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.



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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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 sent to a psychiatric ward until such time as he might regain such competence. It never arrived, and in 1958, satisfied that Pound was incurable, the same judge who had heard the case in 1946 dismissed the treason indictment.

    Had Pound gone to trial and been convicted of treason – not a foregone conclusion, by the way – he would have been unlikely to serve more than other US citizens convicted of treason for spreading enemy propaganda during the war. Iva Toguri, the most (in)famous of the Tokyo Roses, served six years (the government’s case against her was later found to be flawed and she was pardoned by Gerald Ford). Mildred Gillars, who had broadcast for the Nazis, served twelve years.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • Name three.

      • Edmund Wilson, Walter Duranty, and Barak Obama.

        • 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.

  • Far and away the best and most accurate assessment of Pound is his own. As he stated, truly, in an interview with Allan Ginsberg published in the City Lights Anthology late in life:

    “I found out after seventy years I was not a lunatic but a moron.”

  • One can have one’s views, and one can hate and loathe Ezra Pound, or whomever, but when that person engages in stupid, blatant falsehoods like “[n]evertheless, Pound was indeed convicted of treason by the Department of Justice in 1945,” it brings that person’s judgment and character into question. I quit reading right there.

    • Exactly, Ted. But such is the paucity of editorial oversight in today’s publishing business that a statement undermining the credibility of the entire work was not caught, or worse,
      let stand. Shame on Oxford.

  • It is obvious from Mr. Donohue’s strongly expressed feelings that Pound’s failings, in concert with his greatness as a poet, will never cease to elicit high rhetoric. I reviewed Mr. Moody’s book and thought that it was incredibly well researched and well written; that it is pro- rather than anti-Pound? Well, no biographer who devotes many years and hundreds of pages to a person is likely to be on the whole a detester rather than an admirer. Even if Pound had been found guilty of treason, it is unlikely that he would have spent his life in jail. The statute demands a minimum of five years, which is exactly the sentence that Tokyo Rose served, in a parallel case of treason during WWII. And Pound’s awful anti-Semitism, despite what Mr. Donohue states, is not to be found in The Pisan Cantos so much as elsewhere. And Mr Moody himself calls Pound’s views all but evil in his discussion of Pound’s reading during World War II. No punches pulled or special pleading there.

    • Strange comment. Strange justifications. Pound’s “awful anti-Semitism” is less violent in the Pisan Cantos than in his other anti-Semitic writings? (“not … so much as elsewhere.”) ‘pietre consolation’ as the French say. Mr. Moody is praised because he portrays Pound’s views as the Holocaust was going on “all but evil” – again a strange kind of ‘it could have been even worse’ argument. But if Moody cannot bring himself to apply the word ‘evil’, what does he say? what adjective by Moody is hinted at in Whiteman’s vague “all but evil”? reprehensible? unfortunate? odd? unpleasant? not nice? a fiction? a detail? a trivial matter? a hiccup? Mr. Whiteman does not bother to tell us.

      • Since Shimke asks, here is the quote from Moody. It concerns an article that Pound was drafting in 1939: “[Pound’s] habit of identifying and confusing the practise of usury with Jews and Judaism for rhetorical effect had become so ingrained that he could at times lose all sense of the error of doing so; and now the error was bringing him near to evil.” (p. 9). That seems condemnatory enough, does it not? I would also point out that I did not say that EP’s anti-Semitism was “less violent” in the Pisan Cantos. I said that it is not much in evidence there, unlike other places, including the Rome broadcasts most egregiously, but elsewhere too.

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