BOOKS OF CRITICAL INTEREST
|Antliff/Klein. Vorticism||Barnes. The Venice Myth||
|Braddock. Collecting||Spoo. Without Copyrights||
MacNiven. James Laughlin
Mark Antliff and Scott W. Klein, eds.
Vorticism: New Perspectives.
Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. 286 pages + 16 plates.
review by Reka Mihalka
VARIETAS DELECTAT: THE HETEROGENEITY OF VORTICISM
Mark Antliff and Scott W. Klein recognize in their introduction to Vorticism: New Perspectives that initially Vorticism did not attract as much scholarly
attention as could have been anticipated. The editors ascribe this fact to two main prejudices, namely the political “untouchability” of the movement’s leaders and the general suspicion that the whole affair was nothing but pseudo-Cubism or -Futurism. Quite fittingly to scholars studying the work of anarchist and revolutionary Vorticists, then, this book’s editors challenge these doctrines and open up as-yet uncharted territories of Vorticism for the academic community, showing alternative interpretations of its achievements. While Wyndham Lewis and painting are indubitably at the forefront of this book, the contributors laid heavy emphasis on new aspects, inviting interdisciplinary attention. Students of gender, print culture, drama, photography, woodcuts, rhetoric, sculpture, and other subjects will therefore find the book worthy of attention.
Fredric Jameson’s preambular essay surveys a number of Wyndham Lewis’s works to trace the struggle of two opposing principles (whether they be called those of representation and decoration, figuration and abstraction, or ultimately the round and the square), and analyzes the Timon of Athens series in this respect. The subsequent Part I outlines the European context of vorticism. First, Rebecca Beasley maps Vorticism’s few Russian connections meticulously and then tracks how and why the mere concept of Russian art gained significance for Lewis and Blast as an art representative of a national character, even though there was little artistic affinity between the Russian and English avant-garde. Second, Andrzej Gasiorek analyzes Hulme’s theoretical considerations about abstraction and primitivism with regard to their applicability to Epstein and Lewis’s practice. Third, Scott W. Klein tackles the ambivalent relation of Vorticism to German art and national identity: the parallel rejection of and alignment with German thought and culture, which is “partly aesthetic, partly nationalist, always paradoxical.” (80)
Part II deals with “Machine Aesthetics, Primitivism, Cultural Politics.” Jonathan Black’s essay outlines the history of Edward Wadsworth’s woodcuts of industrial Yorkshire towns with valuable details about the artist’s private life. Mark Antliff’s following essay recontextualizes Ezra Pound and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s views on Vorticist sculpture in the contemporary discourse on anarchism, primitivism, and Hellenism as exemplified by Edmund Gosse and Richard Aldington. In a pioneer study, Miranda Hickman amends the long-established picture of the masculine Vorticism with accounts of two female artists, Jessica Dismorr and Helen Saunders.
Part III concentrates on the American context of Vorticism. Allan Antliff recounts how the American painter Man Ray’s turned to anarchism and abstraction after he attended John Weichsel’s art lectures and read Ezra Pound’s articles in The New Freewoman (and later The Egoist) and how Duchamp’s radical modernism urged him forward to Dada. Anne McCauley investigates the cooperation of Alvin Langdon Coburn and Ezra Pound on the Vortographs in the context of Coburn’s earlier experimentation with multiple exposures on the same plate of the same subject in different states. These earlier, fascinating and eerie photos were meant to suggest premonition and spiritual connections fitting the personality of the sitter, for illustrations of a text on the supernatural (by Maurice Maeterlinck) or cubist associations (for Pound). Achieving a kind of Vorticist geometric abstraction with the use of crystals, Coburn thus also managed to recreate a sense of Pound’s artistic ambition in their Vortographs. Vivien Greene turns next to John Quinn and reexamines the collector’s interactions with Vorticism. By looking into the financial history of the New York exhibition, Greene outlines Quinn’s collecting principles, providing ample archival evidence.
Part IV focuses more closely on Wyndham Lewis. In the first chapter, Paul Edwards attempts to reconstruct the rough chronology of the creation of Blast, carefully considering the influence of the printer Leveridge, the awakening of the Vorticist identity, and the inner contradictions of the manifestoes. Edwards ultimately sees the publication as a “shifting” platform (200) that failed to attain the revolutionary aesthetic goals of the group and thus lead to Lewis’s disillusionment. Martin Puchner considers Lewis’s Enemy of the Stars from multiple angles: as a closet drama, as an “extension of [the] practice of manifesto writing” (227), as a drama of ideas, and as an example of world construction that outlines a(n alternative?) probable world. The final chapter is Douglas Mao’s; it offers a nuanced understanding of the intricate connections of celebrity, anonymity, the media, and violence in Lewis’s life and art.
Besides being insightful and thought-provoking, Vorticism: New Perspectives is also highly user-friendly. The sixteen beautifully printed plates enable the reader to follow the lucid argumentation of the authors with ease. The editors also supplied the volume with an index (this practice should be much more widespread!), which helps us retrace the parallel discussions of common topics. Standing at these discursive intersections, one can hear the echoes of the conference for which these papers were originally written. The complementary or even rival interpretations of a few aspects of Vorticism is one of the highlights of the book. For example, the tension of Kandinsky’s dual ties to Russian and German culture is encoded in Rebecca Beasley and Scott W. Klein’s chapters. The virtually infinite interpretive field of Wyndham Lewis’s The Crowd is discussed in turn by Fredric Jameson (as a stage in the historic struggle between the round and the square), Andrzej Gasiorek (as the revolt of individuality against the machine-like city), and Douglas Mao (as an anachronistic and cryptic view of misplaced violence in the city, considering the painting from the perspective of media coverage and reportage). Enemy of the Stars, the most frequently studied literary work in the volume is analyzed from multiple perspectives, too, including typography (Paul Edwards), genre (Martin Puchner), Expressionism (Andrzej Gasiorek), or even as a literary parallel for The Crowd (Douglas Mao). This play, which was performed for the first time in Bath, UK on 24 July 2014, is evidence of the editor’s intention “to nurture the kind of cross-fertilization between the disciplines of art history and literary studies that needs to take place if we are fully to grasp the import of this pivotal avant-garde movement.” (4)
Even though the volume emphasizes the interconnectedness of Vorticism (focusing on its diverse cultural contexts), one particular topic seems to be underrepresented: the fiction and poetry that became (correctly or incorrectly) associated with Vorticism. Ezra Pound the poet is nowhere to be found, even though Ezra Pound the impresario, Ezra Pound the journalist, and Ezra Pound the ideologist do surface intermittently in the discussions. Similarly, Lewis’s Tarr is only fleetingly mentioned.
Nevertheless, Vorticism: New Perspectives manages to reflect the same kind of peacefully coexistent heterogeneity that Vorticism itself incorporated. Just as each participating artist or theoretician had a different concept what the movement should consist of, the multitude of perspectives evidenced in this book recognize the plurality of valid interpretations. Varietas delectat, indeed.
The Venice Myth:
Culture, Literature, Politics, 1800 to the Present.
London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014;
Michael O’Neill, Mark Sandy and Sarah Wootton (eds.).
Venice and the Cultural Imagination:
‘This Strange Dream upon the Water’.
London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014.
by Richard Parker
David Barnes’s The Venice Myth: Culture, Literature, Politics, 1800 to the Present is an exemplary monograph that should be read by all Poundians. While not titled as a monograph on Pound, The Venice Myth is entirely relevant to the poet throughout, with all elements of the work touching on Pound and his writing whether through direct address to his poems, to the history of writing on and in Venice or, importantly, through the depiction of Ruskin’s Venice—an understanding of great importance for Pound, not only in explicating the importance of Venice for him, but as a key to his medievalism and, thus, his poetics, criticism and even his philosophy.
Barnes’s central project is essentially to defuse the various myths of Venice, arguing that “depictions of Venice – the canal-city ‘pleine de rêves’ – can and should be read in their material, cultural and political contexts” (3), a most useful procedure for readers of The Cantos as Venice loses its Romantic ethereality and emerges as a real, political, and economic city. Barnes systematically explores the abiding ideas that have filtered descriptions and understandings of the city, deconstructing them and explaining how they came into being and where we can find them in important approaches towards the city, building towards a thorough and persuasive deconstruction of the many layers of Pound’s Venice—a city that is at once medieval exemplum, Renaissance city-state and modern political experiment. Barnes builds on Tony Tanner’s seminal Venice Desired (1992), detailing the palimpsest of a city that has generated complex interrelated cultural histories both in Italy and in the distinctive tradition of literature about Venice in English in the works of writers including William Shakespeare, Ruskin, Robert Browning, Henry James (who is treated relatively briefly in this Barnes’s text) and many others.
Barnes addresses various periods of (predominantly) Anglophone writing, beginning with an analysis of the Romantics that is followed by a reading of Ruskin’s generation and, most originally, by an extended reading of the Fascist era. This modern history is set against the complex historiography of Venice, with the various understandings of the English and American writers that he addresses constellated with the Republic, the legenda nera (the "black legend" with which the Republic of Venice was identified during the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, principally through the vested interests of the monarchies of Europe), the fight for Independence and the turmoil of the twentieth-century, with each historical turning point depicted with impressive clarity and concision. Crucially, Barnes shows how understandings of these events have changed in the minds of the English writer and, through a series of closely read case studies, illustrates how the literary poetic tradition has both reacted to and influenced the development of both Venice and the myth of Venice.
Barnes’s description of the manner in which Pound’s understanding of Fascism both grew out of and fed into his understanding of Venice is displayed clearly in his close-readings of Cantos 25 and 26, which, in contrast to Tanner, he reads as celebrating a Fascist Venetian revival, rather than elegiacally mourning the Ruskinian decline of the city. In relation to these Cantos Barnes charts the specifics of the Fascist reclamation of the myth of Venice—persuasively replacing the dreamy aestheticism of older readings with a very specific and contemporary political vision that reconceptualised Venice as a modern, even Futurist, imperial city. His description of this period in the life of Pound and the history of Venice is vital and revelatory.
Of the essays in Mark Sandy and Sarah Wootton’s Venice and the Cultural Imagination: ‘This Strange Dream upon the Water’ Jason Harding’s ‘The Myth of Venice in the Decline of Eliot and Pound’ approaches Poundian Venice most directly, though, as Barnes’s monograph proves, many of the other Venices approached here have direct and important ramifications for Pound’s vision of the city, including J.M.W. Turner’s, Charles Dickens’s, Ruskin’s, Edith Wharton’s and Henry James’s. Venice and the Cultural Imagination works, then, as a handy companion to The Venice Myth, further deepening the poet’s Venice. As a multi-author volume, it is naturally more diffuse than Barnes’s. The Venice Myth offers as thorough and methodical deconstruction of the many versions of the Venice myth as could be wished for with a rigor that might have been helpful to some of the essays included here. Barnes is not so inclined to intoxication in the mythology of Venice as some of these essay-writers.
Harding’s essay features a close reading of T.S. Eliot’s "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar" in comparison with Pound’s Venices in Canto 17 and sections of The Pisan Cantos; materials which are addressed in The Venice Myth as well. For Harding, ‘[b]oth Eliot and Pound advance a mythic narrative of Venice’s moral and cultural fall into decline which serves to rebuke the perceived decadence of modern civilization’ (142), which connects Venice to the most controversial aspects of both writers (anti-Semitism in Eliot and anti-Semitism and Fascism in Pound). The physically decaying city of Venice becomes a parallel for cultural and racial decadence much like Mitteleuropa in Canto 35 or Eastern Europe in The Waste Land. Eliot visited in 1911 and incorporated elements of that visit into “Burbank,” but would not have the life-long commitment to and involvement with the city that Pound had—a factor that we can see in the respective depths of engagement in the writers’ approaches to the city.
Interesting as Harding’s piece is, Barnes approaches similar ground in greater and more persuasive detail, and with a salutary complexity in regards to the modern invention of the Venice myths which Harding sometimes lacks. Harding’s careful tracking of both poets’ writings on Venice through their personal experiences (most notably in the manner that he connects Eliot’s references in “Burbank” to the evidence of his actual visits from his travelling notebooks) is useful, though his summary of Pound’s Venice is a little hurried.
Collecting as Modernist Practice.
Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2012.
review by Alexander Howard
WHO CARES ABOUT SOLID OBJECTS ANYWAY?
The art and practice of collecting has proved an enduring source of fascination and inspiration for many a major modernist writer and thinker. One need only recall the shorter fictions of Virginia Woolf to appreciate this. Consider, for instance, some of the more curious predilections exhibited by the character John in Woolf’s well-known “Solid Objects” (1920). An up-and-coming—if easily distracted—Parliamentarian, John is also an inveterate collector of various trinkets and trophies. We first see him on a beach. John is, Woolf tells us, moving inexorably toward a “stranded pilchard boat” (96). It soon becomes apparent that he is also engaged in a passionate verbal debate with his friend, Charles.
Upon reaching their destination, John and Charles, almost as if possessed, launch “themselves down by the six ribs and spine of the pilchard boat” (96). Casting political discussion aside, John begins to burrow “his fingers down, down, into the sand” (96). Before long, his fingers happen upon and curl “round something hard – a full drop of solid matter – and gradually dislodged a large irregular lump, and brought it to the surface.” Woolf describes the object in John’s hand thus:
It was a lump of glass, so thick as to be opaque; the smoothing of the sea had completely worn off any edge or shape, so it was impossible to say whether it had been bottle, tumbler or window pane; it was nothing but glass; it was almost a precious stone. You had only to enclose it in a rim of gold, or pierce it with a wire, and it became a jewel; part of a necklace, or a dull, green light upon a finger. Perhaps after all it was really a gem; something worn by a dark Princess trailing her finger in the water as she set in the stern of the boat and listened to the slaves singing as they rowed her across the Bay. Or the oak sides of a sunk Elizabethan treasure-chest had split apart, and, rolled over and over, over and overs, its emeralds had come at last to shore (97).
Quickly slipping this indeterminate glass object into his pocket, John sets off for home. He then places the object “upon the mantelpiece, where it stood heavy upon a little pile of bills and letters” (98). There it “served not only as an excellent paperweight, but also as a natural stopping place for the young man’s eyes when they wandered from his book” (98).
And wander from his book the young man’s eyes indeed do. Woolf emphasises as much in the following passage:
Looked at again and again half consciously by a mind thinking of something else, any object mixes itself so profoundly with the stuff of thought that it loses its actual form and recomposes itself a little differently in an ideal shape which haunts the brain when we least expect it (98).
At this point things begin to get a little strange. John now finds “himself attracted to the windows of curiosity shops when he was out walking, merely because he saw something which reminded him of the lump of glass” (98). It seems that the mere presence of the previously salvaged lump of glass has triggered some sort of obscure, yet profound reaction in him. “Anything,” Woolf writes, “so long as it was an object of some kind, more or less round, perhaps with a dying flame sunk in its mass, anything – china, glass, amber, rock, marble – even the smooth oval egg of a prehistoric bird would do” (98). Not long after this, John begins “to haunt the places which are most prolific of broken china, such as pieces of waste land between railway lines, sites of demolished houses, and commons in the neighbourhood of London” (99). Taken aback at first “variety of shapes to be found in London alone,” John soon amasses quite the collection of solid objects. As Woolf notes, “The finest specimens he would bring home and place upon his mantelpiece, where, however, their duty was more and more of an ornamental nature, since papers needing a weight to keep them down become scarcer and scarcer” (99).
As this quote suggests, John increasingly compulsive search for solid objects precipitates a loss of professional control. He begins now to neglect his duties as a career politician. At the same time, John’s extra-professional obsession takes on what might well be described as a feverish quality:
Provided with a bag and a long stick fitted with an adaptable hook, he ransacked all deposits of earth; raked beneath matted tangles of scrub; searched all alleys and spaces between walls where he had learned to expect to find objects of this kind thrown away. As his standard became higher and his taste more severe the disappointments were innumerable, but always some gleam of hope, some piece of china or glass curiously marked or broken, lured him on (100).
All the while time continues to pass: “He was no longer young. His career – that is his political career – was a thing of the past. People gave up visiting him. He was too silent to be worth asking to diner. He never talked to anyone about his serious ambitions; their lack of understanding was apparent in their behaviour” (100). John’s erstwhile colleague Charles is one such figure lacking in understanding. Shocked by the disordered appearance of John’s living room, Charles prepares to take leave of his friend for what will prove to be the final time. As he does, he notices something fixed, distant, and finally alarming in John’s expression.
By this point you might be asking yourself what, if anything, Woolf’s disquieting tale of compulsion has to do with the ostensible critical focus of this particular book review? The answer is simple. Like Woolf before him, the contemporary critic Jeremy Braddock is greatly interested in the “serious ambitions” of the collector. Unlike Woolf, however, Braddock is not concerned with fictional collectors, but real people of significant historical standing. This becomes abundantly clear in the opening pages of Braddock’s important Collecting as Modernist Practice (2012). Braddock begins by acknowledging that a critical survey “of the collection within modernism might simply start by observing how many modernist artworks themselves resemble collections” (1). Of course, as readers of Make It New will have already guessed, Ezra Pound’s name features prominently here, alongside those of equally familiar suspects such as Eliot, Joyce, and Flaubert. Listing canonical creators such as these, Braddock then moves to suggest that “what might be broadly named a “collecting aesthetic” can be identified as a paradigmatic form of modernist art” (2). So far, so unsurprising. Yet this is precisely where things begin to heat up. In Braddock’s reckoning, “to isolate the collection as an available form for art obscures the constitutive role of collecting practices that the works invoke: archiving, ethnography, museum display, anthologization” (2). In an attempt to avoid such a potential critical shortcoming, Braddock seeks not
to reveal and interpret a range of canonical works according to their secret affinity as collections but rather argue that if a collecting aesthetic describes a salient form of modernist art, it is because it bears witness to a larger set of crises and possibilities that the collection could both represent and address (2).
We soon discover that these crises and possibilities have much to do with a number of the familiar buzzwords that crop up time and time again in new modernism studies. I am thinking here specifically of terms such as patronage, consumption, the public sphere, and the institutionalised counterspace—each of which pertains in some way to the study of modernism’s historical reception. Referring back to the theoretical work of Jean Baudrillard and Lawrence Rainey’s influential Institutions of Modernism (1998), Braddock reminds us that seemingly innumerable figures associated with early twentieth-century avant-gardism viewed the public sphere that surrounded them as hopelessly degraded. In response, as is commonly known, many of these figures sought to beat a tactical retreat into the interwoven realms of patronage and speculation, of private investment and collecting. Braddock argues that this “powerful thesis” accounts “for certain key figures, such as the patron and collector John Quinn” (3). In Braddock’s estimation, however, the typical modernist collection was not, in fact, “a form of retreat, but instead a means of addressing the work of art to the public, modelling and creating the conditions of modernism’s reception” (3).
What exactly is Braddock getting at here? In short: the explanation has much to do with noted American art collectors and private galley owners such as Duncan Phillips and Albert C. Barnes. Braddock argues persuasively that these two collectors (both of whom rose to cultural and collecting prominence in the 1920s),
believed that the radically innovative work of modernism provided a broad transformation of institutional culture and even social practice at this inaugural moment of reception. Rather than constructing a regressive “institutional counterspace,” the modernist collection was figured as what I will call a provisional institution, a mode of public engagement modelling future—and often more democratic (although the meaning of this word would be contentious)—relationships between audience and artwork (3).
Bearing the wide-ranging implications of this assertion in mind, it comes as no surprise to find that a significant portion of Braddock’s fascinating study is given over to the detailed investigation of the various ways that collectors like Philips and Barnes were loosely bound together “in a general project of popularizing modernism, as well as competing for influence over the mode of its reception—competing, in other words, for the meaning of modernism itself” (71). According to Braddock, “it was Duncan Phillips who most successfully anticipated the dominant cultural position that modern art would occupy by the 1950s, even though his canon of artists would not be identical to the one that would be enshrined at the Museum of Modern Art” (71). This comes to the fore in a chapter tellingly entitled “The Domestication of Modernism: The Philips Memorial Gallery in the 1920s.” In this chapter, Braddock demonstrates how the D.C.-based Phillips, who first began collecting modern art in 1916, and who started out from a position that associated modernist creativity with, in his mind at least, deeply suspicious notions of collectivity and anarchism, “was able to anticipate and help shape the rhetoric for a later apparatus of reception in which—almost but not quite antithetically to his original conception—abstraction could be construed as the language of the individual” (105).
If we were to try to put this into simpler language, we might say that modernism, for a discerning collector such as Phillips, represented something of an inspirational doubled-edged sword, or, in Braddock’s words, “a promise and a threat”—one which demanded careful curating and regulation, and which also “required the active mediation of an institution that would fashion an appropriate canon for modernism, regulate the production of new works, and foster a critically engaged public sphere” (110). By way of direct contrast, for a collector such as Albert C. Barnes, “modernism seemed to announce an inevitable and more unambiguously democratizing moment of social transformation” (110). That is to say, he believed that modernism had the potential to perform specifically pedagogical and social functions. Barnes was of the opinion that modernist art, when placed in the service of a collector and gallery owner possessed of a suitably pragmatic philosophical outlook, could serve, to borrow from Braddock once again, “to demythologize the activity of artistic creation while also placing new and specific obligations upon the viewer; artist and audience would now be collaboratively engaged in the activity of creating meaning” (113). Reading this, one is immediately struck by the sheer scope of Barnes’s vision, which found physical manifestation in the form of the Philadelphia-based Barnes Foundation. This is something that Braddock acknowledges at the end of his chapter on Barnes and the deeply idiosyncratic Barnes Foundation—a provisional institution which, in a manner not entirely dissimilar to John’s living room at the close of Woolf’s aforementioned short story, veritably brims over with solid objects. Braddock suggests that as a direct result of such serious ambitions, “Barnes has often been portrayed by acolytes and enemies alike as a brilliant outlier, utterly distinct and isolated from the prevailing trends of the culture of American modernism” (155). Having said that, in equal measure, Braddock is quick to point out that
it is possible to argue, on the contrary, that Barnes’s practices were in fact paradigmatic of the farthest reaching aspirations of modernist culture in the United States, resembling in a more intensified way Pound’s understanding of the literary collection as an object in itself, or Phillip’s efforts to use the collection as a means of both inspiring and regulating aesthetic production (155).
Pound’s appearance in this passage is in no way surprising. After all, he was well aware of Barnes’s presence on the cultural scene. Indeed, Pound responded positively to Barnes’s published remarks on the inherent cultural value of artistic labor, which the latter gathered together in his 500-page volume, The Art in Painting (1925). Pound’s appearance in Braddock’s discussion of the Barnes Foundation is sure to be of interest to subscribers of Make It New. But there is far more to recommend Braddock’s volume to parties interested in Pound. Tracing as it does the historical trajectory of the evolving conceptions of the interventionist literary anthology, the modernist art collection, and the academic archive, as well as featuring detailed readings of seminal journals such as Alfred Kreymborg’s Others, Alain Locke’s The New Negro compendium, and Pound’s Des Imagistes anthology, Braddock’s comprehensive Collecting as Modernist Practice serves as a veritable treasure trove of information to those who care about the cultural history of modernist arts, letters, and solid objects.
Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain.
Oxford UP, 2013.
review by Mark Byron
Robert Spoo’s Without Copyrights provides a lucid, comprehensive account of United States copyright law and its effects upon the publication and circulation of Modernist literary texts. This incisive account completely revises a number of basic assumptions concerning the public life of twentieth century literature. To discover the legislative and judicial status of copyright law, obscenity, and libel as these apply to some of the most celebrated texts and authors of Modernism, has one reflect on the state of innocence with which the production and circulation of such literature had previosuly been regarded. Whilst Spoo’s focus is squarely upon United States law, he demonstrates how this it bestowed direct and specific material effects upon literature from across the Atlantic, both in English and in other languages. The immense difficulty for foreign authors (or American authors who published overseas) to register copyright of a work in the United States – right up to its joining the 1886 Berne Convention as recently as 1989 – bears profound implications: what percentage of literary works in the avant-garde catalogues of New Directions, Grove, City Lights and others were actually under no copyright protection at all at the time of their American publication? What was to stop predatory publishers from harnessing the goodwill built up by James Laughlin, or Barney Rosset and bringing out works yet unpublished in the United States without authorial blessing or remuneration? It’s mind-boggling, not least due to a collective oblivion to such a stark possibility.
Spoo’s study opens up entire dimensions of literary publishing in the United States, from the sociology of the industry as it developed in the nineteenth century, its legal and quasi-legal dealings with author’s rights and publishers’ courtesy, and the oftentimes uninformed actions of well-meaning patrons and publishers (as well as some canny marketing of author-genius-as-martyr) of the most significant Modernist texts. The legal background to the significant problems with copyright in the time of Modernism is established in the nineteenth century convention of publishers’ trade courtesy.
The initial 1790 Copyright Act gave some protection to American authors whose works were published in the United States, but, as with subsequent revisions in 1831 and 1870, expressly denied protection for foreign authors and works imported into the United States. The avowed purpose of these provisions was to encourage learning and creativity by virtue of the circulation of cheap texts, as well as to provide incentives to the reprint trade. The practice of "piracy" thus flourished, whereby the perfectly legal but ethically dubious practice of reprinting and selling foreign texts saw authors receive no compensation for their labours. Following from widespread piracy of such authors as Walter Scott, Tennyson, Thackeray, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, Oscar Wilde and others, agreements between such publishing houses as Henry Holt, Charles Scribner’s Sons, Macmillan, Harper, and G. P. Putnam’s Sons developed into a code of honour by which publishers would respect announcements of future publications and the signing of authors, as well as develop a system of settlements and arbitrations in cases of potential conflict. Conversely, transgressors of this gentlemanly code would suffer punishment by the spread of malicious gossip, advertised protest, or even collective exclusion from the industry. This basic tension between the public commons and notions of proprietary interest was to persist into the twentieth century.
The competing interests of the public domain and intellectual property rights produced a complex situation for Modernist authors publishing English-language texts outside the United States. The 1891 Chace International Copyright Act provided protection for foreign language works, but British and Irish works were not afforded the same protections under this act or the 1909 U. S. Copyright Act (despite British law having offered protection to all foreign authors, including Americans, for decades). Instead they were compelled to follow a stringent series of requirements to qualify for copyright protection. Publications were required to meet a manufacturing clause, whereby texts had to be typeset, printed and bound in the United States – a crude form of protectionism for the publishing industry. This requirement was partially mitigated by the facility of ad interim copyright protection for books published abroad: such publications deposited in the copyright office in Washington, D. C. within sixty days of foreign publication were afforded a four-month window within which to satisfy the manufacturing clause. Satisfaction of these conditions provided the full initial twenty-eight-year term of copyright, renewable once upon application in the final year of the initial term. Finally, any text published within the United States was required to display prominently a copyright notice for protection to be extended. Improperly placed or absent notices rendered copyright void, as did restrictions on the importation and manufacturing of texts for reasons of customs or postal seizure, or litigation on such grounds as obscenity. Many Modernist texts first published in Europe failed to gain copyright protection in the United States for some or all of these reasons, and the protocols of publishers’ courtesy were quickly overrun by unscrupulous "bookleggers" (although again it must be pointed out that such "piracy" was not illegal, but was considered deeply unethical in denying royalties to authors, thus disregarding their intellectual labours).
This legal and historical background is essential to understanding just what was at stake in bringing Transatlantic Modernism to the United States: the profound legal and practical impediments suffered by particular authors and texts; the remedies, legal as well as professional, intended to rectify the loss of royalties through piracy; the gradual reversal in the Transatlantic flow of British and American texts from west to east; and the balance sought by lawmakers, publishers, and authors between public domain and proprietorial rights of authors and their heirs.
Spoo’s examination of Modernist battles with copyright draws on a wide range of examples, but it has both Ezra Pound and James Joyce at its heart. Pound had run into the customary problems of copyright protection (or its absence) with his earliest collections of poems published in Italy, Paris and London, as well as with the deeply ambiguous copyright protection afforded to serial publication of individual poems and essays (the question hinging on whether copyright protection was afforded to each individual contribution or merely to their editorial arrangement, and whether copyright was held by authors or by journal editors). Pound’s attempt to establish the journal The Exile nearly ran aground at the outset due to the strict manufacturing conditions – and greatly increased costs – incumbent upon publications seeking copyright protection in the United States. His efforts in trying to protect the published work of T. S. Eliot and Joyce, among others, gave him signficant insights into the copyright "racket" and its enabling of unauthorised "piracy" of avant garde literary works at a time when their cultural significance (not to mention their commercial value) was beginning to come into sharper focus.
Pound’s interactions with some of the major players in Modernist publishing in the United States also exposed him to a latter-day form of trade courtesy, from which Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Eliot and Joyce also benefitted. But his profound scepticism towards the network of official prohibitions – passport controls, vice societies, postal and customs seizures, film production codes, and of course Prohibition itself – found expression in a concerted attempt to intervene in the legislative agenda of copyright in the United States. Spoo dedicates a fascinating chapter to the explication and analysis of Pound’s draft copyright statute, "Copyright and Tariff," published in two instalments in The New Age (September / October 1918). As Spoo claims in the opening pages of his book: "Pound was the theorist of modernism’s encounter with copyright and piracy" (11). Pound wove together two apparently contradictory forces in his statute: a form of perpetual copyright for authors and their heirs, on the provision that works be kept in print at fair prices; and freedom to publish works within the literary commons, including those works that had lapsed from copyright protection due to inattentive or otherwise obstructive measures by authors and heirs. Spoo makes the point that this combination of protected pecuniary reward for intellectual labour and the aspiration towards ‘a utopia of fluid international communication’ was in line with Pound’s views on the circulation of knowledge (evident in ABC of Reading, for example) and the circulation of currency, especially in his endorsement of the theory and practice of stamp scrip and social credit.
Pound’s lobbying for changes to United States copyright law provides the background for his support of Joyce in the obscenity litigation arising from serial publication of Ulysses in TheLittle Review in 1919 and 1920. This episode was merely the forerunner to Joyce’s protracted battle with the "booklegger" Samuel Roth, who serially published episodes of Ulysses in his magazine Two Worlds Monthly and then sought to publish the entire novel without Joyce’s permission in 1925. The story of Joyce’s battle with Roth is well known, although Spoo straightens out a surprising number of misconceptions. An irony of copyright law is at the heart of the case: Joyce’s work, as with very many other major literary works first published in Europe, never had copyright protection during its author’s life, and only came into such protection when the United States became a signatory of the Berne Convention in 1989. In other words, Roth had no need to seek Joyce’s permission to publish his work, as it was at all times prior to 1989 in the United States public domain.
Ulysses came to be in the public domain soon after publication, that is, in April 1922 following the lapse of the sixty-day ad interim clause (thus making moot the four-month window to fulfil the 1909 Copyright Act’s manufacturing clause to publish the book in the United States). Incidentally, Roth’s piracy extended well beyond Joyce to Pound, Eliot, and others, invoking international protest and sanctions from writers and the publishing community along similar lines to nineteenth-century sanctions against violators of trade courtesy. Pound did not sign the international petition drawn up to condemn Roth, despite his own losses, because he preferred to focus on an unjust law than on individuals who might use it to their immediate advantage.
A lawsuit, Joyce v Roth, followed in 1927-28, not on the grounds of copyright infringement but based upon a New York civil rights statute concerning the unlawful exploitation of Joyce’s name for commercial gain. This introduced the idea of publicity rights (and the right to privacy) into Modernist literary consciousness, pioneering a sense of literary celebrity as a form of intellectual property. Paradoxically, the suit opened the way for Joyce’s celebrity, and that of his book, to flourish. Spoo defines the principles at stake in the litigation, where the relevant points of law and the details of the trial are given adequate treatment for the first time. This litigation shaped how Joyce’s legal representation, Morris L. Ernst, approached the more famous obscenity litigation to follow in 1932, presented from the viewpoint of the problematic copyright status of Ulysses (i.e. its uncopyrighted status). This status engendered potential problems for Random House – it opened the way for unscrupulous piracy upon the book’s clearance from charges of obscenity – but Bennett Cerf engaged trade courtesy to detain potential (legal) pirates and to provide a clear run to the Random House edition of Ulysses in 1934.
There is a substantial secondary literature – some of which is Spoo’s own – dealing with the troubled career of Joyce’s novel and its battle with obscenity law and customs seizures. Kevin Brimingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses (Penguin, 2014) deals with the tribulations of composing and publishing Joyce’s novel, including the aesthetic, ethical, economic and legal hurdles that needed navigating from the time of first composition to the legal battles in New York and elsewhere on the charge of the novel’s obscenity. Bruce Arnold’s The Scandal of Ulysses, published two decades earlier (Sinclair Stevenson, 1991, revised edition Liffey, 2004), charts some of the same territory as well as the battles over editions of the text within the scholarly community, most notably during the "Joyce Wars" between Hans Walter Gabler and John Kidd (and others) in the 1980s and 90s. Both of these trade books provide essential context for the chapters in Spoo’s volume dealing specifically with Ulysses, but the wider implications of the lack of copyright protection for authors generally, and various formal and informal remedies applied from within the publishing industry and by legal precedent over the last 150 years, makes Spoo’s contribution a scholarly masterwork.
The United States eventually joined the Berne Convention in 1989 but recent laws enacted in US and Europe have led to an uneven patchwork of copyright conditions for authors on either side of the Atlantic. Perhaps most notoriously, the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998 (also known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act due to the influence of the Disney Corporation, but properly named the Copyright Term Extension Act) extends copyright protection to seventy years after the author’s death, regardless of a work’s date of publication. Its enactment had the immediate effect of seeing literary works return to copyright, some of which have subsequently returned to the public domain. A similar seventy-year rule applies in the European Union, but with slightly different outcomes. Globally, we live with a patchwork of copyright protections that do not translate well across jurisdictions. The emergence of digital media over the last two decades significantly complicates the issue, especially with regard to the policing of copyright infringement. Large scale political will and cooperation is lacking, producing what Spoo calls ‘a tragedy of the uncoordinated global commons.’
Spoo’s meticulous research is evident everywhere: he provides careful and essential definition and discussion of legal and technical terms (trade courtesy, the legislative history of copyright) in which the clarity and directness of his prose rarely wavers. The book is a model of legal and literary scholarship, and represents a compelling example of their successful unification. This subfield of literary / legal studies is of essential import to all scholars of Modernism. Without this clear explication of the principles at stake and the consequences of their neglect or enforcement, scholars are potentially unprotected and ill-informed regarding the matter of rights and obligations in Modernist textual production, as exposed as many of the authors found themselves to be. This wonderful book provides a means of navigating such rocky terrain, and opens up an entire zone of inquiry for Modernist Studies by demarcating apropos case law, legislation, and jurisprudence. The relative innocence demonstrated by Joyce, Pound and others with regard to their legal rights and obligations in seeking copyright is matched by the empty space in scholarly understanding of such matters, as well as a relative lack of awareness of their profound implications. Spoo’s study will save a few scholars from major misunderstanding and embarrassment, for which Modernism Studies owes him a debt of gratitude.
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
From 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 the 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 $100,000―not 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.