Ezra Pound

John Bruce’s Mt Hollywood has some interesting stuff out there. June 15 he has three entries on Ezra Pound. Thoughtful and interesting. Maybe it would add some spice to an otherwise boring presentation (on my part) in Freshman Comp II.

It is a scandal I didn’t know about. The following are short excerpts from the discussion. Very intriguing.

How it started

In the 1920s Pound became interested in the Social Credit economic theories of Henry George; at roughly the same time he seems to have played the London little-magazine literary scene for all he could get out of it, and he moved to Italy. Once there, he became attracted to fascism and the Mussolini government, though characteristically, he was less an adherent of formal fascism than he was hopeful of converting Mussolini to his own views on usury and Social Credit. Surviving documents show Mussolini’s staff never took Pound seriously, though he was able to wangle a half-hour audience with Mussolini at one point (the Duce ended the meeting punctually).

However, Pound began writing extensively for the Italian papers on Social Credit. The papers always seemed to regard Pound as a curiosity and even something of a joke, and since Pound’s ability to speak and translate foreign languages has been widely overrated, they ran Pound’s pieces in broken Italian as he wrote them with no editing or corrections, emphasizing the view that the Italians never saw Pound as much more than a curiosity.

Then what happened?

Pound was captured at his home by Italian partisans, who apparently were under the impression that there was a price on Pound’s head. (The US Department of Justice had in fact indicted Pound for treason in absentia, but the Army had higher priorities.) Pound was taken to a US prison camp near Pisa, where he ingratiated himself with both the prisoners and the warden. Meanwhile, the Justice Department dithered over what to do with him, and the Army finally threatened to release Pound unless Justice took him off their hands.

Not competent

Pound’s mental state raised concerns almost from the time he came under Army custody in Italy after the Second World War. The problem wasn’t that he was “crazy” in a traditional sense, although everyone involved seems to have thought that psychiatrists needed to be consulted. The problem that emerged was whether he was competent to stand trial, which meant that he understood the nature of the charges against him and would be able to assist his attorneys in his defense.

Pound apparently wanted to represent himself, and his view of how he would do this was to bring the jury around to his position on Social Credit and usury. His main concern was whether he would have the strength to address them for the four hours he felt would be needed to do this. By this time, his own attorney, the Justice Department prosecutors, the judge in the case, and the psychiatrists who had examined him were unanimous that he wasn’t competent to stand trial.

As a result, the judge held a hearing in front of a jury. All the expert witnesses agreed that Pound wasn’t competent.

What was wrong?

Over the years of Pound’s stay in the mental hospital, the psychiatrists brought in various people who’d known him in the 1920s to see if they thought he’d changed. Interestingly, nobody thought he was any different from the way he’d been 20 or more years earlier. He tended to talk a blue streak, his attention span was short, he leapt from subject to subject, but if pressed, he could give intelligent, well-considered answers to questions. Nevertheless, he seemed unable to deal with practical details of life, especially including the details of defending himself against a treason charge. The people who ran the hospital began to suspect he was exactly where he’d always wanted to be.
In fact, there’s a kind of Catch-22 about Pound’s situation. If he had ordinary judgment and ability to deal with day-to-day life, he could likely have helped his attorneys get him acquitted on the treason charge. But if he’d had ordinary judgment and ability to deal with day-to-day life, he wouldn’t have gotten into the trouble that led to the treason charge in the first place. His radio broadcasts, after all, were mostly just silly. He had the Italians shaking their heads over why he’d risk the trouble he did indeed get into over something as useless as the broadcasts.

His release:

Pound’s release from St.Elizabeths in 1958 came about in part due to the fear that he might receive a Nobel Prize. (If he got the Bollingen poetry prize, why not?) This was perceived as a potentially embarrassing event to the US if Pound were still institutionalized when he received it. An alternate scenario, also perceived as embarrassing, was if Pound were to die while in the institution, although all indications are that Pound’s wife was happy with circumstances as they were (not least that his mistress was in Italy with Pound in the US); Pound had no particular wish to be released; and St.Elizabeths staff had seen no change in Pound’s overall dotty mental condition.

Archibald MacLeish drove this movement. He estimated, correctly, that after the 1956 election the second Eisenhower administration had no special political interest in keeping Pound institutionalized, while enough time had passed to let memories fade, and the consensus was that Pound had served his time for whatever it was he’d actually done.

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