Stockholm syndrome is not a phenomenon restricted solely to hostages who find common cause with their captors over time. Biographers, too, sometimes find themselves defending or identifying with the subject of their study, historical figures who, despite their seamy side, steal the sympathy of a writer who spends years in a kind of captivity to his or her subject. The life of a biographer is by necessity one of obsession and absorption; and as the song goes, when you can’t be with the ones you love, you love the one you’re with.
The syndrome is notably visible over the course of A. David Moody’s monumental three-volume biography of Ezra Pound, the final installment of which, Ezra Pound: Poet: Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972, was published last fall, almost 10 years after the first. Moody’s careful sympathy for his subject is not always a negative, of course, because it can be otherwise difficult to get into the life of a man whose notorious views are so off-putting as Pound’s. One doesn’t need three volumes, after all, if the goal is simply to convince an audience that Pound was a remarkably erudite scholar who was also a sociopath, a quisling and an anti-Semite.
Most readers will likely come away from this third volume having reached exactly that conclusion, but Moody goes to great lengths to offer a cross-examination and some evidence to nuance the verdict. He does not always succeed—“tragic” is a remarkably benevolent and sententious way to describe Pound’s works and days from 1939 to 1972—but his exhaustive account of Pound’s literary and personal life does militate against an overly hasty condemnation of the poet or the man. And Moody’s range and depth of research will make any work on Pound that follows inevitably a conversation with this one.
Born in 1885 in what was still the Idaho Territory, Pound moved to Europe in his early 20s after a short (and unsuccessful) stint teaching at Wabash College and soon established himself as a poet and literary critic of far-reaching influence. He is probably familiar to most Americans less for his own voluminous writings than for T. S. Eliot’s dedication of “The Wasteland” to him. Quoting Dante’s Purgatorio, Eliot called Pound (who heavily edited Eliot’s poem) il miglior fabbro, “the better craftsman.” But Eliot was not the only poet who owed much to Pound; as Moody’s earlier volumes showed, Pound was up in the business of almost every major figure in early 20th-century English-language poetry to a degree almost farcical. In between championing the then-unknown Eliot, serving as the best man at W. B. Yeats’s wedding, bringing Ford Madox Ford and Robert Frost to European audiences, taking boxing lessons from Ernest Hemingway and funneling to James Joyce spending money and the odd pair of shoes, he spent many a malicious and gleeful hour gaslighting his erstwhile disciple, poor William Carlos Williams. All the while, he carried on extensive literary correspondence with everyone from D. H. Lawrence to James Dickey, the latter noting that “some people would know what Ezra Pound knows, and some people would know that Ezra Pound knows, but nobody but Ezra Pound knows all these things at the same time as he does.”
An early enthusiast of literary modernism and of the Imagist movement (from which he later broke), the young Pound became as much noted as an editor and critic as he was as a poet. Disillusioned by World War I, he moved to Italy in 1924 and developed over the next decade an idiosyncratic political persona, blaming capitalism’s usurious ways for most of the ills of modern civilization. His massive and ultimately incomplete Cantos poem cycle includes (among many beautifully crafted poetic triumphs) repeated references to his personal theories and bugaboos concerning international finance and politics, a “Confucian ethic” that he sought to transplant into European culture, and a “social credit” economic system that would replace capitalism. He eventually found common cause with Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime, and by the peak of World War II had become one of Mussolini’s stooges, broadcasting anti-American and pro-Fascist propaganda over the radio and waging a parallel campaign in his writing, both rife with crudely anti-Semitic slurs.
Moody does not shrink from any of it—Pound’s praise for Mein Kampf, his comparisons of Hitler to Christian saints (“Like many martyrs he held extreme views”), his vicious Jew-baiting both in print and over the air—but his encyclopedic catalog of Pound’s work does not serve his subject well. Such a careful historical rendering cannot help but bury Pound even when Moody wants to praise him. Sometimes Pound himself contradicts Moody’s account. The claim, for example, that Pound was not really a Fascist can hardly be reconciled with Pound’s own statements (“I believe in Fascism and want to defend it”) or letters (some signed “Heil Hitler”).
Arrested in May 1945 and imprisoned for several weeks in Pisa (hence the Pisan Cantos) in an outdoor cage that he claimed triggered a nervous breakdown, Pound was eventually brought back to the United States to stand trial for treason. He was convinced by his lawyers to plead insanity instead and was eventually committed to a mental institution. There he enjoyed the regular visits of poetic and literary admirers (including a few crackpots) and even two love affairs, even while his wife Dorothy continued to manage his financial and personal matters. Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress tried to award him the first annual Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1949 for his Pisan Cantos, though public outcry resulted in the award’s cancellation. And though he hardly ceased his anti-Semitic screeds, a growing chorus of the literary elite argued for Pound’s release. Pound’s literary output made it difficult for the government to argue that he was insane (he was writing his Cantos all the while) but even harder to insist on a charge of treason (even the infamous Tokyo Rose was released, in 1956). He was finally released in 1958, at which point he returned to his beloved Italy and declared “all America is an insane asylum.” Diminished both physically and mentally, he slowly receded from the public eye and died in 1972.
Moody makes it clear from the get-go that he considers Pound “neither mad nor a traitor,” and that if he had stood trial he would have been acquitted—that he was guilty more of idiosyncratic theories than treasonable activity. But herein lies the tension present throughout Moody’s account. If Pound was not insane, then he was responsible for his rhetoric and its consequences. Moody himself admits at one point that “Pound’s words were his deeds.” So perhaps we are more comfortable with Pound the madman because we do not want to ponder Pound the monster.
Pound’s arrival in Naples in 1958 offers one more reminder that there was something far darker than insanity or idiosyncrasy at work. It was mere weeks after he had been granted release from St. Elizabeth’s, and 13 years since the end of a war so unimaginably savage it almost destroyed civilization entirely.
Pound stepped ashore and greeted the waiting crowd with a Fascist salute.