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A Literary Lion's Private Fragility : Henry Miller's letters to his patrician publisher : HENRY MILLER AND JAMES LAUGHLIN: Selected Letters. Edited by George Wickes (W.W. Norton. 260 pp. $27.50)

December 17, 1995|RICHARD EDER

Andrew Carnegie financed libraries, and the Fords and Rockefellers financed foundations, but one of corporate America's more useful cultural benefactions was producing an heir to the Jones & Laughlin steel fortune. In the mid-1930s, young James Laughlin chose to forgo steel, take summers off from Harvard and spend them in Italy with the poet Ezra Pound.

Pound ran what he called his Ezuversity for the benefit of this sole and promising adept. The promise that Pound saw in Laughlin was perhaps different from the one Laughlin hoped to see in himself. While conducting the young man through his own splendidly idiosyncratic version of Western civilization, Pound's aim was to insinuate that rather than one more second-rate man of letters, his pupil could become a first-rate patron of letters.

That he did. Through the '40s and '50s, the clean primary colors and stark lettering of the New Directions imprint stood out amid the pastel blur of American bookstore shelves. Here in your hand, they proclaimed, you may be sure you are holding the highest of high-modern literature.

The quality-paperback revolution of the 1960s would make New Directions--which, like the octogenarian Laughlin, is still at work--less special. But by that time, steel money, spent with discrimination, whim and parsimony, had given readers of my age (62) the words and clothbound heft of Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, Rimbaud, Pablo Neruda, Djuna Barnes, William Carlos Williams, Alain-Fournier, Thomas Merton, Delmore Schwartz, Herman Hesse and, of course, Pound.

Recently, Laughlin's 60-year publishing career has taken a remarkable byway. W. W. Norton has been issuing volumes of his decades-long correspondence with Pound, Williams, Schwartz and Kenneth Rexroth. They display the writers in a variety of postures: confiding and suspicious, patronizing and insecure, touchy and touching. They are the poet at his meat--and the poet is never so hungrily and vulnerably at meat as when corresponding with his publisher, benefactor and natural enemy.

As for Laughlin, though his letters are fewer and usually shorter, his own intriguing portrait emerges: patient, encouraging and with an upper-class breeziness. One wonders if he spoke of his writers as his "stable." The squire knew his horses, delighted in them, mostly ignored their bucking and kicking, and--a sore point--saw that they were not overfed. After stable-rounds he went off skiing.

The latest volume spans 40 years of Laughlin's letters to and from (mostly from) Henry Miller. They are perhaps less revealing, literarily, than the Pound and Williams volumes, but then Miller was not a literary introspective; rather, he was ringmaster and spectator at his own show. (So was Pound, of course, but this greater and scarier artist's "own show" encompassed pretty much everything else as well.) What the letters do reveal is the private fragility of a public terror.

Pound introduced them, according to an account Laughlin gave to George Wickes, editor of the correspondence. One morning at lunch in Rapallo, the poet tossed over a volume, presumably the semi-clandestine, Paris-based Obelisk Press (later Olympia Press) edition of "Tropic of Cancer." "Waal, Jas," he growled, "here's a dirty book that's really good. You'd better read it if your morals can stand it."

Laughlin's morals could; his prudent sense of his own intestinal and financial fortitude could not. He toyed with the notion of publishing "Cancer" and "Capricorn" in the United States but had no wish to expose himself and his fledgling New Directions to criminal prosecution for obscenity. Besides, his Aunt Leila, who still held the purse strings, would probably have cut him off.

So although New Directions issued 19 Miller books over the next half-century, it did not do the scandalous, money-making ones: the two "Tropics" and "Sexus," "Nexus" and "Plexus," which gutsy Grove Press profitably issued in the 1960s. Of the others, "The Colossus of Maroussi," "The Air-Conditioned Nightmare," "Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch" and "The Henry Miller Reader" sold respectably, the rest hardly at all.

Nineteen books made for a lot of letters. The thin returns made for feverish ups and downs in their tone. Miller, a complicated and timid man despite the scandalous bravura of his writing, shows himself by turns grateful, whimsical, manic, lordly and furious.

"You are the Jesus Christ of the publishing world!" he wrote in 1938 after Laughlin had outlined the royalty arrangements. Two years later, infuriated by the legal language in his contract, he stopped corresponding altogether. Two years after that, he offered grudging amends: "There is no one in this world whom I hate, not even Hitler and Hirohito. Why should I continue to hate you?" Miller allowed himself no small enmities or friendships.

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