James Laughlin was born October 30, 1914, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The son of Henry Hughart and Marjory Rea Laughlin, James Laughlin was born into one of Pittsburgh’s leading steel-making families. But after visiting the Laughlin mill as a child, Laughlin decided he would never enter the business.
Laughlin studied at the Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut, with poet, critic, and translator Dudley Fitts, and served as editor of the school’s literary magazine. By the time he had turned eighteen, he had already published a short story in The Atlantic Monthly.
In 1933, he enrolled in Harvard University, where he majored in Latin and Italian. However, Laughlin, who was drawn to more radical and experimental literature, did not agree with the conservatism of his teachers. He took a leave of absence midway through his sophomore year and traveled to France, where he met popular modernist writer Gertrude Stein. He soon got in touch with Ezra Pound in Italy and stayed with Pound for six months to enroll in his “Ezuversity” (Pound’s term for his private tutoring sessions with Laughlin), but Pound dismissed Laughlin’s poetry and suggested he become a publisher instead.
Laughlin returned to Harvard, and in 1936, as a twenty-two-year-old sophomore, founded New Directions with money from his father. He published books out of a cottage at his aunt’s home in Norfolk, Connecticut, the first of which was the anthology New Directions in Prose & Poetry, which he published in 1936 and sold for $2 each. The anthology included experimental writing from contributors such as Elizabeth Bishop, E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Laughlin himself, under the pseudonym Tasilo Ribischka. This was only the first of a series of annual anthologies intended “as a place where experimentalists could test their inventions by publication.”
Following the publication of the first New Directions anthology, Laughlin began publishing novels, plays, and poetry collections. He published the work of writers such as Tennessee Williams, Randall Jarrell, and Karl Shapiro in a Five Young American Poets series, and reprinted authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Stein in a New Classics series, among others. Laughlin was also the first American publisher of the work of prominent novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Williams and Pound, both of whom had difficulty finding publishers at one point, had many books published by New Directions.
Laughlin also continued writing poetry himself and became more known for his writing in literary circles. In 1945, he published his first book, Some Natural Things (New Directions). Poet Hayden Carruth has said he admires Laughlin’s work for the “layering voices of wit, irony, and fantasy” and the “breadth of literary sources.” Laughlin’s other poetry titles include The Commonplace Book of Pentastichs (New Directions, 1998), Country Road (Zoland Books, 1995), and Phantoms (Aperture, 1995), among many others.
In 1992, Laughlin received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Laughlin died on November 12, 1997, in Norfolk at the age of eighty-three.
The Academy of American Poets offers the James Laughlin Award, the only second-book award for poetry in the United States, in his honor. Offered since 1954, the award was endowed in 1995 by a gift from the Drue Heinz Trust.