Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ian S. MacNiven's "Literchoor Is My Beat": A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions

Say you were born at the start of World War I, the second son and heir to a prominent Northeastern steel company fortune on your father's side, and a wealthy, patrician family on your mother's; and say your family milieu was conservative, stolid, pious--a bit narrow-minded, snobbish and prejudiced--but with some sense of civic duty and responsibility; and say your own father, who had gone to Princeton and expected you to as well suffered from serious mental health issues for which there was neither analytic or pharmacological relief, and those same mental health issues would hover around you all your life, manifesting themselves fairly late in life, and your mother was fairly cool to you from the moment of your birth, though you had other powerful, rich female figures who stepped into the breach with love and guidance.

And say you, this scion, had both artistic and scholarly interests, nurtured at your preparatory school, and instead of desiring to follow your older brother into the steel company business you had aesthetic leanings, and chose, to your father's disappointment, to enter Harvard, where you promptly encountered, as your roommate, another extremely wealthy scion and art collector, Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., and by the end of your freshman year you were palling about with the likes of Robert Fitzgerald, Wayne Andrews and Robert Lowell, befriending slightly older prominent cultural avatars like Lincoln Kirstein and Sherry Mangan, and eccentrics like John Brooks Wheelwright, while also chatting up and dining with the Norton Professor of Poetry, who happened to be the by-then increasingly world famous T. S. Eliot; and say that in part through Eliot's intercession and your own boldness you were able to meet another poet you idolized, Ezra Pound, living in Rapallo, in Italy, and instead of encouraging you toward a career as a poet and scholar (as he certainly was in the first case and might be considered eccentrically in the second) he (apocryphally) urged you to become a publisher.

If you somehow happened to fit all those conditions and took the advice of Pound, you would be James Laughlin IV, who did found a publishing house, initially by compiling an annual anthology called New Directives, which eventually would New Directions Publishing Corporation. Laughlin did this while still a Harvard undergraduate, and as Ian S. MacNiven's ample, enjoyable biography "Literchoor Is My Beat": A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2014) makes clear, Laughlin's creative and intellectual affinities, combined with a compulsion to work, played a key role in the development of what we think of as American literary Modernism, particularly in terms of poetry. When Laughlin got going in the late 1930s, of course, Eliot and Pound, as well as William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, Louis Zukovsky, and others had already begun publishing their work, and several of these poets, like Eliot, were already well known and acclaimed.

Yet Laughlin's decision to bring together reprint older and newer work by them, particularly in terms of Pound and Williams, set the stage for their wider recognition. That he managed this in the midst of attending classes and sitting for exams, participating in other school activities like the Harvard Advocate, taking off on holidays to ski--once missing by half a year frantic communiqués from Williams to print more copies of the great poet's collection White Mule, which had received excellent reviews, because Laughlin was off in New Zealand and nearly impossible to reach--and semesters to traipse about Europe (expressing pro-Nazi sentiments at first, until he woke up), and courting various young women, is almost mind-boggling. It did take him seven years to complete his degree, though he did earn it cum laude. (As for the skiing, he would soon thereafter establish a ski resort, Alta, still standing and drawing afficionados in Utah.)

Laughlin did manage all of this and more, though not without the assiduous assistance of a range of people, some of them noteworthy figures in their own right, including writers Kenneth Rexroth, Hayden Carruth, and Delmore Schwartz, until the latter's paranoia finally drove him away not only from Laughlin but to an early death, while other longstanding helpmeets, like Gertrude Huston, for many years his mistress, in-house designer and eventually his third and final wife, remain little known even today to history. MacNiven guides readers through Laughlin's entire history, beginning with the origins of the American Laughlins, originally from Ireland though they liked to claim Scottish heritage--it being more respectable--and their march toward industrial success, which provided James Laughlin with the financial means to pursue his avocation. Indeed, MacNiven does not stint on details at any point, though as the years progress and events pile upon themselves, he does start to pare the tapestry of the narrative down.

At its core lies several main threads: Laughlin's longstanding relationship with Pound, which would be perhaps the most important of his adult life; his struggles with his own art-making, and the persistent feeling that his work and life--except the womanizing--not only kept him away from but overshadowed his pressing desire to write poems; his lurking fear of having inherited the family's "madness," which destroyed his father and several uncles; and his musical chair games with his female lovers, some of whom, like Huston, became his wife, while others, like Lady Maria (Britneva) St. Just, would retain his lifelong affection. MacNiven devotes many pages to each of these biographical strands, using a great deal of Laughlin's personal--and often erotic--poetry not just for illustration but sometimes as factual proof. I had not thought of Laughlin as a documentary poet, but sometimes, MacNiven suggests, particularly in works like Byways, he was.

Though I was familiar with Pound's history, a good deal of the material here felt new to me, in part because of how important Laughlin's hand was in making Pound's reputation, pushing it relentlessly despite the elder poet's diffidence and truculence, and, as his World War II fascistic radio broadcasts represented, treasonous behavior. From Pound Laughlin gained not just a landmark author--crazy as he was--but ideas, however ill-formed, about poetry, art, economics, the world, as well as a deep intellectual, almost filial bond. Pound provided a male anchor that Laughlin's father Hughart could not. Laughlin did not have a particular aesthetic or even political stance, or rather, belonged to no school, but he did possess a keen eye for the new and formally experimental, particularly through the first 25 years of his firm, and Pound and Pound's poetry, like William Carlos Williams and his work, was central to that sense of what poetry could be. As the biography's title demonstrates, Laughlin even communicated in his letters using a playful, faux-naif Poundian idiom for his entire adult life. Pound grows no less politically repulsive here, but, especially in terms of Laughlin's life and career, considerably more significant.

Part of Laughlin's connection with Pound involved a casual attitude to racial and ethnic slurs, though Laughlin had already begun to break away from a good deal of the racism and ethnocentrism of his familial milieu by the time he reached college; at the college of "Jews and Beaconhillites," as his father labeled it, he was casting a far wider social net than anyone in his family could imagine, and not just for lunch dates and evening parties. (And Williams, half-Puerto Rican, was no stranger to racist slurs either.) Alongside the devotion to Pound, MacNiven shows, Laughlin spotted a great deal of other talent, either directly or after the recommendation of others. He nearly became the publisher of Elizabeth Bishop, for example, but for a sexist comment; he did, however, catch on early with Tennessee Williams and the impoverished Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who would become a sensation in the US, and two of his other favorites, Henry Miller and Thomas Merton, would serve as central figures of wings of the American counterculture for years to come. He also introduced a great deal of Modernist European literature, as well as some Asian and Latin American writing, into American bookstores, schools and homes, including Gabriel García Lorca, Boris Pasternak, Vladimir Nabokov, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Cardenal, and Hermann Hesse, whose Siddhartha remains a strong backlist seller. Alongside these authors, his Alvin Lustig-designed covers--with other famous designers, including Ray Johnson later--would become iconic for generations of readers, especially young ones.

Part of his prospecting came as a result of his work, which I had never heard about, for the Ford Foundation, working in conjunction with the University of Chicago's former boy-genius of a president Robert Maynard Hutchins. As Laughlin's marriage disintegrated and his relationship with his eldest son Henry remained contentious (a younger son, Robert, suffering from what was probably inherited bipolar disorder, would commit suicide in New York in the 1970s), the publisher-poet traveled all over the globe, leaving his company in the care of a trusted assistant, and serving as an editor-publisher for Ford's and the US government's Cold War (and propagandistic) national literary annuals. While in Asia he immersed himself in what was for him mostly unknown literary traditions, except where Pound had offered glimmers, with the result that he ended up bringing out volumes by Raja Rao, Osamu Dazai, Yukio Mishima.

Although Laughlin did mostly shed his family's anti-Semitism, and included Hughes in an early annual, MacNiven notes that he published no African American authors, yet strangely does not mention perhaps the first one--and for many years the only one--whose books he did, Bob Kaufman, one of the most original Beat and midcentury poets. Laughlin also published few Asian American or Latino (other than Williams, though until recently he was not considered such) authors till far into his publishing tenure, and in general was no great pacesetter in terms of race. He also missed out on publishing many of the major Beat poets, finding their behavior repellent, though he did issue works by important members of other mid-century experimental schools, including the San Francisco Renaissance (Duncan, Ferlinghetti) and the Black Mountain writers (Creeley, Levertov), as well as Gary Snyder, who would later count as one New Directions' Pulitzer Prize winners.

Another blind spot, oddly, was the New York School, three of whose members, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O'Hara, attended Harvard a decade after Laughlin. In fiction, the domestic track record was quite eccentric, but Kay Boyle, John Hawkes, Edward Dahlberg, and later Walter Abish and Clarice Lispector would be among the great finds. (After his death, of course, came the polestars of W. G. Sebald and the inexhaustible Roberto Bolaño.) He published one of Vladimir Nabokov's first books written in English, but passed on Lolita. (Imagine if he had taken it.) Barney Rosset's Grove Press, which emerged in the late 1950s, was a spur to get back on the ball. One of the pleasures of this biography is MacNiven's accounts of Laughlin's interactions with many of these figures, including Djuna Barnes and the wily Nabokov; as his days start to dwindle in the 1970s and his great friends die, a wistful tone colors his correspondence and tinges MacNiven's prose. In these final 20 years, particularly as Laughlin's health worsened, Guy Davenport becomes a key correspondent, which provided the pretext for one of the late examples of Laughlin's daring, which involved pushing for the publication of Davenport's potentially scandalous prose. (There was, however, no scandal.)

I should note that I never met James Laughlin in person, though he was still alive when New Directions accepted Annotations; I believe we may have spoken on the phone, though we mainly communicated through the intermediary of then editor, now President of the firm Barbara Epler. I knew that he was well up in years and spent most of his time in Connecticut, though I had no sense of the larger story of the firm, its rich and often ground-breaking history, or of Laughlin himself. I did know that he wanted to have a glossary at the end of the book, in part to learn what "rudipoots" were, and that he was willing to sign off on the book's publication. He got the glossary, the book appeared, he passed away shortly thereafter, and it would be almost thirty years later--today--through MacNiven's efforts that I discovered a great deal more about this extraordinary person, his important work as poet and publisher, and about a vital sector of the  landscape of 20th century American and global literature. 

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