A. David Moody recently completed his magisterial three-volume biography of Ezra Pound, and after roughly 2000 pages, it’s perhaps understandable that Stockholm syndrome might be playing a part in his judgements. It’s the most charitable explanation for the sheer persistent drumbeat of exculpatory lies he tells about his subject all throughout the 600 pages of Ezra Pound: Poet — Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972. There is, for example, no entry in the index to this third volume for “treason” — only “alleged treason.” And of Pound’s actions while living in Mussolini’s Italy, Moody grudgingly admits only that they “led inevitably to his being perceived as a traitor and a Fascist, when it truth he was neither.”
Neither a traitor nor a Fascist — just a perception problem, that’s all. Against the charge that Pound was a Fascist, Moody offers the not entirely consoling word-play that Pound was instead “engaging in propaganda that could serve the Fascist interest.” Against the charge of treason there isn’t much that even so ardent a sympathizer as Moody can do for the memory of a man who repeatedly, eagerly made Rome Radio broadcasts enthusiastically praising Mussolini’s rule, enthusiastically praising the Third Reich, enthusiastically denouncing the United States, and through it all, enthusiastically spewing the vilest anti-Semitism found outside of Nuremberg. If using your fame and name-recognition to broadcast contempt for your home country and praise for a dictatorship with which your home country is at war doesn’t constitute treason, then it’s difficult to know what would. It’s true that Pound didn’t sneak a revolver into a White House arts and poetry gala and shoot President Roosevelt between the eyes at point-blank range, although any reader of all three Moody volumes will be morbidly curious as to how our biographer might try to spin such a moment. “Engaging in actions that could result in FDR’s brain exploding,” perhaps, or something like that.
Nevertheless, Pound was indeed convicted of treason by the Department of Justice in 1945. Through the assiduous deceit of his lawyer and friends, he avoided spending the rest of his life in prison by being committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he remained, holding court, for 13 years. While he was there, these same friends lobbied to have the Library of Congress award him its Bollingen Prize for his Pisan Cantos, despite strong protests from all quarters of the literary and critical world. The editors of the old Saturday Review of Literature, reports Moody, “with a total disregard for the truth,” wrote a fairly indicative condemnation:
Ezra Pound is not merely the traitor who deserts his country to impart secrets which are useful to the enemy. Ezra Pound voluntarily served the cause of the greatest anti-humanitarian and anti-cultural crusade known to history. He was no innocent abroad who was made to sing for his supper and his safety, but an open and declared enemy of democratic government in general and the American people in particular.
Its heated rhetoric aside, these are simple claims of fact (with the “innocent abroad” line added in an attempt to differentiate Pound’s treasonous broadcasts from P. G. Wodehouse’s merely semi-treasonous broadcasts, one supposes), but Moody is on hand at every stage of Pound’s later life with a ready explanation for his grotesqueries and a quick counter-insinuation for his many enemies. The resistance of those enemies to the awarding of such a prize to such a man — George Orwell freely used the word “evil,” and Bennet Cerf excluded Pound’s poems from an anthology on the grounds that he was “a fascist and a traitor,” and they were in populous company — Moody, more in sorrow than anger, chalks up to heightened emotions and a fundamental misunderstanding of the ways in which one may honor the poetry without recommending the poet.
Read ItEzra Pound: Poet — Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 by A. David Moody
Cumulatively, it can be depressing to read, and it’s not an isolated example. Moody’s book is in fact only one of the latest in a veritable slew of such works, a bounty of exonerating biographies of bastards. Veteran biographer Frank McLynn, in writing a long recent biography of Genghis Khan, briskly relates the fact that his subject put entire nations and populations to death for no reason other than simple blood-thirst, and then moves on to linger over the legal codes the Khan instituted in his vast domain. President Ronald Reagan and President George H. W. Bush, neither exactly a saint in Heaven during his time in the Oval Office, each received cringing, white-washing, entirely adulatory biographies from best-selling writers. The loathsome Richard Nixon, betrayer of his entire nation, has received a string of attempted revisionist accounts since his death. Historian John Rohl recently completed his gigantic biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II with a volume titled Into the Abyss of War and Exile, a volume portraying the strutting, anti-Semitic war-mongering semi-demented ranter as a cool-headed shaper of his nation’s policy rather than the helmet-plumed irrelevant popinjay he really was. Doubling down on the whole fad, best-selling historian Andrew Roberts recently wrote a big biography of Napoleon Bonaparte called Napoleon the Great, arguing that Bonaparte was “the Enlightenment on horseback” and rolling right over the fact that Bonaparte established a totalitarian hereditary monarchy, trampled on the rights of his subject peoples, ignored common decency in treating his own men-at-arms (let alone his conquered enemies), and never kept a promise he could conveniently break.
Taken collectively, these and other such books amount to a symptom rather than a symposium, a dark reflection of the rampant moral relativism of the 21st century, when the assertion of black-and-white ethical categories is increasingly viewed as at best bad taste and at worst an imposition of outdated cultural norms. In the current meme-driven frame of mind, the worst monsters of history must be at least in part simply misunderstood. A liar may have written some lovely sonnets; a murderer may be a dab hand in the garden; a dictator might eventually get around to straightening out the postal system — but if we allow our biographers to stress apocryphal over appalling, bureaucracy over body counts, and trivia over treason, we run the risk of filling our history with an endless row of hand-wringing camp counsellors, well-meaning if occasionally fallible.
Regardless of what you might think about the anti-Semitic spewings of the Pisan Cantos, Ezra Pound was factually, historically a Fascist and a traitor. We side-line those facts at more peril than we might at first think. •