Ezra Pound’s work will not easily rise to the level of the classic, a fact that Pound himself would no doubt approve. Yeats’s has, despite his vision; Eliot’s has, despite much that is unattractive; Joyce’s has, despite his paranoia. Their ideas and attitudes may now be studied as elements of the men and their work, studied, examined, and understood in the light of history and in the light of their achievement. But even as a ghost, Pound remains too contentious for that kind of acceptance, too bristly, too determined to claw at his readers and his listeners. It is no accident that reaction to Pound has tended to be extreme and that many harbor those extremes within themselves, worshiping language but finding it impossible to forgive. As further documentation of the problem, but in no way helping to resolve it, there comes now C. David Heymann’s important study, Ezra Pound: The Last Rower.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, Heymann was given access to the massive FBI files on Pound, containing Pound’s letters to Mussolini, Count Ciano, and other Fascist functionaries; memoranda on Pound that passed among Italian officials; articles by Pound in Italian and other friendly journals; the record of interrogations of Pound and his friends and associates. The result is a full, and sometimes startling, account of Pound’s activities in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. We learn, for example, that certain Italian officials were wary of Pound. “There is no doubt in my mind that Ezra Pound is insane!” said one, though he also saw the poet as “a pleasant enough madman and . . . certainly a friend of Italy.” A project urged by Pound, according to another Italian, “is an eccentric plan conceived by a foggy mind, lacking all sense of reality.”
Pound, of course, saw himself as a mover of men and nations, a “factive” individual like his heroes Sigismondo Malatesta, Sam Adams, Confucius, Mussolini. The world was waiting to be molded by men of clear mind and untrammeled will: “There is too much future, and nobody but me and Muss/ and half a dozen others to attend to it.” And yet, eerily, the more committed Pound became, the more concerned with what he took to be the political and economic facts of life, the more isolated he also seemed to become, the more removed from what most of us perceive as the real world; at the same time, his language became more violent, his tone more strident, his gestures more grandiose. As Heymann puts it: “He became involved in a world of self-delusion over which he ruled as per regulations of his own making.” One of his more grandiose gestures was made in 1939, when he came to the United States on a one-man peace mission: “I thought it was monstrous that Italy and the United States should go to war so I came here to stop it.” He buttonholed Senators, Congressmen, anyone who would accept him as the voice of reason and civilization. He failed, returned to Italy, and, in another gesture aimed at an indifferent universe, took to the airwaves, a move that led finally to the D.T.C. at Pisa and to thirteen years in St. Elizabeth’s.
For about ninety pages of his text, Heymann traces Pound’s life and career from his birth in 1885 to his disappointed return to Italy in 1939. Almost everything in this portion of the study is on the record and well-known to any student of Pound. Heymann does not pretend otherwise, as he moves his subject from Idaho to the East Coast, then to London, to Paris, and, finally, to Rapallo. En route to Rapallo, Heymann touches on as many aspects of Pound’s career as he can: the early junkets to Europe; the stay in Venice and the first book of poetry; the involvement in imagism and vorticism; the translations and adaptations of troubador and Chinese and Japanese poetry; the promotion of Joyce, Eliot, Frost, and others; the production of mountains of prose; the creation of his own poetry, including, finally, The Cantos. Some of his energy spilled over into a love affair with Olga Rudge, so that, ultimately, he had, not one, but two families. And a good deal of energy went into his affair with the doctrines of Major C. H. Douglas, doctrines that provided him with a way of ordering history and with a solution to all economic, political, and cultural dilemmas. As far as Pound was concerned, that solution, concentrating on the nature of money and credit (Social Credit), was so clear and so viable that only mass stupidity and organized conspiracy could account for its failure to stir more interest than it did. In Mussolini and then in Hitler Pound saw men of energy and intelligence capable of creating a proper economic environment. In the “Jewish outlaw and crook” he saw all that was destructive of their—and his—efforts. Increasingly insistent on the primacy of these matters, increasingly shrill, increasingly isolated from the concerns of his former buddies in the literary wars, Pound’s extremism, Heymann notes, alienated even his fellow Social Creditors. And...
(The entire section is 2037 words.)