Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Way It Wasn't by James Laughlin



For anyone who reads books frequently, or remembers doing a book report on a famous writer or poet of the twentieth century, has probably held and read something that passed through the hands of James Laughlin. Laughlin was an accomplished poet and founder of the publishing house New Directions. William Carlos Williams, Sartre, Borges, Nabokov, Tennesse Williams, Dylan Thomas, Celine, Mishima, Neruda, Pound, Rimbaud, Rilke all have been published (often first) by New Directions.

Now you are probably saying, “Well…thanks Mr. Whiskets for that interesting tidbit of info. But what does this have to do with photography??” Well, this post diverges slightly from the norm although I promise that photography is in the mix.

In 2006, New Directions published The Way It Wasn’t which is an autobiography of James Laughlin. He died at 83 while still at work on his “auto-bug-offery”, and we are presented with an “A to Z” look over a life and a history of twentieth century modernism as it unfolded through the words, letters and ephemera of James Laughlin and acquaintances.

Literally starting with chapter headings of the alphabet, we follow along Laughlin’s life and relations. Under “B” we find a personalized photograph of Brassai dressed as a French saucier, a story about Paul Bowles and a short passage on breadknives. Under “G,” photos nude “girls” spilling from an envelope end a chapter preceeded by passages on Greed, Gays and Germans. Under “W” we sit across the table from Tennesse Williams in a photo presumably snapped by Laughlin.

These photographs and ephemera give visual reference to the stories being told. Without such “proof” one might think there is a lot of embellishing going on. Perhaps there is. Laughlin in the first entry called “Auto-Bug-Offery” states: “What I am writing now is my auto-bug-offery. Wild stuff. Mostly fictional. What I wished had happened. “The Way It Wasn’t” would be a good title.” Laughlin is a smooth talking and winking unreliable narrator that once his voice gets into your head you do not want to let it out.

The stories are at times outlandish and make for a wonderful read.


A great friend and champion of William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Tennessee Williams, James Laughlin wasn’t just acquiring books. He was changing Gertrude Stein’s tires, drinking beer with Thomas Merton in Kentucky, and being fleeced by Dylan Thomas (who got 1,000 out of him by inventing a critically ill brother). He’s also delivering ballet shoes to Celine’s wife, drinking rotwein with Auden, visiting a Key West brothel with Elizabeth Bishop and Tennessee Williams (“a social visit,” with tea and Oreos). (from the flap copy)

The text is not traditional lengthy prose but snippets of stories that cut to the chase. The sum of which, is an intersection of his creative life with some of literatures greatest contributors and life in general. Few passages are longer than a page, some are as short as a sentence.

The book was edited by Barbara Eppler who is the editor at New Directions and Daniel Javitch who is Laughlin’s son-in-law and Professor of Comparative Literature at NYU. It is wonderfully designed by Rodrigo Corral and Gus Powell. By photographing the ephemera, they reproduce it all as three dimensional objects and lay it on the page in a clean and interesting manner. It is a thick book of 350 pages that can be read from beginning to end or started from the middle working to either end.

The Junk Collector

What bother me most about
the idea of having to die

(sooner or later) is that
the collection of junk I

have made in my head will
presumably be dispersed

not that there isn’t more
and better junk in other

heads & always will be but
I have become so fond of

My own head’s collection.

-James Laughlin


By way of full disclosure, Gus Powell, one of the designers of this book, is a close friend of mine (but his other books are really, really, really bad. So "Good job Gus...finally")

Book Available Here

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