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The Shadow Figure

by William Corbett


Beside the Shadblow Tree: A Memoir of James Laughlin
by Hayden Carruth. 150 pgs. Copper Canyon Press, 1999.


On page 130 of Beside the Shadblow Tree, Hayden Carruth writes, “He [James Laughlin] beseeched me—his word—to take over the writing of a history of New Directions that had been commissioned from someone else; I was the only one, he said, who could do it.” I am that “someone else” who wrote the history Carruth goes on to describe, paraphrasing Laughlin, as “unsatisfactory, to say the least.” Thereby hangs a tale.

In February 1996 I had a letter from James Laughlin. It came out of the blue and the project he proposed bowled me over. Could I write a history of New Directions? Not an academic book but a popular one? W.W. Norton, New Directions’ distributor, wanted the poet and novelist Brad Leithhauser to do the job, but Laughlin wanted someone of his own choosing, me. I was flattered enough to think that if he thought I could do it then maybe I could. I was also mindful of the bills for my daughter Marni’s wedding in May, but money came in second. I jumped at the chance to write about my poet heroes, Pound and Williams, and about Laughlin whom I admired and about whose press I had a few thoughts.

I have no idea why Laughlin offered me the job—we barely knew one another—and I never asked him his reasons. I must have been in his mind because of the script I had worked on for a filmed interview with him that never took place. This had entailed a visit to his home, Meadow House in Norfolk, Connecticut, a year or so before his letter. He had showed me around his big office and the “scholar’s room” beyond, the walls of both rooms lined with New Directions books. That afternoon he talked at length about the early days of the press and, without much prodding, about the ski resort he had developed in Alta, Utah. The idea of the interview was to present Laughlin as a classic American entrepreneur whose interests happened to be literature and skiing.

Shortly after my visit Laughlin suffered a stroke, the effects of which caused him not to want to appear on camera. That winter Laughlin and his wife Gertrude came to Boston so that he could visit a stroke specialist, and afterwards we had a convivial dinner. Otherwise, I had been the master of ceremonies at a reading honoring him, had helped edit his book of poems, The Country Road, for our then mutual publisher Zoland Books, and in the late 1960’s-early 1970’s, we had met several times in Gordon Cairnie’s Grolier Bookshop, meetings I am sure Laughlin had long since forgotten.

Upon answering Laughlin’s letter and expressing my interest in the project I was summoned to Norfolk for lunch. He greeted me from his armchair in the living room waiving a thin cigar. Despite the graying of his blue eyes and the few smoke brown teeth in his mouth, he remained a handsome man, the recognizable older version of the strapping outdoorsman who smiled from several photographs displayed around the house. Standing, he was angled like a carpenter’s folding rule about to be closed. He spoke in a patrician drawl, thinner than it had once been but still beautiful to listen to. Infrequently, he stopped, stuck for a word or name. These lapses irked him, but he quickly got around the blank. He elaborated on his idea of a popular history: a book of two hundred pages to tell the history of New Directions’ sixty years. In researching the interview script I had read Hayden Carruth’s history of New Directions’ first twenty-five years. Why had it not been published? “Too praising,” Laughlin (by now J to me) drew the word out, meaning too praising of him.

To write the history I would have access to all the correspondence files behind the iron fire door in the basement, all New Directions’ books and employees, and to J himself for interviews as long as stamina and memory—he was 81—held out. I told him I thought I could write the book he envisioned but reminded him that I was not a scholar and had never researched a subject in a scholarly way. Fine with him. An academic approach was absolutely not what he wanted.

In letters and over the phone we continued to discuss the project. He asked if I could complete the book in two years for an advance of $10,000. I agreed to the time but raised another figure. He accepted it at once with the proviso that I not tell anyone how much I was being paid. The nearer the dotted line, the greater my fear that I will be unable to fulfill the contract I am about to sign. I experienced that familiar fear this time. In March we signed a contract, a “personal” contract between Laughlin and myself. Both of us assumed that either Norton or New Directions itself would publish the completed manuscript but I did not have a contract with either publisher.

On my first working visit we set up a schedule. From my arrival at eleven until lunch at one we talked in general about New Directions. After lunch I “walked the shelves” in the office asking J specific questions about each of the books. Two or three hours of this and he became too fatigued to continue. Back in Boston I typed questions on 3x5 cards and sent these to J. Underneath the questions he typed in his answers on his old Royal portable with lots of cross outs, spaces and misspellings. All his life he had been a poor typist. In the end, I accumulated roughly 150 of these cards.

Over lunch on that visit J told me he expected to be a “shadow figure” in the book. He wanted attention on New Directions and authors and books. In no way was the history to be a biography of him. I knew that this was impossible, that for at least the first fifteen years until the coming of his “partner” Robert McGregor, New Directions had been James Laughlin. I insisted upon this but gently, humorously, so as to joke and cajole him towards accepting that no accurate history of New Directions could place him in the shadows. I also took this tack because his somewhat theatrical demurs left me uncertain if he meant what he said and for the contradictory reason that he did not seem to welcome any argument.

On the drive back to Boston I began to draft in my head the letter I knew I had to send J clarifying how I saw his presence in the history. All New Directions books bear the line, “Published for James Laughlin,” and I had to make him see the implications of this. Over a few days I boiled down what I had to say to a single page. The gist was 1) No biographical material for its own sake and, 2) He would be in the history when he had to be and absent otherwise. Evidently, I wrote a skillful letter because J responded that Gertrude liked what I said and he had no arguments. He did not say that he agreed, and I did not believe that this settled the matter, but I proceeded on the principle that this could only be resolved when the book was finished and he saw for himself the role he played in it.

As we worked together I worked in two ways on my own. I began to read as many New Directions books that I had not read before that I could. But more importantly, I decided what I could not do. A few visits to the basement files convinced me that I could not make use of them. The papers were jammed in yard-long file boxes, a wall of them like coffins in the catacombs. Nothing had been catalogued and when J and I looked for letters in the boxes they could not be found. I also determined that I would have to be sparing in my interviews. I could interview past and present New Directions employees but as for living New Directions writers I had neither time nor money to pursue them.

With the New Directions books themselves, the draft bibliography being prepared by John Harrison, Head Librarian of the Arkansas State University Library system, and Rebecca Newth, interviews with J and the 3x5 cards, numerous biographies of New Directions writers, and the published books of correspondence between J and Pound, Williams, Rexroth, etc, I thought I had enough for two hundred pages.

And so I read, made notes, drove to Norfolk (not often enough for J who offered to rent me a car so that I could visit more frequently), interviewed the few people on my list, most productively Griselda Ohannessian of New Directions who had worked there in many guises for forty years and, as I accumulated material, thought about how to structure the book. I planned to write it in a burst, over the summer of 1997, my research having built to a critical mass that would fire me forward.

The narrative fell into three sections: 1) Beginning in 1936 to 1948 when Paul Bowles’ nove Thel Sheltering Sky became New Directions’ first commercial success; 2) 1948 to 1963, the year J read a Donald Barthelme short story in the New Yorker, a magazine he had very little use for, and saw that if they could publish such a story then the avant garde, as he knew it, no longer existed and the books that came to New Directions as a matter of course could go to almost any publisher; 3) 1963 to the present, with a coda detailing plans for New Directions after J’s death.

In three weeks I wrote the first section uneasy about an increasingly unwieldy narrative and a flow impeded by “and then,” “in the next year,” or “in the coming season.” I needed a more fluid structure. Carruth’s history gave it to me. He took the press year by year, which made sense because book publishing is divided into years and seasons, fall and spring, within them. This structure inevitably lead to lists, a word with special meaning in the book trade. I accepted these because while I knew I could write in detail about relatively few New Directions titles, the history had to give a sense of the dimensions of the enterprise.

I wrote a first draft of section one in longhand, typed it into the computer, ran the spell check, printed it out, and sent the copy to J. It was a very rough draft meant to accomplish three objectives—show him that I could meet the deadline, prod him into remembering pertinent details and allow him to catch errors of fact early on.

J responded by line-editing grammar and punctuation. Not what I wanted, but the book could only profit from his close focus. True to his way, he praised not a single word I had written. (Carruth notes that J’s praise seldom reached the height of “not bad;” he reserved more fulsome words for Dante.) But neither did he question the structure of the book or take exception to the biographical detail I had used to place him in a position to begin New Directions at the age of twenty-one. He did ask me to buy a hand held tape recorder from Radio Shack. Because of his failing eyesight and shaky hand he preferred to tape his future editorial comments. I plunged ahead, absorbed in the work but fearful that I might not satisfy the “shadow figure.” He had introduced the idea, at first a vague notion, then more or less a demand, that I write at least a page on every New Directions author. He wanted something like Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited. I knew this to be impossible and ignored it thinking that in the end, I could demonstrate its utter impracticality. My two hundred pages would explode if I had to write a page each on Maude Hutchins, Vernon Watkins, Lionel Trilling, and the hundreds of other writers New Directions had published.

By summer’s end section two was complete and I had tapes from J on which he slowly read out his corrections. I was back teaching now but every spare minute went into the history. By the second week of October I reached 1996 and sent this, the completed third section, off to J. Less time and more pressures on me added up to a rougher draft than the first two, but at least we had something, however raw, to work with. I never heard from J again.

On November 17,1997 I was in Lincoln, Nebraska working on another book when my wife Beverly’s call woke me with word of J’s death. I knew at once that I had no idea what might become of the history. I called Gertrude, ill herself with the lung cancer that eventually took her life, and offered my condolences.

A few weeks later I called Peggy Fox, J’s literary executor, at New Directions. My question about the status of the history brought the response, flustered yet curt, that no decision had been made. There was a memorial service to plan, and I would receive word in due time. Into Peggy’s words and tone I read the worst.

After Christmas, returning from a visit to New York, Beverly asked what I though might happen to the book. It might, I offered, be taken over by an editor at Norton or New Directions and be published, but I admitted this was unlikely. I guessed that J’s estate would treat the book as one of his whims, thank me, pay the third and last installment of the advance, and shelve the manuscript as Carruth’s had been shelved. Or the estate might not pay the advance and . . . well, we would just have to wait and see.

At home a letter awaited me from Donald Lamm, president of Norton and one of the three trustees now in control of New Directions. It answered Beverly’s question in a way I had not anticipated. In two single-spaced pages Lamm, whom I had never laid eyes on and whom, so far as I was aware, knew nothing of my conversations with J, said bluntly that I had failed in every way to write the history J had in mind. His was a brutal, heavy-handed letter unlike any I had ever received. Lamm ended it with the threat that if I failed to sign a statement to the effect that I would never publish a word of the history, a lawsuit would be brought against me to recover the two-thirds advance I had already received.

I read Lamm’s letter a second time angered by the tone, hurt by the injustice of it but able to see that he was clueless about the circumstances under which I had written the history. He chastised me for not making use of the New Directions archives obviously unaware of their condition. Nor was he aware of the lack of records, other than Carruth’s history written years after the fact, of New Directions’ early years. Lamm indicted me for not producing the book I knew it to be impossible to produce. He also accused me of not finishing the history. I took this to mean that he did not know what I had actually written. But then all his points were general and could have been written by someone who had not read a word of the book I had written.

Lamm’s letter gave me a bad night. In the morning I announced to Beverly that I planned to sign Lamm’s statement. I saw no other option. If neither J’s estate nor New Directions supported the book what choice did I have? I could not go forward with the book in the face of such opposition. Imagine an unauthorized history of a literary publisher! Beverly cautioned me to contact a few friends before acting, but my mind was made up—if they did not want the book then to hell with them. I wrote Lamm the sharpest possible letter exposing his many stupidities and signed away a year and a half of work.

I was too embarrassed and angry to talk much about all this, but I did write to Hayden Carruth. After all, our histories of New Directions now shared the same fate. In reply Hayden railed against Lamm and the corporate types who would now run New Directions with no regard for J’s wishes. He assured me that J had wanted the history done but allowed, as he does in his memoir, that no poet was man enough for a job requiring the likes of a Richard Ellmann or Hugh Kenner. In my present mood I interpreted his words to mean that I had knuckled under to Lamm, that I should have stood up for the work J and I had done at least to the extent of not agreeing to Lamm’s demand.

Much has happened in the year and a half between Lamm’s letter and the appearance of Beside the Shadblow Tree but these events did not involve Hayden Carruth. I knew nothing of his book until I came across it in a bookstore. I sat down with it at once eager to read what he might have to say about the failed second history and me. As I was unprepared for Lamm’s letter, so was I for the news that Carruth knew that J had considered the history worthless and that Lamm spoke for him. Why Lamm never told me this I do not know, but I imagine that Hayden kept me in the dark about J’s actual response so as not to hurt my feelings. He also knew that in J’s feeble, confused and anxious state J could not have been thinking clearly about a project that, in any case, Carruth knew from his own experience J to be deeply ambivalent about.

Whatever motives I ascribed to Carruth, J’s judgment of my history as “unsatisfactory, at say the least” brought me up short. He had had ample opportunity to tell me this but he never had. Was the manuscript too rough for him? Had I brought him too far out of the shadows where he preferred to stay? I can see him rejecting the book on either count; I only wish that he had told me. Or that the heavy-handed Lamm had done so. It would have saved me a few anxious and depressed moments. Too much to ask for I guess. After all, we had been working on the history of America’s great literary press without a clear idea of what we were doing. How could J have gotten the book he wanted? J’s contribution to our national consciousness is indelible. I know J knew this and I knew as well, early on as I have said, that he wanted to be honored yet not named. How could I have thought I could write that book?

~

Hayden Carruth’s memoir of his friendship with James Laughlin is off the top of his head. No research at all. The book reads like a letter and is unafraid of intimacy or error. Carruth doesn’t give a damn about anything but exactness of feeling. He is one of T.S. Eliot’s old men, an explorer, and his destination is a portrait of the “peculiar friendship” he had with Laughlin for fifty years. Why? Because Laughlin was an extraordinary man. Carruth knows that such a portrait need not be a likeness.

In what way was their friendship peculiar? Carruth boils it down to a bond of opposites, “the aristocrat and the anarchist.” If one word can do the impossible and justly characterize a man, aristocrat is the word for Laughlin. He was born into a wealthy Pittsburgh steel family but great wealth cannot account for his aristocracy of mind, what we have come to call, and often disparage, as elitism. Carruth sees Laughlin as a natural modernist “steeped in the elitist attitudes of Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis” and others. Fair enough. How else can Laughlin’s childhood passion for Pound—he was nineteen when he spent his year in Rapallo at Pound’s “Ezuversity”—be explained? He knew instinctually that Pound was for him and he acted upon this instinct. He knew his own mind when it came to literature and he loved the sublime, the love that he and his opposite Carruth shared.

Carruth describes Laughlin as distant, somewhat cold, unfailingly generous and kind. I found him the same. In the way Laughlin exhibited these traits he seemed to me, and I think to Carruth, the epitome of the aristocrat. He helped a great many people with money and in many other ways, but he liked to do this through a third party, to be an unseen hand. In short, to act as the shadow figure. He could also leave you feeling that you were not quite his equal. In my case I knew I wasn’t, that I was two generations younger and a hired hand. Carruth seems to have felt a similar difference in their friendship. After Laughlin’s will was probated, Carruth learned that he had been left $5,000. “I figure this means that he still owed me $100,000,” is Carruth’s response.

He does not say why he thinks so, but the reader realizes, as Carruth surely has, that much of his friendship with Laughlin revolved around work, tasks really that Laughlin recruited Carruth for both because he wanted Carruth to do them and because he knew Carruth, for much of his career a freelance writer, needed the money. In passing, Carruth remembers that Laughlin visited his house but once for only a few hours. Carruth’s intimacy with Laughlin took place, it seems, on Laughlin’s terms and on Laughlin’s home turf. (The shadblow tree is outside Laughlin’s Meadow House.) Carruth does not say that he resented this but that $100,000 debt creates an opening the reader’s imagination leaps to fill.

A theme that runs through this book is Laughlin’s relationship with women. Carruth knew both his second wife Ann and his third wife and widow Gertrude. He presents himself as having been close to both women, and he shows great sympathy for them. I know that Gertrude, the only wife of Laughlin’s I knew, told me that she liked Carruth enormously. She was an affectionate sprite of a woman and Carruth’s portrait of her rings absolutely true. It also gives the book some of its most disquieting moments, disquieting, I will bet, even for those who know Gertrude as only a presence in these pages. Carruth also writes at some length but without naming names about the many other women in Laughlin’s life.

I know a little about this because Laughlin often talked about his love life. Was he bragging? Perhaps, but he spoke in a worldly way savoring the pleasures. And yet, several times I heard a sad note, something rueful with a trace of wonderment. My guess is that his womanizing was an aspect of himself that he found somewhat inexplicable. He never said that he regretted it. In thinking about Laughlin and women I thought of John Kennedy, Laughlin’s contemporary who in many ways he resembled—wealthy, handsome, self-assured and, well, aristocratic. Laughlin’s biographer will have a field day when he or she ventures into this area of his life.

For obvious reasons my focus has been on Laughlin. The reader of this book will find that Carruth has not stinted on himself. He can be harsh in a way that is self-punishing but he thinks he deserves it. There is, in short, enough flesh on the anarchist, and Carruth’s vice is so robust throughout that the reader knows the writer of this book holds himself up before the same light that he shines on his friend.

What sort of book has Carruth given us? I know of no other like it. Certainly for all that he wrote on Pound, Laughlin left nothing of this scope nor, even in part, this head on. It was not in his nature to do so. There may be another book that recounts a literary friendship in such depth and candor but to repeat myself, I do not know of one. Carruth is a fine poet, and this book will be of great interest to anyone who cares for his work. I think of Laughlin as a genius of a particularly American stripe, and Carruth has said he does too. This book will give readers some idea of how someone could reach this opinion. It may also give them what it has given me, a sense of two lives large enough, contradictory enough, unfathomable as all lives surely are but made vividly present by Carruth so that the imagination will not leave go of them and their friendship easily.

 

William Corbett’s new book of poems, Boston Vermont, will appear from Zoland Books in September, 1999. His book on the sculptor John Raimondi will appear from Hudson Hills later this fall. (1999)


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