In Memoriam - James Laughlin

1914 - 1997


How can we make it run backwards,
That taciturn white circle with
Its torpid black hands? We only
Touch the hands when standard
Time comes to shorten or daylight
Saving to lengthen our days. That
Clock is lazy; I'd like to throw
Eggs at it. But I don't want it
To go forward faster, as if it
Were drawn by death. Let it run
Gently backwards, pausing to
Greet happy times again: the
Day when the schoolboy wrote
His first poem; the day when
The first jonquil bloomed in
His little garden; the day when
His father tossed him into the
Lake without water-wings to
Prove to him he could swim.
"En arriere, ruckwaerts" and "in
Dietro;" those are your orders,
Lazy clock, until the spring
Breaks and it doesn't matter
What you do anymore.

--James Laughlin

James Laughlin, 83, Publisher of Revolutionary Writers

The New York Times. Friday, November 14, 1997


James Laughlin, the fiercely independent publisher, editor and poet, who, as the founder and longtime head of New Directions, published many of the most consequential and revolutionary writers of his time, died Wednesday on the way to Sharon Hospital from his home in Norfolk, Conn. He was 83.

The cause was complications following a stroke, said Griselda Ohannessian, the managing director of New Directions.

A man who combined bold taste with a gentle demeanor, Laughlin made a major contribution to literature as well as to the field of publishing. The list of his writers is staggering in its length and artistic complexity. He was Vladimir Nabokov's first American publisher and also printed the work of Tennessee Williams, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Henry Miller, Djuna Barnes, Dylan Thomas, Delmore Schwartz and John Hawkes, among many others.

There are large publishing houses and small presses -- and then there is New Directions, a one-man operation that grew to become one of the most influential book companies in the United States. "He was the greatest publisher America ever had," Brendan Gill, an author and critic, said Thursday. "Look at his backlist: There's nothing comparable."

As poet Donald Hall said in an article in The New York Times in 1981, two things were paramount on Laughlin's list: "the assumption of quality and the assumption that these books would not sell in the marketplace."

He added that Laughlin started New Directions "in the service of verbal revolution," but he also reprinted Henry James, E.M. Forster, Ronald Firbank and Evelyn Waugh "when other publishers would not." Laughlin was, Hall said, a publisher "of the middle way," someone "who by low overhead, by infusions of capital from the responsible rich, by wit, or most likely by all three -- can choose with taste, publish with economy and keep a good book in print."

Laughlin published "The Crack Up" by F. Scott Fitzgerald; beat poets including Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso, as well as authors in translation (Pablo Neruda, Garcia Lorca, Boris Pasternak, Jorge Luis Borges, Yukio Mishima), and on and on. He was indefatigable in his search for the new and adventurous. In a field often known for its timidity and for its concern for profits above all, Laughlin was a maverick. As he once said, "I don't have any business acumen. I'm not good at deals and can't cope with agents." What he could cope with were the personalities of some of the most difficult and temperamental authors.

With a characteristic boldness, he would take chances on anyone he considered an original. Often one author led him to another. At the recommendation of Pound, he took on William Carlos Williams and Henry Miller. Williams brought him to Nathanael West and Miller encouraged him to reprint Herman Hesse's "Siddharta," which became one of New Directions' best sellers, along with Ferlinghetti's "Coney Island of the Mind." T.S. Eliot recommended Djuna Barnes.

Because of his willingness to listen to all suggestions and his close friendship with many of his authors, he thought of them as "an extended family," a family whose favored members included Pound and Nabokov. He studied with the former and he went butterfly hunting with the latter, although, for his own outdoor endeavors, he preferred to ski, swim and play golf.

For all of his editorial instinct, occasionally a book eluded him. He published Thomas Merton's poetry but delayed reading "The Seven Storey Mountain" until he returned from a skiing trip and found that Harcourt, Brace had accepted it. In 1954, Nabokov sent him a copy of the manuscript of "Lolita," and asked him if he would be interested in "publishing a time bomb." He liked the novel, but had hesitations about the subject matter and apparently worried about the repercussions. He suggested that the author send the novel to Olympia Press in Paris, which published it.

The support for these experimental authors derived from a family fortune in iron and steel. Laughlin was born in Pittsburgh. His great-grandfather, James Laughlin, had founded the family business, which became the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp. As a boy, James Laughlin 4th was taken by his father to visit the Laughlin mill. He compared the setting to the Inferno: "It was scary -- tremendous slabs of hot molten steel coming out of those giant furnaces, terrible noise, huge cranes carrying metal over your head all molten." And he made up his mind that he would never enter the business.

At the Choate School in Wallingford, Conn., he studied with translator Dudley Fitts, and became editor of the school literary magazine. In 1933, before he entered Harvard University, he published a story in Atlantic Monthly. His aunt, Leila Laughlin Carlisle, was an important influence in his youth and he often visited her at her home in Norfolk, Conn. She encouraged his literary interests while trying to temper his enthusiasm for works of a more radical nature. She doubtless would not have approved of "Lolita."

As a student at Harvard, he majored in Latin and Italian. Because he was unhappy over the conservatism of teachers such as the poet Robert Hillyer, who would leave the room when Pound or Eliot was mentioned, he took a leave of absence in the middle of his sophomore year. He went to France, where he met Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

Then he wrote to Pound in Rapallo, Italy, and when the poet responded with the words, "Visibility high," he went to visit him. He stayed for six months, studying in Pound's personal "Ezuversity." In 1935, after reading Laughlin's poetry and crossing out most of the words, Pound said, "You're never going to be any good as a poet. Why don't you take up something useful?" He suggested that he become a publisher, which proved to be the most salutary advice for Laughlin as well as for the world of publishing.

Back at Harvard, and still an undergraduate, he started New Directions with money from his father. He published books out of a cottage at his aunt's home in Norfolk, and stored copies in his college room. New Directions eventually moved to New York; he continued to live in Norfolk.

His first book, published in 1936, was "New Directions in Prose & Poetry." It cost him $396 to print 700 copies, which he sold for sold for $2 each. Loading his Buick with copies, he became his own traveling salesman. The book was an anthology of experimental writing whose contributors included Elizabeth Bishop, Kay Boyle, e.e. cummings, Henry Miller, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams -- and Tasilo Ribischka.
The last writer was identified as "an Austrian now living in Saugus, Mass., where he is a night watchman at a railroad grade crossing; this gives him lots of time to think." Ribischka was Laughlin's pseudonym.

Despite his reputation for thriftiness -- paying low salaries and delaying royalties when money was short -- he nurtured writers in various ways, economically as well as artistically. While publishing Delmore Schwartz, he also hired him as an editor and later paid for his visits to his psychiatrist, without telling the poet. He would also lend money to his writers.

In the 1940s, he began to publish a series called "Five Young American Poets" (the poets included Tennessee Williams, Randall Jarrell and Karl Shapiro). He also reprinted authors (Fitzgerald, Forster, Stein) in a New Classics series and published critical works under the title, "Makers of Modern Literature."

Despite Pound's discouragement, he continued writing poetry, and his reputation as a poet grew. Hayden Carruth praised Laughlin's work for "the layering voices of wit, irony and fantasy" and "the breadth of literary sources." In his own poetry, he paid homage to Greek and Latin models as well as to Pound and Williams. His book "New and Selected Poems" is scheduled to be published next year by New Directions.

His correspondence with his authors fills volumes: A series published by W. W. Norton that already includes Henry Miller, Pound, Schwartz, William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Rexroth. Typically, the letters are mostly "to" Laughlin rather than "from," with the publisher taking a more reserved position as listener and responder.

In the Schwartz-Laughlin collection, there is a letter from the publisher while visiting the family ski lodge in Alta, Utah. Taking time out to reflect on priorities, he wrote: "What is life for but to enjoy it, and certainly in the scales of happiness a fine day in the bright sun and snow on one of our mountains here is of more worth than publishing a book by a dyspeptic author." Then he added a note of cautionary advice: "Do not become a cheap writer. Keep up your standards. It is better to be read by 800 readers and be a good writer than be read by all the world and be Somerset Maugham."

He is survived by his wife, Gertrude Huston Laughlin of Norfolk; a daughter, Leila Javitch of Manhattan; two sons, Henry, of San Francisco and Paul, of Ann Arbor, Mich., and six grandchildren.

In 1992 he was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In an essay adapted from his acceptance speech, he wrote, "It took 23 years for New Directions to get into the black. But I've enjoyed a situation that every publisher must envy. No trips to the bank to beg for a loan. Little worry about the bottom line. If a good manuscript came along that I feared wouldn't sell much, we could do it."

Then with the honesty of an artist who knows the value of money, he added, "Of course, none of this would have possible without the industry of my ancestors, the canny Irishmen who immigrated in 1824 from County Down to Pittsburgh, where they built up what became the fourth largest steel company in the country. I bless them with every breath."

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