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Book Arts: James Laughlin

Laughlin

1957 Burmese visa found in the "B" file, under "Burma."

The Way It Wasn't [is] a scrapbook of some 300 pages of Laughlin's personal letters, photographs, anecdotes, literary tall tales, and drawings, splendidly arranged as an abecedarian by Barbara Epler, New Directions' current editor-in-chief, and Daniel Javitch, Laughlin's son-in-law.

All photos, except for the Lustig covers, are from the collection of James Laughlin. Copyright 2006 by the Estate of James Laughlin and reproduced courtesy of New Directions Publishing Corporation.



Laughlin

Key West, 1940: Photographs of "Ye Old Square Roof" brothel and of Elizabeth Bishop on its porch, by James Laughlin; photo of Laughlin on the porch, by either Tennessee Williams or Elizabeth Bishop; found in the "B" file, under "Bishop."

A killer treasure chest, the book is crammed with oddball memorabilia and fantastic yarns—Laughlin receiving a cabin cruiser as a gift from his steel-magnate father when he was 14; visiting a brothel in Key West with Elizabeth Bishop; golfing with Robert Fitzgerald and chatting about Homer in the fairways; admiring W.H. Auden "doing take-offs on local characters in Trioler" while waiting for a train to Vienna.

All photos, except for the Lustig covers, are from the collection of James Laughlin. Copyright 2006 by the Estate of James Laughlin and reproduced courtesy of New Directions Publishing Corporation.


Laughlin

Photograph of Jean Cocteau, inscribed to Richard Thoma; found in the "C" file, under "Cocteau."

Situated at the big wells of 20th-century Modernism, Laughlin (1914-1997) was a wildcatting publisher to be sure. But he was also a negligible poet, and so it's surprising to see—in sketches about Burma and Rapallo, about Cocteau and Céline and Edith Sitwell, about Aunt Leila and Frances Steloff, about his own father and his paterfamilias Ezra Pound, about women and skiing and cultural wasteland USA, and more—that his crazy scraps of ephemera dramatize something essential about how a literary alertness gets formed.

All photos, except for the Lustig covers, are from the collection of James Laughlin. Copyright 2006 by the Estate of James Laughlin and reproduced courtesy of New Directions Publishing Corporation.


Laughlin

Art by Kenneth Patchen; found in the "P" file, under "Patchen."

All photos, except for the Lustig covers, are from the collection of James Laughlin. Copyright 2006 by the Estate of James Laughlin and reproduced courtesy of New Directions Publishing Corporation.


Laughlin

Undated photograph of Tennessee Williams; found in the "T" folder under "Tennessee."

Laughlin's success story as New Directions's trustifarian publisher, monarch of taste, one-man customs official, and connoisseur of the last century's literary avant-garde has never been in dispute. The house's list is stocked with so many experimental turned influential writers: Borges, Bowles, Merton, Henry Miller, Nabokov, Paz, Sebald, Tennessee Williams, W.C. Williams, and, of course, Ezra Pound, to name just a fraction of the stars.

All photos, except for the Lustig covers, are from the collection of James Laughlin. Copyright 2006 by the Estate of James Laughlin and reproduced courtesy of New Directions Publishing Corporation.


Laughlin

Undated photograph of (left to right) unknown man, Monroe Wheeler, Ann Laughlin, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Marianne Moore, and James Laughlin at Shea Stadium for a Mets game; found in the "M" file, under "Marianne Moore."

The legend of the barbarian at the gate is at odds with Laughlin's personal story. Growing up in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood as the Carnegies and Mellons, where, he says, "at one house, the butler passed chewing gum on a silver salver after the coffee," Laughlin epitomized bonhomie. He was upper-crust, urbane, with a dash of boarding-school towel-snapping earthiness; and classy. He was never a natural rebel, definitely not a loose cannon. Not that he was entirely un-rebellious, but his uprisings had a tony air. His first significant mutiny was to reject attending his father's university, Princeton, and instead enroll at Harvard. The daring.

All photos, except for the Lustig covers, are from the collection of James Laughlin. Copyright 2006 by the Estate of James Laughlin and reproduced courtesy of New Directions Publishing Corporation.


Laughlin

Photograph of Paul Bowles, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs; found in the "C" file, under "Corso."

All photos, except for the Lustig covers, are from the collection of James Laughlin. Copyright 2006 by the Estate of James Laughlin and reproduced courtesy of New Directions Publishing Corporation.


Laughlin

James Laughlin in Rapallo, Italy, 1937; found in the "P" folder under "Pound."

Taking leave of Harvard in 1934 to live in Rapallo, Italy, and sit at Ezra Pound's knee at the so-called Ezuversity, Laughlin let Pound practically bully him out of writing: "Pound said I was never going to be any good as a poet and that I ought to take up something useful."

All photos, except for the Lustig covers, are from the collection of James Laughlin. Copyright 2006 by the Estate of James Laughlin and reproduced courtesy of New Directions Publishing Corporation.


Laughlin

Photograph of James Laughlin and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1973, by Ann Laughlin; found in the "F" folder under "Ferlinghetti."

All photos, except for the Lustig covers, are from the collection of James Laughlin. Copyright 2006 by the Estate of James Laughlin and reproduced courtesy of New Directions Publishing Corporation.


Laughlin

Photograph of James Laughlin and Ezra Pound in the hills above Rapallo, Italy, 1937; found in the "P" file, under "Pound."

Pound's orders were for Laughlin to become a publisher and magazine anthologist ("You've got enough brains for that") and to use his wealth to promote unheralded writers whom Pound recommended, including Pound, naturally.

All photos, except for the Lustig covers, are from the collection of James Laughlin. Copyright 2006 by the Estate of James Laughlin and reproduced courtesy of New Directions Publishing Corporation.


Laughlin

This 1951 edition of Pound's ABC of Reading was part of the New Classics series, with a cover designed by Alvin Lustig.

Here Laughlin is on publishing: "Biznizz stinks worse than ever. I am learning to care deeply for the gin."

All photos, except for the Lustig covers, are from the collection of James Laughlin. Copyright 2006 by the Estate of James Laughlin and reproduced courtesy of New Directions Publishing Corporation.


Laughlin

Undated photograph of Yukio Mishima found in the "M" file, under "Mishima."

All photos, except for the Lustig covers, are from the collection of James Laughlin. Copyright 2006 by the Estate of James Laughlin and reproduced courtesy of New Directions Publishing Corporation.


Laughlin

This 1946 edition of Rimbaud's Illuminations was also part of the New Classics.

On bookselling: "Most of the buyers are women—bitches: rather stupid middle-aged women of no background, worried about business, positively hating a book that requires intelligence to read and sell. These creatures I must woo . . . . She is the enemy, and also the friend. My God how you love her after she has bought something. All your loathing runs away and you are friends."

All photos, except for the Lustig covers, are from the collection of James Laughlin. Copyright 2006 by the Estate of James Laughlin and reproduced courtesy of New Directions Publishing Corporation.


Laughlin

Photograph of Gertrude Stein with James Laughlin (on column, holding up Stein's dog, Basket), probably taken by Alice B. Toklas, 1934; found in the "S" file, under "Stein."

On Gertrude Stein: "The most charismatic pyramid ever built."

All photos, except for the Lustig covers, are from the collection of James Laughlin. Copyright 2006 by the Estate of James Laughlin and reproduced courtesy of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Originally Published: February 15, 2013

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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