The Roots of Treason

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

The incarceration of Ezra Pound for insanity caused controversy in its own day and still is cited in some quarters as an example of the unjust way in which the United States treats its poets. Throughout the twelve years he was there, there were doubts, on the part of both supporters and enemies of the poet, that he was insane. Those who resented his treasonous broadcasts for the Axis during World War II saw his insanity plea as a means to avoid trial, while many who supported Pound pointed out that as a result of the insanity judgment, he was imprisoned for a longer time than was served by such notorious Axis broadcasters as Tokyo Rose. E. Fuller Torrey, a physician on the staff of Saint Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., where Pound was incarcerated, gained access to Pound’s files through the Freedom of Information Act. (Torrey, who came to Saint Elizabeths long after Pound’s release, notes that the book had its origin in his sense that, quite by coincidence, he had frequently crossed paths with Pound in the course of his academic and professional career.) Virtually no one at the hospital believed that Pound was insane, Torrey claims, yet a conspiracy of his friends and supporters got him declared so, in order to protect him. Rather than exposing an America which mistreats its poets, Torrey reveals how easy it was, even in the emotion-charged years following the war, for a sympathetic psychiatrist and literary community to protect a poet who could have been executed.

Perhaps because of the Romantic tradition, most cultivated readers want their poets to be special. They want them elevated from the common, able to see beyond societal conventions, and freed of the ignoble prejudices that infect the mob. Poets should speak for the gods (as in ancient times), the universal, or the eternal. At the very least, they should stand apart from the petty struggles and materialism of ordinary people to seek a higher reality. All of this is ludicrous, of course—poets are filled with the same mundane cares that fill the rest of humanity; even Ezra Pound needed lunch on a regular basis. He did, however, play the role to the hilt, even convincing himself. He impressed his public with outrageous clothing and iconoclasm, with his pose as a flamboyant, latter-day troubadour, free to say what most of society would not.

Somehow, though, it is disappointing to read exactly how petty great artists can be. When Pound attempted to take up a collection so that T. S. Eliot would no longer have to work in a bank, Pound seemed a champion of artistic independence and freedom, though Eliot himself was embarrassed by the idea. When Pound continually insisted that poets should be supported by government grants, he seemed to be demanding that civilization recognize its finer, more lasting products, and one really does not want to admit that Pound was seeking a sinecure, motivated as much by egotism as by artistic principles. Pound’s editing of The Waste Land (1922); his influence on William Butler Yeats, H. D., Ernest Hemingway, and so many others; his help to artists in trouble—these are the acts one would prefer to recall, regardless of his motives. These are the acts that made the literary community willing to forget the abuse and cruelties which Pound could heap upon his closest friends and willing to shake their heads in forgiving dismay at the vile speeches he broadcast during the war. The artist cannot be completely separate from his work, but fortunately, art can transcend its maker.

Neither obnoxiousness nor narcissism, however, constitutes “insanity” in legal or psychological terms. Pound could not have been insane when he was one of the leaders of the literary community in the 1910’s and 1920’s; therefore, his lawyer and friends argued, he had gone insane in the 1930’s and was totally so when making broadcasts for Benito Mussolini. Torrey, however, proves not only that Pound had consistently offended with his anti-Semitism, but also that his economic views, which led to his appropriating Fascism, had developed throughout his life, even from the writings of his grandfather. The adamant elitism Pound had always espoused fit nicely with the philosophies of Fascism. If Pound were insane, he had been so all of his life, and no one believed that. Apparently, Hemingway was the first to suggest that Pound might be saved from hanging by an...

(The entire section is 1790 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Commentary. LXXVII, January, 1984, p. 68.

Library Journal. CVIII, October 1, 1983, p. 1872.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, October 23, 1983, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, September 16, 1983, p. 111.