Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Poet James Laughlin founded New Directions, a major publisher of Modernist work.
James Laughlin was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 30, 1914. Born into wealth from the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, he attended private and preparatory schools until enrolling at Harvard University. Laughlin pursued a career as a writer until he studied under Ezra Pound, who did not feel Laughlin had any talent. He turned his love for the written word toward publishing. He started a largely influential publishing company called New Directions where he published mostly modern avant-garde works. He continued writing himself and published his own works, which became widely popular. He married twice and had four children. On November 12, 1997, he died after suffering from a stroke.
James Laughlin was born October 30, 1914, to Henry Hughart and Marjory Rea Laughlin, heir to the steel fortune from the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation. He grew up in Squirrel Hill, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and was raised during the time of the Carnegies, Fricks, and Mellons. He was provided every luxury, but one of the most rewarding was his education. Laughlin went to school in Switzerland until the ninth grade when he was enrolled in Choate, a New England preparatory school for boys. It was at Choate that his literary interest was sparked. There he became editor of the school’s literary magazine, and was introduced to the works of modernist writers such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams.
In 1933, he began at Harvard, majoring in Latin and Italian. However, after finding that not only were courses on modernist authors not provided, but that his professors did not even want to discuss modernists’ works, he decided to take a leave of absence during his sophomore year. He left for France and found himself a job as a handyman for none other than Gertrude Stein, an American writer who was a catalyst for modern literature. Between chauffeuring and changing tires, he also assisted her with articles for the American press. Then, upon recommendation from his Choate teacher, Dudley Fitts, Laughlin studied under Ezra Pound for six months in Italy at his “Ezuversity,” as it was called. However, Ezra Pound did not believe in his writing abilities and told Laughlin to go home and do something useful like publishing.
Although Laughlin never gave up writing, this was undoubtedly a changing point in his life, and perhaps the most useful advice that could have been given to him. Laughlin’s parents had given him $100,000 at the start of college. When he went back to Harvard in 1935, he used the money to start a publishing company called New Directions. Unlike all other publishing companies, he did not name his company after himself. The only place a reader will find his name is on the copyright page where it is written, “New Directions books are published for James Laughlin.” Note that he did not use the preposition by.
Laughlin began by publishing books out of his aunt’s cottage in Norfolk, Connecticut. In 1936, Laughlin put together an anthology called “New Directions in Prose and Poetry.” It included works by Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and e.e. cummings, among others. Among the rest was Tasilo Ribischka who was described 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,” but it was in fact James Laughlin himself. It was his very first book to be published and, by the time of his graduation from Harvard, Laughlin had published over a dozen books.
With all the money and privilege Laughlin was born into, his career started from a very humble beginning. Not only was New Directions based in a cottage on his aunt’s property, but Laughlin also acted as a traveling salesman selling his books door-to-door for two dollars. Still at Harvard, he spent the weekends selling books out of the trunk of his Buick. After graduating, he was able to hire a small staff, and in the late 1940s he moved the New Directions office to New York City. The height of his career came in the 1950s and 1960s when New Directions began to turn a profit. After over 20 years, this final success was attributed to the sudden demand on college campuses for avant-garde literature.
Undeterred by the criticism of Ezra Pound, James Laughlin continued to write and began publishing his own works. The first volume New Directions published that included his poetry was The River in 1938. Laughlin had a unique technique to writing his versus. Laughlin described his own technique saying, “I 'play' an arbitrary visual pattern against the sound pattern of a colloquial cadence to get tension and surprise.” His verses are written in couplets, and what defines the meter is the length of each line of the couplet. William Carlos Williams said to Laughlin, “The typewriter is the vehicle of the new age and you better use it.” Laughlin took this advice and each succeeding line in his verses could not differ in length from the previous by more than two spaces either way. John Harrison, of the University of Arkansas, and Donald Faulkner, of Yale University, said that “the short lines, unhindered by punctuation, seem to have an impact that makes his work more memorable.”
As much as his own writing attributed to American poetry, what Laughlin decided to publish at New Directions had an even greater influence. James Laughlin devoted his life to publishing books. He was committed to publishing pieces of only the highest quality. To other commercial publishers they may have been seen as unprofitable, however, Laughlin said, “Often something comes in from which you can see that the person is good, the book may not be perfect as it is…We often take on people who show great promise and who we hope will develop into somebody important and someone good.” His first series in 1941 was called “Poets of the Year” and it included writings by new artists such as John Berryman, Richard Eberhart, and Delmore Schwartz. Shortly after, he published “New Classics,” which featured out-of-print works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Evelyn Waugh.
Elliot Weinberger, a contemporary American writer, said, “Laughlin’s wealth could have led to a long list of mediocrities. That it did not was due not only to his evident literary acumen, but to his modernist commitment to the ‘new,’ his knowledge—now extinct among American editors...and his willingness to listen to writers (not critics, reviewers, agents, and makers of buzz) in the search for new writers.” One writer lead to another and Laughlin was always on the lookout for new artists. He said, “They play a very important role, the authors in the firm, because so much of the material we publish is suggested by them. For example, I suppose we've published four or five books that Kenneth Rexroth has suggested, and other books that Denise Levertov has suggested. And there are numerous cases of that, where one of our writers discovers another writer whom he likes, and we then take that book on.”
Laughlin had a reputation for being loyal to his writers. Laughlin said, “Once we've taken on somebody we generally try to stick with them for at least two or three books to see if they will develop, if they will grow.” Not only did Laughlin stay committed to publishing certain authors, he also was known to help them out beyond the press. Elliot Weinberger spoke of how Laughlin went above and beyond his duties as a publisher and had true relationships with his authors, “He changed Gertrude Stein’s flat tire, identified Dylan Thomas’ body in the morgue, shipped ballet shoes to Céline’s wife after the war, was saved from falling off a cliff by Nabokov’s butterfly net, paid for Delmore Schwartz’s shrink and Pound’s legal defense, and smuggled Merton out of the monastery to go drinking.”
Another great achievement was his translation and publication of foreign authors. He introduced America to Jorge Luis Borges, Hermann Hesse, Eugenio Montale, Pablo Neruda, Boris Pasternak, Octavio Paz, and Yukio Mishima.
As ambitious and committed to his career as James Laughlin was, it did not keep him away from romantic and family pursuits. He met and married Margaret Keyser in 1942. They had two children, Paul and Leila, but divorced ten years later in 1952. During this time he became the president of Intercultural Publications, which was a subsidiary of the Ford Foundation. In 1957, Laughlin remarried to Ann Clark Resor, with whom he had two more sons, Robert and Henry.
Apart from the literary world, Laughlin enjoyed skiing more than anything. He founded the resort Alta in Utah, where he would disappear for months on end. In fact, he put off reading Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain” until he returned from skiing, only to find out that another company accepted it for publication. He even published articles on skiing, and along with Helene Fischer wrote a book called Skiing: East and West in 1947. Surprisingly, he founded the Alta Ski Lift Company that turned out to be more profitable than New Directions.
In 1992, he received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters. In his acceptance speech he said, “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.” And he never ceased to give credit where credit was due, “Of course, none of this would have been 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.” So perhaps his success could be, in a large part, attributed to his wealth, but it should be noted, as Weinberger has said, “The young Laughlin was tall, handsome, athletic, and extremely rich, and could easily have become a playboy. In fact, he did become a playboy, but a playboy devoted to literature.” And it was his devotion and commitment that has made what Laughlin did with his career so influential.
After suffering from a stroke, James Laughlin died en route to the hospital in Norfolk, Connecticut, November 12, 1997. In the event of his death Elliot Weinberger said, “New Directions was, and continues to be, the Central Station for American avant-gardist poetry…Every writer has a tale of conversion—‘the book that made me want to become a writer’—and for nearly every writer I know, that one book was published by New Directions.”
The RiverNofolk, CT: New Directions, 1938.
Some Natural Things (poems). Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1945.
Skiing East and West (with photographs by Helen Fischer and Emita Herran) New York, NY: Hasting House, 1946.
Spearhead: Ten Years' Experimental Writing in America. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1947.
In Another Country: Poems 1935-1975. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 1978.
Gists and Piths: A Memoir of Ezra Pound. Iowa City, IA: Windhover Press, 1982.
The Deconstructed Man (poems). Iowa City, IA: Windhover Press, 1985.
Stolen and Contaminated Poems. Isla Vista, CA: Turkey Press, 1985.
Works Edited by James Laughlin:
New Directions in Prose and Poetry. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1936.
Samuel Bernard Greenberg, Poems from the Greenberg Manuscripts: A Selection from the Work of Samuel B. Greenberg. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1939.
The Fourth Eclogue of Virgil. Windham, CT: Printed for J. Laughlin by Edmond Thompson, 1939.
A Wreath of Christmas Poems by Virgil, Dante, Chaucer and Others. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1942.