WRITERS DON’T MAKE themselves great. They don’t will themselves into prominence or create their own admiring audiences. The brilliance of their writing doesn’t elevate them from obscurity to eminence. No: writers create the work, but it’s often the savvy people around the best writers who help them reach and connect with the audiences that, to use a word that marketers have largely voided of meaning, “immortalize” them.

Of these savvy operators, few were as savvy or as successful as James Laughlin, the founder and publisher of New Directions Books. In “Literchoor is My Beat”: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux), Ian S. MacNiven seeks to do what Tom Dardis did for Horace Liveright in his Firebrand: The Life of Horace Liveright or Boris Kachka did for Roger Straus in his 2013 history of Farrar, Straus & Giroux: illuminate how the personal history and character of a publisher shaped not only the identity of a publishing firm but also an entire channel of literary history. MacNiven, author of a previous biography of Lawrence Durrell, succeeds magnificently.

Unlike Alfred A. Knopf, Laughlin didn’t build a large and influential firm that became a cornerstone property of a major media company. Unlike Grove Press’s Barney Rosset, Laughlin shied away from brawls over free speech. Instead, through the frontlists he carefully chose and the backlists he kept in print much longer than made financial sense, Laughlin incubated, cultivated, and brought to maturity a whole tradition in American literature — a modernism-fueled avant-garde that expanded modernism’s Eurocentric confines to welcome Latin American and Asian influences and collaborators.

In these pages, Laughlin comes fully alive: his patrician amalgam of modesty and entitlement; his unshaking devotion to a holistic vision of culture; his moodiness that devolved into manic depression; his romanticism and prudery; his drive and energy and faithfulness to a vision; his hard-headedness and loyalty; his patience; his single-mindedness.

Laughlin formed New Directions Publishing in the 1930s to reflect his own literary taste, and remained involved in acquiring manuscripts well into the 1980s. New Directions’ list in essence was a projection of Laughlin’s taste. But New Directions is distinctive among such long-lived publishers in that Laughlin imprinted his own preferences and beliefs not just on the firm’s books, but on the firm and its small staff. “He was able to an amazing degree,” MacNiven points out, “to win his employees over to his messianic sense of artistic mission.”

New Directions’ backlist reads like the starting lineup of the 20th-century American avant-garde. The firm is still the primary publisher of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Thomas Merton, Tennessee Williams, Kenneth Rexroth, Dylan Thomas, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Djuna Barnes, Denise Levertov. If you were an English major, you still have several ND Paperbooks on your shelves — and you can probably pick them out from across the room. The austere black-and-white spines of New Directions books were made to be recognizable, and for many years their abstract covers, designed often by the great Alvin Lustig, were a hallmark of the firm.

Like Knopf, Laughlin also published works by European and Latin American experimental authors, past and contemporary. He received the Legion of Honour from the French government in 1952 for his service popularizing French-language writers in the United States, but he also published, often for the first time in the US, Ernesto Cardenal, Knut Hamsun, Hermann Hesse (whose Siddhartha remains one of New Directions’ all-time bestsellers), Clarice Lispector, Eugenio Montale, Leonid Tsypkin, Jorge Luis Borges, Nicanor Parra, Boris Pasternak, and many others. Then, partly because of the influence of Pound and Rexroth, and partly because his travels on behalf of the Ford Foundation, in the 1950s, Laughlin began also to pursue Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Burmese authors such as Raja Rao, Yukio Mishima, and Osamu Dazai.

Nothing about Laughlin’s family background augured a life in experimental literature. Laughlin reminisced that his childhood home had “nothing but sets [of authors like Austen and Walter Scott] and the Bible, and the sets were never read.” What the Laughlins did have was money. Largely forgotten today, Pittsburgh’s Jones & Laughlin Steel was once the third-largest steel producer in the world, and young Jas or J, as he liked to be called, was of the fourth generation of these Laughlins. Several Laughlin households neighbored each other in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, near the Fricks and the Carnegies and the Mellons and Shadyside Presbyterian Church, the home parish of the city’s elite. J’s boyhood home is now a Chatham University residence hall.

As is often the case, wealth and comfort didn’t ensure an idyllic childhood. Laughlin’s father Henry had declined to join the family business and devoted himself instead to hunting and traveling. More ominously, he suffered from bipolar disorder, and J often visited his father in sanatoria and psychiatric asylums until his death in 1938. With her husband gone, his strict and religious mother Marjory took charge, but J chafed at her parenting. Instead, J found a surrogate mother in his loving aunt Leila and a refuge at Robin Hill, her estate in the hills of northwestern Connecticut.

A year of prep school in Switzerland did, as hoped, teach twelve-year-old J a little French, but his time in the Alps also introduced him to the greatest pleasure of his life: skiing. Choate left a more significant intellectual and personal impression. There, he met his first two mentors (literature teachers Dudley Fitts and Carey Briggs) and his first infatuation, the headmaster’s wife Clara St. John. Latching onto a mentor and an idealized woman, MacNiven shows, became a lifelong pattern for Laughlin, even if his business and marriages often suffered because of it.

Disappointing his Old Princetonian father by matriculating at Harvard (“the college of the Jews and Beaconhillites”), J found himself snubbed by the sons of the Boston and New York elite, and gravitated instead to Harvard’s literary crowd. MacNiven’s book vividly illustrates just how small and insular the world of the East Coast cultural elite was in the 1930s. Among J’s friends and teachers just in his first two years at Harvard were Joe Pulitzer, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the poet Peter Viereck, the classicist and translator Robert Fitzgerald (who became another important mentor to J), John Brooks Wheelwright, Harry Levin, F.O. Matthiessen, Robert Lowell, and Ted Spencer. Nineteen-year-old J also belonged to a “Thursday evening supper group” with Lincoln Kirstein, John Cheever, Fitts, and R.P. Blackmur.

After three unsatisfying semesters, J took an extended leave and long European trip, staying with Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound (not at the same time). J’s time at the “Ezuversity” in Rapallo, Italy became the central intellectual experience of his life and Pound his new mentor. A charismatic, polymathic, eccentric blowhard, Pound would lecture at J for hours and then invite him to play tennis or swim in the Tigullian Gulf. Pound also helped solidify Laughlin’s inchoate political and social beliefs. Granted, having Ezra Pound shape one’s ideas about how the world should work seems to offer some hazards, but for the most part Laughlin avoided or quickly shed some of Pound’s least savory preoccupations.

Pound’s influence on Laughlin’s literary taste — and ultimately on New Directions — was more enduring. In the 1910s and 1920s, Eliot and Pound, the key theorists of modernism, both constructed heterodox literary histories that culminated in their own work. Eliot exalted the “Metaphysical” poets of the sixteenth century as embodying a perfect melding of thought and feeling, which later poets like Dryden and Milton “dissociated” and the Romantics just trashed. Pound, rather than making a genetic or evolutionary argument, spotted “vortices” of energy in particular times and places and literary styles: the Greek epics, Anglo-Saxon poetry, troubadour lyrics and Dante, classical Chinese poetry, Japanese Noh theatre. Pound’s mission in his failed epic The Cantos was to unearth these works and moments from their obscurity and show the world their connections. These texts weren’t just literary, for Pound; they both documented and fortified the health of a culture.

The Poundian idea that literature could revivify culture became J’s deepest-held conviction. First in his “New Directions” column for an obscure political magazine, then in his New Directions in Prose and Poetry annual anthologies, and finally in the firm itself, Laughlin sought to use literature to renew the world. “The world is in crisis,” Laughlin wrote in 1936, “and language is at once the cause and the cure.”

Although he sought to be a writer, Laughlin had no illusions that his own work would offer the remedy. He liked to tell the self-deprecating story of how, when he showed his own poetry to Pound, his mentor told him “you’re never going to make a poet, Jas. Do something useful and be a publisher.” Sadder but wiser, Laughlin would explain to his audience, he realized that Pound was right, and took his advice.

But as MacNiven shows, this cute story wasn’t really true. Laughlin had been writing poetry — much of it influenced by Eliot and Pound — from his years at Choate, but Pound’s verdict didn’t stop him. He published his own verse in New Directions annuals and with other small presses steadily from the 1940s until his death, and in the late 1980s, after he scaled back his work with New Directions, he experienced a dramatic surge of productivity. His style, though, swerved dramatically in the 1940s away from high-modernist portentousness and toward a style similar to that of two other New Directions authors, Williams and Rexroth. Laughlin self-deprecatingly considered himself a writer of “light verse,” and the critic and J’s longtime friend Marjorie Perloff agrees, at least in part:

His is light verse, not in the tradition of Ogden Nash or Dorothy Parker, but in the line that extends from Catullus… to Pound’s Moeurs contemporains and Williams’ “This Is Just to Say.”

“Light verse perhaps,” adds Peter Glassgold, longtime ND staffer and editor of the just-published The Collected Poems of James Laughlin, “but not lightweight.” Even among all of his other awards and distinctions and honorary degrees, J considered his 1995 induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his poetry to be the greatest honor of his life. So no, Laughlin didn’t forego a life in poetry for the workaday job of a publisher: he was, always, both.

He did, though, abandon a different potential career. Laughlin was a devoted skier, and apparently quite a talented one. In the winter of 1936-7 Laughlin bested both an Olympian and the Canadian national champion to win a slalom race on Washington’s Mt. Baker. He continued skiing competitively through the 1930s and 1940s, until multiple serious injuries and the growing recognition that he would never be more than very good brought him to reality.

This wasn’t the ski-bum circuit of a Bode Miller, though. In the 1930s, skiing was a tiny niche sport. The first rope tow at an American ski area (in Vermont) was unveiled only in 1934. Sun Valley, developed by the Union Pacific Railroad, installed the continent’s first chairlift in 1936. Laughlin frequented all of the early resorts in the US and in the Alps, and in 1940 bought a shabby lodge in Alta, Utah, a largely abandoned silver-mining town in the Wasatch Mountains, and installed a state-of-the-art ski lift there. Although he eventually sold the resort itself, he retained ownership of the Alta Ski Lift Company, which remains in the Laughlin family.

Skiing, in fact, often got in the way of publishing. In his first major blunder as a publisher, Laughlin had bound only 500 copies of the marquee title on the Spring 1937 list (ND’s first), William Carlos Williams’s novel White Mule. When the novel quickly sold out, partly due to Laughlin’s energetic promotion, Williams frantically tried to get his young publisher to have more sheets bound. Laughlin, though, was unreachable: he had gone skiing in New Zealand. The novel disappeared, infuriating Williams, who began publishing his most important works with Random House.

These disagreements with his authors, which often grew heated, never became excessively personal, and Laughlin’s loyalty even to writers who slighted him was legendary. Pound, Williams, Merton, Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Delmore Schwartz, Tennessee Williams, Henry Miller: all could be prickly and petty, and many of them, financially struggling, grumbled about their rich publisher who couldn’t understand what it was to need, to have to hustle. Rexroth in particular pestered Laughlin for gifts and stipends and handouts, and sniped at J when he refused. But Laughlin remained loyal to these authors, perhaps because of his admiration for their profound literary talents, which he realized he didn’t share. MacNiven shows that there were really only two ND authors J couldn’t stand: John Berryman, whose sloppy, aggressive drunkenness offended him, and Djuna Barnes, whose imperiousness scared her young publisher.

J was a much less faithful husband than he was a publisher. William Carlos Williams’s wife Flossie once asked her husband whether he wanted to sleep with every woman he looked at. “Why, yes,” Williams answered frankly. As MacNiven shows, Laughlin was much the same way, but didn’t keep his hands to himself. He had a roving eye and eclectic tastes and, as his poetry documents, powerful infatuations. Margaret Keyser, his first wife, came from a wealthy Utah family, and endured J’s philandering until she didn’t. During that first marriage, Laughlin conducted several affairs, one of which involved vying with George Plimpton and Tennessee Williams (!) for the affections of the glamorous Russian-British ballerina and actress Maria Britneva, later Lady Maria St. Just. After ten years and two children, J and Margaret divorced. Shopping around for a new wife, J seriously considered Britneva as well as Gertrude Huston, a New Directions designer and his lover for many years. Hearing about Britneva, J’s good friend Drue Heinz warned him “you’re not to marry that woman,” and Aunt Leila vetoed Huston because she was Jewish. In the end, in 1955 he settled on Ann Clark Resor, whose family owned the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency.

His marriage to Ann lasted the longest, and she was the most tolerant of his dalliances and crushes. Ann and J had two children, Robert and Henry, but their family life quickly molded itself to the pattern J had established with Margaret: he was reliant on his wife to provide domestic stability and child-rearing; he was gone often, for extended periods of time; and he would, during those absences, be with other women (or apsaras, nymphs of Sanskrit mythology, as he called them in his poems). This contributed to his often troubled relationships with his children, particularly Paul, his firstborn, MacNiven shows. Worse, Robert, the older of his children with Ann, developed at a young age the bipolar disorder that had for generations afflicted Laughlin men. Tragically, Robert killed himself in 1984, and J himself found his son’s body.

J hoped he had dodged this particular bullet until the late 1960s. The sudden and bizarre 1968 death of his close friend Merton (electrocuted by a faulty fan in Bangkok) was a blow, and by 1970, J was feeling persistently if vaguely “unwell.” He began taking lithium the next year, and for the rest of his life struggled with manic depression. In the 1980s, partly due to the exhaustion of Ann’s patience and partly due to Robert’s death, the Laughlins’ marriage became moribund. Ann died of myeloma in 1989, and soon after J — finally — married Gertrude Huston, who had never left his life. In his last decade of life (he died in 1997), Laughlin largely absented himself from New Directions, rarely traveling down to New York from the Norfolk, Connecticut estate he had inherited from Leila, and worked on his poetry.

I met him during this time. I was writing a dissertation on Ezra Pound and New Directions, and courtly Laughlin had invited me to visit and talk with him. I was an artless interviewer, and naive enough to think that I was one of the first scholars or journalists to give Laughlin such attention, to ascribe to him such impact in shaping 20th-century American literature. MacNiven’s biography makes it clear, though, that as early as the 1950s, readers and critics and literary journalists were in fact well aware of Laughlin’s role as a literary impresario. Some — Randall Jarrell, for one — even sneered at him for this, and Laughlin was the model for “Callahan,” the callow, rich publisher in Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow’s fictionalized portrait of Delmore Schwartz. (J had earlier appeared as “Champ Laughlin,” one of Amanda’s gentlemen callers in The Glass Menagerie.)

Seventeen years after his death, in what is now a much less bookish time, Laughlin has become a bit of an obscure figure. I hope that MacNiven’s book — fittingly published by FSG, the firm shaped by J’s coeval and friend Robert Giroux — will remedy that. MacNiven is a deft biographer, confident with his material, and has structured the chapters thematically, centering on developments in relationships with particular authors. Most readers will be primarily interested in those authors, and so building the book around these pegs, rather than around events in J’s life, makes sense. And readers with only a passing interest in experimental literature will enjoy the book simply as a kind of Page Six of the midcentury cultural elite, full of J’s encounters and friendships with boldface names: Martha Gellhorn, Marlon Brando, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Heinz, Walter Paepcke, Albert Schweitzer, Alice B. Toklas, The Atlantic Monthly owner Ellery Sedgwick, T.S. Eliot, Man Ray, Kay Boyle.

Somewhat coyly, MacNiven downplays his own personal connection to Laughlin. He is married to Peggy Fox, who worked at New Directions for decades and served as President before retiring in 2011, and readers might feel that MacNiven gives inordinate attention to the members and changing roles of New Directions’s tiny staff. Interesting nuggets lie in there, though. For decades, New Directions has had more women in high editorial positions than most major literary publishers. MacNiven shows that this stemmed from Laughlin’s congenital frugality: in the 1960s, he could pay women less, and so he hired them. Many stayed on, and by the 1980s and 1990s women like Fox, Griselda Ohannessian, and Barbara Epler (the current president) ran the company.

Laughlin died almost two decades ago, but the publication of MacNiven’s biography coincides with the definitive passing not only of his generation of publishers but of the very idea of the literary publisher as an important cultural figure. Gone in the last few years are Giroux, Roger Straus, Barney Rosset, and André Schiffrin, who collectively took advantage of the fat postwar years for the American economy and publishing industry to nurture an efflorescence of American literature. Of this group, only Jason Epstein remains. MacNiven’s book will likely be overshadowed this winter by John Lahr’s biography of J’s close friend Tennessee Williams, but it is a worthy monument to the man who helped ensure that American readers know not only Tennessee Williams, but dozens of other giants of 20th-century literature.

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Greg Barnhisel is the author of Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy (Columbia UP, 2015).