“Literchoor Is My Beat”: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions
By Ian S. MacNiven
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
James Laughlin founded a publishing imprint, New Directions, and ran or participated in some form of that adventure from his undergraduate time at Harvard in the 1930s until his death in 1997. He never took a salary for the effort, and regularly supplanted the company’s budget out of his own pocket. He kept the business afloat through a few tumultuous times for the publishing industry while living on dividends from his Philadelphia family’s steel industry wealth. As editor for New Directions, he curated great swaths of important 20th-century writing while passing time as a useful friend to many of the brilliant, odd, and sometimes desolated characters (Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Henry Miller, Vladimir Nabokov, one could go on) who produced it. He was also, and this is apparently pretty important, a hobbyist skier.
Ian S. MacNiven wrote the Laughlin biography, “Literchoor Is My Beat,” having been an editor on at least one New Directions title in the past (The Durrell-Miller Letters, 1935-1980), and having contributed an afterword on another (Henry Miller’s The Colossus Of Maroussi). MacNiven also mentions in the preface that his wife knew Laughlin “professionally and personally during a period of more than 20 years.” In the authoring, MacNiven indicated early, only to recover nicely later, that he would fawn over the biography’s subject, as if “J” (as he would go on to call the subject, with familiarity, throughout the text) were either a wealthy princeling feared even in his passing, or a publishing giant too fond to be reviewed in full:
Born handsome, brilliant, and rich, all his life James Laughlin courted the art of self-effacement. But even as he practiced disappearance, a behind-the-scenes master rather than a public figure, he, more than any other person of the twentieth century, directed the course of American writing and crested the waves of American passions and preoccupations. His life is mirrored in his friendships and in the careers of the many writers he championed.
Literchoor turns quickly from that tender treatment. A recounting of Laughlin’s youth (in which he was the lesser of the sons in the eyes of his father, skinny and unathletic, lacking his older brother’s boldness and intelligence) transitions to a narrative full of surprising occasions of inclusiveness and brutal honesty. James Laughlin bloomed late, excelled at first at nothing in particular, and never took to the family steel business, but he would find another industry for himself.
Laughlin found his vocation during seven halting years of undergraduate work, attaching to a diverse circle of acquaintances, and after having “come to the notice of [T. S.] Eliot, [F. O.] Matthiessen, Robert Lowell, and [Harry] Levin.” He leveraged his connections to reach out to an idol, Ezra Pound, who would become a mentor and a friend for many years (the biography’s title comes from their unique correspondence):
J wrote to Ezra Pound from Gauting on August 21 that he was an American, “said to be clever,” and he claimed to be Dudley Fitts’s and Sherry Mangan’s “whiteheaded boy” in need of advice on “bombarding shits like Canby & Co.” and help with the “elucidation” of parts of [Pound’s] Cantos in order to “preach” them effectively.” (Henry Seidel Canby, as the editor in chief of The Saturday Review of Literature, was viewed in J’s circle as a hopeless reactionary.) J also wondered why Pound “supported” Louis Zukofsky—recognized as a poet although not yet considered an important forerunner of the American avant-garde. J claimed with some hyperbole to be editor of The Harvard Advocate and the Yale Harkness Hoot and that these positions gave him access to “the few men in the two universities who are worth bothering about.” He closed the letter with the same Latin tag that Fitts used to Pound, Servissimus. It was a brash letter, calculated to intrigue Pound where it would have offended nearly anyone else.
MacNiven doesn’t believe a yarn Laughlin frequently told on the lecture circuit that it was Pound who advised him, “You’d better [drop poetry and] become a publisher. You’ve probably got enough brains fer that.” But it is true that Laughlin’s first ambition was to be a writer of important poems, rather than a publisher of them. Writing would frequently divert him, but the work never earned him the respect and the accolades he would desire until the end of his life. His poetry is almost always prosaic (so prosaic that one may wonder why he even breaks line), but it’s also strict, flowing, and economical. This opener of a four-page poem on another acquaintance and mentor in Byways: A Memoir is typical:
The Old Bear: Kenneth Rexroth
Sometimes he could be sweet as
Honey, but other times he was
Unbearably cranky; you couldn’t
Get near him or he’d growl or
Even bite. People either loved
Him or thought he was bad news
And to be avoided at all costs.
That summer when I drove down
From Alta to visit him in San
Francisco he was on a roll of
Good humor and I found him
Quite irresistible. Many of
His stories were made up,
Obvious fictions of a wild
Imagination, but so funny
One wanted to believe them.
Fifteen titles make up his bibliography, not including his collected correspondences with Pound, William Carlos Williams, Henry Miller, Thomas Merton, and others: a life of work that most writers would be proud of. But Laughlin had high aspirations in all things and chased greatness both in letters and, with considerably lesser results, on the ski slope. Much is made in Literchoor of his proficiency at and fondness for skiing (it must be ten percent of the book). Other than a couple of accidents that hobbled him for the rest of his life (which are examples of bad skiing, if the literature on the matter is to be believed), there aren’t any accountings of Laughlin “the future ski impresario” accomplishing anything noteworthy: he failed to make the Harvard ski team, never broke any records, and never innovated the sport (or the pastime) in any way established in the text, so it’s worth wondering what motivated MacNiven to include so much praise for the man’s facility at it, or motivated the book’s publisher to begin the biography’s description, “James Laughlin—poet, publisher, world-class skier….”
Luckily, there is also plenty of time spent describing Laughlin’s contributions to the publishing of 20th-century writing as well, much of it unwanted by other publishers, much of it selling poorly for many years after its first editions. Laughlin’s gift for befriending and relating to writers (and handling their tempers) led him abroad. On one of several breaks from Harvard in the summer of 1934, this time as a sophomore, Laughlin traveled to Paris and met Gertrude Stein, and assisted her as a kind of intern in exchange for more introductions, and mentoring that would aid his developing taste:
Despite her dogmatic pronouncements, J would always speak fondly of Stein, whom he recalled as “certainly—practically—the most charismatic person I’ve ever met.” Stein told J that the test for good books was that they must make the bell ring. This intuitive inner-bell note became J’s standard for judgment, rather than a book’s adherence to any particular philosophy, style, mode, or ism. And this simple dictum would go a long way toward explaining the eclecticism of the future New Directions, for J, even with his declared intention of publishing “advance guard” literature, would always at heart be an appreciator, not a critic. Ironically, where Stein’s writing was concerned, there was no such ringing: J would never ask for a new book of hers to publish. Stein’s importance to J lay in her artistic integrity, the purity of her stylistic voice.
Laughlin was uninterested in college, and it seems to have been quite the struggle to muster enough attention to complete his work in Latin and Italian: “To sweeten his resumption of his studies, his parents gave him a new Buick.” His primary mentor would add encouragement for good work, too: “Ezra gave his unqualified approval: “vurry good eggzesize fer yung Jaz.” (They usually conversed in this pidgin language, which is quoted liberally, and is infyooor-eatink t00 deezyfer.)
The first publishing effort, an anthology titled New Directions in Prose and Poetry, appeared in November 1936 and included “many significant names: Pound—of course!— [Elizabeth] Bishop, Kay Boyle, [Jean] Cockteau, [E. E.] Cummings, [Dudley] Fitts, [Eugene] Jolas, Henry Miller, Marianne Moore, Stein, [Wallace] Stevens, [W.C.] Williams, [Louis] Zukofsky.” The through line wasn’t experimentalism, necessarily. The collection presented a balance of the avant garde and the simply very good—a model Laughlin would see through in the balance of his choices going forward. To sell the books, he loaded them into his car (as he would continue to do for years) and hauled them into bookstores across the country, selling on the strength of both the bold writing and his own charm.
In his business with authors, he was aggressively cheap and constitutionally averse to front-loaded author contracts. Advances to writers (paid when the contract was signed and before the manuscript was finished) were kept very low (especially with certain authors, like Dylan Thomas, but in his case it could be argued Laughlin needed to keep Thomas sober enough to carry on). He would argue to writers that low advances and high royalties kept the pressure on New Directions to continue to market their titles, even after they moved to its backlist (he was being honest about this). The policy did anger some authors (notably Nabokov, who once cabled for $150 when he was in the middle of immigrating to the US, needing it badly, and was rebuffed).
We’re shown a flawed publisher who could be tactless and incorrect, and this damaged some relationships permanently. On a Five Young American Poets volume, “When J suggested to Elizabeth Bishop that her presence as the only woman in the collection would give it ‘sex appeal,’ she withdrew from the project.” At other times, business errors and failings of attention would draw the ire of some of the more central New Directions authors. William Carlos Williams once wrote in 1941 (in a threat he would not follow through on), “You’re too busy writing and living to look after a publishing business so I have made up my mind to go out after another publisher.” At times, MacNiven goes so far in criticizing his subject that it would be fair to wonder what sort of portrait he intended, or whether we’re supposed to think much of Laughlin at all. His first wife was expecting their first child, while he lingered at the Utah ski resort he had recently purchased:
In early October, 1942, J was at Alta, while Margaret, nearing her term, languished in Norfolk, watched over most solicitously by Aunt Leila. On the eighteenth she was rushed to the Hartford Hospital, an hour away from Norfolk, where she produced her firstborn, Paul, eight months after the wedding. J barely arrived in time for the event. He still appeared to feel that he had been trapped into the marriage. He did not visit his wife in the hospital as often as she would have liked, yet he found his infant son “most engaging.”
Laughlin would wander through many relationships with the women in his life, and could be careless with the feelings of those closest to him, but his vision for the publishing business, printing the finest books he could find, indifferent to their sales prospects, proved out. It took New Directions, according to his New York Times obituary, 23 years to become profitable, but we never in Literchoor witness him discussing a change in strategy. He was eventually dragged into publishing paperbacks, but he made his “paper books” to be so durable that many early ones can still be found at the corner used book store. He backloaded payments on his author contracts but, as promised, many titles he signed in the 1940s still produce profits for New Directions today. James Laughlin wasn’t intending to become a member of what some now fondly recast as the “responsible rich.” He went looking for good work, and found a lot of it.
Michael O’Donnell is an editor of Open Letters Monthly.