History Thread: The Madness of Ezra Pound

Few poets achieve lasting fame or cultural impact: in that sense, at least, Ezra Pound deserves notice. The abrasive, brilliant writer from Philadelphia made his mark in the literary salons of London in the 1910s, in Paris during the “Lost Generation” of the early ’20s and Italy thereafter; befriended seemingly every write of consequence; and forged a movement whose influence on art and literature cannot be overstated. He also became a propagandist for two of the Twentieth Century’s most evil regimes.

“If I were driven to name one individual who, in the English language, by means of his own examples of creative art in poetry, has done most of living men to incite new impulses in poetry,” Carl Sandburg wrote in the 1910s, “the chances are I would name Ezra Pound.” Perhaps there is no distinction between this man and the horrible causes he espoused. His longtime mistress, Olga Rudge, certainly thought so, telling one interviewer that “Ezra Pound is no pancake.” The clichés about a “dual personality” (fed by Pound’s commitment for insanity) don’t apply; Ezra Pound could be both at once, without contradiction.

Young Ezra Pound

“You cannot write the history of twentieth century literature without giving Pound a starring role,” writes Daniel Swift. Look behind any significant work of 20th Century literature, and there lurks Pound. He co-edited T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and helped e.e. cummings develop his signature style. He mentored Ernest Hemingway and arranged for the publication of James Joyce’s work. T.E. Lawrence solicited from Pound advice on writing Seven Pillars of Wisdom; heiress-activist Nancy Cunard sparred with Pound over politics. There’s scarcely an American or British literary figure of the early 20th Century on whom Pound didn’t leave a mark.

But Pound cemented his influence in the 1910s by cofounding the Imagist movement. Along with English poets T.E. Hulme, Richard Aldington, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and fellow American William Carlos Williams, they produced a poetic form which “emphasized simplicity, clarity of expression, and precision through the use of exacting visual images.” Although their initial group collapsed due to personal and philosophical, Imagism informed the broader movement of Modernism which Pound summarized through his book title, Make It New.

Richard Aldington

Pound’s poetry, from his shorter works collected in Personae to his epic, unfinished Cantos, is vivid, colorful and often beautifully expressed. He could write feelingly about the nature of humanity, as in Canto XIII:

If a man have not order within him
He can not spread order about him;
And if a man have not order within him
His family will not act with due order;
And if the prince have not order within him
He can not put order in his dominions.

Or the strictures of English social class, in “The Garden”:

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
 And she is dying piece-meal
of a sort of emotional anemia.

And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.

She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
will commit that indiscretion.

Or the folly of war, in his epic Cathay:

Who brought this to pass?
Who has brought the flaming imperial anger?
Who has brought the army with drums and with kettle-drums?
Barbarous kings.
A gracious spring, turned to blood-ravenous autumn,
A turmoil of wars-men, spread over the middle kingdom,
Three hundred and sixty thousand,
And sorrow, sorrow like rain.

Like many artists, Pound’s gift for language came matched with a prickly, arrogant personality. Once, when William Carlos Williams joked that some fresh-sprouting wheat was “coming up to greet you,” Pound dubbed it “the first intelligent wheat I’ve ever seen.” Many other peers found him “surly, supercilious and grumpy”; he frequently insulted writers he didn’t like, saying that he only knew one American poet who “would not improve by drowning.” Which isn’t to speak of his racism: he referred to blacks in the ugliest terms, dubbing them “coons” and “n****rs.”

Ezra with Dorothy Shakespear

Though his social circle included Gertrude Stein, Hilda Doolittle and his own wife, painter Dorothy Shakespear, Pound argued that women were incapable of true art. Even well-developed female pineal glands would “give her merely an even temperament…freeing her from the general confusion of her sex.” Male artists, by contrast, experienced “the new superfluity of spermatozoic pressure…up-shoots into the brain, alluvial Nile flood, bringing new crops, new invention.” Pity not only women, but lesser men who can only relieve this pressure in more conventional ways.

But Pound’s pet hate, which he elaborated upon endlessly, was antisemitism. As early as 1912, he bemoaned that the United States was overrun by immigrant Jews who were “quite unlike any European crowd I have ever looked at,” and that they were forming a “mongrel” race with Anglo-Saxons. They also posed an intellectual threat; Pound complained frequently about Jewish authors, product of “that bitch Moses and the rest of the tribal barbarians” diluting Western literature. World War I, in which several of his friends served, inflamed him further, blaming the war on “usurers” and becoming an enthusiast for the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

In some ways, Pound’s prejudices weren’t particularly remarkable. A white man using racial slurs about African Americans was hardly unique to Pound in his time, even if they’re shocking coming from an educated poet. Nor was he alone among his cohort in expressing misogyny (Ernest Hemingway) or anti-Semitism (T.S. Eliot), whether privately or through his work. Still, the sheer vehemence and consistency of Pound’s slurs evinces something deeper than unexamined bigotry.

Pound in Paris

In 1925, soon after the birth of his son Omar to his mistress Olga Rudge, Pound moved to Rapallo, Italy. In London and Paris, Pound had been merely one artist among many; in the small seaside town he took on an outsized fame known as “il poeta.” During this time, he fell for Benito Mussolini, whose fascist movement embodied everything Pound admired. He began obsessively following Il Duce, keeping a scrapbook of speeches and newspaper clippings and dating his correspondence in the fascist manner, using 1922 as Year One.

Pound expounded on his affection for Mussolini in a 1932 book, Jefferson and/or Mussolini. “Jefferson is one genius and Mussolini is another,” he enthused, proclaiming the dictator more American than most Americans. After all, were not Mussolini’s economic autarky, reclamation of fallow farmlands and strutting patriotism something Americans should aspire to? “The heritage of Jefferson, Quincy Adams, old John Adams, Jackson, Van Buren is HERE, now…not in Massachusetts or Delaware.”

Pound met Mussolini in January 1933, reportedly through their mutual friend Olga Rudge. Mussolini offered the poet praise for his work; Pound responded with a long list of economic questions, hoping the dictator shared his interest in finance. The befuddled Mussolini told Pound that “I can’t answer these offhand…it will take a little thought” and excused him with an assurance that they would meet again. They never did; Mussolini, apparently, found his American admirer irritating and instructed his aides to block access to him.

Benito Mussolini

Again, Pound was hardly alone in his admiration for Mussolini. Many distinguished figures found Il Duce a decisive leader among the era’s floundering mediocrities. G.K. Chesterton wrote that when assessing Italy, he “finds it difficult not to admire even where he does not approve.” Thomas Edison praised Mussolini as “the greatest genius of the modern age”; Sigmund Freud lauded him as “the Hero of Culture.” Franklin Roosevelt once described him as “that admirable Italian gentleman.” And in 1927, Winston Churchill exulted in his future enemy’s “triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.”

Still, most foreign observers grew disillusioned with Mussolini as his brutality and expansionist designs became evident. Not Pound, whose enthusiasm grew more fervent as time passed. He cheered Mussolini’s repression of political opponents and relationship with Adolf Hitler, who shared Pound’s perspective on the Jewish threat. “Usury is the cancer of the world,” Pound proclaimed, “which only the surgeon’s knife of Fascism can cut out of the life of nations.”

Even Italy’s brutal 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, complete with poison gas, aerial bombing of civilians and executions by flamethrower, failed to dissuade him. Pound found this naked imperialism admirable, mocking the Ethiopians as “black Jews” supported only by the “Shittish Empire” and “bank pimps” who ran the League of Nations. After all, “no man living has preserved the peace of Europe as often as Benito Mussolini.” Pound also compared fascist intervention in the Spanish Civil War to “cleaning out a mosquito swamp in darkest Africa.”

“Civilizing” Ethiopia: Italian propaganda

In contrast, Pound became increasingly disillusioned with his homeland. He referred to the President of the United States as “Franklin Finkelstein Roosevelt” and called his economic program “the Nude Eel.” Like many conservatives, he couched his objections with an appeal to the Founding Fathers, invoking “a never-never land of homesteads and the Constitution” in Daniel Swift’s words. “If Roosevelt thinks he can borrow the nation out of debt,” Pound raged, “he is a fool. And if he knows he can’t and goes on as if he could, he is a traitor.”

Pound’s prescription was a program called “Social Credit,” which would consolidate banks under Federal control and banish the “usurers” from the halls of finance. He published lectures and essays spelling out these ideas, and wrote in 1935 to politicians Huey Long and William Borah whom he considered sympathetic to his views. Only Borah deigned to respond (Long was too busy getting shot to reply), and with insufficient enthusiasm for Pound’s taste. This indifference infuriated Pound, who feared that America was “a rabbit headed country probably mongrelized past redemption.”

Some of Pound’s friends tried to warn him away from fascism. H.L. Mencken, who shared many of Pound’s prejudices, nonetheless chided his friend for “abandon[ing] the poetry business” to “set up shop as a wizard in general practice.” Robert Frost bemoaned “what [Pound] has become in memory of what he once promised to become.” Even William Carlos Williams, who usually humored Pound’s outbursts, exploded in frustration. “You can’t even smell the stink you’re in any more,” he complained, framing his critique in terms Pound might comprehend: “Your cock fell in the jello. Wake up!”

William Carlos Williams

But Pound only grew bolder as World War II broke out. He complained that “our louse of a president stands for Jewry, all Jewry and nothing but Jewry” and praised “the essential fairness of Hitler’s war aims.” In October 1940, Pound and his wife planned to visit the United States to campaign against Roosevelt’s third term, only to realize the futility of such a gesture and vacationing in Lisbon instead. He wrote articles attacking Jews which ran both in German and Italian newspapers. From there, it was only a short step to treason.

In March 1940, before Italy entered the war, Pound received a visit from playwright Natalie Clifford Barney, who shared his admiration for Mussolini despite being gay and part-Jewish. Barney gifted Pound a radio, mentioning the pro-Hitler broadcasts of Englishman William Joyce (“Lord Haw-Haw”) and suggesting that he might follow suit. Her suggestion quickly germinated in Pound, who’d already considered it himself; he sent a proposal to the Ministry of Popular Culture for English broadcasts on Italian radio. In January 1941 his request was granted, and Pound began a program called “The American Hour.”

“From the beginning,” biographer E. Fuller Tulley writes, “Pound’s broadcasts were pro-Fascist, pro-Mussolini, anti-England, and anti-America.” His broadcasts offered an unremitting barrage of propaganda, attacking Jews, Roosevelt, Churchill and others in rants as monotonous as they were vile. His broadcasts lauded the heroism of Mussolini and Hitler, the righteousness of the new fascist order and blasted Roosevelt, the “war pimp” who wanted America to side with the allies.

Pound the propagandist

Occasionally, Pound struck a note of “creativity” worthy of modern talk radio. He regularly called for the execution of Churchill and other Allied leaders. Some of his rants bordered on nonsequitir, as when he accused Roosevelt of practicing genocide against Iceland “as the British annihilated the Maoris.” Others were bizarre, as when he proposed a Sino-Japanese alliance to “combine and drive that dirt out of Australia.” This idea must have baffled those two countries, embroiled as they were in a brutal war of attrition.

Needless to say, Pound frequently gave vent to his ugliest prejudices. He warned American listeners that “one of these days you will have to start thinking about the problem of race, breed [and] preservation.” His habitual Jew-baiting reached a white heat as Hitler embarked upon the Final Solution. In April 1942, he enthused that “if some man had a stroke of genius, and could start a pogrom up at the top, there might be something to say for it.” Three months earlier, at the Wannsee Conference, Hitler’s henchmen had determined to do exactly that.

Pound had just finished recording when he learned of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The poet was initially stunned as he contemplated its meaning: “I’m cooked,” he told a friend. He drove to the home of Reynolds Packard, an American reporter, where he argued at length with himself about what to do. Finally, Packard recalled, Pound decided that “I believe in Fascism, and I want to defend it.” He insisted that he still “consider myself one hundred percent American and a patriot”; embracing Hitler and Mussolini was merely a riposte to “Roosevelt and the Jews who influence them.” Pound astonished Packard by ending this bizarre soliloquy with a Roman salute.

America as gangster: Italian propaganda

Three days later, Pound resumed his broadcasts. If he still entertained private qualms about breaking with America, his public statements remained unrestrained. “The United States has been for months ILLEGALLY at war,” he announced, casting aspersions not only Roosevelt’s patriotism and religion (“that Jew in the White House”) but his sanity. “I think Roosevelt belongs in an insane asylum now,” Pound insisted, remarking with unwitting irony that “whom God would destroy, he first sends to the bughouse.”

As Stanley Kutler notes, Pound’s broadcasts generally weren’t worse than your average America First orator or Liberty League pamphleteer. But “Pound was not in Pershing or Union Square. He was in an enemy nation during wartime and…adhering to the nation’s enemy and giving aid and comfort.” It’s hard even for a sympathetic observer to avoid that conclusion when Pound told American servicemen that “you are not going to win this war. None of our best minds ever thought you could win it.”

Reality, of course, put paid to Pound’s dread warnings. In September 1943 Allied troops landed in Italy, Mussolini was removed from power and Italy signed a separate peace with the Allies. He merely relocated to Rapallo, where he became the “poet laureate” of the Salo Republic, a puppet state established by the Germans to continue fighting the war. “Every human being who is not a hopeless idiotic worm should realize that fascism is superior in every way to Russian Jewocracy and that capitalism stinks,” Pound declaimed.

Mussolini and family in Salo

As Pound languished in a dying regime, trapped in a small estate with both his wife and mistress, the United States government indicted him for treason. His former friends and colleagues reacted with dismay, groping for mitigating explanations. “He deserves punishment and disgrace but what he really deserves is ridicule,” Ernest Hemingway wrote of his former mentor, telling his colleagues that Pound must have “went nuts.” Hemingway repeated the idea to friends and sympathetic observers, and it became a litany: Pound hadn’t consciously embraced a fascist enemy, but instead fallen victim to mental illness.

In April 1945, as Pound recalled, “the world fell on me.” His hero Mussolini died in a hail of gunfire with his mistress, Clara Petacci, outside Milan; German commanders in Italy soon negotiated a surrender to the Allies. On May 3rd, 1945 Italian partisans arrested Pound, who was packed off to the American Counter Intelligence Center in Genoa, where he endured three weeks of interrogation by officers and FBI agents. On May 27th, he was sent to the Army’s Detention Training Center near Pisa, which he called “the Gorilla Cage.”

The DTC was reserved for “the Army’s most unsavory criminals,” including murderers, rapists and deserters. Accordingly, Pound was kept in a six-by-ten cage with “a cement floor and a tar-paper roof,” with no plumbing (Pound defecated in a tin can) and a twenty-four hour guard. Fortunately, Lieutenant Colonel John L. Steele, the prison’s commander, found the poet fascinating. He “wanted only to talk about economics and the fact that he needed to go straighten out Truman,” Steele recalled. The guards affectionately named Pound “Uncle Ezra,” treating him more like a guest than a prisoner.

Pound the prisoner

At Steele’s behest, Pound moved to a furnished medical tent, where he received a typewriter and began composing a new ream of poetry. The resulting works, known as The Pisan Cantos, grapple with the implications of fascism’s downfall. He mused about the fate of Il Duce, “the enormous tragedy of the dream…[hanged] by the heels in Milano,” and vomited forth his standard antisemitism: “The yidd is a stimulant, and the goyim are cattle.” He even wrote a poem celebrating an Italian woman who led American soldiers into a minefield, where all were blown to pieces; this was suppressed when the Cantos were published several years later.

Nonetheless, Pound began complaining about his “confusion” and “claustrophobia,” and exhibited erratic behavior like jabbering “cat piss and porcupines” to guards. Doctors at the DTC, fearing for his sanity, examined Pound and found “no evidence of psychosis, neuroses or psychopathy.” But the idea, promoted outside the prison by Ernest Hemingway and others, that Pound was insane began to spread. In November 1945, the Army returned Pound to the United States, appearing in Washington to answer his treason charges.

After his judges denied Pound’s request to represent himself, he retained James Cornell as attorney. Cornell, who represented Pound’s usual American publisher, James Laughlin, began shaping an insanity plea, realizing that a “free speech” defense was vitiated by Pound broadcasting from Rome. In this, Pound was backed by a coterie of literary friends, including Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway and William Carlos Williams. “His friends who knew him and who watched the warping and twisting and decay of his mind and his judgement should defend him and explain him on that basis,” Hemingway insisted. “It would be the greatest injustice…to shoot him,” Williams agreed.

Ernest Hemingway

Interned at St. Elizabeths Hospital, Pound was repeatedly examined by psychologists. Dr. Jerome Kavka, who became Pound’s most frequent contact, noted that imprisonment hadn’t dulled Pound’s political views; he continued ranting about Roosevelt, Truman and Jews, while insisting that he had upheld the Constitution. Pound commented that “I don’t think I’m insane, but I am so shot to pieces that it would take me years to write a sensible piece of prose.” Another psychiatrist thought Pound showed signs of narcissistic personality disorder, but “no evidence of psychosis.”

These assessments carried less weight than that of Winfred Overholser, the Superintendent of St. Elizabeths. Overholser, best-known for his research into PTSD and wartime trauma, became convinced of Pound’s madness and didn’t let his associates dissuade him. Overholser appears to have hidden key medical reports from the Justice Department prosecutors that dissented from his view. He even met with James Cornell, Pound’s attorney, and assured him that he would challenge his own doctors’ assessments of Pound in court, if necessary.

On February 13, 1945 Pound appeared at an insanity hearing to judge his fitness for trial. The defense psychiatrist, Wendell Muncie, insisted that Pound “has a number of rather fixed ideas which are either clearly delusional or verging on the delusional.” His expert testimony was qualified by inaccuracies, showing that he was either lying or remarkably uninformed. Muncie claimed that Pound hadn’t been aware of his treason indictment until arriving in DC, when he’d learned about it as early as August 1943; he claimed that Pound had no memory of his time in Pisa, which was flagrantly false.

Winfred Overholser

The falsehoods continued with Dr. Marion King, who reinforced Muncie’s performance with equally specious testimony. He claimed Pound possessed “a paranoid state of psychotic proportions” but undermined himself by admitting “he does not have the clear, well-defined…delusions of the paranoiac type.” Pound biographer J.J. Wilhelm mocks King for “get[ting] lost in the jungle of his terminology,” offering statements that flagrantly contradicted each other.

Yet, curiously, prosecutors didn’t press him on these contradictions. Nor did they press Dr. Overholser on his assertion that because “Pound felt so important and of such value to the United States…I put him down as suffering a mental disorder.” He could not offer a precise diagnosis, nor did he discuss disagreements from members of St. Elizabeths staff, but received only a light cross examination. “Nobody can accuse the Department of Justice of persecuting Ezra Pound,” Dr. Frederic Wertham observed. “It can hardly be urged that they even prosecuted him.”

Unsurprisingly, Pound was found of “unsound mind” and exiled to St. Elizabeths. There, for the next decade, he presided over “the world’s least orthodox literary salon: convened by a fascist, held in a lunatic asylum.” He argued politics with William Carlos Williams, discussed poetry with e.e. cummings, played tennis with T.S. Eliot. One account claims that friends even arranged assignations between Pound and Washington prostitutes. All under the eye of Dr. Overholser, who seemed to relish his patient’s notoriety (“I am looking forward to seeing you myself,” he told Eliot before one of the poet’s visits).

Pound, John Quinn, Ford Madox Ford and James Joyce, 1923

Not all of Pound’s peers rejoiced in his sentence. Arthur Miller wrote that “in his wildest moments of human vilification Hitler never approached our Ezra.” Albert Maltz commented acidly that “if Ezra Pound were a lawyer, doctor, businessman or factory owner, no voice would have been raised in his defense.” Perhaps the cruelest cut came from his old friend, Nancy Cunard, who refused to forgive or forget Pound’s deeds. “Williams has called you misguided,” she wrote; “I do not agree. The correct word for a fascist is scoundrel…I cannot see what possible defense, excuse or mitigation exists for you.”

That Pound hadn’t learned anything shows in his relationship with John Kasper. A Columbia-educated admirer of Pound, Kasper drew inspiration both from his poetry and his fulminations against blacks and Jews; they exchanged hundreds of letters, with Pound voicing disgust at Brown vs. Board and the nascent civil rights movement. “Pound’s idiosyncratic Confucianist, Fascist Jeffersonianism, and Kasper’s home-grown Christian anti-Semitism fed off each other,” one writer observes, leading Kasper to incite race riots in Washington, engineer the bombing of an integrated school in Clinton, Tennessee and cofound the National States Rights Party, running for president under their banner in 1964.

John Kasper

As for Pound, he left St. Elizabeths in 1958 and returned to Italy. Asked about his experience in the hospital, Pound retorted that “all America is an insane asylum.” He hosted British fascist Oswald Mosley and took part in neofascist demonstrations in Venice. He suffered from depression, his legendary self-regard deflating along with his health; visits from aging friends and younger artists (including Allen Ginsburg, who once regaled the bemused poet with Beatles lyrics) did little to buoy his spirits. “I realized that instead of being a lunatic, I was a moron,” he lamented. He died in 1972, his literary reputation forever marred by his political misdeeds.

Anyone analyzing Ezra Pound’s actions must reckon with reality, rather than fishing for excuses. His supposed mental illness, it appears, was fabricated. He didn’t face an agonizing moral choice like Gustaf Gründgens, nor was he coerced like Iva Toguri. Ezra Pound was a fascist. Readers must decide for themselves whether or not this invalidates his art.

Sources and Further Reading:

This article draws upon Stanley I. Kutler, The American Inquisition: Justice and Injustice in the Cold War (1982); Daniel Swift, The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound (2017); and E. Fuller Torrey, The Roots of Treason: Ezra Pound and the Secret of St. Elizabeth’s (1984).