Review: Byways: A Memoir


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 113 in 2007.

James Laughlin, Byways: A Memoir, Ed. Peter Glassgold (New York: New Directions, 2005).

Review by Jim Feast

Byways is New Directions' publisher James Laughlin's conversational, pleasant, meandering, highly revealing (probably in spite of itself) fragmentary, autobiographical epic poem—if prose put in columns qualifies as a poem.
The book says a lot (between the lines) about why Laughlin founded a press, what attracted him to various authors, and his tremendous love for skiing and modern literature, in that order.
Perhaps the best way to approach the book is not to do so directly but comparatively. If we contrast Laughlin with Barney Rosset, another maverick literary publisher who was active about the same time, we can more easily see what was distinctive about our subject.
Let's begin with their young manhood. Both were children of privilege, but due to the exigencies of history, Rosset went into the army at age 20, living though the last years of World War II in China. There, in the Signal Corps, photographic company, he saw death, starvation and battle at first hand. Shortly after it had been retaken from the Japanese, Rosset entered Shanghai, an open city of black markets, taxi girls and decaying international elegance. Here, he met many refugee Jews and other stateless people from whom he received an eye-opening, cosmopolitan education.
Laughlin's education and young manhood were much different, spent not in China but at Harvard, to which he pays loving tribute in Byways. His way at the school was smoothed by his father, as evidenced by this passage:

The furniture [in their freshman room] was appalling,
Heavy Fumed oak. My Father
Trotted us [his roommate and Laughlin] over to an antique
Store and picked out some nice
Things: old American desks
For each of us, a cheerful
Persian rug, two comfortable.
Easy chairs, and bookcases
For each of us

Moreover, the school was a place where a young man would be swathed in the flattering attention of servants

[Harvard] was so comfortable,
A style befitting young gentlemen.
Fireplaces in every sitting room,
A maid to clean and make the beds.
In the dining hall there were
maids in uniform to serve a choice
of entreés.

Surrounded by such (comparative) luxury and with a tutor who let him do as he wished—talk about skiing, not academic subjects -- it would seem an idyll. Not quite. There were difficulties, conflicts.
Indeed, we need to look in each man's life for the decisive conflicts, for big decisions only arise in relation to such struggles. I mean, such decisions as that of founding a publishing company.
For Rosset, the winds of history that blew through his war experience, along with a backlog of high school and college immersion in radical causes, predisposed him to be bothered (haunted almost) by social injustice and made him want to contribute to what he saw as the cultural revolution. His first assay in this direction was producing a documentary film, Strange Victory, about America's continued racism, which was particularly shocking in that the country was still congratulating itself for fighting the anti-Semitism of the fascists. His next venture was Grove Press. From this bastion, he could support authors who burst literary bonds, broke taboos and rode roughshod over conventions and morals. He would respond to a world gone mad by publishing the writings of what adverse critics called madmen (and women), from Beckett to Genet to Duras to Öe.
At Harvard, Laughlin was troubled by another kind of injustice. As a son of Pittsburgh, he was not accepted by his haughty peers.

In those days there was an
Unwritten but well observed
Caste system among the students.
Those who were wellborn and
Who had attended such elite
Prep schools as Groton, Milton,
Or Middlesex were Brahmins ...
Below these
Were the great unwashed. ...
Larry Angel and I quickly
Caught on about the caste
System. In the suite next
To ours were two swells,
Peter Jay and Anthony Bliss.
They were lads from old and
Distinguished New York families
Who had been to school at Groton.
We tried to be friendly with our
Neighbors, but there was no response
Except obvious snubs when we passed
Them in the corridor.

This was a bitter pill for Laughlin to swallow and, I surmise, can be taken as the basis for the impulse to set up New Directions. If these snobs looked down on him for lacking culture, he would show them by creating a press that 1) showed incredible sensitivity and discernment in presenting works of literary quality and, moreover, 2) in finding authors the blue-blooded publishing firms had ignorantly neglected. Working on these principles, Laughlin's carrying out of point two would have two components. On the one side, he would find those authors, such as Pound, whose classical and modern erudition far outstripped that of the Brahmins and their professors; on the other, he located writers, like William Carlos Williams, whose path-breaking, supercharged works were grossly overlooked because they were so authentically American.
But how did he and Rosset act towards the authors they helped?
First, let's examine Rosset and Beckett.. Drawn together by a shared Irish ancestry -- Rosset's mother was Irish -- and having each early lost a true love, they grew fast friends. Rosset even got Beckett to write a film script and travel to New York to take part in the production. Both were acutely aware of the vast slippage of language in the postwar world, whereby a propaganda-laced, debased everyday speech (crushed by the weight of the mass media) was losing any ability of genuine communication. So Beckett had set out, in his backhanded way, to purify the word, at first rejecting his native English as too compromised (writing in French), just as Yeats and Lady Gregory had so rejected English before him (for Gaelic).
When push came to shove and Rosset lost his company, Beckett stepped up and staunchly sided with him, giving new works and dusted-off, unpublished juvenilia for his friend to publish. It was a long, companionate marriage between the men.
With Laughlin, things were a bit stormier. Laughlin who, as is obvious from every page of this memoir, had an abiding love for literature and was unafraid of unconventional literary (as opposed to social) experimentation, was especially drawn to outsiders such as Williams, who were unjustly­—or, in the case of the Paterson poet, outrageously—overlooked by the establishment.

Though sympathetic with all such types, he had a special place in his heart for Williams to whom he was linked by ... love affairs. You might say Laughlin got a lot more mileage out of his authors than Rosset did, judging by this passage:

And there was Cynthia, that
Vivacious girl ...
Announcing with embarrassment
That she was knocked up and
Most likely it was mine. Hardly
A case for the family doctor.
Bill thought it was funny. He
found an old Italian woman in
Hohukus who took care of the
Matter for $200.

As a doctor, Williams could set Laughlin up with a good abortionist.
More significantly, in terms of love affairs, Laughlin dwells on Williams' strange woman friend, Marcia Nardi. It's not clear from Laughlin whether she was actually Williams' mistress, though he does mention the poet/doctor had many girlfriends on the side. (It seems his poets' lady friends are especially interesting to Laughlin, he even, by mistake, tried to pick up Pound's mistress, Olga Rudge.) Nardi was Williams' protégé.

Her long letters inserted in
[Williams'] Paterson (one is eight full
Pages) insisting on having
Bill recognize her work and
Urging him to help her
Get it published, these pages
Expand her to a major female
Character till she becomes
As it were the figurative
Heroine of the epic [of Paterson].

In a way, Williams played the role of Laughlin to Nardi's Williams, even getting his protégé published by New Directions. Perhaps this is what fascinated Laughlin about the liaison.
For all that, the publisher and author's relationship was not as smooth as that of Rosset and Beckett. While it was Laughlin who first gave Williams a chance and remained unstinting in backing him; yet, after being wooed by a duplicitous staff member, Williams left Laughlin for the arms of Bennett Cerf at Random House. Williams was miffed that New Directions wasn't earning much money for him. As he wrote to JL, "I'll never make any real cash through you." Laughlin responded with more heat. "Yours of the 9th to hand [the letter in which Williams announced he was going to Cerf], and what a magnificent kick in the teeth that is." Fortunately, in a few years, their relationship was patched up. From what can be gathered from the text, it seems the bust-up between Laughlin and the poet was based less on money than on Williams' feeling that he was being neglected since at the time (1950) Laughlin was devoting so much energy to running a ski resort.
Need it be said that, all in all, both men were adventurous lovers of literature who altered the face of American and world culture by their unerring championship of the overlooked powerhouses of language.
I can't close this comparison, however, without bringing up one last contrast. When he was in China someone gave Rosset's name in as a candidate for the OSS. He was turned down because of his suspicious (red) past. Laughlin went to Germany after the conflict ended in order to tour the ruins, which he did with his friend in a borrowed army car, something hard to come by in those days. When Laughlin asked how his friend had obtained the car, he replied that he had talked to some member of the brass:

... "I told him you were
A bigshot in the OSS."