Ed. by Barbara Epler and Daniel Javitch. New Directions. $25.00.
"Well, I am hurt," New Directions founder James Laughlin writes in a letter dated February 12, 1950, to William Carlos Williams. "I am terribly hurt, I won't conceal it." What Laughlin says next to Williams, who had written to say that he was on the verge of leaving teeny New Directions for super-mainstream Random House, is the best sketch I know of a publisher's attempt to set his teeth back into his head after they've been kicked out and scattered across the office floor:
A hundred times when other publishers have told me what faithless bastards writers are I have held you up as an example of loyalty. I feel exactly like Gretchen's brother in Faust.
Then shifting tactics:
But go your way — with my blessing. You are a lovable cuss, and I'll be sore for a few weeks, but it will pass. What you are doing is only human, and I've done plenty of things myself on a par with it. I can't complain.
Then, feeling spurned again, he's whipped up into sarcastic scorn:
All right...go to the big boys. They were swell to you about publishing White Mule, weren't they? They did a beautiful job on the Collected Poems didn't they? They fell over themselves didn't they to get a critic to write a book about you? They overwhelmed you, didn't they, with offers to keep the American Grain in print? Go to them. Rush. Run. Don't lose a second. Let them slobber their dirt all over your decency and your purity. And offer up to them as a little bribe my pride, and my life's devotion to an ideal. See how dirty they can make that too.
At last, penance:
Well Bill, I'm sorry to have talked to you this way. It's not respectful, it's not friendly. But you have hurt me deeply and terribly, and the only way to get it out of my system is to talk right out, cauterize it, and then forget it.
A letter like this stands in as a curious fact of the publisher's life. What's impressive is Laughlin's grudging, yet formidable contrition: donned with a well-heeled, Presbyterian courtliness, without any disregard, deviousness, or indifference to the art, and saturated with the devotee's piousness. In the end, Williams stayed with New Directions.
Parts of this letter are included in The Way It Wasn't, a scrapbook of some three hundred pages of Laughlin's personal letters, photographs, anecdotes, literary tall tales, and drawings splendidly arranged as an abecedarian by Barbara Epler, New Directions's current editor-in-chief, and Daniel Javitch, Laughlin's son-in-law. A killer treasure chest, the book is crammed with oddball memorabilia and fantastic yarns — Laughlin receiving a cabin cruiser as a gift when he was fourteen from his steel-magnate father, 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. Situated at the big wells of twentieth-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 C
Poet, critic, and writer David Biespiel was born in 1964 and grew up in Houston, Texas. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners (2014) and The Book of Men and Women (2013), winner of the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His books of essays include a book on...