Laughlin, James and Tennessee Williams. “The Luck of Friendship: The Letters of Tennessee Williams and James Laughlin”, edited by Peggy Fox and Thomas Keith, W.W. Norton, 2018.
An Unlikely Friendship
“The Luck of Friendship” chronicles the unlikely friendship between Tennessee Williams and James Laughlin. That friendship began in December 1942 when the two men met and bonded at a Lincoln Kirstein mixer. Each of them loved Hart Crane’s poetry and out of that meeting a strong friendship began and continued for many years. James Laughlin was the founder of a small publishing company called New Directions, which he had launched seven years earlier as a sophomore at Harvard. Tennessee Williams was a young playwright who a week later sent a letter to Jay (how he always addressed Laughlin in writing) hoping to arrange a meeting to discuss his poetry. From that point on their friendship went on for 41 years during which Williams experienced “critical acclaim and rejection, commercial success and failure, manic highs, bouts of depression, and serious and not-so-serious liaisons.” Williams thought of Laughlin as his “literary conscience,” and called him such and New Directions serves to this day as Williams’ publisher of everything that he wrote. Through their letters, we get a look into the literary history of the mid-twentieth century and the struggles of a great playwright who was supported in his endeavors by his publisher and friend.
However, because Tennessee and Laughlin were both travelers, their lives rarely crossed, so their bond lived in their correspondence. I knew Tennessee fairly well but in reading these letters I see a different man that the one I knew. The letters show him to be a practical and dedicated man of the theatre, an artist who was not willing to compromise and a loving and loyal friend.
James Laughlin was the first person to publish Tennessee Williams and as far as we know, he was the only major collaborator with whom Williams did not fall out. Together the two men were able to put Tennessee into print keeping both the words and the independent publishing house alive. Both men expressed themselves beautifully in prose and through their letters, they give us a deep and intimate look into their lives.
Here we see the sane Tennessee Williams minus the drugs and infused with a great sense of idealism, seriousness and humor. The writing is at times poetic, at times campy and filled with gossip. It seems to have been impossible for Williams to write a letter without grace to Laughlin. We immediately sense the moving friendship between the two men while at the same time seeing how much each depended on the other but not symbiotically. They were both titans in the world of letters and literature and we are very lucky to have this volume.
Let me just add a word about the two editors here. Peggy L. Fox, is the former president and publisher of New Directions and she was Tennessee Williams’ last editor as well as co-literary executioner of James Laughlin. Thomas Keith began his association with James Laughlin, Peggy L. Fox, and New Directions in 1987 and has edited the Tennessee Williams titles for New Directions since 2002. Both of these literary personages are well equipped to edit these letters.