'The Way It Wasn't'

Laughlin heir's memoirs an interesting mix

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For James Laughlin, it was a steel, not a silver spoon, that distinguished his life.

James Laughlin and Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1973 by Ann Laughlin, from the Collection of James Laughlin.
Click photo for larger image.
"The Way It Wasn't"
By James Laughlin
New Directions ($19.95, paper)

Born in 1914 into the Laughlin dynasty enriched by the steel industry, (Jones & Laughlin's mill once dominated the South Side), the tall patrician fled his nouveau riche family and the grubby, gauche city at the first opportunity.

Yet, he was not too proud to take its money, putting it to good use in founding New Directions Books in 1935. Laughlin published a select group of avant-garde writers and poets, championing the work of William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Elizabeth Bishop and other new voices emerging around the time of World War II.

Laughlin also salvaged out-of-print books such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" and "Miss Lonelyhearts" by Nathanael West, killed in a car crash en route to Fitzgerald's funeral, and gave the "unpublishable" Henry Miller an outlet for his essays and travel writing.

"Important and gratifying (as a publisher): keeping all the books of Pound and William Carlos Williams in print which I could do because I inherited money," Laughlin wrote. "A normal commercial publisher would have had to remainder many books ND (New Directions) keeps in print."

Laughlin died in 1997, leaving behind notes for a memoir, an "auto-bug-offery" that have now been compiled alphabetically in this curious idea for a book.

It's a historic document of sorts about the course of writing and publishing experienced by the likable and, at times, celebrity-struck Laughlin among whose acquaintances were the leading lights of what we call today the "alternative" writers.

Now, many of them are viewed as "establishment" including Jack Kerouac, Tennessee Williams, Vladimir Nabokov and Allen Ginsberg.

Full of odd snippets, photos, drawings and snatches of poetry, "The Way It Wasn't" seems to deliver Laughlin unalloyed, from a nasty and almost embarrassing reply to Williams when the poet picked another publisher to a sincere tribute to H. J. Heinz II, a friend from Pittsburgh:

"Jack was a kind man, a sensitive man, a forebearing man."

Laughlin claimed Heinz so appreciated the spinach soup he was served at Crespi's restaurant in Rome, he paid the chef for the recipe and had the company's chef in Pittsburgh duplicate it.

"Then he had the plant turn out 1,000 cans and gave batches of a hundred to me and other friends."

His Pittsburgh observations are dismissive of the inhabitants.

"My natal city, rebuilt by the Mellons has become a veritable Dioce (a mythical city found in Pound's "Cantos"). Yet it depresses me. The JL (James Laughlin) Library at Chatham College has 1 Pound book."

That James Laughlin was the author's grandfather (he calls him "arriere" or backward).

"And where his house stood, with the gardens running to the river, is a (Philip) Johnson gothic skyscraper built of glass. Cute little spires of glass. Oh, well."

Oh, well, indeed.

"The Way It Wasn't" is perhaps really the way it was for James Laughlin and the vanished literary world when publishing was a "gentlemen's" game.

The 2007 literary life in town begins Friday at the Gist Street Reading Series.

On the program are short-story writer Cathy Day and poet Susanna Childress.

Day is author of "The Circus in Winter" (2004) and teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh.

Childress won the Brittingham Poetry Prize in 2005 with her first collection, "Jagged With Love." She's an English instructor at Hope College in Michigan.

Space at 305 Gist St., Uptown, is always tight, so plan to get there at 7:30 p.m. for the 8 p.m. reading. Cost is $5 at the door.

For details, http://www.giststreet.org.

Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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