James Laughlin Accepts The 1992 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters


James Laughlin: The first book I published, in 1936, was 208 pages long and it cost me $396, including the binding. I didn’t know how to design a jacket, and I forgot to tell the printer to number the pages. It sold for $2, and that wonderful woman Frances Steloff at the Gotham Book Mart took 150 copies. I sold a few more by driving around New England badgering the bookstores. There were no reviews that I can recall.

It was an anthology called New Directions in Prose & Poetry and was printed by the Otter Valley Press in Brandon, VT, the country shop where we Harvard boys printed our undergraduate literary magazine, The Harvard Advocate. There were 700 copies. A note on the copyright page said, “Contributions of or on experimental writing and all allied subjects will be read with interest by the editor, if return postage is enclosed.” There was an elaborate dedication “to the editors, the contributors & the readers of Transition” – that was the great international magazine edited by Eugene Jolas in Paris, which first published Joyce and Gertrude Stein – “who have begun successfully the REVOLUTION OF THE WORLD.”

In those days the prospects for “the revolution of the word” were not very bright. The Depression had frightened New York publishers away from unsalable experimental writing, and there were, I think, only five literary magazines that were interested in it, among them The Little Review, The Dial and a most important publication called Others.

What was “experimental writing?” The content list of that first anthology gives a fair idea. It included Elizabeth Bishop, Kay Boyle, E. E. Cummings, Dudley Fitts, Eugene Jolas, Henry Miller, Marianne Moore, Lorine Niedecker, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, John Wheelwright, William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky.

Oh, I’ve forgotten one important name: Tasilo Ribischka. Who was Tasilo Ribischka? A contributors note explained, “He is an Austrian now living in Saugus, Mass., where he is a night watchman at a railroad grade crossing; this gives him lost of time to think.” Guess who. Tasilo was me. When I had some particularly droll piece to publish, I signed it Tasilo Ribischka.

Laughlin with his wife Gertrude Huston at the National Book Awards. Photo credit: Robin Platzer

The man who suggested that I become a publisher was poor old Ezra Pound. I call him “poor old Ezra” because he had such a wretched life in his older years. In his 50’s he developed paranoia that led to anti-Semitism and an enthusiasm for Mussolini. He was indicted for treason because of the wartime broadcasts he made from Rome; he was never tried, but spent 12 years in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, “a guest of the Government,” as he liked to put it. But when I first knew him, in 1934, when he accepted me as a student in his “Ezuversity” in Rapallo, Italy, no one could have been more kind – it was Pound who found publishers and patrons for Joyce and T.S. Eliot – or more generous in sharing his knowledge of literature with young people.

New Directions was born one morning in Pound’s study, when he was going over some of my poems, in the spring of 1935. He was crossing out most of my words. Finally, he said: “Jas, you’re never going to be any good as a poet. Why don’t you take up something useful?” “What would that be?” I asked him. “What would be useful?” He thought for a moment and suggested, “Why dontcher assessernate Henry Seidel Canby?” (Canby was the editor of The Saturday Review, who always gave Ezra’s books bad reviews.) “I’m not smart enough,” I told him. “I wouldn’t get away with it.”

He thought some more. “You’d better become a publisher. You’ve got enough brains for that.”

He promised that if I could learn “to print books right side up,” he would let me be is publisher and would persuade his friends to let me do some of theirs. And that’s how it worked out. He gave me his book Kulchur, William Carlos Williams gave me his collection of poems A Glad Day, and Djuna Barnes allowed me to reprint Nightwood.

I knew absolutely nothing about publishing. But I found that printers, binders, reviewers and people in bookstores, like Frances Steloff, were wonderful and patient teachers. The first year, when I was still finishing Harvard, New Directions was a one-man operation. I did everything. I worked with printers and binders around Cambridge, stored the books in my college room, and in the Harvard reading period I drove as far west as Omaha calling on the bookshops. Most of those lady buyers had never than heard of Pound or Williams, but they took pity on the nutty young man and bought a few books. When Alfred Kazin reviewed Williams’ White Mule in The New York Times Book Review, the book took off and I was able to reprint it.

Over the years it has been the New Directions authors themselves who have been my best advisers. They directed me to friends who had unpublished manuscripts, and one led to another. Williams put me in touch with Robert McAlmon and Yvor Winters, the critic at Stanford. Later on Kenneth Rexroth, the San Francisco poet, who was a Buddhist anarchist and had read every good book in most every language, enlisted the poets Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose Coney Island of the Mind became a rage with the students and sold 100,000 copies, my first best seller.

When there were more books than I could manage alone, I inveigled unemployed poets into working for me. The wage scale, as I recall, was $1 an hour; but that bought quite a bit in those days. Delmore Schwartz and his wife, Gertrude, ran the office in Cambridge. Delmore was heroic; one night when the Charles River flooded, he carried a ton of books from the cellar up to the kitchen.

Now, 57 years later, the situation for experimental writing – or call it advance-guard writing, if you will – has totally changed. There are dozens of very competent small presses all over the country and scores of well-edited little magazines that are eager to publish writers whose work is unconventional. Beyond that, many of the commercial houses are willing to take a chance on novels that defy all the rules of traditional fiction. Huge schools of creative writing in the colleges turn out hundreds of poets who sound like Wallace Stevens.

The advance guard is no longer isolated. I think I first got wind of the change in the air in the 1960’s when the stories of Donald Barthelme came out in The New Yorker and were promptly published in book form by Little, Brown and Company.

Thanks to the professionalism and dedication of my colleagues, the team that runs New Directions, I have been able to leave the operation in their hands and be free as a bird to travel or go skiing for long periods. They liberated me to run Intercultural Publications, with its four-language journal, Perspective; to do cultural exchange from Europe to Japan; to develop the ski lifts at Alta, Utah; to be an adjunct professor at Brown; to lecture on modern poetry in nearly a hundred colleges. And thanks to those who turn the wheels, I’ve been able to give time to the Greek and Latin classics that enrich my life, doodle my eccentric verses, sit in the sun on the terrace of our house in northwest Connecticut meditating on sunyata, the “sacred emptiness” of the Buddhists, or just watch the sheep in the meadow munch grass.

It took 23 years for New Directions to get into the black. But I’ve enjoyed the situations 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 muck, we could do it.

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.