Ezra Pound told James Laughlin that he must do something useful with his life.
Pound's first suggestion as they talked in 1935 was that Laughlin might assassinate Henry Seidel Canby, the editor of Saturday Review who represented everything Pound detested.
His second notion for the wealthy young man whose inclination was not toward assassination was that Laughlin become a publisher.
Any American who has read Pound or William Carlos Williams or Dylan Thomas read a book published by New Directions, which Laughlin founded in 1936 after returning from Pound in Italy to resume his undergraduate studies in Harvard.
Laughlin offers an interviewer a collection of his poetry titled "In Another Country." "I want you to have this and I want you to know that I would much rather have been a poet than a publisher," he says.
But Pound didn't encourage that. "He said (my poems) were awful," Laughlin remembers with good humour. "We'd take his little-stub pencil and start slashing out words saysing 'you don't need this' or 'this isn't what you mean to say.'"
Not every poet's jdugment has been SO HARSH. DENISE LEVERTOV CALLS LAUGHLIN "AN EXQUISTE AND DISTINCITVE POET."
BUT LEVERTOV AND THE OTHER WRITERS WHO GATHERED AT THE PEN American Center to praise Laughlin Wednesday came to honor him not as a poet, but as a publisher. PEN, the writer's organization, awarded him its third annual citation recognizing a publisher for service to letters and to the freedom and dignity of writers.
"My whole sense of contemporary literature both American and European was broadened enormously through New Directions' books," Levertov said.
Laughlin, 64, says the translator Dudley Fitts first got him interested in books while he was at Choate. "Pittsburgh was not a bookish town, " he says drily of his home where he grew up an heir to the Jones-Laughlin steel fortune.
He dropped out of Harvard during his sophomore year and went to Europe.
By chance, he found himself introduced to Gertrude Stein at her country place, and she quickly put him to work. His main task was to write one-page press releases based upon the lectures Stein had prepared for her upcoming American tour, but he was also useful changing tires.
"Every afternoon we would go for a ride with her two horrible dogs," Laughlin recalls. "The dogs sat in the back seat and licked me. Stein drove and Alice B. Toklas rode infront commenting on the landscape."
There were continual puntures. Sometimes two or three in one afternoon. "I was really useful to her, because I don't think she liked changing tires," Laughlin says.
Stein demanded complete loyalty.Laughlin remembers. The young Laughlin was given no advice on his reading except to read Stein.
"I suppose you'd call it megalomania. She had to be right about everything," Laughlin says. She accused Proust and Joyce of copying her work from her "The Making of Americans" appeared.
"Things came apart between us when she realized I had doubts," Laughlin says deadpan.
So, after six weeks with Stein, he wrote Pound asking him if he could see him in Rapallo. Pound cabled back: "visibility high."
Laughlin stayed almost seven months at what Pound called "the classes of the Ezuversity." At lunch and dinner Pound delivered a rarely interrupted and constanly interesting monologue. His wife, Laughlin, and anyone else who had dropped in for a class, listened.
Between meals, Laughlin read literature, economic theory and history from books suggested by Pound, but the title poem of Laughlin's "In Another Country" indicates . . . "I was 18, she was 15 and her name was Leontina . . . " that not every moment was spent reading.
His parents became very agitated at the thought of the dangerous ideas he might be absorbing, so Laughlin 's mother traveled to Italy and dragged him back to Harvard and the start of his publishing career.
New Direction's first book (with no page numbers because Laughlin forgot about them) was not one of its most enduring . It was "Pianos of Sympathy" by Montague O'Reilly (the pseudonym of a Harvard friend), the surrealist tale of a man with a ladies' hair and piano fetish, Laughlin relates with a grin.
It was followed by the first of the annual New Directions anthologies.The early accounts were kept in school notebooks, and Laughlin spent Harvard reading periods traveling as far as west as Minneapolis in efforts to get bookstores to carry New Directions' titles.
When Laughlin graduated, New Directions moved to Norfolk, Conn., where Laughlin still lives. Eventually he opened a small office in New York, sharing for a time with a friend who sold ski wax. "When I was out to lunch, he would sell my books. When he was out to lunch, I would try to sell ski wax for him." Laughlin says.
"I was able to do what I was doing," Laughlin says, "because my parents would provide money. They hated the books I was publishing, but they were very loyal."
In 20 years, he estimates, New Directions lost $250,000 and then it began to make a little profit.
The profits came because Pound, Williams, Thomas and others began to be taught in colleges.
Laughlin also had a ginat (for New Hesse's "Siddhartha," a book Henry Directions) success with Herman Miller nagged him into publishing.
Tennessee Williams kept giving his books to Laughlin even though other publishers would have been glad to have them. Laughlin says profits from Williams made it possible to publish 30 or 40 unknown writers.
New Directions was the first American publisher to print James Agee, Bertold Brecht, Jean Cocteau, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Hawkes, Denise Levertov, Thomas Merton, William Saroyan and Delmore Schwartz. It published Vladimir Nabokov's first novel and (slected writings" by a Russian then unknown here, Boris Pasternak, in 1949.
All his life, Laughlin has been a passionate skier. Skiling, he told the PEN center, was responsible for one of his publishing mistakes.
The manuscript of Thomas Merton's "The Seven Storey Mountain" came to himas he was about to go skiling. He stayed away about four months and when he returned, Harcourt Brace had accepted Merton's book and gave it much greater distribution than New Directions could have.
The success of "Seven Storey Mountain" helped New Directions, however. It brought new interest in his other books published by Laughlin.
Another Merton book, his "Asian Journal," is the book Laughlin says he's proudest of. When Merton died, the journal was in a chaotic state. Right-hand pages describe what he had been doing on his Asian tour and left-hand pages refered to what he had been reading and thinking - all of them in a kind of shorthand.
Laughlin spent two years working on the journal, reading about 200 books on Asian religion, before it was ready to be published.
"Our old gang has died," Laughlin says of the writers who so dominated New Directions' lists for years. He's impressed by a number of little-known New Directions' authors - Walter Abish, Robert Nichols, David Antin and Robert Steiner amony them.
New Directions has eight people on its staff now and brings out about 25 books a year, some of them paperback editions of its hardcover books. It regularly turns a small profit, but not as much as the ski lift Laughlin owns at Alta, Utah.
Laughlin still writes poetry occasionally. He stopped for a time after Pound' discouraging comments, but began again after he met Williams.
"He was the opposite of Pound. Williams would encourage anyone no matter how awful they were," Laughlin says.
One member of the "old gang," Kenneth Rexroth, still keeps in touch. Rexroth, who Laughlin says "educate me as much as Pound," telephones every Saturday night during the football game. I wish I could get him to wait until the football game is over."
Laughlin remained in touch with Pound after their first meeting at the Ezuversity. The poet stayed with Laughlin in 1969 when he visted the United States. Laughlin went several times to see Pound even after Pound had fallen silent, not talking to anyone.
Once, Laughlin remembers, Pound spoke: "Tell Possum (his name for T.S. Eliot) that the headache pills come from a place of the chamber of deputies." Then he was silent again.