A biography—thoughtful and playful—of the man who founded New Directions and transformed American publishing
James Laughlin—poet, publisher, world-class skier—was the man behind some of the most daring, revolutionary works in verse and prose of the twentieth century. As the founder of New Directions, he published Ezra Pound's The Cantos and William Carlos Williams's Paterson; he brought Hermann Hesse and Jorge Luis Borges to an American audience. Throughout his life, this tall, charismatic intellectual, athlete, and entrepreneur preferred to stay hidden. But no longer—in "Literchoor Is My Beat": A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions, Ian S. MacNiven has given us a sensitive and revealing portrait of this visionary and the understory of the last century of American letters.
Laughlin—or J, as MacNiven calls him—emerges as an impressive and complex figure: energetic, idealistic, and hardworking, but also plagued by doubts—not about his ability to identify and nurture talent but about his own worth as a writer. Haunted by his father's struggles with bipolar disorder, J threw himself into a flurry of activity, pulling together the first New Directions anthology before he'd graduated from Harvard and purchasing and managing a ski resort in Utah.
MacNiven's portrait is comprehensive and vital, spiced with Ezra Pound's eccentric letters, J's romantic foibles, and anecdotes from a seat-of-your-pants era of publishing now gone by. A story about the struggle to publish only the best, it is itself an example of literary biography at its finest.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|File size:||5 MB|
About the Author
Ian S. MacNiven's authorized biography of Lawrence Durrell was a New York Times Notable Book for 1998. He has edited two collections of Durrell's correspondence (with Richard Aldington and Henry Miller), is the author of numerous articles on literary modernism, and has directed and spoken at conferences on three continents. He is also a past president of the D. H. Lawrence Society of North America and of the International Lawrence Durrell Society. MacNiven resides on the west bank of the Hudson, outside the town of Athens, New York.
Read an Excerpt
"Literchoor Is My Beat"
A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions
By Ian S. MacNiven
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 Ian S. MacNiven
All rights reserved.
And when we finally
Made it to Portaferry
Looking for ancestral graves
… there was no trace
Left of the old hovel and
—James Laughlin, Byways
James Laughlin IV walked unsteadily across the stage at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in April 1995, his towering height somewhat reduced by skiing injuries and spinal compression. But Laughlin trembled more from emotion than from the frailty of his eighty years. The novelist John Hawkes stood ready to support him, but he did not stumble. He was to be inducted into the institution as a poet, a recognition that he cherished above all others. He had written poetry all his life in an attempt to understand himself. Finally, he was being called to share this particular honor with the likes of Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Ezra Pound, Gary Snyder, and William Carlos Williams, all friends and poets he had published under his New Directions imprint. To Laughlin belonged the achievement of recognizing the promise of Thomas Merton and Tennessee Williams, of championing Henry Miller, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Octavio Paz, and countless others. Literary modernism would wear a different face in America, in the world, had Laughlin not existed. Such accomplishment would have satisfied most men, but Laughlin yearned above all else to be a poet.
* * *
The Laughlin family history was in many ways a typical American success story, except that few sons of Ireland succeeded in America quite so handsomely as James’s paternal ancestors. In the Old Country the family were farmers on a small scale, with land at Dunover, a tiny hamlet just west of Ballywalter and near Portaferry, looking out over Strangford Lough, County Down, where according to tradition Saint Patrick had commenced his evangelical mission. Various Laughlins tried to trace the family back to Scotland—it was considered more respectable to hail from Scotland than from Ireland—but were stymied by the conflagration that destroyed most of the documents in Dublin’s Four Courts building during the uprising of 1916. Nonetheless, the Laughlins, their name also spelled Laghlan, Lachlan, and Loughlin, were in fact descended from a Scottish clan allied to the MacLachlans of Ayrshire. The name itself was Danish and came from Lach-lan, Land of the Lochs or Lakeland, an early name for Denmark. The long-faced, longheaded Scandinavian bloodline remained in their physiognomy. There were Presbyterian Laughlins in Ireland as far back as 1666, and the James Laughlin listed on a rent roll for the Estate of Portaferry in 1738 is very likely the father of old James, who accompanied his younger son of the same name to Pittsburgh, to die there three years later, in 1831. There had been a James in the family for at least six consecutive generations, but not necessarily in a father-to-son succession. The poet-publisher’s IV numeral was appended to his name as a courtesy title.
The funds that launched this Laughlin line toward America came from the sale of “the ancestral potato patch.” The brothers Alexander and James shared equally with their sister Eliza as required by the deed: “Dividetus pariter in tres partibus,” which, Laughlin commented, “is bad Latin but this was Ireland.” Around 1819, Alexander sold whatever he could, converted the pounds sterling into crockery, and with his wife, Mary Ann Bailey, sailed to Baltimore. He bought a wagon and peddled the dishware to farmers all the way through Pennsylvania, arriving with an empty wagon but enough cash to buy a small house and help fund his father-in-law’s grocery store at Fort Pitt at the juncture of the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers.
The ancestral James Laughlin left Ireland a decade after his older brother, traveling with his eighty-year-old father. Within ten years after reaching America, he was prominent enough to marry the granddaughter of Major George McCully, who had fought in the Revolution and had assumed command of Fort Pitt. Laughlin became “largely interested” in the Fifth Ward Savings Bank in 1852, later incorporated as the First National Bank of Pittsburgh. National banking was not then a widely accepted concept, but his bank did very well, and James Laughlin would remain its president until his death.
By 1853, James Laughlin had met the Welsh-descended Benjamin Franklin Jones, an impressive younger entrepreneur who had been a builder of canal boats until he realized that the future of transportation lay in railroads instead. The family legend maintains that James Laughlin’s eldest son, Henry, wanted to go to Paris to become a painter, so the old man decided to buy into the iron and steel industry and put his four sons to work in it—that would get the art nonsense out of his firstborn’s head. Laughlin risked a good deal of bank money in iron production and became an equal partner with Jones in 1856, in what would eventually become the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation. When the Civil War began in 1860, the partners, as the main producers of iron rails at the time, were poised to make a fortune.
The partners agreed that any profits would become part of the working capital, not withdrawn for the use of either man, and this was later codified in the bylaws of the company. James Laughlin IV would grow up hearing this maxim: plow profits back into business. And to this there was a stern corollary: never borrow. By 1900, Jones & Laughlin was the second-largest steel producer in the United States and would remain privately held until 1923. The J&L employees were a turbulent mix of Irish, Italians, African-Americans, Poles, Welsh, Scots, English, and central-European-descended workers, subdivided into mutually despising “mill hunks” and “cake-eaters”—the white-collar accountants and clerks. Joneses and Laughlins generally figured in equal numbers among the top management, and there was intermarriage between the families.
As James Laughlin IV told the story in the prosaic language of Byways, the extensive autobiography in verse that he was still working on at the time of his death, the fortunes of Jones & Laughlin swelled, and his great-grandfather built a mansion where two rivers met to become the Ohio: “Where wide lawns sloped down to the / Allegheny River … at the Point where / Once Fort Duquesne had stood.” By this time Major George McCully Laughlin, descendant of the Revolutionary hero, had constructed a sprawling brick-and-stone mansion on Woodland Road in the Squirrel Hill area, where James’s parents would later build across the road.
In contrast to the rich of the great East Coast cities, fully a third of whom had inherited their wealth, eighty-one of the hundred Pittsburgh millionaires listed in 1888 possessed self-made fortunes. The city had become known for its disproportionately large number of the very rich. Andrew Carnegie led the pack with a personal fortune of $20 million. James would later characterize his birthplace as tough-minded, practical, and philistine: “The butler passed chewing gum on a silver salver after the coffee.”
James’s father, Henry Hughart Laughlin, courted Marjory Rea, beautiful daughter of William “Daddy Bill” Holdship Rea, patriarch of another prominent Pittsburgh family. Her pale face and fine features set off by carefully waved dark hair, her slender figure exquisitely clothed, she had the poise of a debutante awaiting the arrival of photographers. Marjory attended the Pennsylvania College for Women on Woodland Road, and her young womanhood was filled with dinners, cotillions, golf, bridge, and dog shows. She was an enthusiastic athlete, won cups at lawn tennis, and played for the Pittsburgh Golf Club. Marjory’s grandfather Colonel James Childs had been killed at Antietam while leading the Pennsylvania Cavalry, and his daughter, Adelaide, had married Carnegie’s sometime-partner Henry Clay Frick. Hughart Laughlin triumphed in wooing Marjory Rea while singing in a charity production of The Pirates of Penzance, and Marjory announced their engagement from the stage. “Each of the contracting parties is worth $20,000,000,” stated The New York Times. The sum was a bit of an exaggeration.
Hughart’s architect brother-in-law, Edgar Viguers Seeler, designed for them an eight-bedroom brick-and-half-timber home with servant quarters at 104 Woodland Road. The same year, Marjory’s brother James Childs Rea built a house of similar dimensions next door. Marjory and Hughart were among the gilded people of Pittsburgh, their travels and events featured in the society pages. Their first child, Hughart Rea Laughlin, was born in 1909. Then, on October 30, 1914, came James, born into a world newly at war, exactly twenty-nine years after the poet Ezra Pound had first seen the cold autumn light of Hailey, Idaho. James very nearly did not survive his birth. The somewhat crumpled ears of the adult James resulted from a difficult forceps delivery: the umbilical cord was wrapped twice around his neck and “old Dr. Miller” thought that he was dead, but Bertha “Mengie” Kaler, the robust German nanny, plunged him into a cold tub and got his breathing started.
As a small child, James was shy, clinging, and rather delicate. His left eye had a tendency to cross and did not focus well on objects close at hand, another likely result of the forceps. This contributed to his sense of insecurity, and he was teased by other children. He would play a persistent solitary game for hours in the nursery with white wooden blocks “that I heaped into piles and built into shapes and masses,” he would recall, or remember being told. “My old German Ba,” his nanny, sat watching him while she did the family mending.
James’s father indulged him, while his mother wielded the hairbrush, the accepted rod of correction. Consequently, he trotted after his father like a puppy and avoided his mother—she seemed to him to prefer it that way. “Wow! wow! wow! wow! wow! Hear the tiger roar,” his father, a Princeton man to the marrow, taught him to chant before he had reached four. Princeton was a family tradition, where Grandfather Laughlin, also a graduate, had endowed Laughlin Hall.
The Lord was often mentioned in the Laughlin home, yet as James would write years later, “There was an enormous amount of Bible reading and catechism learning but no inside religious feeling.” The Laughlins, Reas, and Heinzes, already of the “57 Varieties,” were among the benefactors of the Shadyside Presbyterian Church, openly spoken of as the establishment church of Pittsburgh. It was no oversight that James’s father was not listed in the membership records. Hughart Laughlin was not a professed nonbeliever: he simply left religion alone. Sundays were for boating, hunting, the races.
Marjory, however, was a Presbyterian of the strict-interpretationist school, full to the larynx with religious prejudice. Roman Catholics were Papists to her, and the intricacies of their religion derived from the devil. They were evil, she told James, “because they believed that only other Catholics could go to heaven.” There was also an element of class prejudice: most of the steelworkers and some of the housemaids were Catholic. A new housemaid described the Crucifixion to young James in such terms that the boy cried all afternoon. She was dismissed immediately. “The Jews” were simply absent from the Laughlin circle: when they were mentioned, it tended to be as an abstraction usually connected with money. What did stay with the boy from his heavy-handed Calvinistic upbringing was a social conscience that placed wealth second in importance to service. “It was dinned into me from Sunday School days,” he said, “that you had a moral responsibility to uplift people[,] to improve the world”—and to assuage a residual guilt at being rich. An uncle, the Reverend Maitland Alexander, preached pounding his fists on the stone pulpit while “shouting / sin sin sin and the / fiery fires of hell.”
Hell became linked in young James’s mind with the steel mills: on Thanksgiving their father took his boys on their annual tour of the mills, as if to say, “Thank thee, O Lord, for our prosperity!” They donned dark glasses against the searing flare of the furnaces and watched the orange-hot slabs of metal being salted down: “A big cloud of smoke would burst up and the salt would hiss and fizz like bacon frying.” The mills both frightened and impressed James: he sensed early that he did not want to enter the family business, that he must escape from “Peeburg.”
As a refuge from the soot-heavy air of Pittsburgh, the family bought Big Springs, a farm set amid gentle hills near Rolling Rock. The women and children also retreated there during the Great Steel Strike of 1919, in which tear gas was used against the strikers; this too would become linked in James’s mind to wealth-guilt and the need to expiate it through service. His fondest early memories were of the farm, named for its mountain-fed springs. In the front yard there were trout ponds that never froze over, and there were willows, hammocks, a swimming raft. His father would drive up in his elegant Pierce-Arrow—painted fire-engine red to outrage Pittsburgh society—and practice his fly-fishing technique by casting for cigarettes scattered on the lawn as James watched, awed by his quiet concentration. For one of his late volumes of poetry, published in 1995, Laughlin chose as the title poem “The Country Road” and used as a dust jacket illustration an oil painting by his cousin Marjorie Phillips showing one of the roads near the farm that he had walked as a boy: graceful curves, small fields in hay and pasture. The painting, hanging in the old poet’s dining room, drew him strongly back to the emotions of his youth:
As my eyes walk that familiar road, where I walked so often
as a child,
I see things I hadn’t detected before,
Little things of no great importance, but I’m
aware of them.
Country was winning the boy’s allegiance over city.
Big Springs was a working farm, with the plowing, haying, and milking done by hired men: Lloyd Bunkert—“Bunkert, not drunkard,” he liked to say—who had seven children, and Jakes, who lived in a ruinous house on the property. Cream was skimmed in the Spring House, alongside an old stagecoach. In the barn there were vats for boiling maple syrup. The main house was deliberately kept rustic and was not wired for electricity; in the evenings the children were encouraged to work puzzles under oil lamps. When he was old enough, cleaning the soot from the lamp chimneys became James’s daily task: “When I had done the lamps I read ‘teks’ in the hammock”—he favored the decidedly upscale detective fiction of S. S. Van Dine.
Summers the family went to Nantucket, where Grandfather James Laughlin’s yacht Ariadne was docked, with a crew of twenty and an orange-and-black Princeton pennant at the masthead. George Lister Carlisle, called Uncle Dicky and married to H. Hughart Laughlin’s sister, Leila, had inherited from his grandfather, the whaling magnate Henry Coffin, land in Nantucket that included several waterfront “boathouses” and a mansion on the cobbled Main Street. He kept his sloop at one of these Coffin houses, and he would take Hughie, James, and their various cousins sailing. He belonged to the Wharf Rat Club—the very binnacle of Nantucket society.
To flee the gray Pittsburgh winter, the snow darkened with soot from the coke ovens and Bessemer blast furnaces, various Laughlins would board their private railcar for the annual trek to Zellwood, Florida, northwest of Orlando. When James was four, they paused en route to visit his father’s cousin Duncan Phillips, the art collector, in Washington. The first night, there was a fire across the street. Thereafter he would plead with his mother, “When can we go back to Aunt Lidie’s”—as Duncan’s wife, Elizabeth, was called—“to watch the fire engine?”
Zellwood was a small backwoods community inhabited by Georgia crackers and the raffish younger sons of English gentry who for reasons of their own found it convenient to live in a backwater. What the men of Zellwood had in common was a love of hunting, and they ran camps where wealthy Pittsburgh sportsmen could shoot quail and then drink whiskey in log cabins. James Laughlin Jr., James’s grandfather, after hunting there for some years, had built in the 1880s what he initially intended as a rustic lodge, named Sidoney for his wife, Sidney Ford Page, on 525 acres of pine and palmetto. When the locals objected to his plans, Laughlin bought Zellwood and moved the entire town a safe distance away. The lodge became a Spanish-style mansion with a broad front veranda with open arches, and it overlooked spring-fed Lake Minore. There were marble foyers, frescoed ceilings, carved mahogany moldings, thirteen bedrooms with canopied beds, a formal dining room with a cut-crystal chandelier, a tiled swimming pool in the basement, and a broad porch surrounded by the front lawn. The acres of garden included trees from all over the world and an aviary filled with rare birds.
Even more than in Pittsburgh, James was surrounded with luxury. However, on the first visit that he could remember, a kidnapping rumor caused panic in the Sidoney community. Young James would try not to fall asleep, sure that he would be killed. Or that he would contract appendicitis or be struck by lightning. “All were acts of God meted out to sinners,” he was told. There was also the problem of Grandfather: since 1917 he had lived in a separate house on the property, closely attended by two male nurses. At times gentle and pleasant, he was by turns morosely silent or raging. The boy was frightened when either manifestation of his mental illness was upon him. A figure of dread to his grandson, he died at Sidoney on October 19, 1919.
It was James’s grandmother Sidney Ford Page Laughlin whom the boy would know as the matriarch of Sidoney. Everyone called her Danny after young James had tried to say Granny and it came out Danny. Grandmother Danny was quiet, seldom speaking because, as she maintained, “she’d said all she had to / Say,” other than to tell tales about ancestors who had served in the colonial British army or who had come from Montserrat in the West Indies to fight in the American Revolution. She did not talk about her husband’s strange behavior, except obliquely: “Nobody / Had ever gone potty in her / Family.” This pottiness had entered the family when James Laughlin,* the founder of J&L, married Ann McCully Irwin of County Tyrone. And it only affected the men, she would add with a slightly superior air, giving out “little clucks like a chicken”: all three of her sons were “a bit peculiar” at times.
Grandmother Danny had two gray Pierce-Arrows—one was a spare—and a chauffeur in matching gray. She took James, his cousin Marie, and her other grandchildren for drives, the little ones sitting in the rear-facing jump seats. James’s father tried to be a companion to him, punting with him on Lake Minore and pointing out the constellations to him. Sirius in Canis Major his father termed “The Big Dog,” while Procyon became, whimsically, “Little Dog Peppermint.” And he often read out loud to both sons. James responded with ardent affection.
* * *
People meeting the very tall, handsome, quietly confident James Laughlin of his maturity would have found it difficult to see the future commanding presence in the insecure child. His parents appeared to lavish far more love on his brother, who was held up as a cynosure. At the dinner table Hugh would say, “Mother, James is babbling again, and he’s pushing with his fingers.” James silently hated him. “Hugh was not a thoughtful person,” their cousin Marie Page Edgerton remembered, yet comrades and parents alike doted on him. Hugh’s friend and contemporary H. J. “Jack” Heinz invented a construction firm, Hans, Gluppel & Glup, with himself as Hans, Hugh as Gluppel, and James, barely tolerated, as Glup. The firm was based at Big Springs, where there were streams to be diverted, dams and forts to be built. “My purpose was to bring glup,” lumps of muck and sod, J would recall, which the older boys used for construction. “More glup, Glup,” they would demand. “Get a move on!” It was a profitable firm: “We got paid a dollar per dam.”
Young James grew up with a father who by his own choice had no useful job, although he did accept election, along with his neighbor Andrew Mellon, to the board of trustees of the Pennsylvania College for Women down Woodland Road. He had been in charge of the J&L coal mines but had resigned his position and closed his office two weeks after his father’s death. He now indulged himself with golf, trout and salmon fishing, polo, horse races, long-hooded cars—and women. He shot game with an English double and patronized tailors and haberdashers in London and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who fitted him with splendid tailcoats and toppers. And while James decided that he too did not want to make steel, he also knew early on that he did not want to live his father’s self-indulgent life.
Back in Pittsburgh, James was sent to Miss Simonson’s school for “socializing,” where he claimed later to have learned only how to perform “a very slow waltz.” Whenever his mother felt that she might not be doing her part to “bring the boy up right,” she arranged some new project. One of these twinges of conscience led her to engage a piano teacher, but when James resisted, his mother gave in. His father enjoyed indulging James and bought him “for good behavior” his first bicycle, a Driscoll Glorious that cost $12.
For a more serious introduction to education, James was next enrolled in the Arnold grade school near Woodland Road. The school took its name from Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby. In the junior division the traditional balance of academics and physical development was adhered to, with a nod to the progressive “project method.” A hundred pupils were spread among twelve grades. James might be slow at reading and inept athletically, but the Arnold School was for the children of privilege, and there were plenty of awards to go around. Also, he was gaining in self-confidence, and toward the end of his time at the school he was given the female lead in All-of-a-Sudden Peggy, an Irish parlor farce imported from London.
James got along better with Uncle Jimmy and with Aunt Leila and Uncle Dicky than with his mother. His father’s younger brother, James Laughlin III, lived in Orlando and was married to a second wife, June, who wore her beautiful red hair down her back, billowing in the wind when she and her husband took the boy for fast rides on the St. Johns and Ocklawaha Rivers. Uncle Jimmy had been a noted early automobile racer, had served in the Great War, and was now the fleet captain of the Mount Dora Yacht Club. He “spent money like water when he was high,” remembered his nephew disapprovingly. Aunt Leila was fashioned from less supple but tougher metal; she had attended a horticultural college, acted as her father’s secretary, and seemed to know everything about Sidoney: crops, outbuildings, water system, staff. In her early womanhood she had been the guest of the American ambassador in Japan, and she had returned with an extensive array of Oriental pottery and statuettes. Young James’s interest in Asia began with her. Visits to the Carlisles’ home in Norfolk, Connecticut, were great fun. There was an excellent collection of children’s books, and Uncle Dicky would read to him and his cousins for hours on end, Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows, as well as more serious fare. To the great delight of the children, Annie Dixon, the black housekeeper from Florida, one of the many in her family who served Laughlins and Carlisles, read Uncle Remus stories to them in dialect.
Whether in Pittsburgh, at Sidoney or Big Springs, or on Nantucket, James’s life moved on as inevitably as the snug existence of a boll weevil. Yes, he was well cared for, but mainly by servants. His older cousin Marie divined his hunger for affection and remembered seeing James, at age ten, climb onto his nanny’s lap. When he was eleven, James spent hours lying on a sofa in the main Sidoney living room reading Trollope or Dickens while Grandma Danny worked her embroidery. Her favorite was a Scot named William Edwards, the estate superintendent, who would sit with her for long consultations. “I loved him too,” J would write later, “he was / My best friend.” When James was only four, his father had outfitted him with kilt, sporran, and dirk. Robert the Bruce became the boy’s great hero (he could claim descent from Isabella, the Bruce’s sister), and Edwards taught him to recite the Scottish grace immortalized by Robert Burns: “Some hae meat, and canna eat, / And some wad eat that want it.”
When Ledlie Irwin Laughlin, later a member of the board of directors of J&L and James’s oldest second cousin on the Laughlin side, made up a family genealogy for his bride “to show her what she was getting into,” he noted in a neat hand a list of “Skeletons in the cupboard.” Some of it was gossip: The Right Reverend Edward R. Laughlin’s ex-wife “has been married three times … The family with good cause has no use for her.” Thomas K. Laughlin “killed himself.” All the Laughlins blamed his wife, President Taft’s sister-in-law. Others were named with some pride: Irwin B. Laughlin was minister to Greece; Duncan Phillips Jr. (grandson of the first James Laughlin) “is a well-known art critic and has one of the finest private collections in the country.” John Page Laughlin, James’s uncle, who had once worked for J&L, had gone to the bad: “He studied silver-smithing, sugar raising, music in Rome, and is now raising chickens in Virginia.” As if in retribution, Uncle John “suffered early Depression,” and his wife had to hire caretakers for him. The implications of Cousin Ledlie’s commentary were clear: a Laughlin was expected to excel in respectable work, marry prudently, and stay sane.
* * *
The family sailed aboard the Aquitania for England in 1924. James was taken to the Burlington Arcade in London to buy lead soldiers, his newest collecting passion; he also collected stamps with equal ardor. Left to himself after the shop clerk learned that he could be trusted meticulously to open and reclose each box without tearing the packaging, he would spend hours inspecting the tiny painted figures, in the uniforms of British and Continental regiments.
Not that James was indulged by his parents with everything eye saw and heart coveted: money was a teaching tool, and to him it seemed always in short supply. His allowance at first was fifteen cents a week, with bonuses for high marks and good conduct at school. This was what J later called “the poverty of childhood”: although he grew up in an opulent household, Calvinist thinking held that unearned money corrupts, and so Hughie and James, and their friend Jack Heinz too, had been restricted to small allowances. This doling out of tiny sums bred in the boys a niggling exactness over expenses. Of his funds James was expected to give a third to “dear Jesus,” a third to savings, with only the remaining moiety to be allotted to personal satisfaction. J himself dated his long slide away from conventional piety to his Burlington Arcade visits. In his childhood Eden, “the upswalen [sic] serpent’s particular form” was a set of lead cavalry, a mounted Horse Guards Band, which he could purchase only with the addition of funds intended for the collection plate. He bought the set, steeling himself against some dire God-sent punishment. Nothing happened. He enjoyed his sinful booty to the full.
James and his brother once accompanied their father to what he termed his club. They were admitted by a butler into a fine private house and were received by an elaborately dressed lady “[w]ho looked somewhat like the queen.” Their father went off with this lady, leaving the boys to be entertained with checkers and ginger ale by Winifred, “[t]he most beautiful girl I had / Ever seen.” Young James stared in disbelief when she knelt, in her “rather scanty” gold dress, to knot his chronically untied shoelaces.
James might have seen well enough to notice a girl’s beauty, but in truth his vision was seriously compromised. At the Bulstrode Clinic the eminent Dr. Claud Worth, who boasted that King George was a patient, used strange-sounding words like “convergent,” “faulty stereopsis,” and “hypermetropic.” He performed a tenotomy on James’s left eye in an attempt to eliminate his squint and counter his amblyopia. As James emerged, parched, from the general anesthesia, he was given a lesson in pronunciation. When he cried out, “Wodder, wodder!” Sister Olive asked sweetly, “Do you mean wotah, dear?” The operation was pronounced a success—prematurely, as it turned out—and four pretty nursing sisters posed with the patient for a snapshot. Wearing corrective lenses, James received a lesson in English prehistory when his father took him and Hugh to see a formation of Druidic standing stones, his brother very much the young gentleman in a bowler, James in shorts and overcoat, with one stocking down-gyved.
* * *
While James was in Florida in early February 1925, Grandmother Danny died in her sleep at Sidoney, and his old fear of death returned in force. “I went a little bit crazy,” he remembered. “It was the end of my / Childhood.” Before, death had been an abstraction; this time there was a body he could see. She was seventy-seven, and her heart had simply given out.
Twelve was an age of emotional crisis for James, a time of puberty and of separations. In September 1927, James and his brother were sent to the Institut Le Rosey, the most expensive prep school in Switzerland, in the small town of Rolle on Lake Geneva. The reasons given were various: to escape from strike-ridden Pittsburgh, to “get a taste of Europe,” to learn some French, and even, improbably, at James’s own request. The main reason was undoubtedly the onset of their father’s mental illness: he began to have the violent fluctuations of mood that characterized the strain of manic-depressive psychosis common in the family and from this time on would often be institutionalized. Marjory Laughlin wanted her younger son, especially, not to be witness to his father’s distress. Hugh had already been accepted as a freshman at Princeton, but if he spent a year at Le Rosey too, he could keep an eye on James.
French was the language of instruction at Le Rosey, and the masters were very strict in enforcing its use. “I was so unhappy that I studied pretty hard and learned some French,” J would recall. If he dozed off, the instructor would yell at him, “Laughlin Deux, la salle de classe n’est pas pour dormir.” Part of his unhappiness probably stemmed from the proximity of Hughart, Laughlin One, who was well over six feet tall, handsome, and a fine track athlete. At five feet three and a half inches, and weighing exactly one hundred pounds, James was tall enough for his age but hardly robust. Under “Character” in the school records he was described as “Reserved and rather retiring—clean morally and physically”; also, James was considered “Careless & impetuous—a real student when he is interested & loves competition.”
Le Rosey came as a shock to the boy. The staff made no secret of their contempt for these Americans who couldn’t speak proper French or German. Nor did their parents’ money or social standing impress. There was too much competition along such lines; one schoolmate was a Pahlavi, the crown prince of Iran, and another was a grandson of Metternich. The Latin teacher Laroux, the master at James’s dining table, liked to bait him: “Dis donc, Lowgleen, sais-tu que tous les américains sont bêtes? Mais oui, je sais bien qu’ils sont tous des singes”—I know very well that they are all monkeys.
The students from twenty-two different countries did not always mix harmoniously: a group of German boys tried to hang a Belgian from a tree, until his screams brought one of the masters. (James would later incorporate the event in a short story.) A boy from Egypt, assigned to the seat across from James in the dining hall, teased him and kicked him slyly under the table. He did not dare retaliate since any uproar was sure to result in a fine for all, “un franc d’amende pour tout le monde,” a serious matter when each boy was permitted only three francs per week pocket money. On the other hand, James seems to have liked his sophisticated roommate, who told him that the gentlemanly way to ask a woman to have intimate relations was to say, “Puis-je vous offrir le bonheur physique?”—May I offer you physical happiness?
James still did not excel athletically. Assigned to pull an oar in a four-man racing shell, in a race he became so excited that he caught his pants in the sliding seat mechanism and capsized the boat. He was banished from the team. However, he took to skiing. With the snows, the main Le Rosey campus closed, and the whole school packed up for Gstaad for the winter term. “Eight days in the mountains are worth eighty days of health,” goes an old Swiss adage endorsed by the school. They lived in several large chalets surrounded by firs, below the Hornberg. Skiing, James Laughlin would later say, is “sexy”: “With each turn you send up a cloud of snow-spray. It feels like a sensual rhythmic dance.”
Despite his weakness in French, James had done reasonably well academically. On a ten-point scale, at first he received 5s and 6s in Latin, 7s and 8s in French, then rose to 8 in Latin and 9 in French. Hugh outpaced James, taking more courses for credit and receiving 10 in Latin, 9 in French, 7 in German, and 8 in Italian. The boys returned to Pittsburgh.
This experience of Switzerland had been a bitter lesson in estrangement from all that was dearly familiar, yet James had profited. He had learned enough French to speak and read it easily. After the socially homogeneous world of his relatives, he had been thrown together with boys of many nations and cultures. The skiing and the mountains had been wonderful, and he was stronger and healthier. The Old World had given back to the New.
Copyright © 2014 by Ian S. MacNiven
Excerpted from "Literchoor Is My Beat" by Ian S. MacNiven. Copyright © 2015 Ian S. MacNiven. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
1 The Ancestors 9
2 Discoveries: The Intellect 24
3 Harvard, Part One 37
4 Correspondence Course in Rebellion: Ezra Pound by Sea-Post 49
5 "The Charismatic Pyramid": Gertrude Stein 60
6 The Ezuversity 70
7 New Directions: From Poet to Publisher 87
8 Amateur Publisher, Amateur Ski Impresario 104
9 Enter Kenneth Rexroth and Delmore Schwartz 113
10 Death, Marriage, and Love Considered and Reconsidered 124
11 The World at War 145
12 Worlds Apart: Books at Cambridge, Ski Lifts at Alta 162
13 Real Butterflies and Metaphorical Chess: Vladimir Nabokov 181
14 Tennessee Williams Triumphs 202
15 Norfolk; The Eastern Seaboard Reclaims J 211
16 The Prodigal Returns: Ezra in the Dock 219
17 San Francisco, Alta, and Ezra (Again) 225
18 Guide to the Godhead: Tom Merton 234
19 Troubles in Europe, Public and Private 241
20 Bollingen Affair Rocks Library of Congress 252
21 Crises at New Directions 263
22 Crisis at Home 272
23 Public Service: Intercultural Publications and Other Efforts 280
24 "Le Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche" 291
25 Missing a Few Beats 303
26 Trumped in the Marriage Game 313
27 Fade-Out in Burma, New Directions Revisited 321
28 New Directions Twenty-Five Years On 331
29 Tennessee, Henry, and Tom 351
30 Publishing and Writing: They Never Get Easier 358
31 Confessor to a Monk 373
32 This Obdurate World: The Sword Falls 383
33 One Troubadour Revives, Another Departs 390
34 Dropping the Pilot 401
35 On the Road: Performer and Poet 406
36 Lured by the Apsaras 418
37 "Il Catullo americano" 429
38 Revision of Things Past 438
39 Witness to Mortality 450
40 The Somnambulist 456
41 Race Toward Self-Knowledge 469
42 Nunc dimittis servum tuum 478
Appendix: Authors Published by New Directions 491