Ezra Pound: Poet: Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 - A. David Moody (2015)
PART FOUR: ST ELIZABETHS, 1946–1958
Ne cede Malis
(Yield not to misfortune.)
—Loomis family motto
Though nothing happens that is not due to destiny, one accepts willingly only what is one’s proper destiny…It is never anyone’s proper destiny to die in fetters.
What perversities you cultivated could never match those pitted now against you
—Ramon Guthrie, ‘Ezra Pound in Paris & Elsewhere’
10: A YEAR IN THE HELL HOLE
What the hell is reality anyhow
Awareness restful & fake is fatiguing
In the hot summer of 1946 a young orderly from another part of St Elizabeths seized a chance to look through the peephole at Ezra Pound in his Howard Hall cell. Once he saw him lying down, ‘apparently napping’. Another time he saw him ‘standing looking out the window…dressed in a hospital gown…trousers, and an institutional bathrobe’. Pound was ‘pallid looking, ruffled hair and scruffy unshaven face’, but this was unremarkable—inmates everywhere in St Elizabeths looked like that.
One of the attendants in Howard Hall reported that ‘the patient spends most of his time writing’; and Dr Taub wrote in his report in April that ‘On the ward’—that was Howard Hall’s Ward 6—‘this examiner usually finds the patient busily writing and in an apparently cheerful mood’. Dr Cruvant, however, noted in August that
The ward personnel is impressed with Mr. Pound’s erudition only that he spends most of his time complaining lying around on the bed, keeping it messed up and his room all cluttered with books and magazines ‘all over the place’.
Dr James, in October, entered a more tolerant report:
On the ward the patient spends the greater part of the time lounging around, rarely does any work, is very cheerful and cooperative with other patients and employees. He evidently has made a fairly good adjustment.
But Dr Cruvant expected more. ‘On the ward he cooperates fairly well’, he had noted in May, ‘although taking little or no interest in his associates and does not participate in any of the activities of the ward.’ Then in August, after noting the ward personnel’s report that ‘he does no work but he eats and sleeps well’, he entered into the record the surreal remark that ‘The examiner is too polite in general to call Mr. Pounds attention to this discrepancy in communal living and mutual obligation.’ It was no doubt a fine idea, that in the maximum security ward for the criminally and violently insane one should behave as in a civilized community, but it was an idea likely to strike the sane inmate struggling to keep his individual mind and world together as unreal, if not plain mad.
Dr Taub had noted in April that ‘During the pleasant days, Mr. Pound spends the time outdoors with other patients’, usually stretching out ‘in the shade on some blankets and a large rubber sheet which he carries around’. This was by command, not from choice. ‘Only present affliction is being pried off my sord bed & made to lie on earth 2-5 hrs daily’, he had told Olga Rudge in March, ‘sposed to be hygenic . maybe it is . been given rubber sheet and quilt to intervene between me & the ground.’ Again Dr Cruvant wanted him to be more communal. ‘He spends the major portion of his time lying on a rather choice bit of ground in the outer courtyard of the Hall’, he noted primly on 9 May, ‘but is unhappy, today, because he was recently moved from his particular spot to be closer to the other patients.’
Most months the patient was formally examined by one or another of St Elizabeths young psychiatrists in order to ‘monitor his progress’. None thought him insane, but all reported a fixed pattern of behaviour persisting through the course of the year. He would present himself as suffering from extreme fatigue, yet would then become animated and excited, as Dr Stevens reported on 31 March:—
This patient has been interviewed on several occasions throughout the month, most of the sessions beginning with a complaint of fatigue which Mr. Pound accompanied by histrionic gestures designed to emphasize his alleged state of complete exhaustion. As the interview proceeded, he ignored his obviously feigned infirmities, becomes quite animated in his conversation, bangs the desk, jumps up, raises his voice, becomes flushed and displays evidence of energy, the interview often lasting an hour.
Dr Taub gave a more dramatic description of a similar scenario in April—
When interviewed today he was called from outdoors. He came into the examining room wearing an Army coat, which still had Army buttons and was carrying two blankets and the large rubber sheet on which he stretches outdoors. He stomped hurriedly into the room, dropped his blankets and sheeting on a chair, quickly grabbed another chair, pulled it up to the desk and with an equally accelerated speed sat down and propped his feet on the desk. After that he leaned back on his chair and dramatically displayed a picture of complete and utter exhaustion. During most of the interview he appeared so exhausted. Some statements are uttered in low tones and with sighing gasps as though they were a man’s last words. On one occasion, however, when the question of publishers was innocently mentioned by the examiner in the course of conversation the patient suddenly became excited and bolted upright from his relaxed position.
Dr Cruvant noted the same behaviour in May: the agile bouncing into the examination room, the assumption of attitudes of extreme prostration and fatigue, ‘with dramatic display and many histrionic gestures’, then the becoming animated and forgetting for a while ‘his pose of fatigue’. In October the performance took a further turn. On entering the room ‘in a rather rapid manner’ he saw a bed ‘and immediately lay down’, Dr James recorded. He gathered that ‘The patient experiences difficulty in remaining upright more than a period of a few minutes, and is continually looking for a place to lie down. He feels this relieves his fatigue to a certain extent.’ Nevertheless, ‘at times the patient became extremely riled…and would then sit upright, raise his voice, and pound his fists’. ‘Physically,’ he noted, ‘the patient appears to be in excellent condition.’
Dr Gilbert had told the Court that Pound’s complaining of unusual fatigue and exhaustion was a leading symptom of his paranoid state, but these St Elizabeths doctors appeared to draw from it no conclusion at all about his state of mind. They were sure he was putting it on, faking it, and seem never to have considered that it might be both histrionic and the projection of a genuine reaction to his situation. They simply observed what could be observed in his behaviour, impersonally, though not without prejudice. Dr Taub had noted, ‘he shows a general reluctance to answer questions or discuss any other problems [apart from his exhaustion]’, and says ‘“you young men can’t understand”’. Dr Stevens had quizzed him about ‘his scurrilous and anti-Semitic broadcasts in Italy’—he had reviewed the copies of the broadcasts given to St Elizabeths by the Justice Department—and Pound had said he could not remember. Stevens then asked him if he wished to stand trial, but Pound ‘effected an elaborate caricature of fatigue, and the interview had to be terminated’. Dr Cruvant insisted on leading Pound ‘into some discussion of his economic and political theories’, in spite of ‘his protestations of the intense fatigue which it causes him’, and then reported complacently that he could see little truth in the theories and that ‘as a propagandist Mr. Pound leaves me quite cold’. On another occasion Cruvant asked the poet ‘why he did not at some time write material for purely popular consumption as a sort of “Potboiler” to bring in some money’.
In general the psychiatrists’ idea of examining Pound seems to have been to interrogate him as from the criminal charge-sheet rather than as a patient. Nowhere in their notes is any consideration given to the possibility of his being in need of treatment. And it seems not to have crossed their minds that, beyond being a put-on show of his weariness at their blank incomprehension of what drove him, his fatigue could be a genuine symptom of demoralization and breakdown. Dr Mitchell recorded that ‘He feels burned out…feels a long way from his former self’, as indeed he must have been to be behaving as he was. But the doctor noted the statement quite objectively, as simply what Pound had said to him, not as an indication that he might be really in a bad way.
Their implicit assumption all along was that he was sane and that there was nothing actually wrong with him. Dr Stevens noted, at the end of March, that ‘while he may be obscure [in his speech and writing] he is never disconnected or irrelevant’. He then set down what amounted to a direct refutation of the expert opinion accepted by the Court:
He is in complete contact with his surroundings, and apparently appreciates his predicament. Intellectual processes are well integrated, and his genius is quite apparent. No abnormal mental content is elicitable, and there has been no evidence of hallucinations, delusions, ideas of reference, or ideas of alien control. His views on economics, and especially on money, are unorthodox, but logical and coherent.
Dr James, in his October notes, remarked that apart from his wanting to lie down ‘the patient gave no evidence of other abnormal mental states’. And Dr Cruvant, while confessing to his ‘great difficulty in following Mr. Pounds reasoning’ and making it plain that he did not take to him at all, showed no inclination to put him down as a mental case. All six psychiatrists who examined Pound during his year in Howard Hall—the sixth was Dr Kavka—dealt with him as a person of sane mind. Yet not one of them reflected in their clinical notes on what it might do to the mind of a sane man who believed himself innocent to be incarcerated among the criminally insane.
The letters Pound was writing might be expected to reveal his states of mind less opaquely than the doctors’ notes, but the fact is that he was acutely aware that ‘anything he wrote or sent out of St Elizabeths is inspected by ignorant interns’, so that even in his letters he would have been conscious of their gaze upon him. When he told Ronald Duncan, ‘you [can] hv no idea of my present fragmentary state’, or told another correspondent ‘I can’t hold two sides of an idea together’, or told a third, that he was ‘in serious breakdown’, was he telling the simple truth, or was he exaggerating for ‘the ignorant interns’? Certainly his statement to Williams near the end of April, ‘My Main spring is busted…I can not make ANY effort mental or physical’, was just what he wanted the doctors to believe; but then he immediately contradicted himself by writing, ‘I was trying to tell you how to combat the evil that Eliot has (unintentionally) done & does’, a carefully weighed sentence showing that his mind was still in fair working order. ‘IF the goddam mind flows O. K.’, he admitted, ‘but if not, NOT & nowt to do about it.’
He understood his condition well enough to point Olga Rudge towards a more perceptive account than anything in the doctors’ notes. On 23 March he began his letter to her in the same vein as that letter to Williams: ‘she write him simple things like that she went up & down the salita…but nowt needing thought, opinion, judgement’. He wanted a regular diary of things ‘I don’t have to work on’. Then, as if to explain this uncharacteristic lethargy, he wrote,
She see Tietjens in Fordie’s ‘Some do not’…loss of memory
& in, I think, Shakleton, in the little white Ogden series – – adrenal exhaustion case in Canadian forest—
help for her also . applicable to both of us . I think.
‘Adrenal exhaustion’, due to sustained anxiety and stress, offered a credible diagnosis of his physical state, and Olga would have known all about that and understood it at once. But when she recalled or looked into Ford’s Some Do Not, the first novel in his tetralogy Parade’s End, she would have realized that in Tietjens Ford was delineating not just a loss of memory but the split-level workings of a mind under prolonged strain. Shell-shock has knocked out Tietjens’s formerly encyclopedic memory, and he is having to face ‘death, love, public dishonour’, ‘all these things coming upon him cumulatively and rather suddenly’, with two-thirds of his brain in shock. Nonetheless, he is still able to use ‘what brain he had as trenchantly as ever’, and Ford manages brilliantly to create a mind at once traumatized, even shattered, yet still able to articulate responses to ‘death, love, public dishonor’ that are fully in character. Pound, who had just re-read and been deeply impressed by Some Do Not, could well have identified with Tietjens’s predicament, and felt that Ford’s creative insight into a mind under great stress was of more use to him than his sessions with the psychiatrists.
The immediate source of stress was his being just another inmate in Howard Hall. ‘My status is that of a bulot, a packet,’ he complained to Olga, ‘& I don’t know what J.C.[Cornell] is up to . and cdnt/DO anything about it anyhow.’ One reflex was to blame himself: ‘I suffer for solitude inflicted thoughtlessly on you @ Sirmione 20 years ago. etc.’—that was when she was waiting out her time to give birth to Mary—‘Everything Anyone does falls on THEM in the end.…No one dodges . & Karma works.’ He didn’t go on about that, nor did he go on much about the pains of the place. ‘Basso inferno’, he called his ward in one letter to Mary, but let her know at the same time that there had been sausage for lunch and that the diet was ‘abundant, dull, but, I believe, healthy’. ‘I eat wot I get with a spoon – last saw k. & f. in Bermudah’, this in passing to his old friend Viola Baxter Jordan after a reminiscence of Mouquins, a favourite restaurant in New York. To Olga the musician he mentioned as an item in the ‘local bulletin’ that someone in the hall was picking out ‘The wearing o’ the green’ with one finger—‘program runs to Loch Lomond, & Jerusalem the Golden’, all painfully with one finger. Another letter suggested how heavily time weighed there—
Today red letter in that am hand-kuffed to be taken to dental bld.—perfectly comfortable wide leather cuffs . do not cause nervousness after 1st time. NOT that am supposed violent but patients are continually beating up guards & guards therefore prefer etc. (when prisoners tempted by sight of wide open spaces).…pleasant ride to dental in station wagon—back in vulgar bus . small things make a day.
‘One of the worst things is not being able to get out into the open air when one wants to’, he would write later, and the ‘Other worst thing when in the hell hole, IF one had lived between sea and hills, is to have no horizon, nothing but a blank wall 30 or 40 feet off’. He told Dorothy that from one window there was a ‘view of Potomac sunset – flat, dull as Main @ Francoforte’, and that if he stood on his own window sill he could see another bit of the Potomac. It made him ‘long for Pisan paradise’. Just being let out of the courtyard into the ‘dry moat of the dungeon’ made him feel better, healthy. But he needed most to get his mind out of the prison altogether, ‘to pierce the wall’, ‘to think of some world outside these walls’, ‘any means…to git my MIND out of here, even if carcass remains vinculated’. Visits, as from Olson and Mencken, served, even though restricted to fifteen minutes. But letters had to be his main resource. ‘I like to get letters’, he assured Wyndham Lewis, ‘seul plaisir etc / of the jugged’. And to D. D. Paige, ‘Gtst difficulty is to get people to write me enough letters to keep me aware of life outside the walls’. It was a place, he would say, for news to come into, not go out of.
At times his mind homed to Olga’s Sant’Ambrogio. ‘Keep St Amb. @ all costs’, he urged her a fortnight into his indefinite commitment to St Elizabeths, ‘even if they stole everything’—Casa 60 had been burgled twice—‘There wd still be the house…Where wd I go if I ever got out.’ A month later he assured her, ‘yes if he had the wings of a sucking dove he wd. to S. Amb.—@ least sposin’ they wd carry that far . loose or crated.’ He was more grounded, and more nostalgic, in a letter to Mary:—
Dearest Child. / Casa 60 is holy ground . but I don’t want you to leave Olga alone there – nor her chained there by Treasure real or supposed –
all I have left, the birds
answering fiddle, & her between
me & window & view of the bay
Still the desire persisted. Though ‘I have no say in anything’, he wrote to Olga in April, ‘I know where I shd go if LET—as per earlier notes—to S. Amb.’ One earlier note had read, ‘He would like to see the salita & walk on it. He dont know anything much else he wants to walk on except the Zattere & Piaz S. Marco or the rue de la Paix etc.’ That note had broken off, ‘& it is no use his projectin’, and in another he had warned himself, ‘he better not think about any thing nearer ’n the Confucian anthology’. But ‘if LET’, his mind would fly to Sant’ Ambrogio.
In one of his letters to Olga, after asking for her news and Mary’s and saying ‘he lives on letters’, he thought to add, ‘and he wd like to see her’. He did not mean that he would like to see her in St Elizabeths, even less for her to see him as he was in there. When she wrote about getting herself across to America he exploded in fury, ‘God Damn,—to talk 15 minutes in a corridor?!!’ She should ‘stop writing bilge about coming here and use what brains god has left you to get me OUT of here—HELL…’. Olga said she didn’t understand his putting her off, and he raged at her, ‘SHE damn well not set foot in this country.…six weeks wd/ kill her…It is no place for her’—
No—when a man is down a well-hole you dont help by jumpin in on top of him = Got all I can stand without worryin about what she wd/ be sufferin’ from absolute incomprehensibility if she got here.
Nothing to live on for anyone with less than $5000 a year. & hatred for any activity save pillage.
‘If there is ever a reason for her to come’, he assured her more mildly, ‘he will say so subito.’ Otherwise she should remain well clear of America, and get him out of it and back to civilization—that was where he would be very pleased to see her.
He did not feel the same way about Dorothy getting herself to Washington and remaining there. She had declared her firm intention of doing that already in December 1945, in a letter which he may have received only in February—
I am quite intent on getting over to be with you. Its just silly, my living this life, & so dam far away from you. I must see you & be near you…Please get it into yr. head that I’m coming over as soon as I can. (when that will be…?)
In the event it would be six months before she could secure a berth, and in that interval Pound neither discouraged nor welcomed her coming. ‘I don’t know how you can get transport—perhaps via England?’, that was the extent of his reaction. He asked again, ‘Wd you go via England?’, probably with a view to who she might see and what she might do there for him. He would tell Mary, when Dorothy had been with him for a decade, ‘D.P. a blessing because she does what she is told.’ ‘D. attendin to practical’, was how he put it to his mother in May 1947.
He either did not notice or didn’t mind that Dorothy had her own agenda, though it was plain to see. She was being venomous about Olga, and patronizing about Mary, while constantly praising Omar as a worthy and devoted son ‘full of filial piety’ towards her and towards his ‘Dad’. She wanted them to be together as a family, just Ezra, Omar, and herself. And she meant to reclaim Pound as her own. In April she sent him a poem about her heart ‘hammering with terror’, and going down ‘Until I touched bottom’, then
The god has passed.
Because of your manhood
I am enriched with
‘happiness for ever & ever’
So there be peace between us
And a new serenity.
Pound’s only response was, ‘Hope she hit bottom & is startin to rise’. He did take a sympathetic interest in Omar at her prompting, advising how he should read and what he should study, and suggesting ways in which he could make himself useful. He let pass the snide remarks about Olga and the disparaging remarks about Mary. And he said nothing about Dorothy’s harping on about how she couldn’t stand ‘that perpetual mosquito yr. Ma’.
Dorothy was still living with Isabel Pound in her Villa Raggio apartment, but was arranging for her to move to a room in their old roof-top apartment up all the stairs in via Marsala, ‘with Siga Corradi to look after her’. In her December letter telling Pound she intended getting over to be with him, she also wrote that Isabel
has always said or taken for granted that I was going to lug her along: but myself is all I can manage: & she hasn’t enough to live on in the States + the fare. This time I am just ignoring it—& coming—alone. She’s much too weak in body and head now.
Isabel, actually quite clear-headed though physically frail, ‘wanted at all costs to go to America’, and stubbornly went on trying to gain access to her frozen funds to pay for her passage. When she fell and broke her hip in May Dorothy had her carried to the hospital, then wrote to Pound,
‘its an ill wind’…I am once more in my own Studio—since yesterday—& the Corradis take me on to feed instead of I.W.P. She didn’t look like dying today—Everybody is visiting her—& Chute bringing her custard & wine.
Pound wrote to his mother, ‘Very very sorry to hear of yr accident . Hope it isn’t too painful. / Don’t know what I can do….’. When Dorothy sailed without her towards the end of June Isabel ‘terminated the lease and tried to sell the furniture in Villa Raggio, in order to travel light’, and was still hoping the following spring ‘to have passage on next boat for U. S.’
On 18 June, about the time Dorothy was preparing to sail, Charles Olson spent twenty-five minutes with Pound in Howard Hall. ‘He has such charm’, he began his account of the visit, but then, evidently afraid of being disarmed by the charm, went on at some length about its seductions and dangers:—
In itself, it is lovely, young, his maintaining of youth a rare thing. I do not know anyone who could be in a prison and stay as he: it was young of him […] to remark to Griffin, the doctor, as we spoke to him when he went through the visiting room yesterday ‘…before I got myself into this mess’. As far as I can judge Pound acts within the walls much as he acted outside, the difference only of degree. Yet the Griffin incident also suggested the misuse of his charm which I feel has led Pound into snobbery, and the company of shits and fascists. It is clear he has Griffin pegged for the white trash he is. Yet he can traffic with him.
‘You come to distrust the nice things he says,’ Olson wound up, distancing himself upon that dubious ground, ‘look upon all his conduct as a wheedling or a blackmail…and it’s no good.’ Yet, he confessed, he had enjoyed the conversation which ran on against the guard’s wanting them to quit, ‘For he is swift, and his wit is sure.’ They had ‘batted around the radio, the movies, the magazines, and national advertising, the 4 Plagues of our time’, and ‘It was a pleasure to listen to him…for he was talking out his direct impressions and actions, not going over into generalizations, so many of which or all of them become fascist and cliche.’ Altogether, Olson’s Pound as registered that day was far from being the exhausted prisoner of the psychiatrists’ notes, as he would be far removed from the ‘broken man’ his wife would discover.
Dorothy sailed from Genoa on the ‘S. S. Marine Carp’ on 23 June and arrived in New York on Saturday 6 July. Laughlin met her and took her to his home in Norfolk, Connecticut, for the Sunday, where she picked up the galleys of Pound’s translation of Confucius to give him on her first visit; and the Monday she ‘spent mostly with Cornell’ who handed her the transcripts of the doctors’ testimony at the sanity hearing. She will have been well briefed in his and Laughlin’s view of Pound’s situation and prospects. On Tuesday she flew to Washington and was received there by Miss Mapel. The next day she was allowed a ‘one hour special’ visit with Pound—thereafter it would be just the regulation 15 minutes three days a week. She would rent the attic of a house at 3211 10th Place SE, and on visiting days would eat in the Red Cross canteen at St Elizabeths.
After her 15 minutes on the Thursday she wrote a note to Laughlin and another to A. V. Moore in London, saying that she had found EP well physically, but very nervous—‘& no wonder’. Pound had said, ‘if he can rest 23 hours, one hour is clear to him’, and that ‘his head is good on just one subject during 15 minutes’. Dorothy was letting him talk on the subject he had uppermost, ‘yesty. Confucius. Today other matters. He seems clear on the subject he has arranged to talk about.’ But ‘EP himself says he’ll never get better where he is in there’—his wish was to be ‘got out into some kind of less prison-y sanatorium’. On 14 July Dorothy wrote to Laughlin again, ‘Just seen Ezra today. He [is] certainly very jumpy & nervous. 15 minutes is maddening! He says, & I think he’s right, he’ll never get well in that place…I think EP is fairly ill…’ She wrote to Cornell the same day, ‘I believe his wits are really very scattered, and he has difficulty in concentrating even for a few minutes.…I do believe we must try to get Ezra out of that place.’ She wanted Cornell to tell her ‘What can be done as quickly as possible, in safety?’
Cornell replied at once that he was sure Pound ‘would be much better off in a private sanatorium’, however,
I do not think that the present is an opportune time to make an application to the court for his removal. This could be done only by the granting of bail or the dismissal of the charges. I discussed this question with Mr. Eliot, Mr. Laughlin and others a few weeks ago and all were agreed that such an application should not be made at the present time because of public clamor which would arise in opposition.
In his opinion they should wait ‘at least until the fall’—meaning until after the November mid-term elections—unless ‘Dr Overholser could be persuaded to testify that the state of his health required removal to a private sanatorium’. He suggested that Dorothy ‘try to see Dr. Overholser about this’, and he would do the same ‘within the next few weeks’.
Eliot, then approaching the zenith of his celebrity as an elder of letters, had been in America since early June, visiting his family, attending to publishing matters, and giving crowded out public lectures and readings. He was ‘very anxious to hold a council of strategy of those who are wanting to help Ez. P.’, so Laughlin wrote to Cummings, with an invitation to join them over dinner on the night of 20 June. Cummings was unable to be there, and Laughlin let him know that ‘What we concluded at the council’—that was Eliot, Laughlin, Cornell, and possibly one or two others—‘was that things must be done quietly. An attempt first to get him moved to better quarters at the hospital, then later his release, since he is incurable but harmless.’ Pound knew about the meeting and wrote to Cummings, ‘Wd like yr. version of pow-wow’, but Cummings could only tell him, ‘I gather that ’twas a success.’ Eliot went down to Washington to visit Pound about 10 July, and presumably gave him his version of the strategy that had been agreed. After his visit Eliot wrote to Dorothy that he feared there was nothing he personally could do, but that he imagined Cornell would apply for Pound’s release to a sanatorium—he did not mention ‘better quarters’ within St Elizabeths—as the next step towards his eventual release. His letter implicitly endorsed the view that Pound was ‘incurable but harmless’.
Dorothy spelt out the thinking behind this strategy in a letter to Ronald Duncan dated ‘Aug.9’: ‘How can I make you understand that every line that EP writes, that isn’t smuggled out by me—is inspected by the (Jew) psychiatrists? If they have reason to consider him of sane coherent mind, he goes to jail & to trial.’ (The St Elizabeths psychiatrists, as Cornell at least knew, did consider Pound to be of sane and coherent mind, but would not or could not send him to trial—Overholser was seeing to that.) Dorothy also brought up Cornell’s sub-argument, ‘His nerves certainly are not in any condition, & never will be, to stand such treatment.’ Did she really believe that, or was it all part of the Laughlin–Cornell strategy? She wrote again to Duncan on the 23rd, insisting ‘He is really very much shattered’, then telling him that ‘Cornell & the Dr’—evidently Overholser had been consulted—‘are agreed that the political situation is so important, that until after the elections they don’t think it safe to try to get him even moved to a sanatorium’. There was then a double aim to the Laughlin–Cornell strategy: to avoid a trial, and to get Pound out of the hell-hole, and Pound’s ‘shattered’ state would serve both ends. The strategy deliberately closed off the fundamental and abiding questions: was Pound sane, and was there or was there not a case to be made in his defence?
Pound, feeling ‘put aside and forgotten’, as Dorothy informed Cornell, wanted very much to know ‘how far you understand the case’. To this Cornell replied, ‘I think your husband can rest assured that I have a pretty good understanding of the entire case including his economic theories and the motives underlying his broadcasts. I have made it a point to study not only his poetry but his economic tracts and I have read up on Social Credit in general.’ He did not say what he thought of the case, whether it was good or bad; nor did he mention that Pound’s idea of the case would continue to play no part in his strategy. Dorothy, who must have known this, thanked him for giving her ‘something to reassure [Ezra] a little’.
After her first visits to Pound Dorothy had been, as she mentioned to Cornell, ‘most anxious to see Dr. Overholser to find out which way to treat him on certain subjects’. There is no record of the director’s advice, but evidently she found him well disposed—in a letter dated ‘Aug. 8’ she thanked him ‘for your benevolence towards my husband’. On that occasion Ezra was wanting the ‘Spring and Autumn Annals’ from the Loan Division of the Library of Congress, in an edition with the Chinese text and a French translation since the Legge was not lent out, and this had to be procured through Overholser. The latter made an affirmative note in the margin. There was also the matter of the books and papers in the leather music case which had never turned up after Pound’s transfer from Gallinger. ‘Is there any means of tracing these?’ Dorothy asked, and Overholser wrote in the margin for his administration, ‘Ask Gallinger’.
‘He is working little at a time on his translation of Confucius’ Odes,’ Dorothy wrote to ‘Bib’ Ibbotson, Pound’s old teacher and friend at Hamilton, ‘he says his head only works an hour or so per day, & that “the dynamo is bust”.’ Pound himself told ‘Bib’, ‘It works for a few minutes daily’. Nevertheless within the twelve months he was in Howard Hall he managed to fill more than twenty stenographers’ notebooks with drafts of all 305 odes, and these drafts show an unimpaired poetic intelligence at work, drawing upon a rare command of the traditions and resources of English verse to find qualities equivalent to though necessarily different from those of the Chinese originals. He was not so much translating as rediscovering the odes in his own language. In June he sent the draft of one of the odes ‘of Temple & altar’ to Mary, with the comment ‘It’ll do you for a prayer, anyhow/even if not strict sinology’. This was the sinologist Legge’s version:
I condemn myself [for the past], and will be on my guard against future calamity.
I will have nothing to do with a wasp,
To seek for myself its painful sting.
At first, indeed, the thing seemed but a wren,
But it took wing and became a [large] bird.
I am unequal to the many difficulties of the kingdom; [of my house (Karlgren)]
And I am placed in the midst of bitter experiences.
Legge’s template here is an Old Testament psalm, an association which asks tolerance for the loose connections and the wordiness In his draft Pound was working for greater concentration and formal coherence:
I err’d, I pay, I awaken
Wasps be not stroked by men
Nor hawk for wren
let me not be engulphed in the
multitudes of my family’s
Nor twice make nest
on a sandstorm.
The completely formed first stanza doesn’t merely find four unforced rhymes, it finds four variations upon the initial sound pattern: awaken/stroked by men/hawk for wren/mistaken; and with that Twice echoes the triple ‘I’ of the first line. Along with this seemingly effortless formal invention there is the determination to pin down a definite meaning, so the opening line introduces the dramatic situation in three crisp phrases, the vague ‘[large] bird’ becomes the specific ‘hawk’, and the definite image of the close binds the second stanza to the first. Further revision would alter this draft almost beyond recognition, shifting it from a lyric mode into iambic pentameter and the register of moralizing Tudor verse. Evidently Pound’s mind was not only fit for concentrated work on the odes, but had the energy and the flexibility to go beyond his first inspiration. The dynamo was not completely bust after all. In retrospect, he would say that it was having the Odes to work on ‘that saved my mind in the hell hole’.
He still had mind to spare for others, and for the state of the world. Mary Barnard recorded how she wrote to him when she heard he wanted news from outside, and got back ‘a penciled scrawl [inquiring] in several different forms whether nobody was doing anything—not about him, about poetry’, and ‘The only signs in the letter of breakdown in mind or spirit were that all the words were correctly spelled and he signed his name legibly “Ezra”.’ But then ‘The letter was obviously censored’, and ‘if he wrote in his usual style they would probably think it was some kind of black-shirt code.’ She sent him four of her poems, and Pound returned them ‘all marked up, with marginal comments’—the first time in all their correspondence that he had done that. He had ‘slashed into’ three of them ‘but with such point, that it did me a world of good’, and he gave her detailed advice on getting them published. He also saw to it that she made contact with Charles Olson, believing as ever that poets should keep up communications with each other for the general good of poetry and the maintenance of civilization. When they met, they ‘told each other with much enthusiasm of all he’d done for [them]’—for Olson he had just written to Eliot about his book on Melville, Call Me Ishmael, which had been getting nowhere with the publishers.
Dorothy had assured Ronald Duncan in her ‘Aug. 9’ letter that EP ‘doesn’t sit and worry about himself all the time—He worries about getting things DONE, and getting certain ideas over—’. Indeed he would urge his visitors, Olson, Mrs Clara Studer, whoever it might be, to translate Frobenius’ Erlebte Erdteile, ‘not for ME but to educ. publk.—to CIVILIZE the U.S.’ by the quality of his ‘MIND’. He wrote to his friend Cummings, ‘dont Fox or anyone ever doanything.…4 or 5 definite jobs / Frobenius. / Gesell. B. Adms. / V. Buren’, though Cummings had made it clear that he had his own jobs to attend to. He told Williams to catch up with Brooks Adams and others on his syllabus, and Williams told him to get lost, and wrote to Laughlin, ‘He’s never got over the pedagogic frenzy when it is to be applied to others.’ Pound was not put off, and kept on in his usual way instigating all and sundry, but especially the young, to do the reading and to spread the ideas.
He was writing to Mary almost every other day, initially fairly briefly—‘still hard for me to write more than a page,’ he wrote in mid-March—but eventually very fully and as if he had a letter to her on the go all the time. He was being fatherly, affectionate, concerned, and encouraging. The ode he sent her as a prayer is one indication of how he was relating to her. It could be read as a lesson in acknowledging and correcting error, ‘I err’d, I pay, I awaken’; but it was also freeing her to pray ‘let me not be engulphed in the | multitudes of my family’s | afflictions’. He wished her to have her independence and to live well. When she went back from Sant’Ambrogio to Gais in the spring of 1946 Mary wrote, ‘I am now convinced that it is best for me to become a good farmer,’ though her mother did not approve and was insisting on her ‘getting “culture”’ first. Pound’s response was immediately to ask Laughlin, ‘Will you send her seed of sugar maple—if the d–n thing grows from seed. & any Dept. of Ag. circulars . information re cultivation = extraction syrop etc.’ He managed somehow to get hold of an extract from an official publication on ‘The Production of Maple Sirup and Sugar’ and enclosed that with one of his letters; and he told her that Signora Agresti, ‘will put you through to Inst. of Agriculture’ in Rome. He was intending to help with money too: ‘a hillside where trees have been cut down—suitable for planting maples might be got cheap. Tell me local prices of sheep, & deforested or forest land—useless for other crops.’ Next year he would advise her to consider growing acero in the valleys and low slopes of Gais. By then, though, Mary had married the brilliant boy she had met at Princess Troubetzkoi’s picnic near Rome in 1943 and they had moved into an abandoned castle above Gais. Her mother had cautioned: too many unknowns. But her father had written ‘from the hell-hole: “Make sure he is healthy”’, and had given his blessing. Then he was advising her to make the alpine castle ‘a centro culturale’, and to invite Münch, ‘the best musician also plays the piano’, and Bunting, ‘the best poet of the 1920s’—that was before he learnt that while the castle did have ‘big majolica stoves’ the young couple had no furniture. At the news that Mary was pregnant he wrote, ‘You give me plenty to rejoice about,’ and proposed, ‘If you don’t call it Olga secondo there is OBviously only one name—Walter—in those surroundings’, the castle having a legendary association with the celebrated medieval poet of love, Walther von der Vogelweide, and Walter ‘it’ became.
His letters now were on his own headed notepaper which proclaimed top centre, ‘J’AYME DONC JE SUIS / ezra pound’—‘I love, therefore I am’. In the DTC he had put it in Latin at the beginning of canto 80, ‘amo ergo sum’, and reinforced it with ‘senesco sed amo’, ‘I grow old but [still] love.’ It was a retort to Descartes’s ‘I think, therefore I am’, and an affirmation, as he told Olga when he first used it on 2 June, of ‘the that which you said Kung-fu-tseu lacked or @ least cd not be put over without’. ‘Kung and Eleusis’, he had written in the China Cantos. But this was personal, the assertion of an identity flowing from the source of his being, and of an existence beyond the impositions of the Court and the psychiatrists. ‘It aint out of no Romaunt’, he told the romantic friend of his youth, Viola Baxter Jordan, ‘it is out of ole Ez’.
He was in need of something to cling on to, something irrefragable, an elemental self that could not be taken from him when so much was being stripped away. He had never regarded himself as anything other than a responsible citizen of the United States, but its authorities had declared him a pseudo-American, refused him a passport, and seized his bank account as alien property. He had seen himself serving the best interests of his country, and had been perceived instead as having betrayed it. Having all his life thought and acted as a free individual he had been deprived of his liberty and his autonomy. With that he had lost his integrity as he stood mute while his lawyer misrepresented him as having been long insane, even violently insane. In St Elizabeths the psychiatrists, though they could neither find him mad nor drive him to madness, wanted him to identify with his ‘associates’, the genuinely insane and violent. And now his friends also, those who constituted themselves his ‘council’, though they knew him to be ‘just the same old Ezra’, were wanting to have the seal set upon his supposed insanity in order to leave no room for doubt about it in the incalculable realm of public opinion.
On 1 March, just a fortnight after the insanity hearing which definitively committed Pound to St Elizabeths, and a couple of days after Laughlin’s letter to Dr Overholser implicitly taking it as established fact that he had long been insane, Cornell proposed to Pound that he should grant him power of attorney over his affairs ‘by reason of your mental condition’. He put it to him that it was just because ‘you are quite capable of taking care of money matters [that you] can properly delegate authority to me’. But if he were capable, what need was there for him to delegate? About the same time Cornell ‘asked Dr. Overholser to permit Pound to execute [a power of attorney] on the ground that he had sufficient understanding of his publishing affairs to authorize me to collect his royalties for him and have other dealings with publishers’. Pound replied warily to Cornell on the 12th: ‘Would it be suitable to say . Pwr. of Atty. on all matters pertaining to publishing, collecting money due to me, and ordinary routine connected therewith.’ As for other matters, ‘If D.P. arrives she might attend to various things.’ About a week later, probably now considering the document drawn up by Cornell for his signature, he asked A. V. Moore, ‘Should I make power of attorney to Cornell? For limited period?’ But without waiting for an answer he informed Cornell on the 20th, ‘Will send the pwr. of atty as soon as get notary.’ Cornell observed to Overholser that Pound was displaying ‘an extraordinary clarity of mind, even shrewdness, in his approach to business problems’. He wondered that he should be ‘sane on some subjects and insane on others’. Behind that lay an anxiety lest it be suspected that if he were somewhat sane he might be sane altogether.
Having restricted the power of attorney ‘to matters pertaining to publishing’, and in effect appointing Cornell his literary agent, Pound at once began issuing instructions: ‘Next point is to get Jas. to understand need of pub/ng a nucleus of civilization . more organic than a “Five foot shelf” | & the tooter the suiter.’ On 16 April he wrote:
Dear JC / As you’ve that pwr. of atty please air-mail to Moore to collect what he can from Pollinger; & from Curtis Brown & hold it; NOT send anything here. Eliot knows where Faber paid.
Also in minor way cd/ you see that my deposit here is so fixed that small supply orders (for 20 cents worth of saltine biscuits etc) don’t get held up 3 weeks.
Was Pound being satirical, asking Cornell to exercise his power of attorney looking after his 20 cents’ worth of saltine biscuits? Cornell confessed to sensing that he was ‘a little suspicious of me’.
At any rate, acting as Pound’s agent was not what he had had in mind. He had already decided, as he informed her London solicitor on 16 April, that when Dorothy arrived he would have her appointed ‘guardian of her husband’s estate’, and he did that and more. In September he had a firm of Washington lawyers, Covington and Burling, draw up the necessary documents for Pound to sign. Dorothy expressed astonishment to Overholser that ‘an insane person should be asked to sign’ the legal document, and with reason, since he was being invited to sign a document declaring himself incompetent to sign. Cornell wrote in his book that he ‘had arranged for the appointment of Mrs. Pound as “committee” of the person and property of her husband by the District of Columbia Court in order that she might handle his business affairs’, and the Court so appointed her on 30 October, Pound’s 61st birthday. But why make her guardian of his ‘person’ if it was ‘his business affairs’ she was to handle? The effect was not just to give her absolute control of those affairs, but, beyond anything previously discussed with Pound, to vest in her all his rights as a person. As Pound later explained to Mary, ‘Now I have no persona giuridica’—meaning that the law would no longer recognize him at all as a legally competent person.
Had he realized how much he was signing away, and irrevocably? Had he been led into thinking the arrangement was just another form of the power of attorney he had granted Cornell? Could he have failed to notice that it gave his person as well as his property into his wife’s keeping, or did he think nothing of that, believing that she would do as she was told? Possibly it came home to him only after the singular ‘Committee’ had been set up that now he could do nothing except through Dorothy. In February and March he had been completely in charge of his affairs, instructing Cornell to ‘please send $100 to Olga for rent of St Ambrogio’, then asking, when Olga refused to touch the money sent, that all sums due to him be paid to Mary at Sant’Ambrogio because ‘I want her to get used to handling the business’. Cornell evidently had no problem with that, telling Pound ‘at your request I will collect sums which are due to you and pay them over to Mary Rudge’. But now when he wanted to send money to Mary it had to be done by the Committee—‘inconvenience of being a lunatic. complicates life’, he apologised to Mary. Dorothy held the power to grant or to refuse permission to publish his work, to receive and dispose of his royalties, and generally to control his intellectual property. Pound could not now make a valid will; nor could he initiate any legal proceedings, such as to ask to be bailed or released or brought to trial. He was completely in the Committee’s care and power, a power over him that went far beyond Overholser’s already potent care; and while Dorothy would do what he asked, she could and would do much in her role as Committee that he did not ask for and did not know about. He had given Cornell his head, and now he had done the same for Dorothy, and it would prove to be another disastrous abdication.
But why was control of his property, and of his person, removed from Pound in this way? Judge Laws had not required it, nor had the Justice Department. There is nothing to suggest that Overholser or anyone at St Elizabeths had sought it. Indeed Overholser would declare ‘most emphatically’ in a lecture at Harvard that commitment to a mental hospital for care and treatment ‘should not involve suspension of civil rights’. Even Cornell who brought it about recognized that Pound was quite capable of managing his affairs and signing notarized documents. Where then was the necessity? Cornell’s justification of his action to A. V. Moore, Dorothy’s legal adviser—who Pound believed had brought up the idea—was devious but illuminating. ‘Whether he is legally competent to handle his affairs or not,’ he wrote, ‘the public generally regard him as insane and he cannot very well do business except through a guardian appointed by a court.’ But if actually asked how they regarded Pound, the general public at that time would more likely have thought to call him ‘traitor’, ‘fascist’, ‘anti-Semite’, well before reaching for ‘insane’, a label far more contested than any of the others. To have ‘insane’ their first thought was Laughlin’s and Cornell’s project, but it was not, as Cornell was pretending, an established fact. But even if it were, how should it follow that Pound must be put in the care of a court-appointed guardian? What the public might think should have been beside the point; but the bad logic does point up Cornell’s concern. Regardless of Pound’s competence, or more probably just because of it, he wanted not only his affairs but his person to be given over to a guardian for the sake of public opinion. The need was to have Pound’s supposed insanity made legally and publicly absolute.
The February insanity hearing had determined only that he was unfit to plead to the charge of treason, and had reached no conclusion as to his state of mind when committing the alleged acts. Laughlin and Cornell had hoped to obtain a determination that Pound had been out of his right mind when making his broadcasts and therefore could not be held responsible for what he had said in them. Cornell had done his utmost to put that story across in his Affidavit, and the expert psychiatrists had repeated it for him; but many commentators remained sceptical and the general public still felt that Pound should be held to account. Laughlin was not happy about this because it left the anti-Semitism of the broadcasts still tainting his author, and put him personally in a difficult situation. In 1949 he would spell this out to Pound. He told him that in order to soften up public opinion he should allow it to be said, in a preface to the selection of his poems which Laughlin was then preparing for publication, that he was mentally ill when he made his Rome broadcasts. ‘They are going to think you an awful bastard unless you let them think you were off your head,’ he advised, and he went on,
All of your friends with whom I have discussed the matter, including Possum, have all agreed with me that that line was the best one for bringing about a temporary softening of the heart toward you on the part of the public.
In another letter Laughlin explained that putting Pound’s anti-Semitic remarks down to his insanity was his own way of resolving the problem—and that if they did represent Pound’s true feelings then ‘I would be obliged to take a moral position against you.’ He didn’t say that he would then feel unable to continue publishing him, but that appears to have been a consequence which he meant to avoid at all costs. But the price to be paid by Pound for Laughlin’s devotedly publishing and promoting his poetry was nearly everything.
Laughlin’s ‘moral position’ had the somewhat immoral consequence for Pound that it required him to agree that he had not meant what he had said over Rome Radio, although he had regarded it as his solemn duty to speak the truth as he saw it; and it required him to let it be said that he must have been out of his mind at the time, though not for a moment did he believe that—and nor, privately, did Laughlin. It was a moral position that had already required Pound to give up his legal right to defend his unwelcome views in a court of justice, and to be incarcerated instead in St Elizabeths. And now it required him to be rendered a non-person in the eye of the law. All this to clear his poetry of the stigma of anti-Semitism—though, privately, Laughlin accepted that Pound both was and was not anti-Semitic. But his moral position answered to a feared and powerful public perception and not to the more difficult and problematic truth.
That must be the ultimate explanation of Pound’s being denied justice, his being shut up indefinitely in St Elizabeths, and his being now declared incompetent to speak for himself in any way: the reason was not insanity, it was Laughlin’s longstanding and no doubt well-founded fear of the outcry against the anti-Semitism in Pound’s economic propaganda and above all in his Rome Radio broadcasts. That, in the end, was what Pound was paying for.
One thing in particular was taken from him knowingly and with apparent intent: the power to make a will. While the legal manoeuvres of 1946 were going on, and before Pound had been committed to the care of a guardian, the question of whether he had made a will or could still make a will was being tossed back and forth between Cornell and Moore. On 30 July, presumably in response to a question from Moore, Cornell wrote, ‘Except as to real property, our courts will permit administration of American assets by appointment of an ancillary administrator under a foreign will which has been admitted to probate in a foreign country.’ Then on 5 August he wrote, ‘It is unfortunate if Mr Pound has not executed a will, because if he were to make one now it would be refused probate on the ground that he is incompetent to make a will.’ This must have been yet another instance of Cornell getting ahead of the facts. If Pound was competent to sign a power of attorney, and would shortly be deemed competent to sign a document requesting the Court to appoint a guardian, then why would a will he made before that be refused probate? Moore pointed out that ‘By English law someone deemed lunatic and in care of a commission can nevertheless be found to have made a will in a lucid interval, and the will then be proved good.’ Cornell’s view however was that it would be best to allow Pound’s estate to be governed by the rules of intestacy, in which case, he added on 12 August, under American laws his literary property ‘would be shared by his wife and son’.
Pound had in fact made a will in Rapallo, typewritten, and dated ‘the 17th day of June, a.d. 1940’—seven days after Italy entered the war. In it he declared Mary Rudge, daughter of Olga Rudge, to be his daughter, and bequeathed to her ‘all that I possess’, including specifically all his manuscripts and author’s rights, and further appointed her to be his literary executor. His personal effects, books, and works of art were to remain in possession of his wife during her lifetime. She approved of these dispositions, the will stated, since ‘she and her son are otherwise provided for’. Two copies were made of this will, both signed, witnessed, and stamped, either ‘to have full force’. Doubts would be raised as to whether this 1940 will met all the requirements of Italian law, but there could be no doubt as to Pound’s testamentary intentions and wishes. In the end these would be of no effect.
Laughlin’s efforts as a publisher to separate Pound’s poetry from his propaganda in the public mind went along with a dominant tendency in American literary criticism at the time, that of the so-called New Critics. These followed, broadly speaking, T. S. Eliot’s early pronouncements that ‘Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry’, and that ‘the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates’. In the New Critical fashion the essay which Eliot himself wrote for Poetry in 1946 at Laughlin’s instigation concentrated exclusively on Pound’s poetry, literary criticism, and literary influence, and said not a word about the economic propaganda for which the man was suffering. Hugh Kenner’s pioneering and influential 1951 study, The Poetry of Ezra Pound, would similarly study the poetry while eliding everything else in Pound’s life and work. It was becoming not only possible but acceptable for those positively disposed toward him to talk about Pound without mentioning anti-Semitism and Fascism, and without questioning his alleged insanity and all that hung upon it. The consequence, to be played out dramatically when a prize awarded under the aegis of the Library of Congress was awarded to the Pisan Cantos after Laughlin eventually brought them out in 1948, was that Pound’s economic and political ideas, and their intimate connection with his poetry, remained unexamined by judicious critics, thus leaving the ideas, the poetry, and the man, to be freely damned by hostile prejudice as embodying nothing but anti-Semitism and Fascism. Moreover, in the climate of opinion thus created almost no one would say that his being shut up with the criminally insane was unwarranted, and that this should be a matter of public concern.
One exception was William Carlos Williams. In spite of his conviction that Pound was guilty of treason Williams did write to the President seeking his release. About the guilt he was uncompromising. When Dorothy Pound wrote to him on 29 August, saying ‘I don’t know what you suppose he was doing over the radio?’, and telling him that Rodker who had heard some of it had found nothing treacherous in it, and that the truth was that Pound’s crime was to have ‘advocated a sane economy’, Williams answered back, ‘That Ezra is guilty of treasonable activity towards the United States is inescapable nor does it matter in the least what he said in his broadcasts.’ He had already told Pound, ‘the mere fact of your broadcasting was enough for me’, and he now coldly reasoned it out: ‘To broadcast as he did from enemy territory under enemy pay at such a time [i.e. in time of war] is treason.…Legally his life is forfeit. Those are the rules of war.’ Further, if Pound truly believed himself innocent then, as a man, he should have faced being shot and not have dodged the issue by pleading insanity. Nevertheless, when the war was officially over, he would ‘write to President Truman asking him to look into Ezra’s case and to release Ezra by executive order if that be legally possible’. Williams did that, in a letter dated ‘New Year’s Eve / 1946’, even though (as he had told Laughlin on 28 December) he had just broken ‘with old Ezra finally’. His letter expressed, and appealed to, an exceptionally elevated sense of Ezra’s case:
Dear Mr. President:
Now that the recent war has been declared by you, in your official capacity, to be at an end, I come to ask that an old and honoured friend of mine, Ezra Pound, be freed by you from confinement in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Whatever Mr. Pound’s actual sins against his country may have been our history has shown us, by our natures, always to be generous to dissenters from our generally accepted ways of thinking. Mr. Pound is not, as a political propagandist, dangerous to our economy—many far more dangerous to us during the late war, though at one time under arrest, are now at liberty among us. Pound is a writer, a distinguished poet and though in many ways a fool he does not rightly belong in an insane asylum as a criminal.
By your powers as President of the United States you have, I think, the right if you deem it proper to exercise executive clemency in such cases. I beg of you as a loyal supporter of your party for many years as well as of liberal democracy everywhere that Ezra Pound be given his immediate liberty.
Williams’s letter was annotated ‘Federal Security Agency’ in the White House and forwarded to Overholser who overrode the idealism of the appeal with a statement of brute fact. ‘Mr Pound is certainly not in suitable condition to face trial at present time,’ he told Williams, then assured him blandly that ‘we are doing everything we can to make his stay at St Elizabeths Hospital a comfortable one’, and that Williams’s ‘interest in Mr Pound’s welfare is deeply appreciated’. Williams, having chosen not to visit Pound in Howard Hall—‘it would break me up and do you little good’—probably missed the smooth cynicism of Overholser’s assurances.
Bill Bird, an old friend from Pound’s Paris days, shared Williams’s straightforward view of Pound’s predicament. When he talked with him briefly in Gallinger in December 1945 he had ‘tried to keep the conversation off his “case” and talk about personal matters, but [Pound] kept going back to the Constitution, etc. etc.’, wishing to justify himself. But what Bird wished, he told Dorothy Pound later when she was in Washington, was that ‘somehow it could be got through his noddle that he is NOT being persecuted for his ideas, because I very much doubt if there are a dozen people in the United States who have the faintest notion what his ideas are’. She ought to remember, he advised, ‘and try to make Ez understand’, that he was indicted because ‘His broadcasts to the US on the Italian radio were construed as “adhering to the enemies of the US, giving them aid and comfort,” and as a careful student of the Constitution he knows that that is technically called treason.’ Having made that clear, he signed off with ‘affectionate remembrances to you both’.
Nancy Cunard, who had loved Pound in the 1920s, had her own reasons for holding him to account. She had heard indirectly that he was eager to hear from her, and in June 1946 she sent him a long letter written in controlled fury and bitterness, charging him with a deeper treason than to the United States. ‘Ezra’, she began, ‘I have been wanting to write you this for some time—for some years—but I could not do so because you were with the enemy in Rome, you were the enemy.’ She had heard him ‘on the air speaking from Rome’, had monitored a talk when working with the Free French in London, and had found it ‘all idiotic’, but incomprehensible that he should be collaborating with Fascism and with ‘the whole gang of [Nazi] criminals’.
Williams has called you ‘misguided’. I do not agree. The correct word for a Fascist is ‘scoundrel’.…I cannot see what possible defence, excuse or mitigation exists for you, in the name of ‘old friendship’—as with W. C. Williams—though it be. Nor do I believe anything concerning the ‘advanced stage of schyzophrenia’, ‘madness’, etc. that was postulated as a means to secure your non-execution. I do not believe you are insane or half-crazy. I think you are in perfect possession of your faculties as before.
He had been, up to the time when she published his XXX Cantos in Paris, ‘a very fine poet indeed, unique, I think, in contemporary English’, and his collaboration with Fascism would not efface that, but nor would the accomplishment of XXX Cantos efface the collaboration. But she could not understand, she accused, ‘how the integrity that was so much you in your writing can have chosen the enemy of all integrity’. There was more than this in the letter—resentment of his having called her anti-Franco Authors Take Sides ‘an escape mechanism’, bafflement at his having wanted her to realize at the time of the Abyssinian War that ‘the Ethiopians were “black Jews”’; and on the other side ‘the good things I have to remember of you’, including ‘your charming and appreciative ways with Henry, my Henry of colour’, and his remonstrating ‘pretty sharply’ with her mother on account of Lady Emerald’s colour prejudice. She was also bitter about the ruin of her house near Paris and the destruction of her books and ‘African things’ by the Germans, ‘the friends of your friends’, and by ‘their friends, the French Fascists’. For her the struggle against Fascism was not over, and Pound was still with the enemy. Pound’s first response was a pencilled memorandum ending: ‘too weak to write necessary 600 pages | though her serious letter deserved answer’. But the aggressively defensive answer he did send on 1 August was not what she deserved: ‘My dear N. | What the blue buggering HELL are you talking about. I had freedom of microphone to say what I liked—namely the truth that your shitten friends were afraid to hear, Your friends who busted the Tempio @ Rimini etc. etc. Swine on both sides, but truth suppressed’ etc. In time both would relent and resume occasional affectionate communication. In November 1948 he mentioned to Mary that he had received a ‘Cheerful letter from Nancy who no longer thinks I ought to be shot for not shootin’ Franco’.
Among those who concerned themselves with Ezra Pound at this time there was one group for whom he remained above all else a poet and a creative force within and for American poetry. Robert Duncan named him, along with HD and Williams, as an elder who remained for his generation a ‘primary generative force’—
Their threshold remains ours. The time of war and exploitation, the infamy and lies of the new capitalist war-state, continue. And the answering intensity of the imagination to hold its own values must continue.
Robert Creeley would also say that ‘For my generation the fact of Ezra Pound and his work is an inescapable fact’, giving as his reason that he taught them how to write—
It was impossible to avoid the insistence he put on precisely how the line goes, how the word is, in its context, what has been done, in the practice of verse—and what now seems possible to do.
That last emphasis, ‘what now seems possible to do’, signalled an intent to go on beyond Pound, as he had gone beyond his elders, Browning and Whitman. These poets meant to honour him, and Williams, by building on them to make a new poetry for their own America. ‘You begin at Pound wherever you go,’ Duncan said in a ‘A Canto for Ezra Pound’, composed with Jack Spicer and presented to Pound in December 1946; and Spicer wrote, ‘We ain’t going the same way.’ Pound might have approved and been heartened by that.
Duncan and Spicer were scornful in their ‘Canto’ of the way Laughlin was cautiously bringing out the new cantos—‘printed in all the little mags. piously. With apologies.’ ‘Canto LXXXIV’ had appeared in the Quarterly Review of Literature edited from Bard College, ‘Canto LXXVII’ had appeared in Rocky Mountain Review edited from Utah State University, and part of ‘Canto LXXX’ had appeared in the September issue of Poetry which included Eliot’s and other appreciations of Pound. ‘Poetry Magazine’s piss all over our old Poet’ mocked Duncan and Spicer, for whom that magazine was ‘Chicago’s cemetery for all verse’. They were the new generation of poets going about their business of clearing out the old and the established, taking their axe to the dead wood that stood in their way. But Pound was not dead wood to them, and was not to be shelved in academic journals, nor cautiously marketed. ‘I go to that work to get what seems to me of use,’ Creeley wrote, ‘and the rest’—here thinking specifically of the indefensible anti-Semitism—‘I toss out, condemning it just by that act.’ That was a fine attitude in its way, but not so far removed after all from Laughlin’s in its separation of the poetry from the prisoner.
On 7 November 1946, Cornell wrote to Pound, ‘Now that the elections are over I am proceeding as planned to make application for your release’—
I am convinced that you have a constitutional right to be released if your own health and the interests of society do not require that you be confined. I do not believe that a man can be shut up indefinitely after being indicted when he cannot be tried because of illness.
You are presumed to be innocent until proved otherwise, and since there is no prospect that you can ever be proved guilty, you cannot in my opinion be indefinitely confined merely because of the indictment.
That cavalier ‘merely’, making light of the grave charge of treason, shows a certain lack of professional weight in Cornell’s ‘application for your release’. 1 He confidently saw himself carrying the case, one altogether without precedent, all the way up to the United States Supreme Court and there winning a notable new ruling on the Constitution. And he was going to do this by sheer force of his own opinion and conviction—though his opinion, wholly unsupported by received legal opinion, amounted to no more than legal sophistry.
The law as it then stood was quite clear and definite. So long as a person under indictment for a serious crime was deemed too insane to stand trial he must remain confined within a federal institution for the insane. Cornell thought he could get around that by establishing that Pound was ‘incurable’, and then arguing that he should be let out just because he would never be fit to stand trial.
The ‘Motion for Bail’ which he filed on 3 January 1947 was actually a hybrid motion, in part a habeas corpus argument for release from custody, and in part an application for bail to a private sanatorium. Cornell was relying primarily and heavily on the dubious testimony of the four psychiatrists at the February hearing ‘that [Pound] then was and had for many years been insane’, and on recent information given to him ‘by Dr. Winfred Overholser, Superintendent of St. Elizabeths Hospital, based upon his examination and treatment of the defendant’. No record has been found of Overholser’s personally examining Pound later than the previous February, now nearly a year back, and no record exists of the defendant’s having received any therapeutic ‘treatment’ in St Elizabeths. Nevertheless, Overholser had told Cornell, according to Cornell’s Motion, that
in his opinion (1) the defendant has been insane for many years and will never recover his sanity or become mentally fit to stand trial on the indictment (2) the defendant’s mental condition is not benefited by his close confinement at St. Elizabeths Hospital where he is kept in a building with violent patients because of the necessity for keeping him under guard, and it would be desirable from the point of view of the patient if he could be removed to a private sanatorium and (3) the defendant is not violent, does not require close confinement and the public safety would not be impaired if he were allowed the degree of liberty which a private sanatorium permits for patients who are mildly insane.
In the event Overholser, when summoned to testify, would provide neither written nor oral testimony to back up Cornell’s claims. He would simply maintain that the defendant was and would remain incurably insane, with the implication that he should remain permanently in St Elizabeths. Thus Cornell’s primary contention would do no more than confirm yet again the reason for Pound’s being confined there, and for the rest would be exposed as a misrepresentation of Overholser’s official position.
Rather injudiciously, Cornell gave an interview at this time to Albert Deutsch, the PM journalist who had been all along sceptical about Pound’s insanity plea. According to Deutsch, Cornell told him on the record that
a number of doctors who have examined Mr. Pound since he was committed to St. Elizabeths have advised me that he is not insane enough to be further confined in a public institution. They told me that a long time ago. But I have been counseled that it would be best to wait at least a year after the insanity hearing to bring in the appeal for release, on the basis that public interest in the case might have died down by then and there would be no public resistance to this move. If the government does not oppose this motion, we should be able to obtain his release within ten minutes.
As if that was not sufficient provocation to both the public and the government, Cornell added, ‘I am going to ask Judge Laws to bar the press from the hearing and to seal the papers on it. I don’t see what concern the public should have in this case.’ Deutsch naturally asked the Justice Department for its comment, and was briskly informed that ‘Should Pound obtain release, we intend to start proceedings immediately to have him brought to trial on the treason indictment.’ And naturally, Deutsch published all this as in the public interest the day before the hearing of Cornell’s motion.
The Justice Department was well armed for the hearing on 29 January. J. F. Cunningham of the War Frauds Section of the Criminal Division had prepared for Isaiah Matlack, his chief, twelve closely typed pages of ‘authorities and comments which may be cited in opposition to the Motion for Bail filed in behalf of Ezra Pound, under indictment for treason, who is now committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital under a judicial decree of insanity’. This brief was then condensed into six double-spaced pages for submission to the Court as the ‘Government’s Reply’. The Government conceded that the Court ‘has authority to admit to bail pending trial persons under indictment for treason’. However, that would be the case only ‘were the defendant committed to jail, instead of to a federal institution for the insane’. Moreover, he had been committed to St Elizabeths under federal statutes whereby Congress intended ‘the Courts at all times to retain direct control over insane persons formally charged before them with the commission of serious felonies’. If such insane persons were to be admitted to bail, ‘effective control by the Court…will be materially jeopardised, and many motions for bail will probably ensue on the incongruous grounds that the defendants are too insane to be tried for their crimes but not insane enough to be confined in a federal hospital’. Statutes and cases were cited in support of this cool dismissal of the pivotal point in Cornell’s motion; and it was further rather more sharply remarked that ‘No precedent, either federal or state, has been found which considered the allowance of bail under the circumstances urged by this defendant, and the dearth of authority on the subject betrays the novelty of his contention.’
Cornell was boldly arguing that the statute’s silence on the matter of bail must render Pound’s confinement unlawful and unconstitutional. If it did indeed leave a person such as Pound to be locked up for life, when there were no medical grounds for his confinement, and when, because he could not be brought to trial, he must ‘for the rest of his life be presumed innocent in law’, then it would be depriving him of his liberty ‘without due process of law in violation of the Fifth Amendment’. Cornell went so far as to assert that, ‘In the absence of medical grounds, a man may not be subjected to life imprisonment because an unprovable accusation has been brought against him.’ The answer to that was too obvious for the government to bother stating: the accusation was not unprovable, it was simply not proved, and for the reason that the defendant’s plea of insanity had prevented its being brought to proof; and the presumption of innocence did not dispose of the charge of treason which, by the statute, would stand against him for just as long as he could not be tried. Moreover, by his original Affidavit, and by the way in which he had entered the plea of insanity, Cornell had seriously jeopardized Pound’s right to the presumption of innocence.
The government’s response did address the contention that to deny bail would be a violation of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, and did so in a style which showed up the general shallowness of Cornell’s arguments. ‘It is the prerogative of Congress to determine when bail may be allowed’, it pointed out, citing United States v. Hudson, 65 Fed. 68, 77 (DC, WD Ark., 1894); and therefore, ‘If the statutes in question be construed to indicate an intent of Congress that bail should not be allowed in the circumstances of this case, the defendant’s constitutional rights will not be infringed thereby’ (citing Douglas v. King etc.). Further, ‘It is obviously a proper function of government to provide public hospitals for the care and treatment of its insane, [and] to maintain direct control before trial over insane persons under indictment for criminal acts.…If an Act of Congress is logically designed to achieve this legitimate objective, its results are not arbitrary or capricious, and its adoption is in the public interest, due process of law has been observed.’
The essence of the Government’s opposition to the application for bail was that it was really ‘an application to transfer this prisoner from a federal institution, where the accused is subject to the control of this Court, to an institution or private physician of his own choosing, not amenable to the Court’s direct control’. The Court, in the person of Judge Laws, of course refused bail. As the law then stood there was no possibility of Pound’s being simply released, as Cornell seemed to be promising in his initial letter to Pound and in his interview with Deutsch. Once he had got Pound into St Elizabeths there was no way he could get him out short of having him declared sane after all and letting him stand his trial.
On 10 February Cornell wrote to Laughlin, ‘Dear J: You will be interested to know the outcome of my application for Ezra’s release to a private hospital.’ Overholser, he wrote, had testified that Pound would benefit by being removed from Howard Hall, but had said that ‘he could as well be cared for in St. Elizabeths as anywhere else.…Accordingly, we agreed upon a compromise under which the Judge and the Attorney General have consented to have Ezra removed to a more comfortable part of St. Elizabeths.’ And ‘The enclosed letter from Dorothy indicates that she and Ezra are both happy over the new arrangement.’
Overholser wrote a memorandum of the outcome for the file of patient #58,102. By his account Judge Laws, after dismissing the ‘motion made by the patient’s lawyer’, asked Mr Matlock whether the Justice Department would object if the St Elizabeths Hospital authorities were to remove the patient from Howard Hall to another ward within the hospital, always taking reasonable precautions to prevent him from escaping. Mr Matlock said there would be no objection. Judge Laws then said he was ‘willing to concur informally in this attitude of the Department of Justice’, while ‘disclaiming any right to interfere with the internal administration of Saint Elizabeths Hospital’. Thus deferred to, Overholser stated that ‘since such was the attitude of the Department of Justice and the Court, the patient would be removed from Howard Hall to some ward where he would have somewhat more latitude and somewhat more free privileges of receiving visitors’.
Cornell did not let on in his letter to Laughlin, and may not have let on to Pound, that the arguments supporting his application had been comprehensively rebutted in the government’s response. 2 After all, it had been the ‘council’s’ strategy ‘to get him moved to better quarters at the hospital’ as a first step towards his later release, so the outcome could be presented as a success. Eliot at least cannot have been fully informed about the hearing, since he wrote to Dorothy at the end of February, ‘I am sure the next step should be to a private sanatorium’. Pound’s view of the whole matter was perhaps summed up in his scribble on Eliot’s letter, ‘nuts / ITALY or nothing’.
1 There is also a worrying carelessness in his account of the application. In introducing the above letter he wrote that in it he was telling Pound ‘that I was going to try to have him released on bail because Dr Overholser did not think his confinement was necessary’. But the letter as he gives it speaks only of getting Pound released—no mention of bail; and nor is there mention of Overholser’s opinion, which he was there misrepresenting. Cornell also wrote that his ‘letter to Mrs Pound…explaining the outcome’ of his application for bail would follow, but it does not (Cornell 54).
2 In his book Cornell printed his own Motion for Bail in full but said nothing of the government’s reply.