Ezra Pound Controversy
Debate stemming from Ezra Pound's Fascist tendencies and anti-Semitic writings.
Ezra Pound came to epitomize the heart of the art-for-art's-sake argument when he was arrested and charged with treason in April 1945. While widely hailed as an influential poet, writer, critic, and translator and one of the fundamental masters of the Modernist style, Pound was simultaneously reviled by the post-World War II world at-large as an anti-Semite and traitor for his provocative writing and treasonous radio broadcasts in Italy that espoused his Fascist leanings. As a writer, Pound was responsible for The Cantos (1915-1968), a verse narrative that is regarded as one of the most remarkable pieces of American literature. An epic poem of memorable beauty that combines European and Asian aesthetics with American sensibilities, The Cantos also incorporates Pound's vision of a new world order and regrettably, his vitriolic beliefs about Jews and period politics. It is this dichotomy between the stunning sensual clarity of his poetry and the acrimonious nature of his beliefs that has led to questions about whether a work of art can be viewed separately from the nature and intents of its creator.
Born in 1885 in Hailey, Idaho, to Isabel Weston Pound and Homer Loomis Pound, Ezra Pound was the scion of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on his mother's side and Republican congressman Thaddeus Coleman Pound on his father's. While in his teens, he moved along with the demands of his father's work for the U. S. Mint to New York and eventually Philadelphia in 1898. In 1901 he attended the University of Pennsylvania where he began lifelong friendships with Hilda Doolittle (H. D.) and William Carlos Williams, the first of an amazingly varied list of strong personal and artistic connections he would make that would ultimately grow to include such luminaries as William Butler Yeats, Henry James, Robert Frost, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and most especially, close friend and political ally, T. S. Eliot. After an innocent scandal led to his dismissal from the teaching staff at Wabash College in Indiana, Pound ventured to England, where he would begin a decades-long period of residency throughout Europe. During this time Pound studied and absorbed the classical literature of the region with zealousness—influences that would be later reflected in his own writing. After releasing a series of critically lauded work that included a volume of poetry, Personae (1909) and a critical study, The Spirit of Romance (1910), Pound founded a new writing movement called Imagism, a literary style he championed with H. D. that attempted to use clarity and exactness rather than symbolism as its primary means of description. Within a year, he had moved to a new abstract organizational style he called “Vorticism” which used cubism and futurism as its basis, which was followed by a study of Chinese poetry and Japanese Noh plays. These influences provided the last building block towards what would be his penultimate and most debated work, The Cantos.
Composed of 117 cantos and written at various intervals over a 53-year period, The Cantos was actually released as a series of shorter volumes, each with its own title but a continuation of the same epic piece of literature. The work is at times a treatise for Pound's theories on economics, his hopes for a different world (closely resembling some of Fascism's stated goals), a modern update of Greek myth, a history lesson, and an attack on political nemeses such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. A synthesis of wildly varying languages, styles, and subject matter, The Cantos nonetheless achieved tremendous fame and critical ovations for Pound, earning him an enviable level of critical respect from his peers. Given that The Cantos was written over such an extended period of time, it is a reflection of its author's growing shift of mood and temperament away from the mainstream. Living in Europe during the volatile period before World War II, Pound saw in Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini contemporary figures with the will and desires to create a utopian state where the class hostilities he felt inherent to the capitalist and communist ideologies could be eliminated. Favoring a government that would give more emphasis to culture and art and less power to the banking industry, whom he felt was directly accountable for the First World War, Pound became particularly drawn to the culture and growing power of the Fascist movement in Italy. As a result, Pound became an eager advocate for “Il Duce,” even going so far as to praise him in a book, Jefferson and/or Mussolini (1935) that, in addition to defending Pound's economic and political theories, hailed the Italian dictator as a sort of second coming of Thomas Jefferson, a man Pound greatly admired. A strong opponent to the coming war, Pound stridently worked to prevent its seeming inevitability through his writings and even a last ditch visit to the United States in 1939. When war finally did flare, Pound became a voice for Mussolini, airing a series of weekly radio broadcasts where he railed against the U.S. involvement in the war and spewed a series of racially tinged invectives against the Jewish people, including apparent support for Hitler's “Final Solution.” Indicted for treason by the United States in 1942, he continued his attacks against U.S. policy until he was eventually handed over to U.S. forces by partisans following a coup against Mussolini in 1945.
For the next six months, he was held at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks near Pisa, Italy, under harsh circumstances. Confined amongst U.S. military prisoners, some of whom were executed at Pisa by the military for such violent crimes as rape and murder, Pound suffered terribly under the stress and conditions of his imprisonment at Pisa. Out of his pain and suffering, and still mourning the death of his Fascist dream, Pound penned The Pisan Cantos (1948), numbers 74-84 in The Cantos, which were immediately hailed as a masterwork of English literature by many leading members of the literati of the time. The most directly personal segment of The Cantos, the elegiac tones are often moving in their expression of the despair he felt during this period of fragile emotional adversity. Unfortunately, The Pisan Cantos also reflected his growing antagonism and the exacerbated mental difficulties that were becoming increasingly apparent, problems that manifested themselves as expanding conspiratorial rants against Jews as well as several lines written in honor of his beloved fallen Mussolini. Upon his return to the United States, Pound had cause to fear for his life as he was charged with treason, which came with a possible death penalty. On the advice of his lawyers and many influential literary friends, Pound agreed to settle for acquittal on the grounds that he was mentally unfit to stand trial, a result that led to his committal at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. The hope among his advisers was to avoid the trial at a time when emotions about the war were running at a fever pitch, and thus evade any chance he would be handed a death sentence. But the gambit backfired when St. Elizabeth's psychiatrists diagnosed him with narcissistic personality disorder and he was forced to spend the next thirteen years at the hospital against his will.
For their part, the literary community were already split regarding Pound's questionable actions during the war, though most believed that in no way were those actions deserving of execution. The atmosphere became further charged when months after its release, The Pisan Cantos was awarded the prestigious first-ever Bollingen-Library of Congress Award in 1949, given to the finest collection of poetry from the preceding year. The jury committee, which included among its membership famed poets Allen Tate, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Conrad Aiken, Louise Bogan, Leonie Adams, Robert Penn Warren, and Robert Lowell, was composed of mostly anti-war Modernists like Pound himself. The possible motivations for Pound's selection may have been an attempt by the Bollingen membership to bring attention to Pound's plight, in addition to their desire to honor a work many of them believed to be perhaps the finest poetry of their generation. Instead, a war of words ensued between those who saw The Pisan Cantos as a grossly anti-Semitic and anti-democratic work and the Bollingen group—many of whom were followers of the New Criticism movement which sought to form a new system of literary criticism centering on the rigorous study of text by itself. The Bollingen jury believed that art should be studied on its own merits without any outside factors influencing one's determination of the quality or value of the work. Leading the voices speaking out against Pound was poet Robert Hillyer, himself a Pulitzer Prize winner, who savagely berated the Bollingen jury in a series of articles in the Saturday Review of Literature that singled out T. S. Eliot (himself rumored to be Fascist-leaning and anti-Semitic) for special condemnation. He believed the Bollingen group and its allies to be an elitist assembly cut off from real-world concerns and Pound to be a terrible choice for such an honor. Among Hillyer's supporters was famed anthologist and critic Louis Untermeyer, who summed up the feelings of much of mid-America when he described Pound as “the most belligerent expatriate of his generation.”
The attention negatively affected Pound, and he came to despise his time at St. Elizabeth's. During his incarceration, his travails inspired him to write two more volumes in his Cantos series, Section: Rock-Drill (1955) and Thrones (1959) as well as a prose essay on artist patronage, Patria Mia (1950). During his time at the institution, he became a sort of tragic, mythic figure to many in the literary world, leading Allen Ginsberg among others to visit him. These visits came to be known as part of the “Ezuversity” and enabled Pound to extend his influence onto a new generation of artists. Upon his release from St. Elizabeth's, Pound returned to his cherished Italy to live with his daughter, and where he mellowed a bit in his beliefs in later years, until his passing at the age of eighty-six in 1972.
Pound believed himself to be an optimist, who in a fashion, outlined his hopes for a dream society where art and culture were king. His legacy to literature is such that no matter what his controversial views, he remains one of the most studied artists of the twentieth century; his Cantos is a masterwork, his criticism continues to be a major influence on literature and he helped expose the works of James Joyce and T. S. Eliot to a wider audience. But regardless of those achievements his critical reputation is still haunted by his words and actions during the World War II period, and as a result a healthy debate continues to rage over his place in history. Critically, the heart of the debate seems to center on two issues: 1) what might have been the truth regarding Pound's intentions during the war versus his own accounting of his goals and 2) can a work—even one as technically proficient and groundbreaking as The Cantos—be considered great art as a whole when pieces of it contain such harsh sentiments?