This volume of letters between two makers of modernism records the dialogue of two obstreperous craftsmen over a lifetime of controversy and creativity. The letters are short on many of the things for which typically one pries into famous people’s private correspondence. There is little that is directly personal here. Both men rejected their time’s preoccupation with the probing of the unconscious, and their letters reveal little about any private selves that might lie behind their public images.
Neither does one find here those unguarded reflections on the human dilemma or on their own hopes and fears that often make writers’ letters worth reading. Wyndham Lewis gives a clue to the nature of the correspondence when he suggests that Ezra Pound’s letters “can be of no interest to anyone but a writer. It is a craftsman speaking throughout about his craft, and the single-minded concentration is magnificent.” Lewis is right to say that Pound is first and last concerned with the arts and artists but wrong to suggest that only fellow writers could be interested in such things.
Lewis’ observation notwithstanding, what one has in these letters is not so much technical talk about the craft of writing or about specific works as the record of Pound’s tireless efforts to promote and Lewis’ ambivalent feelings about being promoted. In the process, one also discovers interesting tidbits from the early days of modernist manifestos and movements and, almost accidentally, insights into Pound’s decline from the heights of those heady early days.
Editor Timothy Materer groups the correspondence into four parts, the first beginning just before the start of World War I when Pound and Lewis were busy inventing Vorticism and trying to give it the look of a major movement. Their letters reveal the nuts and bolts of their efforts—dealings with printers, publishers, patrons, and fellow artists—but little of their vision. Materer provides background introductions and explanatory notes for this period and for the others to aid the uninitiated reader. His introduction to Pound and all the supporting material in the book are finely done, enlightening without obtruding.
The brief months when they worked together on Vorticism and Blast (1914), Vorticism’s great, pink, public manifesto, were also the last in which they had close personal contact. Blast, however, continues to echo throughout their correspondence over the years. Pound, especially, liked to refer back to those early days when they were young and full of fire and determined to create a new renaissance. A decade after the first issue of Blast, Pound writes from Italy to Lewis,I have just, ten years an a bit after its appearance, and in this far distant locus, taken out a copy of the great MAGENTA cover’d opusculus. We were hefty guys in them days; an of what has come after us, we seem to have survived without a great mass of successors.
Although there is very little self-pity in Pound’s letters, even when his circumstances are at their worst, one detects here and in later years the wistfulness of a campaigner in a revolution that never quite succeeded.
Vorticism died aborning when Lewis went off to war. The letters exchanged with Pound while Lewis first trained in England and then went off to fight in France are perhaps the most interesting of the entire collection. Lewis, never one to suffer fools quietly, chaffs under the feeling that he is surrounded by idiots, who, not incidentally, are often his military superiors and hold his life in their hands. At times, the situation elicited from him his famous gift for invective, as in describing a fellow officer whose dangerous job Lewis had volunteered to take over:The young man in question,—a sharp-featured, horse-toothed, narrow-browed, vain, crotchety young board-school master accepted my offer at once as though he were conferring a great favour upon me. Why treat these animals like human beings? I shall not in future offer my skin in place of the cheap pink trash that covers the absence of brain, heart and stomach of pedagogic or other colleague.
Other humorous incidents (both bilious and sanguine) are recounted, including Lewis’ futile attempt to explain Pound’s Imagism movement (1912-1914) to a befuddled commanding officer. At other times, however, Lewis attempts to convey the great devastation, spiritual and physical, of this war which altered Europe’s way of seeing itself. His 1917 description...
(The entire section is 1847 words.)