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Saturday, November 25th, 2006
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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.

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