The adventuresome life of a literary maverick.
James Laughlin (1914-1997) had a long career as one of the most influential publishers of the 20th century. Given $100,000 in securities on his 21st birthday—with the advice that he “use it to help people”—Laughlin, still a Harvard undergraduate, decided to devote the dividends to publishing, a venture that became the estimable New Directions. In late 1936, the anthology New Directions in Poetry and Prose featured work by Elizabeth Bishop, Jean Cocteau, e.e. cummings, Henry Miller, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Laughlin’s mentor, Ezra Pound. Intellectually and aesthetically adventurous, Laughlin introduced or promoted writers who came to define modernism: Borges, Garcia Lorca, Nabokov, Pablo Neruda, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, among many others. MacNiven (Lawrence Durrell: A Biography, 1998, etc.) has drawn upon nearly 1,200 boxes of personal and professional papers at Harvard’s Houghton Library, along with sources in other archives, for this sympathetic and thorough chronicle of Laughlin’s life and business ventures. Besides publishing, Laughlin was a poet, avid skier and owner of a ski resort. His obsession, though, was “becoming an elevating influence on American culture.” MacNiven offers vivid portraits of the irascible Pound, with whom Laughlin had a filial relationship; Laughlin’s intimate friend Thomas Merton; and poet Kenneth Rexroth, who often “played the devil’s advocate…jabbing ruthlessly wherever he suspected cant, false values, weak art.” Subject to bouts of depression, insomnia and “alternating moods of ego-driven assurance and abysmally low self-esteem,” Laughlin, at 56, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition his father also had. MacNiven suggests that his illness contributed to his lifelong search for a woman who would make him feel worthy and loved, resulting in troubled marriages and many infidelities.
Sensitive to Laughlin’s strengths and shortcomings, MacNiven offers a comprehensive, prodigiously researched biography of a transformative literary figure.