New Directions & James Laughlin (1965)

The New Directions Reader, an anthology of passages from books published by New Directions, reminds us how extraordinary its publishing career has been and how much we owe to its founder and editor, James Laughlin (b. 1915). Heir to a steel fortune, he had the education of an American aristocrat, attending Andover, where Dudley Fitts shaped his interests, and later going on to Harvard. At 19, according to John Malcolm Brinnin, he was in Paris helping Gertrude Stein prepare her manuscripts, and in 1936, while still an undergraduate, he founded New Directions, having its first book “printed by the same printer in a Vermont country town who used to get up the Harvard Advocate.” His financial resources enabled him to escape the vise of commercialism, and his own good taste in literature and literary advisors (especially Delmore Schwartz and Kenneth Rexroth) insured that his fortune was put to the best

use in a country strewn with short-lived publishers who had financial backing and good intentions, but produced dreadful results. By the middle forties, ND had become one of the most important American publishers of first-rate contemporary literature. The list of the firm’s publications (an appendix to the Reader) not only confirms ND’s reputation for the highest quality—and just compare the Reader to other “house” anthologies—but reaffirms ND’s impact as a cultural force.

Like Alfred A. Knopf before him, Laughlin achieved particular distinction by importing the latest in European writing. Just as Knopf had published many of the leading European writers of the period 1910 to 1930, Laughlin focused upon those who emerged in the thirties. ND became, as far as I can tell, the first American firm to release books by Boris Pasternak, Vernon Watkins, Dylan Thomas, Henri Michaux, Raymond Queneau, Paul Eluard, Elio Vittorini, and Frederico Garcia Lorca. Even as late as the sixties, it issued the first translations in America of other writers of that generation, such as Gottfried Benn, Tommaso Landolfi, and Jorge Luis Borges. In addition, between 1935 and 1945, Laughlin published the first books of a variety of emerging American writers—Schwartz, John Berryman, Thomas Merton, Philip Rahv, Henry Miller, and Tennessee Williams. For several older American writers, such as Nathanael West, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Rexroth, he performed another service by reviving earlier works that were either neglected or out of print. Laughlin was, I think, the first American publisher to do what has since become more fashionable and profitable—issuing a line of critical monographs on the major modern authors. This last series, in my estimate, sustains a higher intellectual intensity and critical quality than the current crop of jargonized, almost anonymous “studies.” Laughlin’s financial resources also enabled him to keep all these in print, and many were reprinted in paperbacks that educated my own generation. (Incidentally, the extensively detailed bibliography in the Reader’s appendix is needlessly modest in not mentioning writers introduced to America in the annuals. Way back in 1949, for instance, appeared substantial extracts from Bernard Frechtman’s translation of OurLady of the Flowers.) In fewer than 500 titles, ND’s four-fold achievement is extraordinary, if not incomparable; and if we take publishing to be a kind of criticism—or at least critical anthologizing that selects the best from a wealth of proposals—it is clear that Laughlin ranks among the major critics of the forties. Although it is impossible to measure accurately a publisher’s impact, the Reader makes us wonder what current literacy would be like if New Directions had never existed.

By now there are numerous reasons to believe that the house has outlived its original purposes. The leadership in importing what is, to my taste, the new European literature of the fifties was assumed by Grove Press, although it too has, by the middle sixties, moved on to other business. Many publishers have followed the examples set by Knopf, New Directions, and Grove, in addition to the paperback sales of the best modernist literature, by eagerly collecting the most recent European writing. Thus within the past five years, many of the latest fashions in Paris, Moscow, and Germany (though not in Rome or Madrid) have appeared in the U.S. in competent, if not definitive, translations. It was Simon & Schuster, after all, that published Marc Saporta’s highly courageous, aleatory novel, Composition No.1 (1963), whose loose pages can be reshuffled into various tentative combinations.

New Directions’ efforts on behalf of American writing have been assumed by other publishers. For a variety of reasons—the most prominent being a more sophisticated critical press—the past few years have witnessed fewer resurrections of lost native souls, and New Directions has not been involved with any of them. Of all the younger American writers now on the firm’s list, only Gary Snyder and Denise Levertov have made much impact outside its orbit. Others, like John Hawkes or Gregory Corso, would probably disappear, one suspects, if not for New Directions’ continued backing. The best younger American writers have, instead, experienced a diffusion of sponsorship not unlike that welcoming the Europeans, and this seems appropriate to a culture that has never had the organized literary avant-gardes of Europe. In the United States, the great experimental writers tend to be isolated eccentrics, working, often unrecognized, very much on their own. For various reasons, then, there aren’t any especially avant-garde publishers in America any more; and unless existing institutions turn conservative or simply fall behind (always an ominous possibility, alas), no one is likely to corner that market again.

Its name notwithstanding, New Directions no longer publishes what is new. Instead, its lists these past few years suggest that the firm’s most significant books have been those by older, previously neglected European writers, and the most spectacular contributions to the latest, eighteenth annual (1964) are the first English translations of a symbolic story by Gunter Eich and Alfred Jarry“s superior novella, The Supermale, which is an inspired comedy that seems, in many respects, a prelude to the recent American absurd novels.

Both the Reader and the latest annual were disappointing, in comparison to New Directions’ history. Considering the quality of its backlist, one is surprised to find the Reader offering less than an expected selection of rich deserts. The choice of material was erratic—only occasionally was a writer’s best and/or most characteristic work chosen. The annual itself, though far from being a dull collection, rivals No. 15 (1955), the “international” issue, as the worst the firm has ever published. Not only is it a good deal smaller than the 600-page compendiums of the forties, but it is more dependent upon material previously published in English, which makes up about half the book, than any other annual I have seen. And just as the proportion of extraordinary pieces has also strikingly decreased, so the “surprises” seem fewer and fainter—stories by Mark Power, a young American, and the Mexican Juan Garcia Ponce, as well as sketches by the ’pataphysician Roussel. This new book seems editorially adrift, as though Laughlin did not know what kind of writing he wanted to print and simply collected bits and pieces from his “house” regulars—Hawkes, Levertov, Gregory Corso, Elizabeth Mann Borgese, Thomas Merton, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. While a publisher exists primarily for its writers, a periodical, by contrast, needs ideas or a point of view. At the moment, however, the annual lacks direction, and the firm has fewer interesting active writers than ever before.

By now, New Directions seems more a part of our cultural history than a current force; and since Laughlin at just over fifty is hardly ready for retirement, this decline seems unnecessary and sad. Indeed, his career confirms a cultural truth—that our best publishers, editors and magazines, not unlike many of our greatest writers, realize their best work as young men, attain peak performance for only a few years, and expire long before they finish middle age. Just as American writers fail to have the sustained brilliant careers, of, say, Andre Gide or Thomas Mann, so no American-born literary publisher can compare with Gaston Gallimard or Kurt Wolff. The question now is whether the future of American writing—our future—can be different?


Several years after his death, the publisher New Directions has issued “a memoir” by its founder James Laughlin (1915-1997), which is less a manuscript finished during his lifetime but scraps pieced together by a longtime employee. Most is written in short-line prosy poetry that Laughlin favored, his texts barely consuming half the width of a book’s page, even in a large typeface and a format at 6” x 9” larger than 5” X 8” more customary for ND books. If only because his writing is so formally limited, Byways is hard to read for long.

I should point out that even though a reading of the 16 th New Directions annual was in 1959 (at 19) among my early introductions to avant-garde literature, I didn’t know Laughlin and didn’t publish with him, though, scarcely a snob, I probably diddled his publishing firm with a manuscript now and then (as I’ve diddled many others). For all of his service to the advanced writers of the generation preceding him (William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Henry Miller, Kenneth Rexroth), he barely published the major innovative figures of his own generation (favoring, instead, Tennessee Williams and Thomas Merton) and practically none in succeeding generations. (Indicatively, no writers younger than Merton are acknowledged in Byways, and ND published Jerome Rothenberg’s poetry, rather than his more path-breaking anthologies.) In fact, nearly all of us currently recognized for innovative work established our reputations entirely apart from New Directions. Indeed, the great tragedy of the more innovative writers of Laughlin’s own generation was that no publisher served them as well as he served those a generation older than he. In turn the great tragedy for next generations of radically experimental writers was the absence of similarly enlightened book publishers, except Dick Higgins’s Something Else Press briefly (for only a decade, 1964-74). Thirty years later, the cultural costs of such absence are almost incalculable.

A few years ago the poet Haydn Carruth published a memoir of Laughlin, Beside the Shadblow Tree (Copper Canyon, 1999), which I found curious, because one theme appeared to evade its author, who had been a ND employee—that Laughlin loved to disappoint. Consider these passages (p. 76): “Though he threatened to come and visit me [at my house] several other times, this was the only time he actually did it.” Officially married nearly his entire adult life, Laughlin was extra-maritally promiscuous (p. 99): “I know Jas behaved cruelly, thoughtlessly, on some occasions. He left one bed for another very abruptly and without explanation. I find this inexcusable. It is part of the ‘hard streak’ in Jas, which made him do disgraceful, ugly things in his private life and made him obnoxious to some people.” In a footnote on p. 122, Carruth writes, “Some who should know say that [Laughlin’s second wife] Ann became fed up with Jas and his ways at the end.” Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire taught me how to appreciate transparent narrators both fictional, like Nabokov’s Kinbote, and not, as here.

Carruth’s saddest passage portrays the disappointment of Laughlin’s third wife, Gertrude Houston, who had worked for decades as a ND designer and often been his mistress as well. Sipping champagne with Carruth in the Connecticut house that was Laughlin central, she tells him (p. 123): “‘For forty years this is what I most wanted.’ She made a circling gesture with his finger to indicate the whole ambience of the house and her marriage. ‘How could I have been so wrong.’”

With the Carruth memoir so strongly in mind, I found myself reading Byways for examples of disappointment. Sure enough, no further than page 8 is this concluding recollection of a déclassé woman: “Dawn of Santo, Texas,/The most perfect face and body/That my eyes beheld.” He took her to Europe:

But I had not reckoned

On the spite of the gods.

They were jealous that I’d claimed

One they thought their own.

In Burgos, cruel Burgos,

She suddenly became hostile

And silent, then catatonic.

I put her in the hospital

But their drugs didn’t help her.

She escaped from the hospital

And threw herself under a train.

Reading between these lines, might not a skeptic wonder whether something done by Laughlin disappointed her?

For some of his women he paid, if not during their relationship with gifts of clothes and books, but afterwards apparently:

Bought her some pretty

Dresses in a boutique in

Rimini. She gave me a lock

Of her hair. I promised her

I would be back in Rapallo

Before too long. But I’m

Afraid that was a lover’s

Unkept pledge. It was years

Before I saw her again,

This time in Rome after she had

Married a nice man, a

Journalist for the Eco di

Roma. She was living with

Him in a spacious apartment

In the Via Caerina di Siena.

She wrote me when he suddenly

Died and I helped her out.

There has been a check for

Her every Christmas.

How transparent are these lines?

Considering the first group of Laughlin lines quoted above, I wondered if they might be more effective as straight prose: “But I had not reckoned on the spite of the gods. They were jealous that I’d claimed one they thought their own. In Burgos, cruel Burgos, she suddenly became hostile and silent, then catatonic. I put her in the hospital, but their drugs didn’t help her. She escaped from the hospital and threw herself under a train.” Within Byways is this passage (p. 207) from William Carlos Williams, exemplifying the poetic style that, by contrast, becomes leaden in his author/publisher’s hands:

Then briefly as to yourselves:

Walk behind—as they do in France,

Seventh class, or if you ride

Hell take curtains! Go with some show

Of inconvenience; sit openly—

To the weather as to grief.

Or do you think you can shut grief in?

What—from us? We who have perhaps

nothing to lose? Share with us

share with us—it will be money

in your pockets.

                           Go now

I think you are ready.

How disappointing it must have been for Laughlin to have learned from masters with whom he could not compete, perhaps accounting of why he often escaped to Utah or Europe.

Indicatively perhaps, the nastiest pages in Byways are reserved for a man who disappointed Laughlin—David McDowell, an over-trusted employee who made decisions during Laughlin’s frequent absences and then stole the prize ND author, William Carlos Williams, when McDowell became an editor at Random House. Laughlin also charges that McDowell, long gone, stole an original manuscript from a company safe, even though the evidence never surfaced.

I suppose it could be said that book publishers, much like theatrical producers and magazine editors, inevitably disappoint more individuals than they please, beginning with those who are “dumped”; but what appears to be different about Laughlin was his appetite for shamelessly disappointing those close to him, beginning with wives, lovers, and employees. (Only one of the last, Robert McGregor, is mentioned in Byways.) I vaguely recall reading somewhere that Laughlin would frequently depart to a Utah ski-lift business that he also owned, leaving his authors and employees in limbo, when they wished he had been minding his store. From an editor at the New York Times Book Review (Raymond Walters, likewise long gone), I recall hearing around 1965 an anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, about ND employees so dispirited by his absences that they dumped some of his papers in the snow at their Christmas party.

This book’s editor, Peter Glassgold, himself a veteran ND employee, mentions Laughlin biographies in progress, but nothing appears, making me wonder why? Could biographers have found a personality so problematic that their manuscripts can’t be finished? Could they have concluded that his enthusiasm for disappointment ultimately limited, if not undermined, his effectiveness as a publisher, accounting for the mystery of why ND was less of an avant-garde force after 1960 than it might have been? How will biographers deal with the question of which came first—the desire to publish books or the predisposition to disappoint?