With his own money (Laughlin's well-to-do father had given him $100,000 when he graduated from college), Laughlin initially set out to publish and thereby recognize experimental and avant-garde writers of merit. His first New Directions book, an anthology containing the work of such authors as Pound, Gertrude Stein, E. E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, and Henry Miller, appeared in 1936. "At the time," reports Hall, "the 22-year-old editor-publisher ... loaded his Buick with 600 unpaginated copies [of New Directions in Prose and Poetry], became a traveling salesman, and persuaded bookstores to stock a few volumes—out of pity, he believes."
During the 1940s, according to Hall, Laughlin's company provided the first lengthy publication of Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Karl Shapiro, Tennessee Williams, Paul Goodman, Jean Garrigue, John Frederick Nims, and Eve Merriam. The list of New Directions authors eventually grew to include George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, Robert Creeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, Denise Levertov, Thomas Merton, and Robert Duncan. "For the most part," writes Hall, "the list represented the new," which initially meant limited commercial success. "When I started doing the books," Laughlin told Edwin McDowell of the New York Times Book Review, "they were way out ahead of the public taste. Nobody could understand them and nobody wanted to buy them.... But a younger generation of professors matured and became interested in using them in college courses, and that's what put us on our feet."
Though, as Hall points out, New Directions "started in the service of verbal revolution," it made other, equally impressive contributions to literature in print. It published F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Crack Up when other publishers would not; when The Great Gatsby was out of print, New Directions brought it back; the company also reprinted the works of Henry James, E. M. Forster, Ronald Firbank, and Evelyn Waugh when no one else would. Hall believes that in these instances, the decision to publish established authors was governed by the same assumptions underlying the publication of new writers: "the assumption of quality and the assumption that these books would not sell in the marketplace."
But New Directions may have made its most important contribution, suggests Hall, in bringing foreign authors to American readers in translation: "not only the obvious Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Rilke, Valery, Kafka and Cocteau, but the less known and the unknown: Montale, Neruda, Queneau, Cardenal, Lorca, Pasternak, Paz, Borges, Mishima, Lihn, Vittorini, Parra, Guillevic." The first American publisher of Vladimir Nabokov, New Directions made available Nabokov's critical work on Gogol, a group of short stories, and some translations of classic Russian poetry, as well as his second novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.
After years of being subsidized by the money of Laughlin's family, New Directions eventually became a profit-making venture. Aided by the million-copy sale of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Coney Island of the Mind, the hundreds of thousands of reprints of Herman Hesse's Siddharta, the academic acceptance of writers like Pound, and the popularity of younger authors like Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, and John Hawkes, the company started to make money. Laughlin, who emphasized in the New York Times Book Review that New Directions has always been an intimate group venture and that the profits have been "small," modestly gave others credit for the company's critical and commercial success: "I am only a happenstance catalyst who started publishing because Ezra said I had to 'do something useful.' The credit, whatever there may be, belongs to the writers we published and to the long-suffering people who actually saw that the books got printed, proofread, and sold. Without all of them, New Directions would have been just an amateur's hobby."
While Laughlin is most often recognized for his work as a publisher, he is also a writer and poet. In a laudatory review of his writing career in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, John A. Harrison and Donald W. Faulkner propose that Laughlin "is perceived as a minor poet, in part because he has chosen to publish so little.... That [he] continues to apologize for his poetry is unfortunate, for it has been recognized as fresh, concise, full of wit, of impeccable quality, lucid, ironic, and often intense." Laughlin himself, relate Harrison and Faulkner, described his poetry as "'an arbitrary visual pattern against the sound pattern of a colloquial cadence to get tension and surprise.'" Harrison and Faulkner respond by saying that "The short lines, unhindered by punctuation, seem to have an impact that makes [Laughlin's] ... work more memorable." The Dictionary of Literary Biography article also quotes poet Denise Levertov, who calls Laughlin's poems "free of bombast and of any pretentiousness.... Emotion is disciplined in the precision of his diction and the strictness of his idiosyncratic form...." Through the years, Laughlin has published various collections of his work, including such works as The House of Light, The Pig, and James Laughlin: Selected Poems, 1935-1985.
Also included in Laughlin's list of writing credits are various essay collections. Notable among these is a 1987 work, Pound as Wuz: Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound. As the title suggests, the work is a compilation of essays and lectures, where, drawing on memories of his own relationship with Pound, Laughlin investigates the sources the noted author used for his writings over the years. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Robert Minkoff praises the book, calling Laughlin "an enthusiastic guide to favorite Pound topics, from Provencal poetry to monetary theory." Laughlin's experiences with other authors also led him to issue his 1989 work, Random Essays: Recollections of a Publisher, a collection of talks and essays composed over the years. Reviewing the work for the Los Angeles Times, Richard Eder says, "Laughlin's literary opinions are gentlemanly; they range between sensible and silly. What shines through is his kindness and civility, his individuality, and the joy he took in his authors." Eder goes on to say that "the time ... [Laughlin] spent with Pound, Williams and Gertrude Stein allows him to add some nicely provocative touches to their well-established images."
In 1990 Laughlin expanded the list of his writings to include Random Stories, a collection of short stories written mainly before he graduated from Harvard. John Litweiler opens his review of the work in the Chicago Tribune by quoting critic Kenneth Rexroth, who praised Laughlin's work as a publisher, adding that, "'He is [also] an excellent and original poet, and might have been writing his own poems.'" Litweiler continues this praise to include Laughlin's work as a short-story writer: "His own fiction, too, it's now clear from Laughlin's collection of so-called 'Random Stories.'" In discussing this collection, Litweiler feels that Laughlin "seldom presents description—it would only get in the way of the particulars of existence that reveal his people, places, feelings.... With Laughlin's fiction, despite its usual absence of overt drama, action is constant. Life, indeed, flows."
Over the years, Laughlin has issued some twenty books, including poetry, short stories, and essay collections. Despite this impressive list of writings and the mostly favorable critical reception it has received, Laughlin's greatest achievements are most readily and most often acknowledged in his work as a publisher. Laughlin himself, as quoted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, described his writing thus: "'It's very light; it's sentimental, it deals with no great subjects, no great thoughts.'" To which, responds Hall, "'perhaps, if the poet pretends that he does not take his work seriously, he is free to continue it.'"
- The River, New Directions (New York, NY), 1938.
- Some Natural Things (poems), New Directions, 1945.
- Skiing East and West, with photographs by Helen Fischer and Emita Herran, Hastings House (New York, NY), 1946.
- Spearhead: Ten Years' Experimental Writing in America, New Directions, 1947.
- Report on a Visit to Germany, Henri Held (Lausanne), 1948.
- A Small Book of Poems, New Directions, 1948.
- The Wild Anemone and Other Poems, New Directions, 1957.
- Selected Poems, New Directions, 1959 (published in England as Confidential Report, and Other Poems, Gaberbocchus, 1959 ).
- The Pig (poems), Perishable Press, 1970.
- In Another Country: Poems 1935-1975, City Lights Books (San Francisco, CA), 1978.
- Gists and Piths: A Memoir of Ezra Pound, Windhover Press (New York, NY), 1982.
- The Deconstructed Man (poems), Windhover Press, 1985.
- Stolen and Contaminated Poems, Turkey Press (Isla Vista, CA), 1985.
- The House of Light, woodcuts by Vanessa Jackson, Grenfell Press (New York City), 1986.
- The Master of Those Who Know: Ezra Pound, City Lights Books, 1986.
- James Laughlin: Selected Poems, 1935-1985, City Lights Books, 1986.
- Tabellae (poems), Grenfell Press, 1986.
- The Owl of Minerva: Poems, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 1987.
- Pound as Wuz: Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 1987.
- The Bird of Endless Time: Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 1989.
- Random Essays: Recollections of a Publisher, Moyer Bell (Mt. Kisco, NY), 1989.
- William Carlos Williams and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, Norton, 1989.
- Random Stories, with an introduction by Octavio Paz, Moyer Bell, 1990.
- Kenneth Rexroth and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, edited by Lee Bartlett, Norton, 1991.
- Collected Poems of James Laughlin, Moyer Bell, 1992.
- Delmore Schwartz and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, edited by Robert Phillips, Norton, 1993.
- The Man in the Wall: Poems, foreword by Guy Davenport, New Directions, 1993.
- Ezra Pound and James Laughlin Selected Letters, edited by David M. Gordon, Norton (New York, NY), 1994.
- Phantoms, photographs by Virginia Schendler, Aperture (New York City), 1995.
- The Country Road: Poems, Zoland Books (Cambridge, MA), 1995.
- Remembering William Carlos Williams, New Directions Books (New York, NY), 1995.
- Henry Miller and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, edited by George Wickes, Norton, 1996.
- The Secret Room: Poems, New Directions, 1997.
- The Lost Fragments, Deladus Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1997.
- The Love Poems of James Laughlin, New Directions, 1997.
- Thomas Merton and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, Norton, 1997.
- (And commentator) Poems from the Greenberg Manuscripts: A Selection from the Work of Samuel B. Greenberg, New Directions, 1939.
- (With Albert M. Hayes) A Wreath of Christmas Poems by Virgil, Dante, Chaucer and Others, New Directions, 1942.
- (With U. Myat Kyaw) Perspective of Burma, Intercultural Publications, 1958.
- (With Hayden Carruth) A New Directions Reader, New Directions, 1964.
- (With Naomi Burton and Patrick Hart) The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, New Directions, 1975.
- Cooper, David D. (editor),Thomas Merton and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, Norton, 1997.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 48: American Poets: 1880-1945, Gale, 1986.
- Gordon, David M. (editor), Ezra Pound and James Laughlin Selected Letters, Norton, 1994.
- Henderson, Bill, editor, The Art of Literary Publishing: Editors on Their Craft, Pushcart Press, 1980.
- Phillips, Robert (editor), Delmore Schwartz and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, Norton, 1993.
- Wickes, George (editor),Henry Miller and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, Norton, 1996.
- American Poetry Review, November/December, 1981, p. 19.
- Chicago Tribune, December 24, 1990.
- Conjunctions, winter, 1981-82.
- Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1989; March 8, 1991, p. E2.
- Newsweek, May 1, 1967.
- New York Review of Books, June 2, 1988, p. 14.
- New York Times Book Review, February 25, 1973; August 23, 1981, p. 13; February 28, 1982; November 2, 1986, p. 28; June 12, 1988, p. 23.
- Publishers Weekly, November 22, 1985, p. 24.
- Time, January 16, 1950.
- Times Literary Supplement, February 8, 1990, p. 11.
- Washington Post Book World, January 3, 1988, p. 5.*
- Who's Who in America, Marquis Who's Who, 1996.
- Chicago Tribune, November 15, 1997, section 1, p. 25.
- New York Times, November 14, 1997, p. D19.
- Washington Post, November 15, 1997, p. B6.
Poems By JAMES LAUGHLIN
More poems by James Laughlin (32 poems)
- Easter in Pittsburgh
- Elusive Time
- How Fortunate
- In the God’s Dreams
- In the Museum at Teheran
- Little Bits of Paper
- My Ambition
- No My Dear
- O Best of All Nights, Return and Return Again
- Request for Confirmation
- Swapping Minds
- Technical Notes
- The Avalanche
- The Calendar of Fame
- The Child
- The Invisible Person
- The Lost Song
- The Person
- The Prisoner
- The Sacks
- The Shameful Profession
- The Shape of Love
- The Trout
- Then and Now
- You Came as a Thought
LIFE SPAN 1914–1997