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At the Feet of Ezra Pound

Heir to a steel fortune, James Laughlin IV grew up in a mansion in Pittsburgh where the “inside” servants were Irish and the “outside” servants black, where, in the summer, the windows were fitted with frames of cheesecloth that had to be washed of soot every day. The Mellons lived across the street; the Carnegies nearby. Henry Clay Frick, who brought in the militia against the striking Homestead coal miners, was a great-uncle. Strict Presbyterians, Irish who pretended to be Scottish, they were religious provincials who had found sudden wealth, much like today’s oil sheikhs. “At one house,” Laughlin wrote, “the butler passed chewing gum on a silver salver after coffee.” There were daily prayers and Bible readings, with the servants standing in attendance. (The Catholics were excused.) The Sunday comic strips could not be read until Monday. “Books were used for decoration in the living room. The only person who ever took them off the shelves was the parlor maid who dusted them.” The family traveled in its own private Pullman car.

His grandfather, James Jr., had made the money. His father, Henry, quit the business on the day James Jr. died, and devoted himself to duck-hunting and fly-fishing, yachting and golf, chemin-de-fer in the casino at Deauville, race cars at Chantilly, and, in the words of his son, “the pursuit on two continents of oiselettes, whom he always treated with liberality and kindness.” Stuck babysitting his two young sons on an afternoon in London, he took them to a brothel and hired one of the ladies to play checkers with the boys while he was occupied upstairs. His mother “could not wait to go to Jesus.”

James III was an eccentric uncle. James IV, born in 1914, attended Le Rosey in Switzerland, where, according to his maternal grandfather, he was unfortunately overexposed to “medical knowledge”; a classmate was the future Shah of Iran (“a stinker”). At Choate he was “Best Boy” and excelled at midget football. The Laughlins were Princeton men—they had endowed a Laughlin Hall on campus and his brother in adult life had a large collection of tiger knickknacks—but James scandalized the family by choosing Harvard, where the Brahmins considered him a yokel from the “West.” Harvard in those days was a place where decorators furnished one’s dorm room, maids cleaned it daily, and tailors came to measure the lads for the evening wear required for the regular debutante balls. James’s pal Joe Pulitzer kept a French mistress in the Boston Ritz.

At fifteen, his father gave him a thirty-foot yacht to cruise the inland waterways on their trips to Florida. At twenty-one, in the midst of the Depression, his father wrote him a check for $100,000—in today’s money, many millions—to get him started in life. James grew up to be a handsome playboy and a competitive sportsman, at home in the Lichtenstein Palace, in the pages of Town & Country, on the golf links with Rockefellers and James Jesus Angleton, the CIA spook, or with Texas oilmen at a testimonial dinner for T. Boone Pickens. He spoke in the slangy speech of the tuxedoed screwballs of 1930s comedies, and he inhabited the kind of world where, on a ski trip in the Austrian Alps, Herbert von Karajan’s chauffeured limousine would take him to the top of the mountain; when he split his ski pants, the Queen of Holland immediately produced her sewing kit and patched them up. He founded the Alta ski resort in Utah, spent months of most years on its slopes, and received a lifetime achievement award from the International Ski History Association. A registered Republican, he lived in Meadow House, a large family estate in Connecticut, where sheep grazed outside his dining room window.

That, of course, was only a fraction of the story. At Choate, under the guidance of his classics teacher, Dudley Fitts, James discovered the moderns. He began writing in the modern style, collecting first editions from the Gotham Book Mart, and entering into ardent correspondence with writers. “Jay will not, I think, write the American Ulysses,” Fitts commented. “He will not, so far as I am now able to judge, write anything but the world’s rudest letters.”

At nineteen, he dropped out of Harvard and went to France to work for Gertrude Stein, also of Pittsburgh, whom he called the “most charismatic pyramid ever built.” His official, impossible task was writing press releases for a forthcoming lecture tour, “boiling down cerebral Steinese into simple journalese.” His primary occupation, however, was to go on daily drives in the country and change the frequent flat tires while Gertrude and Alice picnicked nearby. Stein found him “extremely useful,” but fired him when she caught him reading Proust: “She was deeply offended. ‘J,’ she asked, ‘how can you read such stuff? Don’t you know that Proust and Joyce copied their books from my Making of Americans?’”

From France he made his way to Rapallo to sit at the feet of Ezra Pound and to become the only student at what he called the Ezuversity: daily lunches, long walks, and longer monologues, soaking up everything under the Italian sun, except Pound’s fascism and Jewish conspiracy theories. There occurred one of the legendary moments of modernism, a story Laughlin, with his almost compulsive self-deprecation, would repeat endlessly: Pound “said I was such a terrible poet, I’d better do something useful and become a publisher, a profession which [he] inferred required no talent and only limited intelligence.”

Pound persuaded Laughlin to return to Harvard so that his family would support him in his new venture and, in 1936, while he was still a student, New Directions was launched with what would be the first of more than fifty annual (and later semi-annual) anthologies. New Directions in Prose & Poetry, subtitled Indirect Criticism/ Surrealism/Dream Writing, had no page numbers—the novice publisher forgot to include them—but it did have a hot-blooded introduction by Laughlin himself, and contributions by Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams (one of his greatest poems, “Perpetuum Mobile: The City”), Henry Miller, Elizabeth Bishop, E.E. Cummings, Louis Zukofsky, and Jean Cocteau, among others.

In the first five years, Laughlin brought out about forty books, selling them to bookstores out of his station wagon, and mainly concentrating on the American moderns who had nowhere else to publish: Pound, Williams, Miller, Delmore Schwartz, Kay Boyle, Kenneth Patchen. But those years also saw New Directions’ entry into the Internationale of the “revolution of the word” proclaimed by Transition magazine: Dylan Thomas, Garcìa Lorca, Kafka’s Amerika, and Delmore Schwartz’s translation of Rimbaud, based on near-total ignorance of French.

Laughlin, however, knew his French—and Italian and German—traveled to Europe frequently, and had the extraordinary knack of taking only the good advice from writers urging him to publish other writers. Beginning in the 1940s, the scope of the press expanded. One needs to take a deep breath to recite the writers for whom New Directions was an early, and usually the first, American publisher. Thomas and Garcìa Lorca were followed by Neruda, Sartre, Brecht, Camus, Céline, Mishima, Montale, Cendrars, Borges, Apollinaire, Paz, Rilke, Pasternak, Michaux, John Hawkes, Svevo, Valéry, Isherwood, Ungaretti, Nabokov, Raja Rao, Hesse, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Paul Bowles…the list goes on and on. In the 1940s and 1950s—it seems unimaginable now—he rescued from out-of-print oblivion The Great Gatsby, Light in August, and books by Forster, Conrad, Evelyn Waugh, Henry James, Nathanael West, Djuna Barnes, Joyce, Lawrence, Stendhal, and Flaubert. Along with these, there was Laughlin’s continuing commitment to the American poetry avant-garde. The founding fathers, Pound and Williams, were joined by H.D., Rexroth, Oppen, Olson, Ferlinghetti, Rukeyser, Creeley, Levertov, Snyder, and Duncan, among many others.

The list—and one could rattle on much longer—is even more remarkable since New Directions rarely published more than thirty books a year, and often many fewer. As an adolescent in the 1960s, I, like many others, would buy any New Directions book I saw—although I probably had never heard of the author—simply because it was published by New Directions. It was the Temple of Modern Literature, across the plaza from that other temple, the old Penguin Classics.

More than any other American publisher, New Directions had, and still has, an identity so sharply delineated that a standard topic of conversation among writers for decades has been “Why doesn’t New Directions publish X or Y?” Its domain is perhaps best defined by negatives: fiction that does not rely on a strictly linear narration, poetry that is not written in traditional forms, and criticism that is nonacademic and jargon-free. Its authors are too diverse to be considered a clique, yet many New Directions books have a lineage within the list, for example, Dudley Fitts to Pound to William Carlos Williams to Rexroth to Snyder to Bei Dao. Pound recommended Henry Miller, who recommended Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, whose sales of a million books floated dozens of more obscure writers.

Moreover, New Directions’ policy has kept it unique in the increasingly venal publishing world. It only publishes literary books. The staff remains small. It pays prompt royalties on books sold, but only minimal advances. (This inevitably led certain novelists—Nabokov, Paul Bowles, and W.G. Sebald, among them—to follow far more lucrative offers elsewhere.) It relies more on word of mouth than on advertising or publicity. Most of all, because of Laughlin’s belief that a writer of what he called “serious literature” takes twenty years to be discovered, it keeps most of its books in print forever. Laughlin’s wealth let New Directions survive as a money-loser into the 1960s, until the moment when yesterday’s obscure gibberish became today’s course requirement. The company has generally operated at a profit since then, with the backlist paying for the roster of new writers who, it believes, will be essential reading tomorrow. It is an old-fashioned, patrician way of doing business—the long-term investment—applied to the most unlikely product, avant-garde literature.

Laughlin, late in his equally long life—he died in 1997 at age eighty-three—was often urged to write an autobiography, and he worked for some years on an unfinished memoir in verse form, Byways.1 Now, Barbara Epler, the current editor in chief of New Directions, and Daniel Javitch, a Renaissance scholar and Laughlin’s son-in-law, have produced another kind of autobiography, The Way It Wasn’t, a snazzily designed, alphabetical rummage through his files of writings, correspondence, clippings, and photographs (including one marked “Girls,” where the women are clothed, and one marked “Girls: Personal and Confidential,” where they are not).2

Random” was one of Laughlin’s favorite words. His collected short stories was titled Random Stories; his collected essays, Random Essays. And The Way It Wasn’t is a book to open randomly. There is a more official, extensively researched biography being written by Ian MacNiven, but in the meantime, one can browse through these pages and read it almost like a poem about Laughlin’s life, one composed without chronology of the vivid moments that Pound called “radiant gists”:

  1. 1

    Edited by Peter Glassgold, this was published by New Directions in 2005.

  2. 2

    Here it should be said that I am given a short entry in the book, and about twenty of the excerpts come from letters written to me.

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