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James Laughlin Acting on the advice ofEzra Pound, who told him to "go back home to the States and do something usefuL ," James Laughlinfounded the publishing firm ofNew Directions in 1936 while still an undergraduate at Harvard University. Dedicated to the work ofthe avant-garde, and with the help ofhis authors-mainly Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Kenneth Rexroth-New Directions built a broad list. It came to include many ofthe important writers ofthe twentieth century: Henry Miller, Nathanael West, Hermann Hesse, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, Jean Cocteau, and Jorge Luis Borges. Its younger writers include Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, David Antin, John Hawkes, and Toby Olson. In the fifty years ofits publishing history, New Directions set the undisputed benchmark for small-press achievement. 2 AGAINST THE GRAIN Mr. Laughlin has been honoredfor his service to literature with degrees from Hamilton College, Brown University, and Colgate University, and awards for publishing from the American Academy ofArts and Letters, the New York Centerfor the Arts, P.E.N., and Publishers Weekly. At seventytwo , he is still active as a publisher, in addition to lecturing on Pound and Williams, working on his "recollections," and acting as a consultant to the New York Centerfor Visual History, which is preparing a documentary film on William Carlos Williams. The following conversation took place in June 1980 in the Laughlins' Bank Street apartment in Greenwich Village. DANA: You must have been very young when you went abroad, nineteen or so. LAUGHLIN: Well, let's see. I finished school at Choate in '32. I did my freshman year at Harvard in '33 and half my sophomore year in '34. And that's when I went over to Europe. I got a leave of absence to go over because I found Harvard very dull. It was between faculty generations there. The great men-the old men like Kittredge, Lowes, and the rest of them-had retired, and the young lions like Matthiessen and Spencer hadn't come on yet. All we had, really, was Robert Hillyer, that mediocre poet. You couldn't mention Pound's or Eliot's name in Hillyer's class or you'd be sent out ofthe room. DANA: Is that right? LAUGHLIN: So I got leave to go abroad. I went to Europe to try to write, both poetry and stories, and to travel around. DANA: Is it true that you fixed flat tires for Gertrude Stein? LAUGHLIN: Yes indeed. It was summer, and I was at the Salzburg Music Festival. I used to go swimming every day in the public swimming pool, and I made there the acquaintance of a distinguished French professor with a limp, Bernard Fay, who evidently liked my looks-I had more hair than I have now. We began talking. He spoke very good English, and I spoke enough French. It turned out that one of his best friends was James Laughlin 3 Gertrude Stein. I said, "Oh, I've been reading Gertrude Stein at home, and she sounds like a fascinating person." He said, "Would you like to meet her?" I said, "I surely would." So he wrote to her and said, "I've met this young American who might be useful to you. Can I bring him along to Bilignin?" That was her country place. I went there, I stayed about a month, and she put me to work. She was a utilitarian person. And what I was doing for her-it was the summer before she was going to have her lecture tour in America and somebody had told her that she had to have press releases of her lectures to give to the press when she went to a city, so she gave me these lectures and said, "Now take these and produce a one-page press release for each one." Well, it nearly drove me crazy because the lectures, Lectures in America, are very philosophical and very interesting, but extremely diffuse. To try to identify the central theme of these lectures and to translate them from Steinese into American newspaperese was something of a task. Again and again I would whack something out and take it to her and she would read it and say, "No. You've missed the whole point. Go back and do it over." I stayed there about a month before I finally got those releases done to her satisfaction. I'd work in the mornings. She'd write in the morning, sitting out on the terrace. She had a...


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