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
On the spite
of the gods.
jealous that I'd claimed
thought their own.
I put her in
drugs didn't help her.
from the hospital
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:
Dresses in a
gave me a lock
Of her hair.
I promised her
I would be
back in Rapallo
long. But I'm
was a lover's
pledge. It was years
Before I saw
This time in
Rome after she had
nice man, a
for the Eco di
Roma. She was
Him in a
In the Via
Caerina di Siena.
She wrote me
when he suddenly
Died and I
helped her out.
been a check for
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:
as to yourselves:
behind--as they do in France,
class, or if you ride'
curtains! Go with some show
inconvenience; sit openly--
weather as to grief.
Or do you
think you can shut grief in?
us? We who have perhaps
lose? Share with us
us--it will be money
I think you
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
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, NNDB.com, and the Encyclopedia
Britannica, among other distinguished