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Rebel with a press

The Way It Wasn't: From the Files of James Laughlin
Edited by Barbara Epler and Daniel Javitch
New Directions, 288 pp., illustrated, $45

Crack-brained, a "frighteningly tall" young man in a loden coat drove his dusty Buick through the Midwest in the 1930 s, springs protesting the weight. Where there was a bookstore, he charged in, glitter-eyed, to inform the owner -- perhaps an elderly woman fond of Pearl Buck and a trifle nervous about Sinclair Lewis -- that her books were mainly junk and her customers should be reading Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.

Most, out of kindness, would order one or two. Not Martha Mathews in Omaha. "She simply retired to the lavatory and stayed there until I left." Yet James Laughlin kept coming back. "I felt that if I could crack Mrs. Mathews a new day would dawn for American writers. But in three visits I never sold her a book."

The new day dawned, nevertheless, and Laughlin, heir to a steel fortune and the founder, lifetime pilot , and benefactor of New Directions , was, if not the sun, a morning star. Forget universities and foundations: You could argue that nothing did more to open our window to the world's (and our own) modernist currents than his illogical and precarious publishing house, now marking its 70th anniversary.

Its fuzzy-cloth, starkly designed, and handsomely printed volumes of Pound, Williams, Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Rimbaud, García Lorca (and on and on and on), began to show up in the 1940 s and '50s on bookstore shelves, alongside the Modern Library's duller-looking and decidedly less modern classics. Students could buy them though they cost a little more. To buy a book with a sliver of effort means not only to read, but to possess what is read and, in an elusive sense, to join it. (This was before the quality paperback, which offers the reading but less of the possessing and joining .)

Laughlin, who wanted to be a poet, wrote a memoir of sorts in verse before he died, in 1997. It failed to stir much interest, no doubt justifying the advice of Pound, with whom he studied for a while in the early '30s, that he would do better to put his money where his mouth was, in effect, and publish poetry (Pound's among others) rather than write it.

A much more interesting kind of memoir has now been put together out of a trove of notebooks, letters, snapshots , and in one instance a prescription issued by Williams, a physician as well as a poet. Edited by Barbara Epler, New Directions editor in chief, and Daniel Javitch, Laughlin's son-in-law, it is both a series of vivid recollections of writers and a revealing self-portrait.

The writing is witty, cool , and wonderfully detached. Laughlin was a child of privilege, a bumptious young American nobleman who had the painful good fortune to partly crack his assurance against two monster specimens -- Pound and Gertrude Stein, for whom he briefly worked -- of a lineage more ancient, genuine, fearsome , and arrogant than his own: that of literature.

"Partly crack," because the assurance remained, astonishingly and often comically entwined with dejected introspection. Laughlin, you might say, viewed himself (and others) from an aristocratic height: seeing it all, including the not entirely clean laundry being done below -- his own as well -- but with seeming insouciance.

As a young man he was deeply in love with Maria, a White Russian émigré, and planned to marry her until his mother forbade it. " 'I will not permit you to marry a Russian.' So Maria and I did not wed." Tennessee Williams, friend to both, explained to her: "After all, marriages in these spheres are comparable to royal marriage in old Europe. And you know how they were made."

It is a touch of Bertie Wooster; one who instead of being written by Wodehouse had published him -- along with a good part of the modern pantheon. (Most recently, New Directions discovered W. G. Sebald and published his two greatest books, later giving way to Random House, which could pay more. It introduced the stunning Chilean Roberto Bolaño now taken in part by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. A kind of literary gentrification, I suppose.)

Laughlin's gallery of writers is a precious miscellany. Pound, irked because not all of his suggestions were taken, complained of his pupil's height. "So when I kick his butt about what he should publish, the message does not ascend to the brain." Stein scolded him for reading Proust, who, she said, was her imitator (so also Hemingway).

He visited Thomas Merton from time to time at his Trappist abbey. Though the superior gave permission for a jaunt, Merton donned a second hand bishop's suit to get past the gate and, once outside, changed into jeans for a round of bar-hopping. Laughlin, who was supportive but generally dry with his writers, is tender with the insecure Allen Ginsberg. "Great poet, good man, adept of happy-making laughter. I salute you," he writes.

The funniest entry is Vladimir Nabokov's account of discussing his Gogol book with Laughlin. The publisher kept pressing for plot details; Nabokov treats each suggestion as if it were an exotic butterfly he was about to net. Laughlin suggests a list of Gogol works; Nabokov pretends to hear "bibliography" and notes dozens of Russian sources.

"The trouble is that if I start listing these works, I am sure to try to allay my boredom by inserting here and there fictitious titles and imaginary authors." Well, how about a picture? "I have been thinking of that myself. Yes -- let us have a picture of Gogol's nose . . . a big solitary sharp nose -- neatly outlined in ink like the enlarged figure of some important part of a curious zoological specimen."

Then there is Dylan Thomas, dead of alcohol poisoning at age 39. Summoned to identify him at Bellevue, Laughlin is shown a purple, puffy face. The morgue clerk, told he was a poet, asks "What's a poet ?" Laughlin explains. So the form reads: "Dylan Thomas. He wrote poetry."

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

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