The Way It Wasn't: From the Files of James Laughlin
by James Laughlin
A review by Chris Faatz
What do Pablo Neruda, H. D., Ezra Pound, Denise Levertov, Luljeta
Lleshanaku, Dunya Mikhail, Bei Dao, and William Carlos Williams have in
common? I mean, other than the fact that they have all challenged the
canon, pushed back the horizons of the literary imagination, explored a
new topography of beauty in the mind and heart.
Why, they were all published by New Directions, of course. And, since they
were published by New Directions, they were published for and by James
Laughlin. In this case the trite saying that an institution is merely the
lengthened shadow of a man stands true. James Laughlin was New Directions.
He was the vision behind it, the energy that went into its rise to become
the single most important American publisher of modern times, and the
money that helped it and its authors through more than one rocky stretch
in its 70 years of publishing the best and the brightest.
Laughlin is best known for his work with others, however he was no slouch
himself when it came to the written word. His poems more than stand the
test of time, and his essays, mostly about Pound, are wonderful. A few
years back, a portion of an autobiographical poem, "Byways," was published.
It made for an entertaining read, although it was very clearly not a
finished work. And, his letters to and from his stable of legendary
authors rise again and again to marvelous heights.
But now, New Directions has published a massive, lavishly illustrated book
of excerpts from the notes and papers Laughlin had kept for his
autobiography. This book, The Way It Wasn't, all 343 pages of it, is
wonderful. It's arranged alphabetically, with sections on such expected
subjects as Pound and Rexroth, but it also includes material on manic
depression, India, Hitler, childhood, and Eisenhower. There are photos,
reproductions of letters (including a postcard from Jack Kerouac and
Laughlin's response), and of the covers of books as examples of a given
designer's work. The pages are printed on thick, glossy paper, and the
spine is sturdily sewn; it's a beautiful book.
The passages are generally short -- no longer than a page -- and extremely
vivid. Take, for example, this excerpt from the passage on the French
novelist, Celine: "The terrifying French novelist, Louis Ferdinand
Celine -- an enormously powerful and slashing, satiric, misanthropic writer.
But what power of the imagination! We did three books of his. He was
overpowering." Laughlin goes on to recount how he procured ballet shoes
for Celine's wife in the days after World War II when the Celines lived in
exile due to the author's pro-fascist activities during the war.
This marvelous book is full of tidbits like this. He tells of Rexroth's
unpleasantness to his friends, of Gertrude Stein's views on sex, of the
"libelous lies of the hashish-eating scum-bag" Paul Bowles, and of his
puzzling over why some books sold and others didn't. This, for example,
comes from the entry on Hesse's Siddhartha:
The longer I publish the less I know what it's about or what makes a book
sell. Sometimes the books I think are the best don't sell at all, whereas
others that I don't think are so good sell very well. A case in point is
Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, which Henry Miller sent my way. Henry was
quite a mystic and he loved philosophy; he always said he wanted to die in
Tibet. Henry was a dear man but he never made it to Tibet....Now I'm sure
he is in some happy place where people as nice as Henry go, though some of
his favorite sports may not be available to him in the form which he has
now assumed. Anyway, Henry kept writing me about the Hesse book....I went
through it and thought it was very readable, but a little too Germanic and
the message just Buddhism with a sugar coating. I stalled but Henry would
write about every three months saying I had to publish that book. Finally,
to oblige Henry, I did. The first year it sold only 400 copies, but sales
kept growing and at the height of the Hesse boom we sold a quarter of a
million copies in a year.
Gossipy, funny, poignant, this book deserves to be avidly read and
treasured by any lover of our literary heritage. Put it on your coffee
table; give it a special place on the shelf. The Way It Wasn't is a
fabulous book. You'll visit it again and again.