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'Byways: A Memoir by James Laughlin'

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page BW15


A Memoir by James Laughlin

Edited by Peter Glassgold

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New Directions. 336 pp. $35; Paperback, $19.95

I met James Laughlin (1914-1997) only once, when the legendary founder of New Directions was being honored with a special lifetime achievement award by the National Book Critics Circle. After his gracious remarks, the crowd was thick around him, but I fought my way through it and brazenly stuck out my hand. He grasped it briefly, I murmured how much I admired his work as a publisher, and then the hordes swept him away.

No doubt it was utterly corny of me, but I wanted to make physical contact with a man who had known Joyce and Eliot and been a close friend of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, a man who had helped keep alive the work of some of the most original figures of 20th-century literature, many of whom he had known personally: James Agee, Djuna Barnes, Nathanael West, Nabokov, Borges, Neruda, Mishima, Montale, Cocteau, Sartre, Hesse, Henry Miller, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, John Hawkes and scores of others. Like many others of a literary bent, I had bought and carried around James Laughlin's books all my adult life, for New Directions wasn't just another publishing house, it was the outward and visible sign of one's man taste and artistic convictions.

Given the authors he championed, it shouldn't be surprising that Laughlin's memoirs are somewhat unconventional. They are, first of all, written in a kind of verse. These "fragments of an autobiography," were set down, as Guy Davenport explains in a characteristically wonderful preface, "in Meadow House in Norfolk, Connecticut, between 3 a.m. and dawn, when the cook arrived to serve James Laughlin his breakfast of blueberry muffins and tea. He was not planning an orderly account of his eighty years, only those memories that came to him in his insomnia and got him out of bed and down to his typewriter, where he measured out phrases in the neat short lines that William Carlos Williams had shown him how to write." The result, as Laughlin himself explains is "just a prose cadence, broken/ As I breathe while putting/ my thoughts into words."

The result is also a book of exceptional charm. The eye moves quickly down the narrow columns of type, and Laughlin's voice rises from the page with touching and amusing tales about his wealthy Pittsburgh family (Laughlin and Phillips Steel -- his cousin Duncan founded the Phillips Gallery), his manic-depressive father, his years at Harvard and wandering through Europe, his girlfriends and teachers and mentors and authors and his later travels to Asia and his passion for skiing.

Being the scion of a hard-driving steel family, the young undergraduate naturally gravitated to the study of Latin, French, German and Italian literature, spending most of his time in Widener Library before announcing that he would become a writer.

At which point he travelled to Italy where he aimed to sit at the feet of Ezra Pound:

To Rapallo then I came,

That was in 1934, a student

Bored with the academic conventions

Of Harvard, wanting to get to the source,

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