James Laughlin, New Directions Press, and the Remaking of Ezra Pound,
University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.
Barnhisel’s book is an interesting history of James Laughlin’s New Directions publishing house, and by extension a history of American literary publishing since 1920 or so, but the main thing I’ve taken away from it is the conviction that Ezra Pound was the most obnoxious American author of all time.
You have to start with Pound’s cutesy, ranting, incredibly annoying epistolary style, which is the written equivalent of jabbing you in the ribs and tugging at your shirt: “There is no mony fer me in having sheets embedded. I mean whazzer USE in Nude Erections importing what won’t keep papa? … I shd/ think Nude Erek/ cd. do something more active than merely Sheeting the Polecats.” Except from a damaged friend or relative for whom I felt responsibility, I would be disinclined to continue a correspondence that went like that.
Then, there is his continual stream of insults accusing more or less everyone else in the world, including the person he was writing to, of stupidity and worse. Pound was tremendously proud of his own ideas, which were shabby and worthless — Social Credit, developed by a saner crank, was the good part.
And then the Fascist-Nazi thing, which went deep. When he noticed Jews in his audience he made a point of reading his most anti-Semitic Cantos. His puzzlement and indignation at the poor reception of his Nazi beliefs in the US makes you think that his insanity plea, which I used to think was just a polite fiction for saving his neck, may have been entirely valid.
Laughlin marketed Pound to the civilized world with a combination of an insanity plea and “art for art’s sake”. To Pound his political writings were the most important of all, but to his handlers and supporters these had nothing to do his poetry. You sort of have to wonder about Laughlin.
The strange and savage American Fifties, back when I was a boy. The past is a different country, they say, not to be judged by the standards of today.