The Publisher Who Transformed the Careers of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams
Alan M. Klein on the Mystery of Ronald Lane Latimer
Late in 1942 a Buddhist monk living in Los Angeles carefully inscribed his name in a recently published book by the poet Wallace Stevens. The Buddhist monk had moved to Los Angeles from Japan a year earlier. The book was Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction, published by the Cummington Press, a small press in Massachusetts and was one of 80 numbered copies signed by Stevens. The full inscription reads, “from the Alcestis Library of Bhikshu Padmasambhava (Ronald Lane Latimer) 1942.” Three years later, the same man—now a former Buddhist monk calling himself Ronald Lane Latimer and studying at a seminary in Berkeley to become an Episcopal minister—ornately inscribed “from the Alcestis Library of Ronald Lane Latimer” in Esthetique du Mal, another book of Stevens’ published in a limited edition by the Cummington Press.
These inscriptions, unknown to scholars for 75 years after they were written, are fascinating because the shape-shifting Latimer was, years earlier in the mid-1930s, one of the most important young publishers of contemporary poetry in the United States. His brief career was as remarkable for its impact and influence as for its brevity, before he vanished. He, almost single-handedly, reinvigorated the poetic careers of both Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams in the 1930s, publishing two books by each of them through his Alcestis Press, restarting their publishing of new books of poetry after an interregnum of a dozen years.
Latimer also helped launch the careers of a number of young poets struggling to get books published in the midst of the Great Depression, such as Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren. Starting as an undergraduate at Columbia University, he corresponded with, and published in the magazines he started between 1932 and 1936, every leading poet of the era, including T.S. Eliot, Conrad Aiken, ee cummings, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore and Archibald McLeish along with writers such as Sherwood Anderson, Malcom Cowley, Ford Madox Ford, and Mark Van Doren. He encouraged emerging young poets such as Charles Reznikoff and Muriel Rukeyser. And then, after 1938, he disappeared from New York and the literary world.
Ronald Lane Latimer was not his real name. Nor was his name Martin Jay, Mark Jason, Mark Zorn or J. Ronald Latimer, all names he used during his career as a publisher before settling on Ronald Lane Latimer. His extensive correspondence during his publishing career is at the University of Chicago and, until I obtained his remaining archive from descendants of his heir, the letters at the University of Chicago were the only known contemporaneous written record of his career. The Alcestis Press archive was in the hands of the heir to Latimer’s adopted son (like other gay couples of the era, Latimer and his partner had established an adoptive relationship for legal purposes before same-sex marriage was legal) and this material had never before been available to biographers of either Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams.
Latimer’s birth name was James Leippert and he was born in 1909 about 90 miles north of New York City. It was under this name that he entered Columbia as an undergraduate in 1929. Using the name Leippert, he began several literary journals prior to his graduation in 1933.Latimer also helped launch the careers of a number of young poets struggling to get books published in the midst of the Great Depression, such as Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren.
That same year, both Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams were at inflection points in their careers. Stevens, who was 54, and Williams, who was 50, were friends and considered one another peers. In fact, despite the very different styles in which they wrote, and the seemingly different projects in which they were poetically engaged, they were each the peer against whom they measured themselves.
Stevens and Williams had both, coincidentally, published their prior books of new poetry ten years earlier, in 1923. Stevens had published his very first book, Harmonium, that year with Alfred A. Knopf, then-less than a decade old. Today, it is considered one of the great first books of poetry of the 20th century, including such important and much-anthologized poems as “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and “Sunday Morning.”
Williams, who generally had a more prolific publishing career than Stevens but less luck in finding solvent publishers, published Spring and All in 1923. It is a riot of prose and poetry, with varying typography from chapter to chapter and including classics such as “The Red Wheelbarrow,” “On the road to the contagious hospital,” and “To Elsie.” The publisher was the short-lived Contact Publishing Company, based in Paris and run by Robert McAlmon, who also published Ernest Hemingway’s first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, the same year.
Both Stevens and Williams had high hopes for the success of their 1923 books; unfortunately, both received almost no recognition and fewer sales. Some friends, such as Marianne Moore and a few others, provided appreciative reviews, but the books otherwise made virtually no impression. Stevens, becoming a father for the first time in his mid-forties and occupied with his career as an insurance company executive in Hartford, Connecticut, turned away from writing poetry and published no new poems for the remainder of the 1920s.
Williams, equally discouraged at the seeming lack of public interest in his work, continued his medical career as a general practitioner and pediatrician in Rutherford, New Jersey. Always more prolific than Stevens, Williams turned to publishing novels, short stories and non-fiction generally unabated, but some years he published no new poems at all. Stevens was acutely aware of Williams’ productivity compared to his own. He wrote to Latimer relatively early in their extensive correspondence, as he tried deflecting Latimer’s request for material for a book, that “Williams, I believe, writes every day or night or both, and his house must be full of manuscript, but it is quite different with me.”Ronald Lane Latimer was not his real name. Nor was his name Martin Jay, Mark Jason, Mark Zorn or J. Ronald Latimer, all names he used during his career as a publisher before settling on Ronald Lane Latimer.
Williams’s relative poetic silence and Stevens’s absolute silence over the ensuing years only seemed to increase their esteem and reputations, however. By 1931, Knopf published a new edition of Harmonium. Both Stevens and Williams began slowly providing new work to some of the literary journals that regularly solicited them for submissions. Williams’ young friend and protégé, the poet Louis Zukofsky, published in 1934 Williams’s Collected Poems, 1921-1931, with an introduction by Williams’s friend Wallace Stevens. The book included both previously published work as well as unpublished poems, such as the notable “This Is Just To Say.” But only 500 copies were printed, and it hardly made a ripple in the market.
Both Stevens and Williams were trying to find a voice for the 1930s. They had come of age as poets in the mid-1910s and early 1920s. A younger generation of poets had come along to whom they needed to speak and the Great Depression required a different kind of engagement than had been needed in the aftermath of World War I.
Then, Latimer entered their lives.
It was as James Leippert, Columbia University undergraduate, that the future Latimer first solicited work from William Carlos Williams in 1932 for his literary journal, “Lion and Crown.” Leippert also asked Williams to become the associate editor of the “Lion and Crown.” Although flattered by the offer, Williams declined. Leippert’s correspondence with Williams then concluded in March of 1933.
Latimer first contacted Stevens in June of 1933, writing as Martin Jay, soliciting poems for the first issue of his new journal Alcestis: A Poetry Quarterly. As a result, the first poem published in that first issue of the journal was “Ideas of Order at Key West,” one of the most important poems of Stevens’ career. It became the title poem of the limited-edition fine press book that Stevens publish through the Alcestis Press in 1935 and the title poem of the book that Stevens would publish through Knopf in 1936, his first commercial book of new poetry in over a dozen years.
After a slow start to their epistolary relationship, in the fall of 1934 Stevens began corresponding with Latimer almost weekly for the next several years. Stevens’s daughter Holly, in the “Letters of Wallace Stevens,” which she edited, stated that, “…during 1934-38… his major correspondent was… Latimer.” The Latimer letters at the University of Chicago contain over 80 letters from Stevens during this period, ranging from Stevens’s thoughts on the meaning of poetry, his writing habits and extending to a tender solicitousness regarding the state of Latimer’s publishing venture, going so far as to tell Latimer to keep any royalties that Stevens was owed. Somehow, Latimer engaged and creatively stimulated Stevens in a way that no other publisher of his work had before or subsequently did. By contrast, Stevens’s relationship with Alfred Knopf, which extended for over 30 years, until Stevens’s death, was never more than purely formal and business-like.
Latimer became the single individual outside of his family and work colleagues with whom Stevens was in the most regular contact during this period. Notoriously shy and awkward, Stevens would not be willing to meet Latimer in person for two years after beginning their exchange of dozens upon dozens of letters. Based on Stevens’s correspondence, it appears that Stevens was fully aware of Latimer’s use of other names and his earlier publishing efforts under the name Leippert.
The Latimer Alcestis Press archive contains the publisher’s copies of the Alcestis Press books. Stevens had inscribed Ideas of Order, published in August 1935, to Latimer and written out by hand on the inside cover his poem, “The Pleasure of Merely Circulating.” The archive also contains Stevens’s handwritten copy of his poem “The Weeping Burgher,” which he had inscribed to Latimer. There is also the signed manuscript of an unpublished poem of Stevens’s which he had playfully titled “The Guide of Alcestis,” a slight reworking of an older unpublished poem of his.
Latimer published a second book of Stevens in the fall of 1936, Owl’s Clover. Another finely printed, extravagantly priced limited edition (costing $7.50, the equivalent of well over a hundred dollars today), ironically, it was Stevens’s effort to grapple more directly with the dislocation caused by the Great Depression.
Latimer’s letters to Stevens no longer exist. Some scholars believe that Stevens’s wife Elsie destroyed them after his death. Others have thought that they were simply discarded by Stevens’s employer, The Hartford Insurance Company. Whatever the truth, precisely how Latimer managed to stimulate Stevens to carry on their correspondence and to rejuvenate his desire to write will never be fully understood.
Latimer reached out to Williams in the fall of 1934 soliciting work for the “Alcestis” quarterly and proposing that Latimer publish a book of Williams’s poems. Apparently, Williams did not seem to realize in the least that Latimer and Leippert, who had invited him to assist in editing the “Lion and Crown,” were in fact one and the same person.
After some initial hesitation, Williams delivered the manuscript for An Early Martyr and Other Poems in the spring of 1935 and it was published that September. He was deeply grateful to Latimer for the opportunity to start publishing his poetry again in book form. In a letter included in the Alcestis archive from May of that year, Williams wrote to Latimer, “I am looking forward to the appearance of my book of poems with as much enthusiasm as I ever experienced over any publication of my work in the past. I am deeply indebted to you for what you are doing.”
Not long after “An Early Martyr” appeared, Williams began preparing a second book for the Alcestis Press, Adam and Eve and the City, which was published in the spring of 1936. In the volume, Williams began exploring in depth the themes that would ultimately result in his five-volume magnum opus Paterson, which he began publishing ten years later through the imprint of another young publisher, James Laughlin, founder of New Directions.
It was not until he was reviewing the galleys for Adam and Eve and the City that Williams seems to have realized that Latimer and Leippert were the same person. This thunderbolt resulted in a frantic letter to Stevens, who replied to him with great equanimity: “Dear Sherlock Holmes: Many thanks. I agree that there is something wrong in the woodpile. But that is what people are like… After all, if we go along with him knowing about the woodpile, we are no worse off than going along with almost anybody else.”
What Stevens and Williams didn’t know was that during the period of their involvement with Latimer, while he was putting out four issues of the “Alcestis” journal, publishing not only their four books but a half dozen other ones, and hosting parties for Williams and Marianne Moore, he had taken orders as a novitiate at a monastery in upstate New York, gotten engaged to a woman in Albany, New York, and was living with a succession of men in Greenwich Village. One enduring mystery that has never been satisfactorily explained is where Latimer got the money to finance his publishing efforts or his lifestyle during this period; he was a recent college graduate whose family did not have the means to subsidize his publishing career. And yet, he published some of the finest editions of poetry books of the era.
Latimer pressed both Stevens and Williams to allow him to publish a volume of their collected poems. Each sidestepped the request, realizing the economic reality that Latimer would not be able to carry off such a project. Stevens’s known correspondence with Latimer ends in mid-1938. In the last known letter from Stevens to Latimer, there is a tone of almost wistful regret by Stevens that, “I cannot believe that I have done anything of real importance.” Williams’s letters to Latimer carried on for a few more months, when he finally ended any discussion of a possible new book with Latimer.
The Alcestis Press ended in 1938 and Latimer disappeared from the literary world, going to Japan to become a Buddhist monk, returning to the United States just a few months before Pearl Harbor, becoming an Episcopal priest, living in New Jersey, Sante Fe, and Florida, and finally dying alone in a church in Sarasota in 1964, possibly by suicide, at the age of 55. Somehow, during World War II, he ended up in California with two books in his possession published by Wallace Stevens through a small press long after any known association that he had with Stevens or Williams had ended.
Had he stayed in contact with Stevens? If not, how had he come to own these books shortly after their publication? The mystery of Latimer continues.