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Book Review : James Laughlin: From Man of Steel to a Man of Letters

Times Book Critic

Random Essays by James Laughlin (Moyer Bell: $18.95) 271 pages)

After James Laughlin, playing hooky from Harvard in the 1930s, had spent a year at Ezra Pound’s “Ezraversity” in Rapallo--this amounted to paying for his lunches and dinners with Pound and drinking the master’s words in free--the poet gave him some advice.

The young man should give up his attempts to become a writer. He should return to Harvard to please his parents and enlist their cooperation--he was a Laughlin of Jones & Laughlin Steel--in setting up as a publisher. “To publish him and his friends,” Laughlin notes in one of these essays.

It was excellent advice. Laughlin started New Directions with a commitment to publish modernist literature--a commitment honorably and sometimes brilliantly maintained from the late 1930s to this day. Among many other things, ND published 24 of Pound’s books and 19 by William Carlos Williams. Laughlin is justifiably proud of this; he is equally proud that--contrary to the practicalities of publishing--all but one of these are still in print.

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The pieces collected here--talks and essays delivered or written over the past 50 years--offer a second reason for esteeming Pound’s advice. Laughlin made the best possible use of his family money. He had a publisher’s temperament; he did not have a writer’s. To publish the avant-garde, openness is more important than discrimination, curiosity more than judgment, a roving eye more than a precise one.

In a writer, on the other hand, such a balance is apt to lead to pretty soft work. A lot of the writing here is soft, which is not to say that it lacks value. Laughlin’s literary opinions are gentlemanly; they range between sensible and silly. What shines through is his kindness and civility, his individuality, and the joy he took in his authors.

He is not enough of a writer to be able to create a portrait from scratch. He has an essay on Wayne Andrews, a polymathic and appealingly eccentric architecture writer, curator, editor and professor. He also wrote, as Montagu O’Reilly, a work of deadpan, possibly Dadaist humor entitled “Who Has Been Tampering With These Pianos?” Laughlin gives us a series of engaging hints; we don’t really get a picture.

On the other hand, the time he spent with Pound, Williams and Gertrude Stein allows him to add some nicely provocative touches to their well-established images.

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We hear Pound mischievously commenting on T. S. Eliot’s “Low Saurian Vitality.” We hear him reproaching Laughlin for going skiing when he ought to be out selling Pound’s work. “You spend three-quarters of your time sliding down ice-cream cones on a tea tray.”

When Laughlin writes of a posh ski trip where he ripped his pants and had them sewn up on the slopes by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, Pound urges him to follow up by sending her “Ta Hio,” his book on Confucianism. Laughlin did, but got no response from the Dutch court, not known for its interest in the avant-garde.

When a French professor recommended him to Stein, she wired back: “Can he type--will he work?” He could and did. He spent time at Stein’s country place in France, writing press releases for her forthcoming U.S. lecture tour, and changing flat tires in the course of their automobile excursions. He writes a Stein-influenced sentence describing her sitting in her garden, back to the view, accompanied by her dogs.

“Miss Stein spent a lot of time meditating in her deck chair. She could meditate with either one dog or both. Being a genius entailed much meditation.”

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To Williams, he gave his greatest affection. We get the impression that nothing has made him prouder than publishing “Paterson,” volume by volume, over 12 years of painful composition. His account of the composition and his thoughts about the poem provide the finest and most disciplined writing in the collection.

Williams, he tells us, “was one of the most lovable and admirable human beings I have ever encountered. . . . Over the years I came to think of him as the ‘non-cutaneous man,’ one who had no skin or any barrier between himself and others.”

It seems like a good description of Laughlin himself. At times, he strikes us as an innocent abroad in the world of letters. Writing of his writers, he evinces not so much a temperamental affinity as an emotional one. It is as if Count Razumovsky had written his recollections of Beethoven--slightly incongruous, but valuable to read.


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