Issue 89, Fall 1983
A frequent traveler since the thirties, James Laughlin has always returned to the family home in rural Connecticut where he runs New Directions’ affairs from Meadow House, a simple frame structure beside a pasture, where often a small flock of sheep graze. Just inside the door of the house, in the front hall, is a long table used to accumulate mail. Precariously balanced stacks are everywhere, with piles divided into manuscripts, letters, newspapers, and journals. There are six to eight stacks, each at least twelve inches high. Straight ahead is a large, signed photograph of Ezra Pound; the mammoth, fan-shaped wicker chair in which he is seated seems to dwarf him.
Beyond the hall is the living room/study. The room is open and spacious, with three separate sitting areas, one of which functions as Laughlin's workplace. The high ceiling, the wide picture window overlooking the meadow, and the French doors contribute to the sense of openness. The built-in bookcases are stuffed with books and records. There are Oriental rugs, but the furniture is modest, selected primarily for comfort and durability. His desk is covered with books, file folders, manuscripts, office supplies, memos, letters, an old typewriter, tobacco, and numerous pipes.
Laughlin is tall—over 6' 5''—and his size could easily intimidate others. It does not, though, because he is a soft-spoken, unassuming man who seems intent on avoiding the spotlight as much as possible. He takes pleasure in acknowledging that readers appreciate New Directions books, and his poetry. At the same time, he is clearly uncomfortable with the celebrity status that has been thrust upon him by well-intentioned colleagues, grateful writers, and respectful academics.
The interview took place July 19–20, 1982, during a record-breaking heat wave. On the ground floor, the Laughlin home is air-conditioned only in the kitchen, so the discussions were intermittently placed in abeyance to permit Laughlin and the interviewer to drink iced tea, drive over to Tobey Pond for a swim, or escape to the comfort of the air-conditioned kitchen.
You've mentioned numerous times that your family was not especially literary. What was life like at home that made you so passionately concerned with literature?
I don't think there was really anything in the life at home in Pittsburgh which started me on a literary course. My family didn't read a great deal, except the Bible. Occasionally my mother did read very bad novels by Lloyd Douglas, but that was about the extent of her literary aspiration. She did paint—very pretty watercolors, mostly landscapes. Most of the pictures we had in the house were framed watercolors that she had done in various parts of the country or down in Mexico, where she went sometimes in the winter for vacation. I painted a little bit myself along with her. We'd go out together in the country and I'd dabble away, not very successfully. So there was a concept of painting as something which people did. And, of course, we traveled almost every summer in Europe, where we dutifully went to the museums to look at great paintings. But there was no compulsion toward art that I remember.
In Europe did you ever encounter writers or literary people?
The family knew no writers at all. I did pick up, when I was quite young, an interest in writing plays. I wrote a play every Christmas. I had seven first cousins living next door. Every Christmas I wrote a little blank verse melodrama which we would perform on the night before Christmas. These were very romantic, highly dramatic plays with a great deal of sword-fighting in them and fair ladies locked in towers and stuff of that kind. The problem was to get the cousins to learn their parts. They weren't very keen.
Did your interest in writing poetry develop integrally from writing plays?
I don't think I began writing poetry until I was exposed to poetry in boarding school at Le Rosey in Switzerland. All of the classes were in French, of course, but one of the masters loved poetry. He would have us learn fairly long passages of classical French poetry, things like Lamartine and Du Bellay and Sully Prudhomme and Victor Hugo. We had to learn the poems by heart and then recite them. When I got back from Switzerland and went for a year to Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, Massachusetts, there was a remarkable old English teacher, a Mr. Gammons, who was steeped in English poetry of the past. He started me reading Wordsworth, Keats, and others. So that brought it along. We were very attached to one another.
Then, of course, at Choate, where they had a marvelous English faculty, I was thoroughly exposed to poetry, especially through Dudley Fitts and Carey Briggs. Briggs held all his classes in the library. His theory was to expose boys to books and let them dig out what interested them. He said on the first day of his class, “Gentlemen, here are the books. It's up to you what you get out of them.” Each boy had to choose a project for the term. My project was poetic prose. I dug out everything on it in the library, beginning with writers such as John Lyly and Sir Thomas Browne, and going up through Rimbaud. Fitts was a very inspiring composition teacher; he got me writing prose. It was largely through him that I became editor of the Choate literary magazine. He was my introduction to modern poetry. He gave me Pound and Eliot to read.
You have noted that even though you spent a good deal of time in the offices of the Advocate, you were something of a loner at Harvard. Yet you seem a very personable individual.
I was socially retarded and not good at getting on with people. Harvard was very cliquish and socially conscious. Coming from Pittsburgh, I didn't rate with the boys who had been to Groton or Milton. Harvard was an aloof place then. In the dormitory where I lived (and I roomed with a very nice boy from Choate), we shared a shower with two boys from aristocratic families, Anthony Bliss and Peter Jay. But throughout the entire year we never exchanged a word with them, or they with us. It was the way things were at Harvard in those days. You sat in lecture halls always in the same seat next to the boy whose name was alphabetically next to yours. I remember that in History 1, I sat next to a boy from Boston. We never spoke. I'm sure it's not that way anymore.
You have also indicated your debt to Harvard.
You could get to the professors. I was close friends with Ted Spencer. I played tennis with him. I was friends with F. O. Matthiessen. And earlier on, I'd received much hospitality from E. K. Rand, the Latin scholar. He liked his students. He'd invite them out to his house on a Sunday; there might be four or five people sitting around and sipping tea and having a good time with the old boy. I think I was more aggressive than many students about making contacts. I wanted contact with my professors; I wanted to be close to them.
Of course, one of the greatest influences on my publishing work (after Ezra Pound and Kenneth Rexroth) has been Harry Levin—a man of enormous learning and taste, and in many literatures. You could always go around to Harry's and he'd give you a drink and you could talk to him and learn so much. Such wit. He's wonderful. He very kindly came to the poetry reading I gave up at Harvard in 1982 and we got to the little poem about the former director of the Metropolitan Museum, Mr. Rorimer. It's called “Ars Gratia Artis.” After I read the poem I called over to Harry: “Harry, is that a tag from Horace?” He said, “No. It's from MGM.” He told me afterwards how MGM had gotten their motto from some bird in France. I'd always thought it was Horace, and it isn't Horace. Harry knows everything.
One astonishing thing about Harry was that when, at New Directions, we were reissuing W. C. Williams's novel, A Voyage to Pagany (that's the one about Williams's trip abroad), we wanted an introduction. I thought it was a very long shot, but I asked Harry if he would be interested in writing it. To my happy surprise—he writes so gracefully—he said he would.
The first thing New Directions did with Harry was his James Joyce, which to my mind is still the best book about Joyce. Recently we did his beautiful book, Memories of the Moderns, which is one fine essay after another. But I had never seen anything he had written on Williams. Yet very quickly he turned out one of the best, most comprehensive, most perceptive essays that has ever been written on Williams. Harry had the scholarly capacity to “get up” Williams in a couple of months—although I was only going to pay him maybe $200 for the piece. But he cared enough and he wanted to know about Williams, so he found out.
You have also reported Harvard as rather dull.
Well, that was just after I got there, which was in 1933. I took a leave of absence and went to Europe halfway through my sophomore year. It happened to be a period of transition just then. The great men, the old fellows like Kittredge, Lowes, and the rest of them had retired, and the new young lions, F. O. Matthiessen and Ted Spencer, hadn't come on yet. The resident poet was Robert Hillyer, who'd send you out of the classroom if you mentioned Pound or Eliot. So it was dull, and it seemed a good time to get away. I went to Europe to try to write, both stories and poems, and to travel.
That was the summer you met Gertrude Stein.
I met her through a distinguished French professor with a limp, Bernard Faÿ, whom I met that summer at the Salzburg music festival. I used to go swimming every day in the public swimming pool and that's where I met him. It turned out that one of his best friends was Gertrude Stein. I told him that I had been reading Stein back in the U.S. and that she sounded fascinating. He wrote her that he'd met this young American in Salzburg who might be useful to her. He asked if he could bring me to Bilignin, in Savoie, which was her country place. I went and stayed about a month. It was a lovely place, what they call a château ferme—not quite a chateau but more impressive than a farm—with a view down over the rolling hills. She put me to work. She was quite a utilitarian!