Ezra Pound - The painful and tragic story of the American poet’s Fascist activities and final years

The final volume of A. David Moody’s monumental biography of Ezra Pound may well be the most absorbing. Here, in vivid detail, Moody tells the painful story of Pound’s wartime activities in Fascist Italy, including his notorious anti-Semitic broadcasts for Rome Radio, his arrest by the US military in 1945 and detention at the Disciplinary Training Center at Pisa, his removal to Washington, DC to stand trial for treason (only to be declared unfit to do so on grounds of insanity), and his resultant confinement in St Elizabeths Hospital where he was to spend twelve years. On his release in 1958 and return to Italy, there was a decade of illness and decline, and a final turn to silence. (Reviews of Volumes One and Two appeared in the TLS of November 23, 2007, and July 31, 2015.)

What makes the Pound story so fascinating is that it was in the prison camp at Pisa that he wrote what many consider his greatest book of poetry, the Pisan Cantos, which won the first Bollingen Prize (1948), setting off a firestorm in literary circles that continues to this day. Again, it was at St Elizabeths that Pound produced the Rock-Drill and Thrones sections of the Cantos, as well as his Confucian translations and commentaries. St Elizabeths was where he held court to many of America’s then rising poets, from Charles Olson to Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Back in Italy in the 1960s, he found himself a cult figure, sought out by poets from around the world who considered him, in the words of (the Jewish) Allen Ginsberg, “the greatest poet of the age”.
Volume Three also brings Pound’s personal story to its climax. The forced wartime ménage-à-trois with his wife Dorothy and mistress Olga Rudge (the mother of his daughter Mary) ended abruptly with Pound’s arrest. For the moment, Dorothy had won: she moved to Washington, visited her husband every day and was given control of his financial affairs. Documents make clear that after the first year or two, she was quite satisfied to have her husband remain at St Elizabeths, where he was safe from Olga and had none of his usual financial worries. Pound himself was resigned: at St Elizabeths he developed new friendships as well as love affairs – first with the bohemian, drug-addicted Sheri Martinelli and then with a twenty-three-year-old schoolteacher, Marcella Spann, who accompanied the Pounds on their return to Italy, only to have Dorothy and Mary conspire to ship her back to her native Texas. Pound, who was deeply in love with Marcella, railed against his loss and was miserable both at Brunnenburg, a castle above Merano in the South Tyrol where his daughter Mary lived with her husband Prince Boris de Rachewiltz and their children, and then at home in Rapallo with Dorothy. In 1962, Olga – who had broken with Pound when, on her single visit to St Elizabeths in 1955 she found him in the arms of “La Martinelli” – came to the rescue: Pound was to spend the rest of his life in her loving care.
In its broad outlines, the story has been told many times – by the early biographers Charles Norman (1968) and Noel Stock (1970), by the psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, by Hugh Kenner in his incomparable The Pound Era (1971), and by the poet’s later biographers John Tytell (1987) and Humphrey Carpenter (1988). But Moody has had access to much new or previously unknown archival material, and he provides explicatory chapters on each of the major volumes of the ongoingCantos. His is thus the most authoritative biography to date.
The difficulty is that Moody also has an axe to grind. His argument, stated quite baldly in the preface, is that Pound was “a flawed idealist . . . who, in a time of war, carried to excess his exercise of the rights and freedoms of a United States citizen, and who, in consequence, suffered the loss of both his freedom and his civil rights”. The poet was “perceived as a traitor and a Fascist, when in truth he was neither. Beyond that, as the deeper injustice, there was the accident that it was those whom he trusted to support and aid him who were responsible for his being incarcerated for twelve years and more among the insane”. Further, “The law, if it had taken its course, should have found him not guilty as charged . . . because he was not in fact insane”. Indeed, according to Moody, the only crime of which Pound was guilty was anti-Semitism, which was real enough, if also typical of the time.
Ironically, it is Moody’s richly detailed narrative that undercuts this interpretation. Given the wealth of recent scholarship on the subject, including Moody’s own, there can be no doubt that Pound was indeed a Fascist. Not only is Mussolini’s mode of governing consistently praised; Fascist Italy is regarded as the model that America – all but destroyed by its “Jewrocracy” – should emulate. Even the ousting of Mussolini and the surrender of Italy in July 1943 – a point at which many Italians shifted their allegiance to the Allies – could not deter Pound, who quickly offered his services to the new Nazi puppet regime at Salò. As for Hitler’s Germany, as late as 1953, during his sojourn at St Elizabeths, Pound remarked, “Adolf clear on the bacillus of kikism . . . but failed to get a vaccine against that”.
It is Moody’s contention that Pound’s “fascism” was somehow not the real thing, it being, in Pound’s mind, no more than a doctrine in keeping with the American Constitution, a document the poet staunchly defended. His idée fixe that both world wars were “caused” by the wrong monetary policies – by the usurious practices of the evil Jewish bankers – was supposedly in line with Thomas Jefferson’s attack on bank credit. “The best place for a nation’s reserve of credit is in as many individual pockets as possible”, Pound stated in Jefferson and/or Mussolini, written in the mid-1930s. But the Constitution itself accords a very minor role to monetary policy, focusing, as it does, on the necessity for the separation of powers. At its heart is the Bill of Rights, which could hardly be more at odds with Fascist principles. When Pound insists that he had freedom to say whatever he liked over Rome Radio, he ignores the simple fact that the Italians themselves had no such freedom and that their press was strictly controlled in accord with what was, by its own account, a totalitarian state – one that felt no need to justify its police powers or its imperialist adventures.
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