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BYWAYS: Reviews and Comments

“Some readers may recognize several of the best stories in Byways—sections of the book have appeared previously in magazines and earlier collections—but it’s good to see them gathered together in one place and enhanced by the splendid annotations of Peter Glassgold. The result is a volume that will appeal to all shameless worshippers of the literary life. You know who you are.”

—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

“Some of the brilliant verse fragments that compose James Laughlin’s witty and exquisite memoir have trickled out in various journals over the past decade. But the whole (here superbly assembled by Peter Glassgold) is astonishingly greater than its parts. Byways is an acute portrait of a gone era: the Pittsburgh of steel magnates, the London and Paris of discreet assignations, the Harvard where tailors routinely come to dormitories to take measurements of the undergraduates for their tweeds. Who would have thought such an environment could breed the most avant-garde of our publishers? For Laughlin, publishing was not a trade but, like his own poetry, a labor of love: whether ‘courting’ William Carlos Williams or discovering a beautiful young girl, love is at the heart of his memoir.”

—Marjorie Perloff

“I have waited for this unfinished memoir—edited by the gifted Peter Glassgold, who started his career at New Directions in 1968—for many years….[Laughlin] was an important ‘mentor’ for me, although we never met. I read his authors and his New Directions Annual in my teens: I reviewed many, many New Directions books….Although his memoir is Laughlin’s testament, it is far from solemn; it is, indeed, a joyful meditation on the ‘byways’—the unexpected paths—which are the fruitful moments that shape any life.”

—Irving Malin, The Hollins Critic

“Laughlin’s memoir in terse playful verse gets you quickly to his times and places, without much adornment, without maudlin self-regard, and without excuses. The great publisher, lover, poet, and patrician looks on the life he writes with serene, almost Olympian, fondness. There is much here for the historian, and for the lover of poetry and the mysteries of its hand-to-hand or mouth-to-mouth transmission, but I came through it wishing I’d known the man. His warmest recollections are of friends, among them Ezra Pound, Bill Williams, Kenneth Rexroth, Thomas Merton. Laughlin’s genius for friendship gives his work the timeless feeling of the classics he loved. You are reading the man who published the twentieth-century, but reading also Catullus and Ovid. An Ars Vivendi, an Ars Amandi, and an Ars Poetica in one volume.”

—Andrei Codrescu

“Resistant to autobiography New Directions founder James Laughlin pens a type of life story in simple verse. Why he should do so remains a puzzle, the verse reads so much like a straight conversation—almost like an old uncle recalling his past. And what a past. From a very affluent family background in Pittsburgh, some might say Laughlin led a charmed life and they would be spot on—yet he was no idler and through the formation of his New Directions publishing house he made the works of so many available to the public who were eager for fresh perspectives in poetry and novels….The scope of New Directions was ambitious and radical….

“Classically schooled and conversant in a number of languages, [Laughlin] is patently a product of his background, yet [Laughlin] was an individual who desired to strike out from the confines of his conventional monied surroundings to make a difference.”

—Colin Cooper, Beat Scene

“In the long section of Byways devoted to his memories of Harvard, Laughlin includes a portrait of a classmate who calls himself Lord Melcanth, a monitory emblem of the sterile dilettantism that could so easily have consumed a rich young man’s life:

He described himself as
A writer but so far as I know he
Never published anything. He
Would have been a bore except
That he was very witty. Give him
A subject and he could reel off
An amusing epigram for it.

“The contrast with Laughlin, who went on to ‘publish’ so many things, could not be plainer. Byways shows that Laughlin’s real fortune was not just his wealth but his ability to devote himself to a career equally pleasant and useful—one definition of a good life.”

—Adam Kirsch, Bookforum

“…one of the most important conclusions the reader can draw from Byways: James Laughlin was not just a refined businessman, but a successful poet in his own right, full of wit and tenderness....Having a poet at the head of a publishing house is the real affirmation of the purity of New Directions’ vision. While the traditional enmity between author and publisher crops up in the course of ND’s history, Laughlin possessed a unique empathy because he saw far more than dollar signs in the manuscripts his writers sent him.”

—Greg Scruggs, The Harvard Advocate

Byways is written in verse, but in a plain style anyone can breeze through….Writing is not the master, but the humble container, of his life. And that life, as presented in Byways, is a lesson in how one person’s pluck and insight can alter the literary world.”

—Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun


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