'Literchoor Is My Beat': A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions

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'Literchoor Is My Beat': A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions Biography
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A biography—thoughtful and playful—of the man who founded New Directions and transformed American publishing

James Laughlin—a 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 Herman 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”: James Laughlin and 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.

Editorial Reviews

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 H arvard'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. Sens i tive to Laughlin's strengths and shortcomings, MacNiven offers a comprehensive, prodigiously researched biography of a transformative literary figure. Copyright Kirkus 2014 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

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