James Laughlin

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Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,969 words

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About this Person
Born: October 30, 1914 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: November 12, 1997 in Norfolk, Connecticut, United States
Nationality: American
Other Names: Laughlin, James, IV


  • The River (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1938).
  • Some Natural Things (New York: New Directions, 1945).
  • Skiing East and West, text by Laughlin, photographs by Helen Fischer in collaboration with Emita Herran (New York: Hastings House, 1946).
  • Report on a Visit to Germany (Lausanne: Henri Held, 1948).
  • A Small Book of Poems (Milan & New York: Vanni Scheiwiller & New Directions, 1948).
  • The Wild Anemone & Other Poems (Norfolk: New Directions, 1957).
  • Confidential Report, and Other Poems (London: Gaberboccus, 1959); republished as Selected Poems (Norfolk: New Directions, 1959).
  • The Pig (Mt. Horeb, Wis.: Perishable Press, 1970).
  • In Another Country: Poems 1935-1975, edited by Robert Fitzgerald (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1978).
  • Gists & Piths: A Memoir of Ezra Pound (Iowa City: Windhover Press, 1982).
  • Stolen & Contaminated Poems (Isla Vista, Cal.: Turkey Press, 1985).
  • The Deconstructed Man (Iowa City: Windhover Press, 1985).
  • Selected Poems 1935-1985 (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986).
  • The House of Light (New York: Grenfell Press, 1986).


  • New Directions in Prose and Poetry, nos. 1-,edited by Laughlin (Cambridge, Mass./Norfolk, Conn./New York: New Directions, 1936-).
  • Samuel Bernard Greenberg, Poems from the Greenberg Manuscripts: A Selection from the Work of Samuel B. Greenberg, edited, with a commentary, by Laughlin (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1939).
  • The Fourth Eclogue of Virgil, translated by Laughlin (Windham, Conn.: Printed for J. Laughlin by Edmond Thompson, 1939).
  • A Wreath of Christmas Poems by Virgil, Dante, Chaucer and Others, edited by Laughlin and Alfred M. Hayes (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1942).
  • Alvin Lustig, Bookjackets by Alvin Lustig for New Directions Books, includes a statement by Laughlin and Lustig (New York: Gotham Book Mart, 1947).
  • Spearhead: Ten Years' Experimental Writing in America, edited by Laughlin (New York: New Directions, 1947).
  • Perspective of Burma, edited by Laughlin and U Myat Kyaw (New York: Intercultural Publications, 1958).
  • A New Directions Reader, edited by Laughlin and Hayden Carruth (New York: New Directions, 1964).
  • The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, edited by Laughlin, Naomi Burton, and Patrick Hart (New York: New Directions, 1975).


James Laughlin is most often acknowledged by the public as a publisher and seldom as a poet. Since he founded the publishing house New Directions in 1936, he has chosen to remain in the background of an effort which has placed before the public more than 1000 volumes of some of the best experimental and avant-garde writing of the last fifty years. When Yale University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1982, the citation praised him as an "Editor, poet, book collector, loyal friend of literature and the other arts," who had "created and sustained a publishing house of unique importance to contemporary letters." It went on to praise Laughlin's discernment of talent and his unflagging support of "literary endeavor."

Laughlin is perceived as a minor poet, in part because he has chosen to publish so little. In Another Country (1978), his collected poems, contains only fifty-eight pages of poems, a fact that Hayden Carruth attributes to "Laughlin's reticence in all personal matters." That Laughlin 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.

James Laughlin IV, a descendant of the founder of Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, was born in Pittsburgh to Henry Hughart and Marjory Rea Laughlin. He grew up in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh in an enclave of relatives and went to school in Switzerland before enrolling at Choate. While he has reported that he did not read much until he reached Choate, two of his teachers there, Carey Briggs and Dudley Fitts, found him a willing pupil, and Fitts introduced him to the writings of such modernists as Gertrude Stein , James Joyce , T.S. Eliot , Ezra Pound , and William Carlos Williams . When he entered Harvard in 1933, he was disappointed to find that the curriculum lacked courses on these literary figures and during his sophomore year he took a leave of absence from Harvard and went to Europe.

With an introduction from Bernard Faÿ, he was able to obtain a position as handyman and student with Gertrude Stein . As he described them later, his services as a "chauffeur" for Stein included not only changing the tires on her car but also helping her to prepare articles for the American press in preparation for her autumn 1934 visit to the United States. Then, with a letter of introduction from Dudley Fitts, Laughlin went to see Ezra Pound in Rapallo, where he spent six months studying with Pound at his so-called Ezuversity.

Laughlin often relates how Pound slashed words from poems by his aspiring students, Laughlin among them. Finally in despair Pound told him to go home and become a publisher. The time he spent with Pound was undoubtedly a turning point for Laughlin. He realized that he would never be a great writer, but he learned many of the hallmarks of modernist writing.

On leaving Pound at Ezuversity, he went skiing on the slopes of Austria. Though an early skiing accident seriously injured him, skiing became a regular and important part of his life, sometimes taking precedence over publishing. Once, to William Carlos Williams 's distress, White Mule (1937) went out of print while Laughlin was skiing. Another time, he let the unsolicited manuscript for Thomas Merton 's The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) languish on his desk while he went on a ski vacation. Without apology for such incidents, he has continued to ski to this day, and for many years he has spent the ski season in Alta, Utah, at a ski resort in which he invested.

When he returned to Harvard in 1935 Laughlin served as a guest literary editor for Gorham Munson's New York based social-credit magazine New Democracy, gathering contributions for a section called "New Directions in Prose & Poetry" from writers such as Pound, Eliot, Marianne Moore , Kay Boyle , E.E. Cummings , and William Carlos Williams . In 1936, when Laughlin published his first New Directions anthology, they were all included along with works by Wallace Stevens , Gertrude Stein , Henry Miller , Louis Zukofsky , Jean Cocteau , Dudley Fitts, and many others. This New Directions anthology for 1936 was the first of a series that continues to be published today. Though Laughlin originally intended to publish it annually, intervals of as many as three years separated issues during World War II. Now an issue appears each year.

Laughlin was later to publish books by many of the writers represented in this remarkable 1936 collection with a loyalty and thoroughness that is unmatched in the history of American literature. He saw himself as having a responsibility to publish works of literary merit even when there appeared to be no commercial market for them, and he remained loyal to his writers. Because he felt strongly about his ideals, it was twenty-five years before the company began to show a profit.

Laughlin's father had given him $100,000 when he started college. He invested this money, and the income from it supported him and his publishing venture until he inherited more in the 1950s. By the 1960s his efforts began to have some impact. A number of his books were adopted for use in college classrooms, and the company began to pay its own way.

By the time he earned an A.B. from Harvard in 1939, Laughlin had published more than a dozen books, including Pianos of Sympathy (1936) by Montagu O'Reilly (Wayne Andrews), the first New Directions publication; Williams's White Mule (1937) and Complete Collected Poems, 1906-1938 (1938); Pound's Guide to Kulchur (1938); and Delmore Schwartz 's first book, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (1938). In 1942 Laughlin married Margaret Keyser, with whom he had two children, Paul and Leila. They were divorced in 1952, the year Laughlin became president of Intercultural Publications, a subsidiary of the Ford Foundation, which published a literary-cultural magazine, Perspectives USA (1952-1956), designed to teach Europeans about American culture. Among his other duties, Laughlin edited some issues of the magazine as well as some special "Perspectives" sections on the cultures of India, Burma, Indonesia, Japan, the Arab World, and Greece, which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. (His affiliation with Intercultural Publications ended in 1969). On 19 May 1957 Laughlin married Ann Clark Resor. They had two children, Robert and Henry. Laughlin has lectured at some thirty colleges and universities. Recently he has held a visiting lectureship at the University of Iowa (1981-1982) and an adjunct professorship at Brown University (1983).

Despite Pound's advice, Laughlin never entirely gave up writing poetry, and his contributions of poems to little magazines as well as the occasional publication of short books continues to this day. Hayden Carruth has described Laughlin's work as "a kind of poetry composed on a typewriter in which each succeeding line could vary from the typewritten length of the first line by no more than two spaces either way, or in rare emergencies three spaces"--a practice Laughlin described in the 1930s and has continued since that time. Laughlin himself has remarked, "I 'play' an arbitrary visual pattern against the sound pattern of a colloquial cadence to get tension and surprise." While others have even tried it, he notes, without much success, a reading of the poems shows that it has worked well for him. The short lines, unhindered by punctuation, seem to have an impact that makes his work more memorable.

This technique, combined with his seemingly simplistic subject matter, creates poems that are, as Denise Levertov has noted, "free of bombast and of any pretentiousness." She has also said, "Emotion is disciplined in the precision of his diction and the strictness of his idiosyncratic form ...."

Laughlin says of his own work, "It's very light; it's sentimental, it deals with no great subjects, no great thoughts ..." but Donald Hall responds, "perhaps, if the poet pretends that he does not take his work seriously, he is free to continue it."

Each of his books of poetry is already an expression of mature form; yet in the last three years he has been experimenting with long-line poems, macaronics (mixing languages such as English and Provençal), and poems in "American" French. In almost every case the subject of the poem is carried forth by its own novelty, as in these lines from "Old Doctor God":

Sure everybody laughs at
Old Doctor God and his medicine
sometimes it kills
you sometimes it cures
you sometimes it leaves
you just like you were[.]
The striking sensuality of many of the poems is especially noticeable in the long poem "In Another Country" (In Another Country, 1978) where Italian and English are combined effectively in a dialogue that conveys the love between an American boy and an Italian girl. The "Giacomino" section of the poem begins
she called vieni qua splashing her
arms in the clear green water vieni
subito and so I followed her swimming
around a point of rock to the
next cove vieni qua non hai paura
and she slipped like an eel beneath
the surface down through the sunken
entrance to a hidden grotto where
the light was soft and green on fine-
grained sand e bello no? here we can
be together by ourselves and nobody else
has ever been here with me it's my secret
place here ..[.]
Shorter poems such as "The Cave" (Selected Poems, 1959), where "her hair/makes a cave around her/face," are equally evocative in their sensuality, but they are too brief to be as well realized as "In Another Country."

In "Technical Notes" (In Another Country) Laughlin propounds his poetic theories, rejecting so-called poetic diction in favor of "plain brown bricks/of common talk American talk" and asserting "love/is my subject & the lack of love." Describing his technique, he writes:

I roll the
words around my mouth & count the
letters in each
line thus eye and ear contend inside
the poem and draw its movement
tight Milton
thought rhyme was vulgar I agree
yet sometimes if it's hidden in
the line a rhyme
will richen tone ...[.]
He says that while he agrees with Catullus, who "knew a poem is like a blow/an impact strik-//ing where you least expect," he believes that "a poem is finally just/a natural thing." The influence of William Carlos Williams 's early poems is evident in "Technical Notes," and it continues still. In a more recent poem, "The Person" (Poetry, June 1980), Laughlin explains the subconscious nature of creativity by saying that his poems are written by someone else, whom "I wonder about/ ... but will never know," a person who "lives in some other/sphere" and "when he feels like it" sends him poems "through space":
they arrive complete
from beginning to end
and all I have to do
is type them out ...[.]

Perhaps Robert Fitzgerald's short foreword to In Another Country: Poems 1935-1975 (1978) captures the essence of Laughlin's total output best in noting the ability of his "cool and simple" poems to "secrete bitter knowledge" as well as "lyrical joy," to convey humor as well as to "fix historical moments" with precision. The poems are "utterly clear, stained by no muddiness," and, most important, "They are unique: no one but James Laughlin could have written them."

Laughlin still writes poems occasionally and he continues to give readings of his own work, but quite often such readings are combined with readings of letters from Pound or William Carlos Williams and are well salted with anecdotes. Unless questions are directed to his own writing, he dwells on the early days of the great literary effort he directed, with such modesty that the audience is likely to come away almost forgetting that it was James Laughlin who made it possible.

Although his few poems are of high quality, his most profound influence on American poetry is certainly in what he chose to publish. In the first twenty-seven years of New Directions, nearly 200 of the 500 titles he published were poetry. In an article for Poetry magazine (January 1982) he discussed in his most modest manner how he published about twenty-five books (in thirty-four editions) for Pound and nineteen for Williams (in twenty-eight editions in 1963). Not only did New Directions publish the work of Pound, Williams, and many other authors, with few exceptions their work has been kept in print.

As a poet, Laughlin has chosen the poetics of the Pound-Williams heritage. As a publisher, through his support of Williams and those that followed Williams's "idiom" (among them, Robert Creeley , Gregory Corso , Denise Levertov and Gary Snyder ), Laughlin established a family tree of modernist American poetry with its roots in Pound and Williams.

Beyond the fostering of this American heritage, Laughlin introduced to generations of American writers the budding traditions of French modernism. Eastern European realism, and the Latin American lyric that have served to make American poetry more truly cosmopolitan. In recent years he has worked on and appeared in documentary films about Thomas Merton , Ezra Pound , William Carlos Williams , and Romain Gary .

Always effective in combining classical tradition (from an awareness of Latin and Greek poetry doubtless won from Pound, Fitts, and Fitzgerald) with a sense of the modernist lyric, Laughlin has shown how his standards as a publisher are enhanced by his standards as a poet.


Laughlin's papers will be deposited in the Houghton Library at Harvard University, which now has correspondence between Laughlin and William Carlos Williams . Laughlin's correspondence with Ezra Pound and other papers are in the Beinecke Library at Yale University.



  • Susan Howe, "New Directions: An Interview with James Laughlin," in The Art of Literary Publishing: Editors on Their Craft, edited by Bill Henderson (Yonkers, N.Y.: Pushcart Press, 1980), pp. 13-48.
  • Robert Dana, "James Laughlin: An Interview," American Poetry Review, 10 (November/December 1981): supplement, pp. 19-32.
  • John A. Harrison, "A Checklist of the Publications of James Laughlin," Conjunctions, 1 (Winter 1981-1982): 284-286.
  • Miriam Berkley, "The Way It Was: James Laughlin and New Directions," Publishers Weekly, 228 (22 November 1985): 24-29.
  • Hayden Carruth, "Notes about Laughlin's Typewriter," Conjunctions, 1 (Winter 1981-1982): 87-96.
  • Robert Coles, "A Struggle for Humility," Conjunctions, 1 (Winter 1981-1982): 244-246.
  • Richard Eberhart, "Homage to James Laughlin," Conjunctions, 1 (Winter 1981-1982): 141.
  • D.W. Faulkner, "James Laughlin--Poet and Publisher, A Profile of the Founder and Editor of New Directions Books," Connecticut Artists, 3 (Spring/Summer 1980): 6-15.
  • Donald Hall, "Ezra Pound Said to Be A Publisher," New York Times Book Review, 23 August 1981, pp. 13, 22-23.
  • Walter Hamady, "A Letter to the Editor, and A Poem," Conjunctions, 1 (Winter 1981-1982): 227-231.
  • Denise Levertov, "About James Laughlin," Conjunctions, 1 (Winter 1981-1982): 68-69.
  • Bradford Morrow, "An Interview with Kenneth Rexroth [about James Laughlin and New Directions]," Conjunctions, 1 (Winter 1981-1982): 48-67.
  • Miriam Patchen, "Kenneth and Miriam Patchen's Early Days at New Directions," Conjunctions, 1 (Winter 1981-1982): 253-257.


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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200001530