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This item is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.

Ezra Pound was wrong when he told James Laughlin in 1935, 'You're never going to be any good as a poet.' Laughlin became good, in his later years producing work that takes its place alongside the poetry of the Objectivists and their heirs, experimenting with form, using verse to unlock memory of other writers, notably William Carlos Williams and Pound himself. In 1994 a monumental Collected Poems appeared, followed by The Country Road (1995) and The Secret Room (1997). On 1 November The Lost Fragments was published by Dedalus Press, Dublin. On the 12th he died. He was 83.

It is less the poet than the publisher I want to remember here. Pound - writing him off as a poet - urged him to set up as a publisher. With New Directions James Laughlin became one of the great publishers of the century. Without him American poetry might look very different. His enthusiasms and insistences meant that certain writers were kept available through the lean years of posthumous reputation, until new generations responded to their work. He published against the odds and against fashion. By persistence he made success where most modern publishers would have abandoned slow-selling writers. Crucially, he kept the Modernists in print, producing new editions and collections, so that H.D., Williams, his beloved Pound, Dylan Thomas and many others have been available to American readers without interruption for forty, fifty, sixty years. And he made his own important discoveries. He was Nabokov's first American publisher (though he passed on Lolita); he championed Tennessee Williams, Henry Miller, Djuna Barnes, Delmore Schwartz, Thomas Merton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso; he reprinted Henry James, E.M. Forster, Ronald Firbank and Evelyn Waugh when they were out of favour; he introduced translated poetry and fiction of the highest order, including Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Boris Pasternak, Yukio Mishima. One critic declared: 'He was the greatest publisher America ever had...Look at his backlist; there's nothing comparable.' The fact is that he had a backlist to look at, he kept books in print. The fast food approach of the modern publishing establishment was anathema to him. Ten years ago Donald Hall said 'J' worked on two assumptions as a publisher: 'the assumption of quality and the assumption that these books would not sell in the marketplace'.

The old riddle holds here. How do you come out of publishing with a small fortune? You go in with a big one. 'J' set up new Directions without NEA or Arts Council money. He was the beneficiary of a steel fortune, and this money he put to work for literature. Pound led him to Williams and to Miller. Williams led him to Nathanael West. Miller led him to Herman Hesse whose Siddhartha became a cult classic. Eliot pointed him in the direction of Barnes.

As an undergraduate at Harvard reading Latin and Italian, frustrated by the conservatism and anti-Modernism of his teachers, 'J' took leave of absence and went to France where he met Gertrude Stein. He wrote to Pound and was invited to visit him in Rapallo. He spent six months at Pound's 'Ezuversity'. On his return to Harvard, still an undergraduate, he started New Directions with money provided by his father, storing the books in his college rooms. Eventually the publishing house moved to New York, though the publisher stayed in his beloved Norfolk, Connecticut.

His first book was an anthology New Directions in Prose & Poetry (1936). He produced 700 copies. It included work by Elizabeth Bishop, cummings, Miller, Marianne Moore, Stein, Pound, Stevens and Williams.

There were hard times and like most literary publishers he paid low wages and sometimes late royalties. But he commanded loyalty from his authors and his incomparable publishing colleagues, whom he inspired and who will continue his unique project. And even in the lean years he helped his writers by word and deed. It took 23 years for New Directions to become self-supporting. England was always rather a problem for him: getting Williams published here, after Williams's famous dislike of Eliot, took years, and he alluded to the problem in correspondence. He followed in a bemused spirit some of the English journals, including this one, and he directly encouraged the development of new English publishing houses. He was an unofficial godfather of Carcanet, for example.

He regarded the mission of New Directions to be continuous with the work of the small presses and the independent magazines. It gave him pleasure to see the success of Black Sparrow, the late lamented North Point, Moyer Bell, Copper Canyon and other American imprints whose labours New Directions helped inspire.

He always acknowledged that he was unusually privileged as a publisher to have the freedom his ancestors had bought for him: '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.' Appropriate, then, that the last of his collections of poetry published in his lifetime should emanate from Dublin.

To Delmore Schwartz he wrote: '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 never became a cheap publisher: he kept the faith, and a faith kept long enough can lead to solvency. It can also affect a whole literary culture. It can make a difference.

This item is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.

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