Notes from Mountain Road

Jonathan Galassi

In celebration of the centenary of James Laughlin’s birth (October 30, 1914), Jonathan Galassi recalls his time at Meadow House in Norfolk, CT with the publisher and founder of New Directions. This essay originally appeared in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 23, No. 1/2. Next month, FSG will publish “Literchoor Is My Beat”: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions, by Ian S. MacNiven.

My picture of J. Laughlin is indivisible from the place where he lived, a small town in northwestern Connecticut where even today nature remains dominant. Waves of hills cut by headlong brooks, second-growth forest of tall white pine, birch and hardwood cut by old logging roads, glacial boulders in the fields—and strong weather, especially long, cold, snowy winters: reputedly the highest point in the state, Norfolk is known as the Ice Box of Connecticut.

"Literchoor" Is My Beat by Ian S. MacNiven
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The simple, clean-lined, unchanged beauty of the place, the image of a pastoral idyll it projects, is largely due to the presence of a cadre of families whose parents or grandparents, many of them refugees from the satanic mills of Pittsburgh where their forebears made fortunes, settled here in the foothills of the Berkshires and, in singularly uncontemporary fashion, have stayed put for two or three generations. J.’s aunt Leila Laughlin Carlisle was among these reverse pioneers. She built him a house across the street when he graduated from Harvard and he lived there for close to sixty years; until recently, he kept sheep in the large meadow that the house overlooks and for which it is named. In the old stable down the street—J. describes it in an unpublished memoir as “a neo-Georgian, white brick stable, no less, designed by [Aunt Leila’s] cousin Charlie Everett, who had studied at the Beaux Arts in Paris”—he set up the office of his publishing venture. An unlikely venue, one might think, for a hotspot of American modernism.

Or maybe not so unlikely, on second thought. The modernists, after all, were reaching back for the directness, the hardness and purity, of a classical style—and it’s not that great a leap from the foursquare black-on-white severity of Connecticut Federal architecture to Philip Johnson’s glass house. Remote as it might feel, New Directions’s home base was only forty miles down Route 44 from Wallace Stevens’s office at the Hartford and Chick Austin’s Wadsworth Athenaeum.

We rented the Old Office, or rather the attached White Cottage, as a weekend and summer place for several years in the mid-nineties, well aware its historic aura. We knew that Hayden Carruth had lived—and written his Norfolk Poems—there, while working for ND, as had Kenneth Patchen before him. In the summertime we would invade the barn with its mullioned Swiss windows, open the doors at both ends to encourage a breeze, and make an impromptu studio. The walls were studded with memorabilia—a large pen-and-ink sketch of Pound, a seventeenth-century Italian horse print, posters of William Carlos Williams’s wheelbarrow poem, announcements for readings, photographs of the Swiss Alps where J. fell in love with skiing as a boy, and a beautiful old ND logo painted by Alfonso Ossorio which J. subsequently had framed and hung in his study in the house—and here and there around the room were old peeling red-and-yellow wooden Indian statues, relics of J.’s stint on the subcontinent in the 1950s.

The room itself was filled with simple wooden shelves with old juice bottles for bookends, on which extra file copies of J.’s ND books were stored. Browsing among them you found not only the familiar and expected—Pound and Williams (Tennessee and W.C.), Levertov, Paz, Snyder, Duncan. H.D., Hawkes, Miller, Montale, Dylan Thomas, Dahlberg, Rexroth and Ferlinghetti, Hesse, and Céline—but also Sartre and Stevie Smith, C.F. MacIntyre’s Rilke, Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, F.T. Prince, Ronald Firbank and Herbert Read, Julien Gracq and Raymond Queneau, Walter Abish, William Bronk, Allen Grossman, Michael McClure and Lorine Niedecker, many of them dressed in the characteristic black-and-white jackets that defined an aesthetic and an era in American publishing. As we sat hunched over our computer screens, the sacred musk from those books wafted out through the old half-tattered screen door across the daylilies and ferns to disperse in the blueberries and hemlocks and flame azaleas beyond.

We knew J. during the last dozen years of his life, when his most active involvement as a publisher was mainly behind him, but since I worked for a firm with which he felt, I think, a special sense of rivalrous camaraderie, we naturally fell into bantering repartee about the foibles and characters of our particular branch of the publishing business, and I often found myself sitting in his kitchen watching the birds at the feeder, or on his dock at Tobey Pond, where he went to swim every summer afternoon, while we clucked and moaned about the vagaries and perfidies of booksellers and reviewers. Or I’d get to hear, in the caustic, jocular tones that I associate with his poetical alter ego Hiram Handspring, his wonderfully sarcastic off-color recitations of local or personal history, impromptu quotations from the Latin poets, or reminiscences about writers he had worked with and loved, many of whom had swum with him off the same dock. Or else he would read, hot off the laser-jet, his own elegant, direct and moving poetry, his major occupation during the years we knew him, a very just appraisal of which can be found in Hayden Carruth’s introduction to JL’s Collected Poems published by Moyer Bell.

Over and over, he told the story of how Pound had (self-servingly) said JL was useless as a poet and ought to do something worthwhile—like become a publisher and bring out Pound. He repeated it without an ounce of rancor, loyal as always to the writers who made ND great, and most of all to “Ezra” (of whose failings he was equally well aware)—but his open delight in the pleasure others took in his own work gave an inkling of how deep the wound must have gone, and how sweet it was finally to prove his old master wrong. “Here’s an Italian review where they call me ‘il Catullo americano,’” he’d crow, without any detectable irony for once, reveling in being linked with his favorite Latin poet.

Catullus was beloved for his frank and impassioned devotion to eros, JL’s dominating and enduring poetic theme. If his poetry is any indication, he was constantly in love—or at least the lover was the persona he chose to inhabit, though his stand-in is often afflicted with stilnovistic amor de loinh, a hankering for the unavailable Other. His outlook was an admixture of the ascetic and the pagan—or Calvinist and epicurean—that I can only call Roman. J.’s taste was based on his parents’ value-driven Scotch(-Irish) Presbyterianism, overlaid by a solid classical education administered by Dudley Fitts at Choate—a perfect preparation for the shock of the Poundian new encountered at the Ezuversity. His own poetry is a rich revisiting of Poundian/classical lyric models expressed in a homegrown Williams-inspired direct American diction—but with a cool impersonality in the treatment of its primary focus: the persistence of passion. Not for nothing did his great mentor refer to the publishing house founded at his insistence as Nude Erections. Unocculted sex was a tenet of modernism, too, but its manifestations in J. are a mostly chivalrous salute, with the warm purity of naked marble and free of true Catullan lubricity. (Not so the work of some of his authors, Henry Miller, for instance; and he turned down Lolita with the excuse that Aunt Leila wouldn’t have stomached it, directing Nabokov to Maurice Girodias at the Olympia Press in Paris. Of his relations with Terry Southern, who lived down the road in Canaan, I unfortunately know very little.)

The simplicity of J.’s immediate surroundings spoke of his homegrown modernity—a clarity and freshness of outlook that didn’t need a Bauhaus facade to declare its principles. In the big white living room looking over the meadow, the bookcases were filled with books he had had bound in Paris. There were pale old rugs on the floors, a not-quite Brancusi sculpture of a voluptuous female figure, Prendergast monotypes, a surreal Leonid (or Eugene?) Berman scene, spirited floral fantasies by his wife, Gertrude Huston Laughlin, the picture of his great friend Jack Heinz on the table by his chair, a small watercolor by Dorothy Pound in the hall. The dining room was presided over by the ghost of the wonderful Magritte painting of giant golf balls caught among houses—an appropriate image for a lifelong duffer—which had been lost in a fire and replaced by The Country Road, a landscape by his cousin Marjorie Phillips, which gave him the name for one of his poetry collections. On the side tables were a great bronze Indian bird and statuettes of Hindu gods and goddesses, the inspiriting daemons of his private pantheon, collected in his last years. It was an environment in which things seemed to come to life on their own terms, a sunny, contemplative place imbued with his cigar or pipe smoke.

As a much younger man tilling the same field, I’ve often mused in envious admiration about how the founders of the publishing universe we’ve inherited—the Liverights and Knopfs, the Cerfs and Klopfers, the Laughlins, Girouxs and Strauses—seem to have built it from scratch, as if the past had been virgin territory and all they’d had to do was reach out and pluck the fruit from the trees. It’s illusion, of course; it took prescience, courage, insight, and a very long view to know what was fruit. J. had them in spades, and they stayed with him to the end. I remember expressing enthusiasm one evening for the work of Anne Carson, only to learn he was way ahead of me and about to publish a book. I was also admiring of how genuinely open he remained to the new work of others (though he confined himself to poetry in his last years). Among FSG’s poets, Frederick Seidel and Charles Wright, to name only two, had recently impressed him and led him to initiate exchanges with them. His correspondence remained prodigious. We often ran into him at the post office, weighed down by packages and mail he was either sending or receiving, and little notes, usually with poems (or sometimes bills) enclosed, were constantly arriving. I understand he kept files for each new poem, with a list of everyone to whom it was sent and records of their reactions. His last major correspondent seems to have been Guy Davenport, another writer of classical inspiration who was greatly admired and often adduced as an authority at table.

The last time I saw J. was a hot afternoon in late August. I brought a visitor over to the dock for a chat and he invited us back to Meadow House for tea. He was quite frail by this time, but once we had settled in the living room and started talking about poetry, his spirits rose and the old vigor, humor, generosity, and charm flowed as it had countless times. I shall cherish my hours by the water with him and Gertrude, our chats about the local flora and fauna, and the marvelous stories he was so gifted at, but I’m glad that my last minutes with one of my heroes were spent gossiping about little magazines and small presses and the ongoing life of his art, seeing him fully engaged, as he had been for an incredible lifetime, in what meant most to him.

Jonathan Galassi is the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.