The Roots of Treason: Ezra Pound and the Secret of St. Elizabeths by W. Fuller Torrey, McGraw-Hill; New York.
Without doubt, Ezra Pound was a remarkable poet. His best verse is beautifully cadenced, delicately chiseled. Herbert Read described him as “an alchemist who transmuted the debased counters of our language into pure poetic metal.” Deferentially, T. S. Eliot called him il miglior fabbro, the better craftsman.
Pound was a brilliant critic, too. In scores of widely read reviews and essays published roughly between 1912 and 1922, he attacked verboseness in poetry and prose with the bluntness and zeal of a man trying, in Eliot’s words, “to convey to a very deaf person that the house is on fire.” With equal passion and influence, he called for public acceptance of the works of such diverse writers as Eliot, James Joyce, and Robert Frost: writers who, in Pound’s famous phrase, “made it new” by steering clear of hackneyed conventions and sloppy thought. Pound, wrote Eliot, “cared deeply that his contemporaries and juniors should write well; he … cared less for personal achievement than for the life of letters and art.”
And yet, throughout a career that spanned more than 50 years, Pound collected more detractors than admir ers, more enemies than friends. For while he could be patient and gracious, he could also be supercilious and bellig erent. Certainly by late 1945 the name Ezra Pound was virtually synonymous with the rhetoric of vituperation. By then, people who knew nothing about poetry knew that for many months in the early 40’s Pound had delivered a regular series of radio speeches over Mussolini’s Rome Radio, and that he hadn’t wasted any air time chatting about the charms of the Tuscany hills and the Amalli coast. Employing a weird, cloying L’il Abner dialect, he had bellowed against the Allied effort as a sinister cabal of mostly Jewish financiers operating in cahoots with both Winston Churchill and Frank lin Delano Roosevelt. In July 1943 Pound was indicted by a District of Columbia GrandJury that had ploughed through the transcripts of his harangues and found considerable evidence of “aid and comfort to the enemy.” In April 1945 Pound was arrested in a Tyrolean village by a pair of tommy-gun toting partisans and, in due course, flown to Washington to stand trial for treason. That trial never took place. Declared physically fit but “of unsound mind” by a group of court-appointed psychiatrists, Pound was shipped across town to the St. Elizabeths mental hospital where he remained, unconvicted, until his release in 1958.
Any person of goodwill who examines the now readily available texts of Pound’s broadcasts can only describe them as morally disgusting. They are packed with stomach-turning anti-semitic slurs. But one must also conclude that their propaganda value was virtually nil. Replete with arcane allusions and bi zarre non sequiturs, they make the letters sent to the editor of the New York Post look as polished and as cogent as the missives Lord Chesterfield addressed to his wayward son. They could not have persuaded the average American service man of anything except that this yam mering old coot who sometimes called himself “ole Ezry” deserved a one-way ticket to the funny farm.
Of course there was nothing funny about public mental asylums in the 1940’s. For more than a year following his committal to St. Elizabeths, Pound was confined to a windowless cell in Howard Hall, a ward for the criminally insane. Here, where the smell of excre ment mingled with sweat was nauseat ingly rich, Pound often had to endure the prolonged howls of his straitjacketed floormates. He was allowed to receive visitors, but for no more than 15 minutes a day. When he was eventually moved upstairs to the more hospitable Chestnut Ward, Pound was granted two hours of daily social time, and in warm weather, the limited use of the hospital’s elm shaded grounds. But even in the Chestnut Ward he lived behind a thick steel door and among blaring radios and pathetic men in ratty bathrobes who wandered aimlessly about muttering to themselves, drooling.
Many of the academics and journalists who visited Pound at St. Elizabeths have recorded their impressions of his behavior while in confinement. Most note that he abhorred self pity, and was generally talkative and in surprisingly good spirits. But some, like the British writer John Wain, have described his hard-to-disguise fatigue, his tendency to drift irretrievably off. On the day Wain saw him, Pound “talked on and on in connected sentences and with perfect logic and persuasiveness; but if any one interrupted him with a question it simply threw the needle out of the groove, and he fell silent for a moment, passed his hand wearily over his eyes, and then went on talking, starting from a different point.” In 1955 Pound wrote to his friend
I can’t work here….The little and broken up time that I get (with no privacy and constant interruption and distraction) makes impossible that consecutive quality of feeling so important to me….This daily lacera tion and frustration of a creative impulse, carried on even a little while, can and surely will, with me I’m afraid, end with complete artistic impotence.
In fact, it did. By all accounts, the Ezra Pound who finally left St. Elizabeths for a home with his daughter in the Italian Alps was a peculiarly sullen man, full of regret and doubt and depression.
In The Roots of Treason, psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey says virtually nothing about Pound’s horrific stint in Howard Hall and relatively little about the discomforts of life in the Chestnut Ward. But then Dr. Torrey is a revisionist who has produced what his publishers call a “stunning new biography.” Pound, Torrey argues, was nothing more than a mega lomaniacal quisling who avoided trial and a certain conviction by faking mental instability. At St. Elizabeths he actually led a remarkably contented life. After all, Torrey argues, he had no financial worries and, thanks to his doting disci ples, was kept well supplied with books, wines, and gourmet foods. Pound, adds Torrey, had a key ally in Dr. Winifred Overholser, the superintendent of St. Elizabeths and an aficionado of modem verse. According to Torrey, it was Overholser who engineered Pound’s faked insanity plea, and who then con sistently, flagrantly bent the hospital’s rules in order to keep the poet happy.
The theory that Pound somehow faked his dementia has in fact been batted about in print for years. Though Dr. Torrey’s support of it is based in part on previously unreleased government documents, he really brings nothing new—or persuasive—to the debate. His case that Overhosler colluded with Pound is unprecedented, but strains belief. Basically, Torrey contends that Overholser risked public and profes sional censure to save Pound’s widely hated hide because he humbly wanted to serve the immortal cause of Art. “As Pound had often seen himself as Odys seus,” intones Torrey in his very best prose, “so Overholser had been his Aeolus, the keeper of the winds in Greek mythology, who saved Odysseus by giv ing him a favorable wind for his ship and hiding the unfavorable winds in a bag which could not be opened.”
The Roots of Treason is from start to finish an irritatingly shallow book, full of malevolence and devoid of balance. Essentially, it attempts to put Pound in the worst possible light by playing up the most incriminating things he ever said along with the least complimentary things ever said about him. Too often then, Torrey yanks quotations out of context, or culls them from question able sources. Indeed, like the typical freshman term paper writer, Torrey operates on the simple principle that if it’s in print, it must be true—or at least true enough. He uses a 1945 Chicago newspaper article as the sole source for his bald ass rtion that Pound once referred to Hitler as a “saint’’ and a “martyr.” He points to a vague, off-hand remark in Charles Olson’s posthumously published diary to support his claim that Pound’s wife Dorothy was “known for being excessively bigoted, especially anti-Semitic.” And to back up his crude generalization that Pound “revered members of the aristocracy,” Torrey calls on C. David Heymann, a man famous in academic and publishing circles for churning out big books full of monumental howlers. In fact, Torrey’s ample and uncritical use of Heymann’s dreadful 1976 biography of Pound is enough to prove that as a judge of scholarly material he is simply not to be trusted.
Because Dr. Torrey refuses to accept the diagnosis that Pound’s increasing belligerence was in large part the result of an increasingly debilitating form of paranoia, he winds up repeatedly implying that ultimately Pound was just another nazi. Accordingly, he must step around the fact that in his more lucid moments Pound carefully defined him self as a champion of Social Credit economics, not a defender of dictators. He must downplay the denunciations of fascism—and of anti-Semitism—that as sorted memoir writers have attributed to Pound, and which can also be found in Pound’s published writings. He must also dismiss as irrelevant Pound’s deep affection for such Jews as Jacob Epstein, John Cournos, and, most notably, Louis Zukofsky, who once said that “I have never once in Pound’s presence felt the kind of embarrassment I always feel in the presence of a ‘gay’ who is anti Semitic. Not once.” That remark cannot be found in The Roots of Treason. Also missing is any real evidence that Torrey knows enough about modern literature to be tangling with one of modern literature’s most difficult figures. His readings of Pound’s Cantos are generally derivative and sometimes simply inept. His knowledge of the works and the careers of Pound’s more notable con· temporaries seems also to have been gleaned hurriedly from less-than-impeccable sources. As a result, he tells us that William Butler Yeats’s lifelong interest in religion and myth and folklore amounted to a “monomania for the occult.” He breezily reports that “the strongest bond” between Yeats and Pound was not their passion for poetry, but “their shared interest in mysticism and the occult.”He says Wyndham Lewis was also “strongly anti-Semitic” but neglects to mention that in 1939 Lewis produced an entire book devoted to ridiculing anti-Semitism.
To be sure, Dr.Torrey’s book is aimed principally at the “general reader”—at the far-from-picky B. Dalton browser who won’t even pick up a book about a poet unless it promises to retail lots of juicy gossip and uncover a scandal or two. Therefore, its prominently dis played subtitle alludes tantalizingly to some “secret.” Its cover photo shows Pound looking gruff and sinister beneath a broad-brimmed black hat. Its dust jacket flaps advertise Pound as ”an active fascist and anti-Semite” who not only held strange “mystical and sexual be liefs; but who was part of that “move able feast of literary Paris in the 1920’s.”
Most of the copies of Th eRoots of Treason will end up remaindered in the buck-a-book bins along with 1983 cat calendars and the autobiographies of aging rock stars. But it’s no secret that a fair number will find their way onto
the shelves of college libraries, there to be consulted—in naive good faith—by another generation of literature students seeking the “truth” about the notorious Uncle Ez. And that is a scandal.