Leon Surette. Pound in Purgatory: From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism.
Urbana and Chicago. University of Illinois Press. 314 pages.
Alec Marsh, Muhlenberg College
In the last two years, Leon Surrete has produced two books, which, read together, alter our sense of Pound's relation to Fascism and anti-Semitism. The old narrative of Pound's gradual understanding, of his treason and bigotry, his acceptance of guilt, his repentance and final silence will no longer do. We learn that Pound never relinquished his loyalty to Mussolini and continued to hold anti-Semitic views through his incarceration at St. Elizabeths. This Pound, as revealed by his letters to Olivia Rossetti Agresti is disturbingly unrepentant and recalcitrant, a right-wing anti-Semite and conspiracy theorist of a familiar American kind. Rather than moderating his views after the war, one could make the case that they became worse; in any case it is clear that Pound did not "get it"; for him the Allies would always be the aggressors, egged on by an international cabal of Jews attempting to enslave the world through perpetual indebtedness. Instead of a man confronting his own errors, the Pound of Pisa and after now seems a defiant die-hard and at best, by his own lights, a brave and lonely man of principle. The first of Surette's books, "I Cease Not to Yowl: Ezra Pound's Letters to Olivia Rossetti Agresti (Illinois, 1998) co-edited by Demetres Tryphonopoulos, could be read as the second volume of a two volume study of the political economics of Ezra Pound, covering the years 1947 to 1959, when Pound was held as a political prisoner in Washington D.C. awaiting trial for treason. Since it consists of Pound's own words, it is a deeply disturbing book, although, as Robert Spoo mentioned in his review of it in these pages, not without a certain pathos. The first half of this two-volume work would then be the book under review, Surette's Pound in Purgatory, a fascinating piece of intellectual history, which scrutinizes Pound's evolving economic, political and racial politics in the crucial period 1931-1936. As the book's subtitle suggests, during this time Pound changed from a money radical to an anti-Semite. The trajectory of Surette's argument follows his subtitle: Pound in Purgatory moves from banking and the mythos of economics to Social Credit, Fascism, "the Keynesian Revolution" through Sylvio Gesell and Irving Fisher to Arthur Kitson--the anti-Semitic economist, Bryanite and a pivotal figure in Pound's thinking--to the "Jewish Conspiracy" to end where "I Cease Not to Yowl" begins, with Pound's correspondence with Agresti. This long, detailed, rigorous argument makes the Pound we meet in his correspondence with Agresti understandable and accounts for the strange and disturbing views we find there. This is why I like to see these works a single two-volume study.
The precise etiology of Pound's ideological disease and, indeed, his alleged mental illness, has long been a subject of debate for Poundians, as has the extent to which Pound's unpalatable beliefs compromise and contaminate his art. Surette's book is the most comprehensive and careful study of this question that we have had and he brings up much that is new. Specifically, Surette brings in three figures who have been ignored by scholars attempting to parse Pound's economic and political beliefs: John Maynard Keynes, Father Charles Coughlin, and Arthur Kitson.
Surette believes that Pound's behavior was the result of a "muddle" caused by his economic radicalism and his unshakable faith in Mussolini, "For whatever reason," he writes, Pound persisted to the bitter end in the belief that fascism was the political instrument that would bring about those economic reforms which would ensure the peace and prosperity of the world"(86). At the same time he knew, yet refused to concede, that the economic theory he most believed in, a form of Social Credit, was deeply flawed and that Mussolini was not much interested in economic reforms; "...emotionally incapable of surrendering either his economic radicalism or his hero-worship of Mussolini," Pound became increasingly frustrated, "irrational and irascible" (86). His resort to conspiracy theory and anti-Semitism was a consequence of this muddle. If the readers of his hectoring letters and endless articles could not understand him it was because they would not, because they had been duped by the forces of evil. Inevitably, these became the Jews.
Surette even dares to locate the precise moment when the infection of anti-Semitism took hold; it is a terrible irony that its proximate cause was Louis Zukofsky, who had sent Pound an American Christian Party and Silvershirt paper called Liberation in the spirit of mockery. In it was an article by its editor William Dudley Pelley called "The Mystery of the Civil War and Lincoln's Death," which caught Pound's imagination. Surette argues it is from this source that Pound caught the bug that would come to obsess him in the decades to come(241-2). Hitherto he had resisted the Jewish conspiracy arguments of his correspondents like Kitson, who had earlier gone so far as to send Pound the highly toxic forgery Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which Pound had ignored. Soon after reading the Pelley article, however, Pound began expressing more radically anti-Semitic views. It was convenient for Pound that the German/Italian rapprochement and treaty of 1936 caused Mussolini to introduce anti-Semitism as Fascist policy in Italy, thereby harmonizing Pound's new interest in a Jewish conspiracy with the party line.
Surette brings to light the fact that Pound read and rejected Keynes's General Theory, a book that many of Pound's economic correspondents--including Social Creditors --hailed as a breakthrough and partial justification of Douglasite economic insights. Had Pound been able to hear what his correspondents were saying to him about Keynes, he might have realized that Roosevelt, not Mussolini, was more likely to move in the direction of economic reform.
A second source of infection were the virulent anti-Semitic radio speeches of Father Coughlin, whose broadcasts were probably the model for Pound's later radio career. Surette reports that Pound read Coughlin's Money! Questions and Answers (1935) with enthusiasm; there seems to be little doubt that the radio priest, who has been recently exposed as a paid Nazi agent, had a huge impact on Pound. The evil pastor helped Pound maintain his faith in a global Jewish conspiracy.
Surette's belief that Pound was "confused" and "incompetent" as an economic thinker and had little feel for political realities echoes, as Surette himself points out, Wyndham Lewis's 1927 judgment of Pound as a "revolutionary simpleton." He supports to some extent Robert Cassillo's famous charge that Pound was ultimately a biological racist of the Nazi type: "Though Pound's anti-Semitism in not based on racial hatred, in his most virulent phases he adopts the rhetoric of the Nazi's biological racism. However, he had no horror of contact with Jews" (241). Rather, it was "conspiracy theory" that drove Pound's anti-Semitism. "My claim that Pound's anti-Semitism was based on conspiracy theory rather than race hatred is in no way exculpatory" (243), Surette reminds us, and it comports better with the way Pound's beliefs surfaced in The Cantos and in his prose and correspondence.
Pound's recourse to this mode of resolving his own intellectual contradictions, did not, Surette believes, have much to do with Pound's affinities with American Populism, which has been (and often continues to be) anti-Semitic. Surette regards the argument that Pound's fascism was an outgrowth of American populism as a "truism" (67). It does have a long lineage, going back to Victor Ferkiss's articles in the 1950's--(Pound read and reacted to Ferkiss's "lies" in letters to Agresti. See ICNTY 204, 208.)--to a famous article by Burt Hatlen, which Surette discusses at length, and to my own work, which argues that Pound's "Jeffersonian" populism best accounts for both his economic radicalism and his eventual conversion to anti-Semitism. Surette feels that the Pound-as-populist argument does not stand up to scrutiny. To get the story right, we must look at it as a story, as a set of events unfolding in time. Since the evidence is that Pound's attitude towards Jews as well as his economic opinions altered over time, as one would expect, it makes sense to look for the causes of those changes in the vicinity of their manifestation, rather than in his early life and opinions. After all Pound was an omnivorous reader and--alas--an intellectual sponge 240-241).
I'm not entirely sure what Surette means by these remarks; it seems to me that what one reads and what one makes of it might well have to do with one's early life and opinions--certainly there is no necessary contradiction. Furthermore, what one reads often speaks to one's past in ways that make one see it anew. Surette's evidence would seem to make Pound's populism more relevant rather than less. The title of the Pelley article that finally infected Pound, "The Mystery of the Civil War and Lincoln's Death," shows it to be in the main-stream of American populistic anti-Semitism; that the Civil war was caused by the Rothschilds and that Lincoln was shot for issuing "greenback" currency is a staple of populistic conspiracy theory. By his own account, Arthur Kitson knew William Jennings Bryan personally, and worked for his 1896 presidential campaign in Pennsylvania, as he explains to Homer Pound in a letter I first brought to Surette's attention years ago. Surette quotes it extensively, revealing the important link between Kitson and Populism (231-232). One of the great satisfactions of Surette's book is the Kitson chapter, which finally restores this enigmatic character to his rightful importance in Pound's thinking. However, Surette is interested in Kitson mostly for his economic theories and anti-Semitic views. He does not make much of the obvious populist connection, which would be part of Pound's "omnivorous reading' and would also speak to his early life. The Bryan campaign, with its call for bimetallism, affected Pound's father Homer intimately, since his job at the time was chief assayer at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. Surely, Kitson's reply to Homer (by then retired to Rapallo), who had written to Kitson at his son's request, would have prompted a rehashing of the epochal '96 struggle over gold. Furthermore, Father Coughlin, whose book Money! Questions and Answers Surette shows had a huge influence on Pound, was by Surette's own impeccable research influenced indirectly by Kitson via its ghostwriter, the anti-Semitic Gertrude Coogan. Her book, "The Money Creators (1935) [is] a Kitsonian analysis of banking and currency. Kitson and his follower, Frederick Soddy, are frequently cited in Money! as is Coogan" (266). Willis Overholser's A Short Review and Analysis of the History of Money in the United States (1936), which Surette says Pound read in 1938, is also fully in the tradition of American right wing populism. Surette notes that in radio speech 119 Pound "attributes his conversion to conspiracy theory" to his reading of Overholser (240). Pound's own money pamphlets simply extend a long tradition of anti-bank, anti-finance, potentially anti-Semitic agitation that is evident today in the books of Pat Robertson, the televangelist and politician. One of his sources is Eustace Mullins, a member of Pound's circle at St. Elizabeths and the first Pound biographer, whose Secrets of the Federal Reserve is listed in the bibliography of Robertson's The New World Order (1991), as is Nesta Webster's Secret Societies and Subversive Movements (1924) another part of Pound's anti-Semitic, conspiracy-theory reading, though not an American populist one per se. Surette seems to treat American populism as a 19th century phenomenon; in fact, it is one of the most enduring discourses in American life, one that Pound, in his inimitable way, "made new" and extended.