Byways, James Laughlin
[New Directions, 323 pp. $19.95]

Several years after his death, the book-publisher New Directions has issued 'a memoir' by its founder James Laughlin (1915-1997), which is less a manuscript finished during his lifetime but scraps pieced together by a longtime employee. Most is written in short-line prosy poetry that Laughlin favored, his texts barely consuming half the width of a book's page, even in a large typeface and a format at 6" x 9" larger than 5" X 8" more customary for ND books. If only because his writing is so formally limited, Byways is hard to read for long.

I should point out that even though a reading of the 16th New Directions Annual
was in 1959 (at 19) among my early introductions to avant-garde literature, I didn't know Laughlin and didn't publish with him, though, scarcely a snob, I probably diddled his publishing firm with a manuscript now and then (as I've diddled many others). For all of his service to the advanced writers of the generation preceding him (William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Henry Miller, Kenneth Rexroth), he barely published the major innovative figures of his own generation (favoring, instead, Tennessee Williams and Thomas Merton) and practically none in succeeding generations. (Indicatively, no writers younger than Merton are acknowledged in Byways, and ND published Jerome Rothenberg's poetry, rather than his more path-breaking anthologies.) Indeed, most of us recognized for decisively innovative work established our reputations entirely apart from New Directions. Indeed, the great tragedy of the more innovative writers of Laughlin's own generation was that no publisher served them as well as he served those a generation older than he. In turn the great tragedy of next generations of radically experimental writers was the absence of similarly enlightened book publishers, except Dick Higgins's Something Else Press briefly (for only a decade, 1964-74). Thirty years later, the cultural costs of such absence are almost incalculable.

A few years ago the poet Haydn Carruth published a memoir of Laughlin, Beside the Shadblow Tree (Copper Canyon, 1999), that I found curious, because one theme repeated in is pages appeared to evade its author, who had been a ND employee--that Laughlin loved to disappoint. Consider these passages (p. 76): 'Though he threatened to come and visit me [at my house] several other times, this was the only time he actually did it.' Officially married nearly his entire adult life, Laughlin was extra-maritally promiscuous (p. 99): 'I know Jas behaved cruelly, thoughtlessly, on some occasions. He left one bed for another very abruptly and without explanation. I find his inexcusable. It is part of the ‘hard streak' in Jas, which made him do disgraceful, ugly things in his private life and made him obnoxious to some people.' In a footnote on p. 122, Carruth writes, 'Some who should know say that [Laughlin's second wife] Ann became fed up with Jas and his ways at the end.' Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire
taught me how to appreciate transparent narrators both fictional, like Nabokov's Kinbote, and nonfictional, as here.

Carruth's saddest passage portrays the disappointment of Laughlin's third wife, Gertrude Houston, who had worked for decades as a ND designer and often been his mistress as well. Sipping champagne with Carruth in the Connecticut house that was Laughlin central, she tells him (p. 123): '‘For forty years this is what I most wanted.' She made a circling gesture with his finger to indicate the whole ambience of the house and her marriage. ‘How could I have been so wrong.''

With the implicit revelations of Carruth's memoir so strongly in mind, I found myself reading Byways for examples of disappointment. Sure enough, no further than page 8 is this concluding recollection of a déclassé woman: 'Dawn of Santo, Texas, / The most perfect face and body / That my eyes beheld.' He took her to Europe:

     But I had not reckoned
     On the spite of the gods.
     They were jealous that I'd claimed
     One they thought their own.
     In Burgos, cruel Burgos,
     She suddenly became hostile
     And silent, then catatonic.
     I put her in the hospital
     But their drugs didn't help her.
     She escaped from the hospital
     And threw herself under a train.

Reading between these lines, might not a skeptic wonder whether something done by Laughlin disappointed her?

For some of his women he paid, if not during their relationship with gifts of clothes and books, but afterwards apparently:

     Bought her some pretty
     Dresses in a boutique in
     Rimini. She gave me a lock
     Of her hair. I promised her
     I would be back in Rapallo
     Before too long. But I'm
     Afraid that was a lover's
     Unkept pledge. It was years
     Before I saw her again,
     This time in Rome after she had
     Married a nice man, a
     Journalist for the Eco di
     Roma. She was living with
     Him in a spacious apartment
     In the Via Caerina di Siena.
     She wrote me when he suddenly
     Died and I helped her out.
     There has been a check for
     Her every Christmas.

Are these lines any less transparent than Carruth's?

Considering the first group of Laughlin lines quoted above, I wondered if they might be more effective as straight prose: 'But I had not reckoned on the spite of the gods. They were jealous that I'd claimed one they thought their own. In Burgos, cruel Burgos, she suddenly became hostile and silent, then catatonic. I put her in the hospital, but their drugs didn't help her. She escaped from the hospital and threw herself under a train.' Within Byways is this passage (p. 207) from William Carlos Williams, exemplifying the poetic style that, by contrast, becomes leaden in his author/publisher's hands:

     Then briefly as to yourselves:
     Walk behind--as they do in France,
     Seventh class, or if you ride'
     Hell take curtains! Go with some show
     Of inconvenience; sit openly--
     To the weather as to grief.
     Or do you think you can shut grief in?
     What--from us? We who have perhaps
     nothing to lose? Share with us
     share with us--it will be money
     in your pockets.
                                 Go now
     I think you are ready.

How disappointing it must have been for Laughlin to have learned from masters with whom he could not compete, perhaps accounting of why he often escaped from his publishing biz to Utah or Europe.

Indicatively perhaps, the nastiest pages in Byways are reserved for a man who disappointed Laughlin--David McDowell, an over-trusted employee who made decisions during Laughlin's frequent absences and then stole the prize ND author, William Carlos Williams, when McDowell became an editor at Random House. Laughlin also charges that McDowell, long gone, stole an original manuscript from a company safe, even though the evidence never surfaced.

I suppose it could be said that book publishers, much like theatrical producers and magazine editors, inevitably disappoint more individuals than they please, beginning with those who are 'dumped'; but what appears to be different about Laughlin was his appetite for shamelessly disappointing those close to him, beginning with wives, lovers, and employees. (Only one of the last, Robert McGregor, is mentioned in Byways.) I vaguely recall reading somewhere that Laughlin would frequently depart to a Utah ski-lift business that he also owned, leaving his authors and employees in limbo, when they wished he had been minding his store. From an editor at the New York Times Book Review (Ray Walters, likewise long gone), I recall hearing around 1965 an anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, about ND employees so dispirited by his absences that they dumped some of his papers in the snow at their Christmas party.

This book's editor, Peter Glassgold, himself a veteran ND employee, mentions Laughlin biographies in progress, but nothing appears, making me wonder why? Could biographers have found a personality so problematic that their manuscripts can't be finished? Could they have concluded that his enthusiasm for disappointment ultimately limited, if not undermined, his effectiveness as a publisher, accounting for the mystery of why ND was less of an avant-garde force after 1960 than it might have been? How will biographers deal with the question of which came first--the desire to publish books or the predisposition to disappoint?

       © Richard Kostelanetz 2006

Entries on RICHARD KOSTELANETZ appear in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, A Reader's Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Webster's Dictionary of American Authors, The HarperCollins Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature,, and the Encyclopedia Britannica, among other distinguished directories.