The question arises very early on and looms ever larger as one progresses through this thousand-page-long life: how did Humphrey Carpenter stand it? Pound’s range was from loathsome or contemptible at the beginning to hateful at the apex of his career, and finally to pitiable at the end. To have continued with this distasteful project, to be obliged each day to face once again the dreary prospect of returning to Pound’s dank and unremitting unattractiveness, must have been taxing indeed. It isn’t easy for a reader, even in boots, to wade through this swampy stuff.

On the other hand, the book is admirable for its thorough and evenhanded presentation of most of the facts of Pound’s life. It makes a valuable contribution—if only as a corrective to much of the bemusement of the past generation or two. Pound scholarship is a medium-sized academic industry (particularly among those who dislike literature and who hate students, and for whom the obvious choice is between Joyce and Pound). Philip Larkin was quite correct when he said that The Cantos were nothing more than “a long twentieth-century poetic curiosity.” Pound’s odd career and influence were symptomatic of what was and to some degree still is awfully wrong with high culture.

Let’s begin with Carpenter’s title, which has got to be at least partly ironic. The line, as the biographer makes clear in a couple of epigraphs, is from Pound himself He was quoted by Charles Olson as having asked, in 1913, “are you or are you not, a serious character?” Pound used the phrase again, in 1936, in a letter to James Laughlin, this time spelling it “a seereeyus kerakter,” which is hardly what any halfway serious character would do. Indeed, that pidgin English Pound invented quite early, perhaps to mask his deficiencies in spelling and typing, gave rise eventually to his bizarre mature style, a blend of the antique and the high-flown with a jokey private patois that verged on baby talk. The dreadful character of that idiolect, it seems to me, lies very close to the heart of the trouble.

Even though he was born in Hailey, Idaho, Pound was essentially a Philadelphian, grew up there, and went to school there (Cheltenham Military Academy, two years at the University of Pennsylvania, and then, after finishing his undergraduate work at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, graduate work at the U. of P.) And it is with W.C. Fields, another Philadelphian, that Pound shares his odd twangy drawl, at the same time high-flown and apologetic, pompous and cringing, in which the mask of aggression is all the more compelling because we know it to be at least partly real.

Pound was a nasty kid, a misfit at Cheltenham, a washout at Penn (he did well in geometry, got an acceptable B in English, but failed history, which sounds about right) and so out of step at Hamilton that no fraternity would have him even though that was very much a fraternity school. What Pound’s reaction was to this, what he learned from the experience and seems to have followed him for the rest of his life, was his use of literature and the intellect as a weapon. He learned how to sound as though he knew more than he did, to talk authoritatively about books he hadn’t read through (or even at all), and, in short, how to be the epic pain in the ass he later turned into.

More important, the particularly stupid and unattractive shape of his unease begins in this formative period. As Carpenter says, speaking of his moves from Hailey and from house to house in Philadelphia and its suburbs, Jenkintown and Wyncote, “throughout his life he never lived anywhere that was unarguably ‘home,’ a place where his family belonged and had a personal history.” Carpenter nowhere makes explicit the connection that seems clear to me—that in his wounded pride he needed inferiors to look down upon. It was not at all original for him to pick on foreigners, for there was anti-Semitic and anti-Italian sentiment in Wyncote before Pound. What is interesting is that he became a foreigner himself—living much of the time in Italy and acting all the time as a cosmopolitan, a polyglot, a man of exotic books, and an exile, at first from his native country and then, in 1920, when he left England, from the territory of his native language. With the odd broken English he affected, these are all the conventional attributes of the Jews he hated, wrote about, and came so much to resemble, even down to that scraggly beard. It was—without indulging too much in what Pound dismissed as “kikeiatry”—a curious and deadly combination of envy and self-loathing. And it wasn’t just an incidental irrelevance either, but a central feature of his life and, more important, his work.

Literature is a club of one kind or another. Those writers who are comfortable with themselves think of it as a conversation in a pleasant and sheltered space, maybe with a bar and a good library and pleasant nooks for chatting with friends. But it can also be a club of the other kind, a blunt instrument to beat enemies over the head with—and this was, clearly, how Pound saw it. He was an ambitious little huckster, vulgar, loud, and irksome. His domestic life was a disaster—his children were walking wounded—and his friendships were, with only a few exceptions, mutual benefit societies more than impromptu associations of like-minded people. (Excepting only Eliot and Williams, Pound either withdrew himself or dismissed the other party in these conjunctions; his only constancy seems to have consisted of behaving badly.) He was a promoter and manipulator, a Barnum but without Barnum’s generosity or high spirits, and with acts that were less immediately promotable. Not surprisingly, he was less successful than Barnum.

He left the States and, from London, wrote (in 1913 in an article that appeared in Poetry) that his aim in England had been to make friends with as many as possible of “the two hundred most interesting people” on the island. As for the remainder, “I do not see that we need to say the rest live under them, but it is certain that what these [two hundred] people say comes to pass.” America, he said, resembled England with “the two hundred most interesting people removed.” But it wasn’t very long before he was railing against the Brits, too: “I have an absolute mistrust of anything English, particularly of any ‘upper class’ interest in literature . . . I don’t want to appear [in print] in England. I have no belief in their capacity to understand anything,” he wrote in 1922—to his pal, T.S. Eliot, that sedulous clerk to all things upper class and English. To someone else he expressed his animus somewhat differently: “the history of English literature,” he said, was solely “as shown in her exiles: Landor in Italy, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Beddoes out of England, Browning in Italy.”

In Paris and then in Italy, he continued to mimic those Jews he hated, ‘living in a small enclave of fellow exiles, reading exotic books, and writing a willful pidgin one would have expected of a caricature immigrant on Hester Street but laced with Latin, Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, and other tags of languages in which his ignorance was laughable to anyone who knew them enough to see the joke.

That some of his literary picks-n-pans turned out to be accurate is not surprising—he was in the right place at the right time, and if he made enough bets, some of them were bound to win. He could be helpful, as he obviously was to Eliot in his suggestions for cuts and rewrites in The Waste Land. He could even sometimes manage, on his own, an interesting and unblemished poem. (It is depressing to go back and see how few of these there are.) But The Cantos were a pompous and absurd failure the wide acceptance of which in academic circles is a better and nastier kind of joke than any he ever managed to put over on the rubes.

The weakest part of Humphrey Carpenter’s generally excellent book is the middle, where he writes about Pound at work, either writing or wheeling and dealing with editors, publishers, and other writers. The comeuppance at the end is interesting, too, and also depressing, as we watch Pound persisting in his demented Jew-baiting, and-his less-than-gracious behavior to his old friends Archibald MacLeish and Robert Frost, who were working to get him liberated from the booby hatch. Carpenter’s presentation of the poetry is diligent, but one gathers that he doesn’t much like it even though he doesn’t want to come right out and say so. Any writer or critic who thinks “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” is “indeed the most appealing poem of Ezra’s whole career” is probably not a committed Poundian. On the other hand, had Carpenter dismissed most of the poetic production, he’d have raised a difficult question about what the point of the biography was—or its excuse.

I do think this is a worthwhile and important work that needs no excuse, for it seems to me that it has importance insofar as it explains, or exposes, the general Pound phenomenon. It is nothing less than phenomenal that a crude and contemptible fellow, quite reasonably accused of treason (he was committed to St. Elizabeths for 11 years and the prosecution was finally dropped), whose major work was, by his own estimate, a failure and is at any rate posturing, batty, incoherent, and dripping with the worst kind of venom, could hold so honored a place in the American curriculum. At the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the veneration is such that the cardboard boxes in which many of Pound’s papers arrived have been reboxed and are, themselves, catalogued and, because the poet had put his name and return address on them, described as “Autographed Boxes, Signed.” This isn’t literary scholarship but the veneration of a saint’s relics.

That Pound was no saint, this book makes clear. Indeed, we are not far from that depressing nightmare country Don DeLillo described in White Noise in which there is, at The College on the Hill, a department of Hitler Studies.


[A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound, by Humphrey Carpenter (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin) 1,005 pp., $40.00]