Ernest Hemingway Writes of His Fascist Friend Ezra Pound: “He Deserves Punishment and Disgrace” (1943)


An old friend of mine and I have a code phrase for a phe­nom­e­non that every­one knows well: One learns that an artist one admires, maybe even loves, is not only a flawed and warty mor­tal, but also an abu­sive mon­ster or worse. The phrase is “Ezra Pound.” We’ll look at each oth­er know­ing­ly when­ev­er a con­ver­sa­tion turns to a trou­bling but bril­liant fig­ure and say in uni­son, “Ezra Pound.” Why? Because Ezra Pound was crazy.

Or at least that was Ernest Hemingway’s expla­na­tion for why one of the great­est lit­er­ary bene­fac­tors and most inno­v­a­tive and influ­en­tial poets of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry became a rav­ing lunatic boost­er for anti-Semit­ic fas­cism in a series of over one hun­dred broad­casts he made in Italy dur­ing WWII. Pound wasn’t sim­ply a crank—he was a deeply enthu­si­as­tic sup­port­er of Hitler and Mus­soli­ni, and his rantings—many avail­able here in tran­script and some in orig­i­nal audio here (or right below) —made no secret about whom he con­sid­ered the ene­mies of Europe and Amer­i­ca: the Jews.

Hem­ing­way wrote the let­ter above to Archibald MacLeish express­ing his shock and dis­may that their mutu­al friend and col­league had com­plete­ly run off the rails. For Hem­ing­way, the only way to deal with the sit­u­a­tion was to “prove [Pound] was crazy as far back as the lat­ter Can­tos.” Hem­ing­way writes, “He deserves pun­ish­ment and dis­grace but what he real­ly deserves most is ridicule”

He should not be hanged and he should not be made a mar­tyr of…. It is impos­si­ble to believe that any­one in his right mind could utter the vile, absolute­ly idi­ot­ic dri­v­el he has broad­cast. His friends who knew him and who watched the warpe­ing and twist­ing and decay of his mind and his judge­ment should defend him and explain him on that basis. It will be a com­plete­ly unpop­u­lar but an absolute­ly nec­es­sary thing to do. [sic]

This Pound’s many friends did do, and when he was final­ly cap­tured in Italy and tried for trea­son, Pound was sen­tenced to a psych ward, where he wrote and pub­lished the award-win­ning The Pisan Can­tos amid great uproar and out­rage from many in the lit­er­ary com­mu­ni­ty. This is unsur­pris­ing. Although Pound pub­licly repu­di­at­ed his stint as a fas­cist broad­cast­er, his hard-right racist views did not change. In his lat­er life, he formed friend­ships with white suprema­cists and remained con­tro­ver­sial, con­trar­i­an, and… well, crazy.

And yet, it is hard to dis­miss Pound, even if his star has fall­en below the hori­zon of mod­ernist lit­er­ary his­to­ry. It may be pos­si­ble to argue that his fas­cist streak was in fact sev­er­al miles long, extend­ing back into his post-WWI pol­i­tics and his humor­ous but harangu­ing book-length essays on West­ern Cul­ture and Its Decline through­out the 30s. As Louis Menand writes in The New York­er, this Pound may have been ripe for mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion by the more brutish and less refined, a la Niet­zsche, since he “believed that bad writ­ing destroyed civ­i­liza­tions and that good writ­ing could save them, and although he was an éli­tist about what count­ed as art and who mat­tered as an artist, he thought that lit­er­a­ture could enhance the appre­ci­a­tion of life for every­one.” Pound was also a moth­er hen fig­ure for a gen­er­a­tion of mod­ernists who flour­ished under his edi­to­r­i­al direction—as well as that of Poet­ry mag­a­zine founder Har­ri­et Mon­roe. Menand writes:

No doubt Eliot, James Joyce, William But­ler Yeats, Robert Frost, William Car­los Williams, H.D., Ernest Hem­ing­way, Ford Madox Ford, and Mar­i­anne Moore would have pro­duced inter­est­ing and inno­v­a­tive work whether they had known Pound or not, but Pound’s atten­tion and inter­ven­tions helped their writ­ing and sped their careers. He edit­ed them, reviewed them, got them pub­lished in mag­a­zines he was asso­ci­at­ed with, and includ­ed them in antholo­gies he com­plied; he intro­duced them to edi­tors, to pub­lish­ers, and to patrons; he gave them the ben­e­fit of his time, his learn­ing, his mon­ey, and his old clothes.

And all of this is not even to men­tion, of course, Pound’s incred­i­ble poet­ic out­put, which demon­strates such a mas­tery of form and lan­guage (East and West) that he is well-remem­bered as the founder of one of the most influ­en­tial mod­ernist move­ments: Imag­ism. This side of Pound can­not be erased by his lat­er lapse into despi­ca­ble hatred and para­noia, but nei­ther does the ear­ly Pound can­cel out the lat­ter. Both Pounds exist in his­to­ry, for as long as he’s remem­bered, and every time I learn some new dis­turb­ing fact about an artist I admire, I shake my head and silent­ly invoke the most extreme and baf­fling­ly trou­bling case—one that can’t be resolved or forgotten—“Ezra Pound.”

via Let­ters of Note

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ezra Pound’s Fiery 1939 Read­ing of His Ear­ly Poem, ‘Ses­ti­na: Altaforte’

Ernest Hem­ing­way to F. Scott Fitzger­ald: “Kiss My Ass”

The Big Ernest Hem­ing­way Pho­to Gallery: The Nov­el­ist in Cuba, Spain, Africa and Beyond

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Steve says:

    Yes, Pound was not of sound mind, but had tons of insight nev­er­the­less. Pound was a Social Cred­iter and in that respect was way before his time as the poli­cies of Social Cred­it a uni­ver­sal div­i­dend and retail dis­count to con­sumers are the log­i­cal sup­ple­ment and even­tu­al replace­ment of the wage as tech­nol­o­gy and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence increas­ing­ly reduce aggre­gate income. Some­times the “cranks” are more pre­scient than the ortho­dox, and so far as eco­nom­ic the­o­ry is con­cerned Pound proves that true.

  • k szydlowski says:

    How well you have expressed what I have felt (re: Pound) for many years.

    it brings to mind a class I attend­ed in San­ta Cruz CA, on T S Eliot. the poet

    giv­ing the class as well as those in atten­dance were like dogs with a bone,

    in that they kept mak­ing apolo­gies for Eliot, infer­ring that it was nev­er proven

    that he was real­ly con­ser­v­a­tive in his think­ing con­cern­ing pol­i­tics. I could final­ly

    stand no more. I ques­tioned, Why is every­one try­ing so hard to make sure that

    Eliot was polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect? What­ev­er hap­pened to Free Speech? Blank Stares,

    after which I walked out of the room.

  • Guy Mullins says:

    Who was the crazy one? Who crossed dressed and was sui­ci­dal? Ezra rewrote all of Hem­ing­way, there would not have been a more pro­found fas­cist than the sui­ci­dal wealthy drunk Ernest Hem­ming­way if it had not been for Pound who tried to save and advance lan­guage to the art it should be instead of what it has become via the low­ly enter­tain­ment and our pub­lic media od lies.

  • Delta says:

    Pre­dictable, bour­geois fas­cist apolo­gia.

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