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Ian S. MacNiven.
“Literchoor Is My Beat”:
A Life of James Laughlin Publisher of New Directions.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.       

       review by Kevin Kiely



laughlinFrom the start, MacNiven, half-in-love with James (Jas.) Laughlin, demands the same of the reader. He is a sort of Nick Carraway to his subject, not that Laughlin, who is soon self-titled “J” had Gatsby’s romantic malady, far from it, though romantic entanglements were profuse in his life, for J the green light across the dock did not bear him back ceaselessly into the past but rather into the future, to his publishing house New Directions (ND). Behind it all, MacNiven (MacN) is endlessly resourceful, even swamped in resources, and pursues his subject as an enigma. It may sound formulaic, but his achievement as a biographer is in kindling huge interest about the publisher whose “decisions shaped English-language modernist poetry.” It is a boast met by the evidence from J’s unique model as to how modernist poetry got into print via ND. He, of course, scores high, accumulates honours and epaulettes in the end, unlike the antipathetic fictional guy in the mansion on Long Island who ends face down in the pool.

MacN occasionally attempts to explain the psychological profile and occult driving force behind the compulsive publisher’s professionalism, but refrains from reaching a definite statement. J is well caught in a Virginia Schendler photograph (1979) with the backdrop of books and the window of many panes sitting in an armchair wearing presumably fawn slacks, T-shirt, and sport jackets smoking a pipe. The face, however, is the giveaway, as if he cannot assume the vanity that he strives towards: the pomp is overshadowed by a deeply wistful even troubled puritan guilt. As Shakespeare puts it, there is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.

Freudian analysis from MacN posits an identity-seeking J amidst his four main passions: poetry, publishing, skiing, and womanising. Where Gatsby “dies” for passion, leaving the reader only half–sympathetic if at all, J lives and earns as much affection as MacN can bring to the exposition of the enigma in its habitual variations. It is a more active life than a bunch of transatlantic Jamesian characters, yet wholly wistful in the biographer’s handling, because of the unresolved and highly evolved immense struggle with poetic identity pitched against human performance.

MacN naturally does not bother with the “lurve” aspect as much as with the poetry, the poets and the publishing. Indeed, there is such a milieu as witnessed in the three page appendix (small font) of every modernist published by ND from Conrad Aiken to Louis Zukofsky. Thus the biography can only attempt the equivalent of a graphic novel’s scenic details or Dell comic encounters to encompass J’s life and contacts as publishing superhero. The skiing intrudes occasionally as J’s perfected if none too dangerous masochism. There are many injuries and various hospital sojourns for fixing broken limbs, but there are nurses abounding on location and the white snowy slopes which, unlike the poems, produced his major mystical experience. You cannot "know" J without acknowledging this, based on his spiritual journey centred on himself and particularly, Thomas Merton. It sounds like the watered down life of a lukewarm transcendentalist and yet, he is quite the conundrum amidst his travels and accumulation of living poets, writers, various arts scenes, and his own quest.

From the outset, sibling rivalry emerges with his five year older brother, Hugh, at odds with “Mam-ah” Marjory (Rea) Laughlin who “wielded the hairbrush, the accepted rod of correction.” His father is almost a caricature if real, as the benevolent asylum-bound, bipolar, philanthropic gentleman, family philanderer and outsider to J’s mildly disturbed childhood.

The parents’ engagement made the society pages in the New York Times which highlighted their wealth and stock. J “resolved” his phobia and neurosis of being well-to do, Presbyterian, and from Pittsburgh through ND. He remained sang-froid about lineage and overtly puritanical, even Calvinistic in outlook: plagued by inherent self-scrutiny, keeling over into Emersonian and Poundian fervour, and feeling one “had to improve the world.” MacN never quite settles the Freudianism of his hero; meanwhile Aunt Leila Laughlin Carlisle and Uncle Dicky “adopted” him from the quietly troubled, domestic scene onto Robin Hill, Norfolk, Conn. (not quite the Xanadu of Charles Foster Kane). After matriculation at Eaglebrook, Mass., Robin Hill became the alternative, less fractious homebase. Still, he emotionally placed Aunt Leila alongside his mother and subconsciously enlarged the generous, hearty, genial woman into the stern “Ogre Aunt.”  Robin Hill, named after Galsworthy ’s The Forsyte Saga, boasted a sizable acreage and a “three-storey Neo-Georgian-Palladian mansion designed by Uncle Dicky’s cousin the architect Charles Everett in 1927.”        

MacN imperatively follows the narrative but is never linear since there is too much happening once J settles into his life as publisher, as well as writing problematic epigrammatic poems.  Skiing is obsessional: a resort in Alta (Utah) always delighted him: “I take great pride in Alta because it is the one place that’s left that’s a little bit like the old skiing.”

Though his father was a Princeton man, J was sent to Harvard; obviously his mother’s decision, while his father literally wept. By 1931, J was hooked into Frances Steloff’s Gotham Book Mart in NY “purchasing books regularly with a charge account.” Professor Dudley Fitts recommended suitable reading matter: MacLeish, Pound, Joyce, Stein. However, judicious as always, or nearly always, J found Cummings’ Tulips and Chimneys “too high at $15.” A subscription to transition meant further encounters with hard-core modernism of the Parisian and international variety.

J drove his “Model A Ford to Plattsburgh, New York, to see his father wearing a straitjacket in a small private sanatorium that catered to patients from wealthy families,” or otherwise visited the old man maintaining tranquillity under sedation. Such visits “would haunt James for the rest of his life.” The Harvard scene of the 1930s is well done: Theodore Spenser, Harry Levin, Robert Fitzgerald, R. P. Blackmur, Lincoln Kirstein, and F. O. Matthiessen who praised him as “one of the coming literati of the Harvard-Yale axis.”

Fitts gave him contact details for Pound, 12 via Marsalla, Rapallo to whom he gratuitously introduced himself by letter as “editor of the Harvard Advocate and theLaughlin and EP Yale Harkness Hoot.”  Later, he would write of Pound in Byways: “that man is going to save the world if he can…one of the lords of the lyre.” Face to face, Pound provided complexity and hectored him: “practically NO poetry satisfies me/not even my own…don’t go on in my erroneous vein, by being too damn uncivil.”  A year on, they had become lifelong friends, Pound addressing him by letter “Dilectus Filius.” J’s gift for friendship was inestimable and the cast of names unfolds steadily. Stein spoke of how “Joyce and Proust copied their work from my Making of Americans.” MacN never spares the lighter comic ambiences as J learnt about writers first hand, including Stein as a dangerous driver. Distinctive ennui pervades the excitement of the European tours and with it, his frugality on $3 a day. “I don’t want to come home and kick around and get melancholy,” he writes from Paris during the glorious summer of 1934.  The next trip to Rapallo is a year before Pound wrote Canto 45. Quickly enough, cultural influence is absorbed and Harvard slated as his ranting mentor tells him that the academy is “usurped by professors bent on killing poetry, subsidized by the mercanti di cannoni  who were in unholy alliance with the bankers to kill people.”

Pound was not “a replacement for his own father” rather a soul-father. MacN never states the irony of J’s life that both patriarchs spent long periods in insane asylums.

Skiing runs parallel and provides contrast to the relentless narrative of the business venture: 1935 finds him “in the Austrian Tyrol, the glorious skiing country west of Innsbruck” in the milieu of the Orient Express. In the same year, at Pound’s suggestion, J set about establishing a publishing house. Aunt Leila and Uncle Dicky offered White Cottage on the estate for ND, while Marianne Moore and other notables were consulted. Laughlin Senior handed out the securities for ND’s opening gambit “approximately $100,000not far south of  $2 million in 2014 dollars.” The first anthology New Directions in Prose and Poetry bore “the imprint NEW DIRECTIONS/NORFOLK, CT./1936.”

With ND up and running his resolve is absolute. “I begin to think maybe I have found my vocation. The books are coming along beautifully and are going to be terribly handsome…almost a justification in themselves for some of our accumulated sins as a family.” MacN glosses the dynastic family company Jones & Laughlin who had been called “the toughest anti-union company in America.” Sins of the fathers would, if not engulf J, certainly keep him progressing as publisher amidst challenges and pitfalls. Carlos Williams’ White Mule was a learning curve. The novel in manuscript failed to impress Eliot at Faber, but took off while J had gone skiing in New Zealand. 500 copies sold out. The remaining 600 unbound, languished as “Williams watched in anguish.”  

Whether he went into publishing to foster his own poetry amidst the milieu of poets is never resolved or addressed. He was possibly influenced by Cummings’ typewriter metric, certainly absorbed Pound while Williams made sense declaring the typewriter as “the vehicle of the new age.” In 1938, he “found” Dylan Thomas: writing to his mother J said “I feel more or less that God has put him in my care and I must keep him alive.” Thomas, like others, came with individual issues and problems. Privately appalled, he confided in Merton how “poor old Dylan Thomas was one ghastly mess.” There is a bizarre account (too lengthy to quote) of J identifying Thomas for purposes of the death cert.

It wasn’t all skiing. He seriously set up office in a hotel, one fruitful summer in Paris, reeling in Henry Miller and Jean Cocteau. His range grew wide, publishing the founder of the monologue intérieur Edouard Dujardin in translation as We’ll to the Woods No More. He faced on-going financing and illustration problems, as well as the contingencies of distribution and sales as full-fledged industrious publisher. After one sales visit, he declared: “nobody in this land gives a hoot in hell about poetry.” In terms of illustrators, he hired Alvin Lustig, “who had studied briefly with Frank Lloyd Wright” at Taliesen East and Warhol who produced “four jackets for ND beginning in 1951.”

Problematic poets came with the job. His patience with everyone, particularly Pound proved to be exemplary, expert, and professional. As his “main American publisher” and “a convert to Ezra’s economic theories, not at all to his politics,” J warned him: “keep absolutely mum about money/jews/fascism you will not be liked/If you mention any of them subjects you will have one hell of a time”; “I want to push you hard as poet and writer, but not get tangled up in the political end”; “yr. politics have cooked yr revered goose to a point you wd. not believe.”   

When J’s “lovelife out west had become so active, he solicited the advice of Bill Williams” and married in 1942 (“his family told him that he must go through with it”) receiving congratulations from many writers including Nabokov.  Marriage inspired “a New York presence” for ND: 67 W 44th. His first meeting with Nabokov at a Lincoln Kirstein party led to Tennessee Williams “looking very nervous.” Knock-on networking was a vital asset. Nabokov’s ancien régime politeness withheld a disdain which J felt, remarking: “he would force a smile for me sometimes but it was a long-ways-away smile.” He had to orchestrate friends delicately: in spite of Delmore Schwartz’ objections to Scott Fitzgerald, J published The Crack-Up and the out of print The Great Gatsby.

The Pound indictment invades the narrative but MacN renders the array of poets and writers with equal billing. Both Merton and Robert Fitzgerald rank among lifetime friends. Like Cornell, J remained stealthily judicious, not too alarmed about the treason rap and was protective of the Pounds, fearing public sentiment which was strongly in favor of conviction. J’s loyalty to literature rode the fall out. MacN goes for the Overholser theory of how Pound found an insightful supporter at St Elizabeths even if it came with state controlled incarceration. Effectively, detention with indefinite release derailed the potential trial for treason. Importantly and strategically J had to keep “his name out of circulation on the Pound issue” while advancing publication of The Pisan Cantos. He published Brecht and moved to new offices at 500 5th in New York.

With the “arrival” of Merton the biography turns volte face away from the EP saga, keeping it just above footnote level on the Bollingen Prize controversy. Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (1949), put out by ND, became a huge success, clearing the three and a half thousand print run and meeting the demand for 45,000 copies three months later. But how was ND faring? Gross sales in 1940 were $6,702 compared to gross sales in 1949 of $232, 831.

J “found” Borges and was recalcitrant about the Beats. He would meddle with Snyder but rejected Kerouac’s Dr Sax finding that the Beats lifestyle “offended his sensibilities.” He befriended and published Rexroth as both remained above and beyond the Beats and their “ecology motif in American poetry” despite poets like Corso and others combining “a disordered life with a productive commitment to poetry.” As Snyder boasted of their “harder-edged politics than the hippies of the 1960s,” J left Ginsberg to City Lights and Ferlinghetti. The big coup for ND in fiction was Hesse’s Siddharta which became J’s record bestseller in 1970 with sales of over three hundred thousand copies.

How he “lost” Merton’s classic spiritual primer The Seven Story Mountain and Beckett’s work is fascinating reading; he would not touch Lolita under any circumstances since it “made him uncomfortable.” He passed on Tropic of Cancer, finding it and the whole trilogy “anarchic” and against “the bourgeois order.”

The Pound exit from America gets the same space as the W. C. Williams party for the fifth volume of Paterson. Politically, he was anti-Kennedy and avoided peace protest movements.

With Kenner’s input, he had a cohort to finalise an edition of The Cantos. A casual letter from Charles Tomlinson in 1964, praising J’s two poems in Akzente as “marvels of grace, poise, fineness of mind and ear” brought an astonished response, explaining the polarities of being a poet writing for “personal amusement, or vanity” while “accepting responsibility in a public way” if he went along with Ferlinghetti’s offer of a collected volume. Indecision ruled. “J’s major Selected Poems would not appear from City Lights for another twenty-two years.” Meanwhile, he was happier noting that “Ezra had retracted his anti-Semitism.” Pound’s mental condition almost reflected his own impending era of bipolarity. On visiting him in 1968, he found the poet under “a collapse in spirit.” Merton’s death by accidental electrocution in a Bangkok hotel room left J the task of editing what would become the Asian Journal. Having depended on Merton as spiritual mentor, he was bereft: “His death really knocked me for a loop.” Merton’s life had never achieved “a major mystical experience.” This also shook him and is given much space. J’s own on Mont Blanc is included: “the whole sky above the peak was suffused with a golden radiance. I heard angelic music and my beloved father’s voice spoke to me from nowhere, telling me of his love. I did not see him, but it was his voice. The whole event lasted perhaps five minutes.”

He became close to Hayden Carruth and relied on “a daily dosage of 300 milligrams of lithium carbonate” and was “fortunate that in Ann he possessed a wife willing to put up with his mood swings” as well as adolescent regression behavior. With invitations to universities and honors, he felt conflicted about accepting his part in enabling culture since “the barrier between the constantly shifting “high-brow” avant-garde and ‘mass culture’ had fallen.” After Pound’s passing, his verse often lashed out: “The pedants of deconstruction/ [are] lathering each other’s backs”; “the young were uneducated, the junk bond system was bad, the capitalist system itself was ‘awful’”. When Rexroth’s American Poetry in the Twentieth Century appeared in print, J was praised as publisher and poet. In 1971, Neruda’s Nobel Prize marked “a triumphant note for ND” (395) and Kenner’s The Pound Era (1972) from Faber established the modernist tableaux among first critical works of some length.

After twenty nine years ND moved to 80 8th street: “although somewhat less in total area than at 333…it was only a four-minute walk from his Bank Street apartment.” He forged ahead past his son, Robert’s suicide and the death of Rexroth battling with mental issues amidst the publishing, writing, and accepting public invitations. “My talk on economics was a failure as no students asked me for plastic explosives to blow up banks.” He had addressed the Pound conference in Alabama and later published Pound as Wuz: Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound. Morbid introspection dominated his notes, some cut from Flaubert: “without the Concept of Happiness existence would be more bearable”; “I make myself drunk with ink as others do with wine.” An affair with Vanessa Jackson in Paris involved a manic if “glorious sentimental journey: old memories, new sentiment.” He held things together by seeing off Vanessa while adapting to his new “minder” Gertrude Huston, who became his wife in 1990.

“As his body slowed, his mind raced faster and faster than ever, conscious of diminishing time.” Guy Davenport was one of his last great “finds.” The National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters was for “being a lifelong friend of lost literary souls.” His poems pinpointed the agonised self: “Could it /Be the unforgiveable sins of the/Fathers sins from which there/Is no escape?” Self-accusations abounded: “I swim in the vanity of/frivolous poetry & torment/myself with imaginings of/profane and forbidden love.” By 1994 the Collected Poems of James Laughlin kept him self-accusatory. He found the book far too long and a “monstrous megalomaniad.” He wondered if it would have been “better [to] be silent?” Diffidence did not falter in terms of writing epigrammatic poems, but the self-accusation that came with creating them never faltered.

Sensuality plagued and pleasured him. “To need to recapture/The raptures of the past.” He continued taking Lithium for mania and Relafen for arthritis. Huston predeceased him. Ginsberg died and he wrote a poem revaluating him. He praised the poets: “and what they wrote/has been my joy” (486). His epitaph on the tombstone in Norfolk says simply “James Laughlin 1914-1997 Poet Publisher” (488). If an epitaph proclaims the life in summation, one must take the poet on his lines

that all I learned in books/
and from the muses I’ve ta-/
ken with me but my rich pos-/
sessions I have left behind.  

James (Jas.) Laughlin, like his co-modernists was a tortured poet, hardly like Poe or Aiken or Plath, yet tortured. MacNiven evokes a Gatsby of sorts, if you can imagine the Long Islander as significant publisher rather than a shady underworld ghoul, bond dealer and romantic.