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Jonathan Morse <[log in to unmask]>
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Ezra Pound discussion list of the University of Maine <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 30 Dec 1998 17:10:52 -0500
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Just published by the University of Illinois Press, _"I Cease Not to Yowl":
Ezra Pound's Letters to Olivia Rossetti Agresti_, ed. Demetres P.
Tryphonopoulos and Leon Surette, strikes me as a document of fundamental
importance to the biography of Pound. Pound's calendar for visiting hours
at St. Elizabeths, carefully arranged to keep the literary friends like
Marianne Moore from meeting the political friends like John Kasper, has its
analogies in the correspondence published up to now, whose emphasis has
been mostly literary. That has done Pound's reputation nothing but good, of
course. Even in the letters to correspondents who share his political
views, the Pound on display has been the great poet. But Pound's purposes
in corresponding with Olivia Agresti weren't poetic; they were political.
And that changes things.
An Englishwoman who spent most of her life in Italy, Olivia Agresti
(1875-1960) had a literary pedigree that would have appealed to Pound: her
father was William Michael Rossetti, one of her cousins was Ford Madox
Ford, and in the next-to-last letter in this collection she reminisces, "I
remember Browning coming to our old home in Endsleigh Gdns. when I was a
little girl." But she was active in radical politics from her early teens,
and the elderly woman of these letters (almost all of them from the St.
Elizabeths years) is a fervent and entirely unrepentant Fascist.
But not an antisemite, and that turns out to be the primary subject of
these letters. For the Pound on display here is monomaniacal on the subject
of the Jews: a gibbering paranoiac with a mouth full of antisemitic
cliches. Agresti firmly rebuffs every one of Pound's invitations to join
the conspiracy theory, but that has no effect whatever on Pound. However --
and here are the two things about the book which I think may be of most
interest to Poundians --
(1) These letters demonstrate that Pound did continue to read and think and
grow while he was in St. Elizabeths. However, the syllabus for Pound's
reading had been set up many years before, and that didn't change. In St.
Elizabeths, it appears, pretty much everything Pound read was made to serve
the purposes of his obsessions. One new enthusiasm, for instance --
maintained in the face of Agresti's frankly expressed distaste -- was a
volume of Hitler's table talk. Per contra, after Kasper claimed that
Alexander Del Mar was Jewish, Pound's first reaction was to congratulate
himself on his tolerance ("I shall go on reviving his glorious memory. NOT
that such impartiality will do me any good" -- letter 100), but within nine
months he had worked it out that "given my admiration for DelM/ AS
HISTORIAN, it need [sic] 40 years watching to SEE that he is a kike, and
that his information cd/ lead to kahal government system/ the STINK model
of kremlin tyranny, only nobody KNOWS about it." (letter 113).
(2) Pound also followed contemporary American politics, and his perspective
was what you'd expect. He was a fan of the obsessively anti-Roosevelt
columnist Westbrook Pegler, for instance, and about Joseph McCarthy he
"good GOD, O.R.A.,
"have I got to start on YOU, to keep even YOU from swallowing the god
damned lies of the same god damned liars who lied re/ Mus and Adolph. There
is no witch hunt.
"They lie about McCarthy, the press in the hands of dirty jews and worse
goyim. . . ." (Letter 66)
But how are we to think of such passages now? In the last few years, with
the opening of the Cold War archives in the United States and the former
Soviet Union, it has become unambiguously clear that those despised
creatures of half a century ago, the Cold War Liberals -- people like
Sidney Hook and Roger Baldwin and, yes, in those days, Ronald Reagan --
were quite correct in their assessment of the relative dangers of
McCarthyism and communism. To the Cold War Liberals (senior citizens will
recall) McCarthy wasn't wrong because he was anti-communist; he was wrong
because his cruelty and irresponsibility discredited anti-communism. But
nobody much listened to the Cold War Liberals, and one result was that in
1977 Vivian Gornick received good reviews for a book called _The Romance of
American Communism_.
It probably wouldn't happen now. But that means we're going to have to
rethink Pound. In the light of these letters, that's going to be a
distressing task. In letter 102 Pound calls Hugh Kenner "marked as a
poundista. but less so than is supposed. . . . Incapable of main ideas." If
I were Professor Kenner, I'd read that brutality as a tribute to my honor.
Finally, since this book is going to be read for many years, some corrigenda:
Letter 66, note 7, translates Pound's "they may have an Italy. quia
impossibile est" as "which is impossible." But isn't this a play on
Tertullian's "Credo quia absurdum est" -- "I believe because it is absurd"?
Letter 84, note 3, annotates Pound's "that stuffed shirt Gunther 'inside'
etc." as "Presumably a New York police chief." The correct reference is to
the journalist John Gunther, author of _Inside U.S.A._.
Letter 95, note 15, translates "idola fori" as "false idols." In context, I
think this must be Bacon's "idols of the marketplace" -- i.e., errors in
understanding due to language.
Letter 101, note 2, annotates "the poster on the french Vespasians" as
referring to a French antisemite. Pound's reference is antisemitic, but I
think "Vespasian" here means "vespasienne": urinal.
Jonathan Morse
Department of English
University of Hawaii at Manoa
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