The Godfather of Modernism

James Laughlin
James Laughlin; drawing by James Ferguson

It’s not often that a biographer is as fortunate with his subject as Ian S. MacNiven has been with James Laughlin. As the founder and publisher of New Directions, the most prominent press in this country of modernist American and foreign literature, Laughlin not only had an interesting life, or more accurately several lives that he somehow managed to lead concurrently, he also exchanged thousands of letters with writers he published, friends, and family members, thus leaving behind an astounding amount of material for his future biographer.

His story and the story of the company he ran for over fifty years as well as the history of modernism in this country are so intertwined that they cannot be told separately. It is worth recalling that avant-garde writing in the 1930s, when he started his press, was either totally unknown or regarded as a joke. I don’t believe Laughlin ever thought of himself as a missionary, but he ended by influencing what generations of educated Americans read and what poetry and fiction were taught in schools.

Fifty years ago, when libraries on army posts in the United States and overseas were often as well stocked as small-town libraries, I came across a large collection of New Directions books in Toul, France, and over a period of fifteen months I got myself an education in modern literature no college course could equal. I’d lie on my bunk in the barracks reading Céline, Sartre, Nabokov, Djuna Barnes, Pound, and Williams late into the night, while my buddies played cards and listened to their radios. I may have been just a lowly private, but unknown to anyone else there, with the sole exception of a Frenchwoman who was the post librarian, I was in heaven.

James Laughlin was born in 1914 in Pittsburgh, into a wealthy family in the steel business. The Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation had been founded three generations earlier in 1856 by his great-grandfather, who with his partner made a fortune during the Civil War as the main producers of iron rails. By 1900 they were the second-largest steel producer in the United States. Andrew Carnegie and the Mellons lived down the street from them. Laughlin “would later characterize his birthplace as tough-minded, practical, and philistine,” recalling how after the coffee a butler would pass around chewing gum on a silver tray.

There was a lot of Bible reading and catechism, but no deep religious feelings. He once asked an uncle what the sacred studies were and the uncle replied that he wasn’t really sure, but guessed they came in a bottle. Laughlin’s mother attended the Presbyterian Church and was one of its benefactors, but his father, who had resigned his position in the company and held no job, left religion alone, spending Sundays boating, hunting, or going to the races and the rest of the week diverting himself with long-hooded cars and…

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