacNiven does not sensationalize the troubles. Some readers may regard as unnecessary his insistence on recording so much of the minutiae of publishing, but the details are relevant: Laughlin was devoted to literature and to his writers. He remained, as he admitted in 1993, four years before his death at 83, “lifelong a friend of lost literary souls.”
John Tytell is the author of Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano and has written about the Beat Generation. He is a professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York.