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.
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
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
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
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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