Friday, November 10, 2006

James Laughlin and New Directions Publishing

Someone pointed out (via the comments on my Alvin Lustig Book Covers post) that the slide show of book covers on the Men's Vogue website was a companion to a print article (also online here) about the founder of New Directions, James Laughlin.

More specifically, as the commenter pointed out, it was about a book New Directions is releasing this winter that Men's Vogue calls "A rich scrapbook of the twentieth century from an avid skier, bon vivant, and literary powerhouse." It's called The Way It Wasn't and it's illustrated with photos, memos, letters, and other such things documenting James Laughlin's life running an avant garde publishing house.

Pictured above is a bit, an excerpt, that Harper's published in its November issue -- a note about Laughlin's annoyance with writer Paul Bowles. Click on the picture to enlarge it to a readable size.

And here, carefully swiped from the New Directions website, is a sample page of the new book, which appears to be organized alphabetically.I discovered New Directions in my late teens, browsing the late Hungry Mind Bookstore in St. Paul. I don't remember which author led me to ND first, only that some famously off-beat bestsellers like Lawrence Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind and Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha were both New Directions titles. I started noticing the strange design on the spines of these books, a line drawing of a sculpture by the artist Heinz Henghes (1906-1975). I started looking for this odd colophon instead of looking at authors or titles. Through this method I discovered Uwe Timm, Antonio Tabucchi, Christopher Isherwood, an under-appreciated title by Nabokov, and some others.

Now that I think about it, it may have been Louis-Ferdinand Celine that led me to New Directions. I have a funny story about how I found Celine that I'll reserve for another time.

James Laughlin has a major part in the history of 20th century literature. He started New Directions in 1936 while he was still at Harvard. Laughlin descibed the beginning:
"I asked Ezra Pound for 'career advice.' ... He had been seeing my poems for months and had ruled them hopeless. He urged me to finish Harvard and then do 'something' useful."
New Directions became known for publishing progressive and challenging work that other publishers rejected, often experimental fiction and poetry. ND published nearly everything by Henry Miller. Likewise William Carlos Williams. But ND also specialized (and still does) in works in translation from writers like Celine, Yukio Mishima, W.G. Sebald, Rilke, and Lorca.

Laughlin died in 1997. The Way It Wasn't will contain bits of each of those writers' personal stories from the perspective a man who worked with them all. The book should be out in December.

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