Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, December 17, 2006


From the Files of James Laughlin

Edited by Barbara Epler and Daniel Javitch

New Directions. 342 pp. $45; paperback, $25


Selected Letters

Edited by W.C. Bamberger

Norton. 262 pp. $29.95

Readers who revel in literary gossip are in for a real treat this holiday. James Laughlin, the late founder-publisher of New Directions, knew just about everyone in the world of letters -- from the "charismatic pyramid" Gertrude Stein (for whom he worked at the age of 19) and Ezra Pound (with whom he studied) to William Carlos Williams, Vladimir Nabokov, Tennessee Williams, Dylan Thomas, Denise Levertov, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Henry Miller and Thomas Merton (all of whom he published). Organized alphabetically, The Way It Wasn't retails amusing anecdotes and outrageous opinions about all these writers (and many others), along with rants about the book industry, memories of childhood and youth and affectionate reminiscences of old girlfriends. Adorning the pages are author photos, color reproductions of title pages from many New Directions classics and a few saucy snapshots of various paramours and pin-ups.

While James Laughlin (1914-97) clearly knew everyone, his literary correspondent Guy Davenport (1927-2005) just as clearly knew everything -- ancient Greek lyrics, the culture of the Dogon, botanical history, fine printing, the world's art from the cave painters of Lascaux to Picasso, all the monuments (in all the genres) of high modernism and literary trivia of every kind. As their Selected Letters begins, Laughlin first writes to Davenport, then a University of Kentucky professor, in 1969 to thank him for an appreciation of Thomas Merton, but the two quickly discover common interests in classics and poetry. Before long, they are discussing Laughlin's autobiography in verse ( Byways), several Davenport projects for New Directions, the innovative essays and poetry of Anne Carson, the debilities of old age and the general decline of civility and learning in our time.

It's hard to choose between the two books for entertainment value (and no need to). Open The Way It Wasn't to "Eliot, T.S." and Laughlin tells us that as Pound's editor the great poet "spent days rewriting the texts of Ezra's prose books so that they made more sense." Flip ahead to "Joyce" and read: "When Joyce opened the door for me in Paris he said, 'I think, Mister Logulan, we met for the larst toime on the battlefield of Clontarff.' Then he explained that my name meant 'Danish pirate.' " Then go on to "Lewis, Wyndham," who tells the publisher, "Why don't you stop New Directions, your books are crap."

Under "Miller, Henry" Laughlin aptly notes that the author of Tropic of Cancer"resembled the clerk in our rural general store and was equally loquacious." Nabokov's princely hauteur is captured perfectly in three sentences: "He had [his wife] Vera write his terse little letters to me. He would force a smile for me sometimes but it was a long-ways-away smile. The real smile was still on the flatcar that was transporting his grandfather's carriage and horses across Europe for the summer vacation at Biarritz." The young Tennessee Williams claimed never to travel anywhere without the poems of Hart Crane in his knapsack. In his workroom in Rapallo, Italy, Pound hung his pencils and scissors on strings from the ceiling so they would not get lost among his papers. The stately and aristocratic Edith Sitwell loved the work of rumbustious, multitude-embracing Walt Whitman.

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