Still a Monster

A new biography of Ezra Pound asks us to ignore that he was a Fascist and a traitor. But I can’t, and we shouldn’t.

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A. David Moody recently completed his magisterial three-volume biography of Ezra Pound, and after roughly 2000 pages, it’s perhaps understandable that Stockholm syndrome might be playing a part in his judgements. It’s the most charitable explanation for the sheer persistent drumbeat of exculpatory lies he tells about his subject all throughout the 600 pages of Ezra Pound: Poet — Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972. There is, for example, no entry in the index to this third volume for “treason” — only “alleged treason.” And of Pound’s actions while living in Mussolini’s Italy, Moody grudgingly admits only that they “led inevitably to his being perceived as a traitor and a Fascist, when it truth he was neither.”

Neither a traitor nor a Fascist — just a perception problem, that’s all. Against the charge that Pound was a Fascist, Moody offers the not entirely consoling word-play that Pound was instead “engaging in propaganda that could serve the Fascist interest.” Against the charge of treason there isn’t much that even so ardent a sympathizer as Moody can do for the memory of a man who repeatedly, eagerly made Rome Radio broadcasts enthusiastically praising Mussolini’s rule, enthusiastically praising the Third Reich, enthusiastically denouncing the United States, and through it all, enthusiastically spewing the vilest anti-Semitism found outside of Nuremberg. If using your fame and name-recognition to broadcast contempt for your home country and praise for a dictatorship with which your home country is at war doesn’t constitute treason, then it’s difficult to know what would. It’s true that Pound didn’t sneak a revolver into a White House arts and poetry gala and shoot President Roosevelt between the eyes at point-blank range, although any reader of all three Moody volumes will be morbidly curious as to how our biographer might try to spin such a moment. “Engaging in actions that could result in FDR’s brain exploding,” perhaps, or something like that.

Nevertheless, Pound was indeed convicted of treason by the Department of Justice in 1945. Through the assiduous deceit of his lawyer and friends, he avoided spending the rest of his life in prison by being committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he remained, holding court, for 13 years. While he was there, these same friends lobbied to have the Library of Congress award him its Bollingen Prize for his Pisan Cantos, despite strong protests from all quarters of the literary and critical world. The editors of the old Saturday Review of Literature, reports Moody, “with a total disregard for the truth,” wrote a fairly indicative condemnation:

Ezra Pound is not merely the traitor who deserts his country to impart secrets which are useful to the enemy. Ezra Pound voluntarily served the cause of the greatest anti-humanitarian and anti-cultural crusade known to history. He was no innocent abroad who was made to sing for his supper and his safety, but an open and declared enemy of democratic government in general and the American people in particular.

Its heated rhetoric aside, these are simple claims of fact (with the “innocent abroad” line added in an attempt to differentiate Pound’s treasonous broadcasts from P. G. Wodehouse’s merely semi-treasonous broadcasts, one supposes), but Moody is on hand at every stage of Pound’s later life with a ready explanation for his grotesqueries and a quick counter-insinuation for his many enemies. The resistance of those enemies to the awarding of such a prize to such a man — George Orwell freely used the word “evil,” and Bennet Cerf excluded Pound’s poems from an anthology on the grounds that he was “a fascist and a traitor,” and they were in populous company — Moody, more in sorrow than anger, chalks up to heightened emotions and a fundamental misunderstanding of the ways in which one may honor the poetry without recommending the poet.

Read It

Ezra Pound: Poet — Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 by A. David Moody

Cumulatively, it can be depressing to read, and it’s not an isolated example. Moody’s book is in fact only one of the latest in a veritable slew of such works, a bounty of exonerating biographies of bastards. Veteran biographer Frank McLynn, in writing a long recent biography of Genghis Khan, briskly relates the fact that his subject put entire nations and populations to death for no reason other than simple blood-thirst, and then moves on to linger over the legal codes the Khan instituted in his vast domain. President Ronald Reagan and President George H. W. Bush, neither exactly a saint in Heaven during his time in the Oval Office, each received cringing, white-washing, entirely adulatory biographies from best-selling writers. The loathsome Richard Nixon, betrayer of his entire nation, has received a string of attempted revisionist accounts since his death. Historian John Rohl recently completed his gigantic biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II with a volume titled Into the Abyss of War and Exile, a volume portraying the strutting, anti-Semitic war-mongering semi-demented ranter as a cool-headed shaper of his nation’s policy rather than the helmet-plumed irrelevant popinjay he really was. Doubling down on the whole fad, best-selling historian Andrew Roberts recently wrote a big biography of Napoleon Bonaparte called Napoleon the Great, arguing that Bonaparte was “the Enlightenment on horseback” and rolling right over the fact that Bonaparte established a totalitarian hereditary monarchy, trampled on the rights of his subject peoples, ignored common decency in treating his own men-at-arms (let alone his conquered enemies), and never kept a promise he could conveniently break.

Taken collectively, these and other such books amount to a symptom rather than a symposium, a dark reflection of the rampant moral relativism of the 21st century, when the assertion of black-and-white ethical categories is increasingly viewed as at best bad taste and at worst an imposition of outdated cultural norms. In the current meme-driven frame of mind, the worst monsters of history must be at least in part simply misunderstood. A liar may have written some lovely sonnets; a murderer may be a dab hand in the garden; a dictator might eventually get around to straightening out the postal system — but if we allow our biographers to stress apocryphal over appalling, bureaucracy over body counts, and trivia over treason, we run the risk of filling our history with an endless row of hand-wringing camp counsellors, well-meaning if occasionally fallible.

Regardless of what you might think about the anti-Semitic spewings of the Pisan Cantos, Ezra Pound was factually, historically a Fascist and a traitor. We side-line those facts at more peril than we might at first think. •

Steve Donoghue is a reader, editor, and writer living in Boston surrounded by books and dogs. He’s one of the founding editors of the literary journal Open Letters Monthly and the author of one of its book­blogs, Stevereads. HIs work has appeared in The National, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Quarterly Conversation, among others. He tweets as @stdonoghue.
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14 Comments on "Still a Monster"

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eero iloniemi
11 months 10 days ago

Going by the authors logic George Washington et al. were all traitors and oath breakers to King George III and should be judged as such. Jefferson was nothimng but a slave owning hypocrite and FDR a liar and a persecutor of Americans of Japanese origin. The list goes on and on.

mark jickling
11 months 10 days ago

Beside the factual errors pointed out by others, this review misses the interesting question: do the poet’s evil politics make his poetry unreadable? I say no: poetry and politics are different things.

Alex Konig
11 months 10 days ago
The mention of Ezra Pound next to Genghis Khan as one of history’s murderous bastards is merely amusing. The author’s apparent belief that the Justice Department has the power (God forbid!) to convict people of capital crimes casts doubt on his understanding of the case in question. The Justice Department charged Pound with treason and a grand jury indicted him for the offence in 1943, but Pound was never tried for or convicted of any crime. The use of “alleged treason” instead of “treason” is perfectly appropriate. A jury found Pound incompetent to stand trial in 1946, and he was… Read more »
Jan Sand
11 months 11 days ago

In this era when “evil” and treason is rampantly operative throughout officialdom throughout the world at all levels in government and corporate hierarchies in most of the powerful world nations it does seem somehow excessive to punish somebody who undeniably had obviously nasty ideas. It seems unlikely anybody suffered out of his idiotic public outbursts whatever their contents. Whatever the quality of his literary output he ended as something of a psychopath far less dangerous than the current fanatics that regularly murder crowds out of the generosity of accepted officials with firearms who are considered sane and acceptable.

WIll
11 months 11 days ago

But left wing authors and cultural luminaries who speak in defense of tyrants like Mao or Stalin or smaller time thugs like Fidel Castro are rarely called to account. There is a glaring double standard.

tony in san diego
11 months 10 days ago

Name three.

PJK
11 months 10 days ago

Edmund Wilson, Walter Duranty, and Barak Obama.

S. Thomas
11 months 10 days ago

Right-wing treason has had a free pass since 1865. Pound went to a psychiatric hospital; Robert Kennedy wanted to send Gen. Edwin Walker to one after he tried to lead a rebellion at the University of Mississippi in 1962; Robert Dear is described as “troubled” and not as a Christian terrorist. Meanwhile, the Rosenbergs were executed.

And you have had seven years to learn how to spell the President’s first name.

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