James Laughlin, the late founder and publisher of New Directions, was also a poet of elegance and distinction. At his death in 1997 at the age of eighty-three, he left unfinished his long autobiographical poem, Byways, which has since been edited by Peter Glassgold. It is no exaggeration to say that his publishing house, which he began in 1936 while still an undergraduate at Harvard, changed the way Americans read and write serious literature. Yet the man who published, promoted, and kept in print the work of some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century remained resistant to the memoiristic impulse, until in the end he found his autobiographical voice not in conventional narrative but in verse, adopting the swift-moving line of Kenneth Rexroth’s booklength philosophical poem, The Dragon and the Unicorn (1952).
The scope of Byways is ambitious, weaving together family history (the Laughlins were wealthy Pittsburgh steel magnates), the poet’s early memories and travels in Europe and America with his playboy father, his student years at Harvard and his first meetings with Ezra Pound, the first decades of his publishing venture and reminiscences of his close friendships with other such New Directions authors as William Carlos Williams, Thomas Merton, and Kenneth Rexroth, his postwar work in Europe and Asia with the Ford Foundation as publisher of its literary magazine, Perspectives, and not least, his many early loves. Though unfinished, Byways stands as a testimony to a long, influential, and productive life.
Byways, published in 2005, is edited and annotated, with an Introduction, by Peter Glassgold, and with a Preface by Guy Davenport. The book includes photos and illustrations.
New York: New Directions, 2005
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