Study Guide

A Serious Character

by Humphrey Carpenter

A Serious Character Characters

A Serious Character (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

“The biographer,” Leon Edel has said,is a presence in life-writing, in charge of handling the material, establishing order, explaining and analyzing the ambiguities and anomalies. Biography is dull if it’s just dates and facts: it has for too long ignored the entire province of psychology and the emotions. Ultimately, there must be a sense of the inwardness of human beings as well as outwardness: the ways in which we make dreams into realities, the way fantasies become plays and novels and poems . . . the strivings and the failings.

These words of Henry James’s outstanding biographer are noteworthy here because, in A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound, Humphrey Carpenter proves himself to be in Edel’s rank as a biographer, even though he clearly does not admire Ezra Pound—as man and artist—nearly as much as Edel does James. Not only for his strong opinions, which he is subtle but determined in conveying, Carpenter’s presence is a certain, engaging, and provocative one in this study. He narrates Pound’s life with the fluidity and grace of an excellent novelist, never allowing his narrative to become lock-step according to the study’s suprastructure of chronological order, but rather implementing frequently an associative organizational approach, with flashes forward or backward in time, in his admirably realized effort to analyze and posit explanations for the myriad ambiguities and anomalies related to Pound’s character, life, and writing. Pound was, as Carpenter makes abundantly clear, an “agile and slippery . . . creature. . . . Again and again one seems to have him by the tail, only to find that he has merely cast off another skin and slipped away, leaving one clutching just a persona or mask.”

Perhaps it is the “slippery” quality of Pound’s personality that compels Carpenter to make his own presence felt in yet another way in this study. One characteristic of Pound that seems immutable relative to many of his others is his anti-Semitism, and from the beginning of this study Carpenter is dogged in exposing the poet’s prejudice with the many illustrations available, not so much to analyze as to exhibit it as a major flaw in Pound’s personality—a flaw stemming from or related to what Carpenter views as the man’s lifelong intellectual immaturity and superficiality. Throughout Pound’s adult life there seemed “something essentially childish about his whole interest in Jews and Jewry,” Carpenter says and goes further to show the “interest” as having been paranoic and even vicious. Regarding his first name, for example, “during the 1940s, when attacking the supposed international Jewish conspiracy, he wrote to a German acquaintance . . . ’that the goddamn yitts pinched it as they did everything else.’” During this same period, Carpenter frequently reminds the reader, the poet made numerous “virulently anti-Jewish wartime broadcasts.”

Nevertheless, at least one reader has publicly rejected the British biographer’s claim that a likely source for Pound’s antagonism toward Jews was the environment in which he was reared in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, where anti-Semitism was supposedly an undeniable “presence in the community.” Many American readers, furthermore, will undoubtedly be rankled by Carpenter’s additional generalizing claim that Pound “always enjoyed expressing . . . the anti-Semitism typical of many white middle-class Americans.” Such a moot assertion as this last is tantamount to saying, then, as he does about Pound, that he believes many white middle-class Americans to be “essentially childish.” In fact, Carpenter’s subtle but certain jabs at the United States are peppered throughout this study, from his contention that this country’s educational system produces shallow or superficial thinkers to his tacit agreement with what he calls one of Pound’s “shafts of perception” concerning twentieth century American presidents: During one of his infamous radio broadcasts during World War II, the poet stated, “You can’t tell me that . . . any of ’em were chosen, nominated because anybody really felt: well now, that is what we need in the White House.” Pound’s point here is blunted when one recalls that he denounced the American public as a “mass of dolts.” His relationship to his native land was always an ambiguous one, particularly after about 1913, when he began both to view the artist as a “superman” and to “associate the triumph of great art with the rejection of democracy.”

Born October 30, 1885, in the remote mining town of Hailey, Idaho, to Isabel and Homer Pound, Ezra (called “Ra” by his parents) was reared an only child, the source of both his parents’ pride. William Carlos Williams, who carried on a frequently strained friendship with Pound for almost six decades, viewed him in adulthood as a “spoiled brat,” most...

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A Serious Character Bibliography (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Booklist. LXXXV, December 15, 1988, p. 676.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, October 1, 1988, p. 1441.

Listener. CXIX, June 2, 1988, p. 32.

London Review of Books. X, July 7, 1988, p. 16.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 8, 1989, p. 1.

Maclean’s. CI, September 5, 1988, p. 65.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, December 18, 1988, p. 3.

The Observer. May 29, 1988, p. 41.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, November 11, 1988, p. 44.

Punch. CCXCIV, June 10, 1988, p. 48.

The Times Literary Supplement. January 13, 1989, p. 3.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, December 18, 1988, p. 1.