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”:
Tea at Renishaw Hall with Dame Edith Sitwell, who lectured him on Whitman; tea with the “Cummingses” in Patchen Place; Rotwein with Auden in Kirchstetten; lunches with T.S. Eliot:
There was one problem in conversing with him. He spoke very slowly…; there were long spaces between his phrases. I would think he had finished his sentences and burst in but he hadn’t, there would be more to come.
And tea with Elizabeth Bishop at a brothel in Key West:
The madam poured from an antique tea service into flowered cups which were daintily grasped by the young ladies. Oreo cookies were served, my favorites.
Laughlin buying ballet slippers at Capezio to airmail to Céline’s ballerina wife in Denmark just after the war (and seducing the shopgirl). Jean Cocteau explaining flying saucers to him. Climbing the pyramids in Chichen Itza with Alfred Knopf, who was outfitted in lederhosen and a pith helmet. Baseball games with Marianne Moore (“a Livin’ Doll, and the Soul of Kindness, but she did go on and on when she telephoned”). Djuna Barnes, who
came into the ND office to tell me that the next printing of NIGHTWOOD was to be done on paper that would last for 1000 years. I called the dealers who imported Arches and FABRIANO and sech, but the best they could promise was 700 years. She was very put out with me, declared me an idiot and threatened me with her cane.
When Joyce opened the door for me in Paris he said: “I think, Mister Logulan, we met for the larst toime on the battlefield of Clontarff.” Then he explained that my name meant “Danish pirate.”
(Laughlin adds: “I never saw the real JJ because I never went drinking with him.”)
On Nabokov, who would stay with him in Alta, and whose life he saved when he slid down a cliff on a butterfly-collecting expedition:
I wanted to be his friend, but he didn’t want any jejune ninkapoop to be his friend. He wanted big brains such as [Edmund] Wilson and [Harry] Levin to be his friends…. He would force a smile for me sometimes but it was a long-ways-away smile. The real smile was still on the flatcar that was transporting his grandfather’s carriage and horses across Europe for the summer vacation at Biarritz.
On Wallace Stevens:
Not easy to talk to, not much bubble, a grave counselor…. His wife, the lady so beautiful that her head was modeled on the old Liberty dime, did not encourage literary visitors at lunch. He had to take them to the Hartford Canoe Club.
On Henry Miller:
I wager that half the exploits in Henry Miller’s Tropics book [sic] were imaginary. He was not Errol Flynn. He resembled the clerk in our rural general store and was equally loquacious.
Laughlin was both manic and depressive—and took various drugs for it most of his later life—both self-effacing, in the manner of the unusually tall, and aggressive. Here is the young publisher, refusing to send galleys to William Saroyan:
Authors just have to take one look at a page of proofs to go entirely crazy and decide they are Jesus instead of Napoleon and rewrite the damn thing. I’m sorry, I just can’t afford it. You authors will have to realize that we small publishers can print you but can’t humor you.
Around the same time, Dame Sitwell was rapping his knuckles about a letter she had received:
If you want to be a success as an editor and publisher, do not write this kind of letter to very eminent people…. I have heard a good deal about you lately; and I shall not give you 100 points for savoir faire.
Edmund Wilson called him an “impudent puppy,” and the book has many zingy Laughlin lines about bookstore buyers, bankers, professors in the “beaneries,” and George Bush Sr. He loathed Wyndham Lewis (who had written him, “Why don’t you stop New Directions, your books are crap”) and Helen Vendler (who had little use for most of the American poets he published) and the notoriously impossible Edward Dahlberg and “Joke-book” Bennett Cerf of Random House—another wealthy founder of a publishing company, but one who largely abandoned his youthful literary ideals. In the 1940s, Laughlin wrote Cerf a letter that reads in its entirety:
Dear Bennett: You have just committed one of the great crimes against American culture of our day. You have let Stendhal’s Chartreuse de Parme go out of print. Sincerely yours.
Paul Bowles (who claimed Laughlin cheated him out of the royalties for The Sheltering Sky) is recalled as a “hashish-eating scumbag,” a “dogs-behind-licker,” and a “vomit-drinker.” Tennessee Williams, he said, had written him “affirming that dribble-pisser has the most minute membrun non-virile he has ever seen.” Henry Miller, despite, or because of, all of his books that Laughlin published, called him his “arch-enemy.” Lawrence Durrell replied to Miller: “I don’t give a milk shake for Laughlin that shyster impressario of bad work.” “The world,” Laughlin wrote, “is full of a large number of irritating people.”
But he loved many of the writers and—in contrast to his background and life—he particularly loved the Bad Boys in their endless varieties: Dylan Thomas, Rexroth, Pound, Mishima, Schwartz, Tennessee Williams, Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Céline. He published many of the Beats, and many of the Beat Bibles: Rimbaud’s Illuminations and A Season in Hell and Henry Miller’s book on Rimbaud, The Time of the Assassins; Lautréamont’s Maldoror; Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil; Sartre’s Nausea. He admired the writers who were protesting the atomic bomb and the Vietnam War, and regularly sent checks—and sometimes bail money—to the alcoholic, the addicted, the depressed, and the generally cranky. It was Laughlin who had to identify Dylan Thomas, “all puffy and purple,” in the morgue at Bellevue Hospital, after the final drinking bout at the White Horse Tavern:
In the window was a little girl. She was about four feet high, and I don’t think she had even finished high school yet. She filled out the forms—she couldn’t spell Dylan so I spelled it out for her. “What was his profession?” “He was a poet.” That puzzled her. This little girl said, “What’s a poet?” “He wrote poetry.” So that is what the form says: “Dylan Thomas. He wrote poetry.”
James Laughlin also wrote poetry, but no doubt under Pound’s terrible pronouncement in his youth, he kept it more or less a secret until he was in his sixties. Then—perhaps inspired by New Directions poets such as Pound, Williams, H.D., Oppen, and Rexroth, who had written some of their best work late in life—he produced more than a dozen books. He typically made no claims for his poetry, calling it “light verse,” though it bore no resemblance to Dorothy Parker or Ogden Nash. Rather it was, he explained in the third person:
statements of facts as he has discerned them. Many are reports on perceived feelings, his own and those of others; or a placing with imagination; or recollections from reading of matters with which classical writers were concerned. There is a minimum of decoration.
He wrote in the relaxed American speech of Cummings or some of Williams. Having read Latin and struggled with Greek all his life, many of the poems are translations or imitations of erotic or satiric epigrams. Some—most notably the poems in Byways—are long autobiographical elegies, in the manner of Rexroth’s book-length poems. Most of them, however, are short poems written in a form that he invented: couplets composed on a typewriter, where no line can be more than one or two spaces longer or shorter than the previous line:
How did you decide to translate me
from one language to another let’s
say from the English of friendship
to the French of lovers we’d known
each other half a year when one day
as we were talking (it was about one
of your drawings) suddenly you curl-
ed yourself against me and drew my
lips down to yours it was so deft
an alterance from one language to
the other as if to say yes you can
speak French to me now if you wish.
It is difficult to think of another American poet who could be both sexy and witty, take a single conceit in the manner of Donne and then present it with such a minimum of words or flourishes. Like most of the poets he revered in the Greek anthology, he didn’t write single masterpieces. He would be difficult to anthologize, since his poetry depends on the cumulative effect of an unmistakable voice. He is Satie rather than Beethoven, yet at times the despair he kept tranquilized breaks through, as in this poem written after the death of his second wife:
As he passes the open door
he can see there is no long-
er anyone in the room no one
is lying in the bed and no
one is attending the recum-
bent figure the water glass
with its bent drinking straw
is gone from the bedside ta-
ble there are no flowers
in the vase none of her fa-
vorite red and blue anemo-
nes the window shades have
been raised because the
room need no longer be
kept darkened now sun-
light is flooding the
room in its neatness
and emptiness it is for
him a scene of terror
what can he do with
what is left of his life?
The writers he published, and those he didn’t publish, never stopped complaining about him and complaining to him. William Carlos Williams advised him to give it up and become a novelist or a professor. Pound told Robert Duncan: “Jaz has a very long spine and he is always breaking it skiing. So when I kick his butt about what he should publish, the message does not ascend to his brain.” The newest New Directions books usually sold badly and were rarely reviewed. He wrote: “I often feel I’m working in a vacuum, or in a country where few readers hear the sounds.” He couldn’t go on and he kept on. The writer he most regretted not publishing was Beckett.
In the era of conglomerate publishing, where the “units moved” are books, New Directions continues, the oldest independent American literary publishing house, almost exactly as Laughlin ran it. It no longer publishes the young American novelists, who expect larger advances, but it has the leading American avant-garde poets: Susan Howe, Michael Palmer, Nathaniel Mackey, and Forrest Gander among them. It is the place where one finds many of the best living foreign poets: Kamau Brathwaite, Bei Dao, Tomas Transtromer, Inger Christensen, and Aharon Shabtai to name a few. It has had great recent success with W.G. Sebald, smaller success with Roberto Bolaño, Javier Marìas, and Victor Pelevin, and little success with writers who are extremely well-known elsewhere, such as Antonio Tabucchi, László Krasznahorkai, César Aira. It has brought back into print Julio Cortázar, Clarice Lispector, Bohumil Hrabal, Eça de Queirós, and the great Chinese novel by Qian Zhongshu, Fortress Besieged. The books are still rarely reviewed, still wait out their twenty years depending on word of mouth among the people who still have a taste for these things. And the copyright page of every book still contains the line that was once patrician and is now commemorative: “New Directions Books are published for James Laughlin.”
March 1, 2007