A review of The Way It Wasn’t by James Laughlin

The cover is a beauty with an autographed picture of the author and the title in typescript below it. The inside matches the outside and consists of a generous selection of appropriate or simply beautiful photographs and artwork. It is thus a delight to see as well as to read.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

The Way It Wasn’t
by James Laughlin
New Directions
2006, ISBN 0-8112-1667-5, $15.95, 304 pages

A whimsical title for a whimsical book, this is a collection of material from the late publisher and poet’s files. The material is presented with an elastic alphabetical order that will bend to include afterthoughts and later illuminations as the arrangement of the book suggests.

James Laughlin (1914-1997) was the heir to a comfortable family fortune derived from steel. With it he founded while still a student at Harvard New Directions, a publishing company that has printed the best and the most adventurous writers of the twentieth century. Distressed by Harvard conservatism in literature, he left school to study with Ezra Pound. Pound told him that he was not a poet and urged him to find some different literary activity. Laughlin continued to write poetry but Pound’s advice led to the foundation of New Directions. He ran it from his aunt’s house at first and stored copies of books in his room at Harvard. He took these in his car and sold them to often reluctant booksellers.

The excerpts of The Way It Wasn’t show him to have had many failings and to have been as completely honest about them as anyone can ever be. It is this honesty – and the charm of the writer – that makes this book captivating. The editors are unobtrusive. This enhances the books readability although it diminishes its value as a scholarly reference.

He knew and supported some of the great names in literature: William Carlos Williams, Tennessee Williams, Henry Miller, Delmore Schwartz, Dylan Thomas. He sometimes trimmed in one area – such as paying royalties late – to make better use of the firm’s money: he paid, for example for Delmore Schwartz’s sessions with a psychiatrist. He is exact about William Carlos Williams’s omnivorous sexual appetite, “Bill went for anything that moved.” He also had a succinct way with words, “The world is full of a large number of irritating people.”

The cover is a beauty with an autographed picture of the author and the title in typescript below it. The inside matches the outside and consists of a generous selection of appropriate or simply beautiful photographs and artwork. It is thus a delight to see as well as to read.

This a book that will appeal to all readers interested in cutting edge literature. It is both a worthwhile acquisition for the reader and a book that would make a great gift.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places

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