Vladimir Nabokov was hiking down a mountain on a summer afternoon. It was 1943, and he and his companion, James Laughlin, had made their way up a peak in northern Utah to find butterflies for Nabokov’s collection. The light was fading, and they were in tennis shoes. The two of them slipped on a steep and icy snowfield and slid down the mountain until Nabokov caught an outcropping of rock with his butterfly net and Laughlin grabbed the Russian’s foot and held on. Literature saved Laughlin’s life, one could say—but only this once.
Laughlin was hosting the Nabokovs at a lodge in Alta, where he had begun to build ski lifts. He also happened to have introduced Nabokov to American audiences, a grand achievement in publishing but not Laughlin’s first. He was 28 and had already brought out works by William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Delmore Schwartz, Kenneth Patchen, John Berryman, Dylan Thomas, Henry Miller, Harry Levin, John Crowe Ransom—all of whom would come to define American modernism but had a hard time finding their way to decent American publishers. Laughlin began to lead what he called the “advance guard” of American writing as a 22-year-old sophomore at Harvard College. He ran his press, New Directions, for more than sixty years, and published roughly 1,500 books.
An entrepreneur and a publisher, Laughlin was the scion of a steel-fortune family in Pittsburgh. He also wrote poetry, a lot of it. Last fall, a hundred years after his birth and seventeen years after his death, Ian MacNiven published a thick biography of Laughlin,which has appeared alongside the publisher’s Collected Poems, a 1,200-page brick. Together the books tell a story of public success and private disappointment and failure. Priceless anecdotes abound—Saul Bellow turning Laughlin into “Hildebrand the playboy publisher” in Humboldt’s Gift; the 20-year-old Laughlin running Gertrude Stein’s PR—and MacNiven is plausibly right to say of Laughlin that “more than any other person of the twentieth century,” he “directed the course of American writing.” But Laughlin, the unfortunate inheritor of his father’s bipolarity, also comes off as a poor husband, a distant father, a priapic narcissist and a largely failed writer, becoming more anxious and depressed with age. One can see why: his literary obsessions led him to turn personal problems into aesthetic ones. His lack of moral vision reinforced his lack of artistic rigor, and vice versa, leaving him in the sway of his insecurities. It’s a sad irony that he couldn’t himself write the kind of imaginative work he published for the world in abundance, the kind that in challenging you is both good and good for you. The same course of events that launched him as a publisher clipped his wings as an artist when he was a very young man.
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In 1933, after his freshman year at Harvard, Laughlin went to visit Ezra Pound in Rapallo, Italy, where the poet was living in self-imposed exile. Laughlin had begun to read Pound at boarding school, on the advice of an unusually good English teacher who knew the poet and was later happy to introduce his star pupil to him. Pound held forth in great, rambling speeches to whoever would listen, a sort of education in itself, which he called, without due modesty, the Ezuversity. Laughlin was transfixed.