Ezra Pound, Jewish Activism, and the Struggle for Cultural Memory

The terror of Pound for Kazin and the rest of us, if we are honest, is Pound’s racism”
Theodore Weiss, The New York Review of Books, 1986. 

I often take great pleasure from looking into the past and finding, among persons and works of great genius, ideas that we very closely share. It’s not terribly difficult. Times have changed so dramatically, and the window of ‘acceptable’ ideas has so radically narrowed, that almost every great creative thinker of substance prior to the 1950s held socio-political views regarded as quasi-Fascistic by the current dispensation. Most of us will be aware, of course, that these broader cultural shifts have had extremely negative repercussions for the socio-historical legacy of such figures. In short, within a society all too keen to abolish the ‘old White men’ from the history books, such figures will be the first to go.

Against this ominous backdrop, a colleague and literary scholar recently felt the inclination to inform me that the great genius of literature Ezra Pound (1885–1972), who possessed a genuine and open sympathy for Fascism, is being slowly and insidiously exiled from college reading lists and school curricula. It should come as no great surprise to readers of the Occidental Observer that having been caged in a ‘death cell’ for his war-time affiliations, and driven first into a mental health hospital and then out of his country, Pound’s punishment would continue posthumously with his relegation to anonymity. Where my friend erred, however, was in attributing the slow vanishing of Pound to an amorphous ‘neoliberal’ zeitgeist. As an ‘armchair’ fan of Modernist poetry for almost a decade, and an ethno-nationalist even longer, I’ve been more acutely aware of the specificities behind the degradation of the much-maligned poet. Far from being a recent phenomenon, I was also aware that the most important steps in Pound’s marginalization had been put in place decades earlier. Having shared these specificities with my colleague, I now present them here for the consideration of our readership.

The process of annihilating a genius and his worldview from the cultural memory of his people is both straightforward and relatively commonplace. During the course of several research projects over the last decade, it became apparent to me that even where ideologically suspect cultural figures are permitted to remain under study, the socio-political ideas of these ‘tainted’ individuals, no matter how central to their character or intellectual worldview, are sequestered within their social and professional biographies, and often presented as unpleasant ‘moral stains’ upon an otherwise acceptable and productive life. An excellent example in this regard is W.J. McCormack’s 2005 Blood Kindred: W.B. Yeats, The Life, The Death, The Politics, which endeavored to ‘expose’ and quarantine the Anglo-Irish poet’s alleged “intense relationship” with Fascism and anti-Semitism. In this way, ‘offending’ but ‘milder’ figures like Yeats are made ‘safe’ for the young and impressionable White minds passing through our college systems. In the more ‘extreme’ cases, however, like that of the explicitly Fascist-affiliated Pound, these ‘moral stains,’ and the indignation they provoke, are deemed unmanageable and unforgiveable. They are amplified, and utilized in attempts to defame and degrade the cultural figure. The process of defamation and degradation eventually forces that figure out of acceptable public discussion and recognition, and thus into obscurity.

The method of defamation and degradation is subtle and slow, like the drip-feeding of poison. It is also in large part facilitated by the now-familiar practise of academic and cultural gatekeeping. Retaining our focus on the example of Pound, it is instructive to study the work of Jewish academic Louis Menand, who has occupied highly influential chairs in English Literature at Princeton and Harvard, and is a prominent critic for both The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. In a 2008 article titled ‘The Pound Error,’ Menand unleashed precisely the kind of withering indictment of Pound that continues to pave the way for his banishment from cultural memory. In Menand’s summation of the poet’s personality, Pound was “vain and idiosyncratic,” but by far the greatest problem was “that he was a Fascist.” Pound is said by Menand to have been possessed of an “obsession with the Jews,” which is true only to the extent that Pound had a preoccupation with usury and financial abuse that inevitably drew him into ideological opposition to some of the key innovators in that area of economic life. Pound, the titan of letters and the enabler of W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, and T.S. Eliot (among many others), is ultimately dismissed by Menand as “a failure,” notable only for “the shambles of his political beliefs and the limitations of his poetics.”

Emanating from such lofty academic heights, Menand’s invective would be influential enough in demeaning the work and cultural memory of Ezra Pound. But the effort is more widespread and thus even more effective. Although one may instinctively expect the ‘anti-Semitic’ work of poets like Pound and T.S. Eliot to deter the attentions of Jewish literary scholars, the reality is quite different. Indeed, in the mirror image of Menand’s claim, it actually appears that it is Jews who have the obsession with Pound. Pound, perhaps more than any other poet, has exerted an attractive influence over a large swathe of Jewish scholars, all of whom have been pulled magnetically towards him by a burning zeal to deconstruct his work, life, and legacy. This juxtaposition of hatred with attraction is subtly expressed in Anthony Julius’s T.S. Eliot, anti-Semitism and Literary Form, in the course of which Julius writes that Jews reading Eliot’s poetry are both “appalled and impressed.”[1] These academic activists are appalled because they perceive an unjustified critique upon their ethnic group, and they perceive this critique all the more keenly because of their ethnocentrism. They are impressed because they appreciate, and are threatened by, the talent of their target, often despite themselves. The ‘attraction’ arises from the desire to deconstruct and demean that talent, and thus avenge or assuage the critique.

Posthumously, Pound possessed no shortage of Jewish ‘admirers.’ The death of a notable figure often gives rise to renewed interest in that individual’s work and its significance. One might argue, particularly in the modern era, that the first ten to twenty years following that death may set the tone for how or if that figure will be remembered over a much greater length of time. After Pound died in Venice in November 1972, the remainder of the 70s was taken up by a widespread fascination and rediscovery of his poetry, but this enthusiasm was not shared by Jewish intellectuals. Following Pound’s death one of the most ardent and vocal was the New York Intellectual, and prominent literary critic, Alfred Kazin. Alfred Kazin would remark bitterly in 1986 that “in the museum of modern literature no figure commands more space than Ezra Pound. … The literature on Pound is enormous and swells every month.” What set apart the coming attentions of Kazin, and later Theodore Weiss, Macha Rosenthal, Charles Bernstein, Nancy Harrowitz and, most recently, Noel Stock, Tim Redman, Louis Menand and David Biespiel, from the early enthusiasm of the 70s, was the deconstructive and antagonistic slant of the Jewish academics. In words that almost perfectly mirror Julius’s claim to be “appalled and impressed” by the work of T.S. Eliot, Kazin’s scathing 1986 rebuke was titled “The Fascination and Terror of Ezra Pound [emphasis added].” The objective of these Jewish attentions was not to partake in celebration and the cementing of a cultural icon in the literary canon, but rather to break down the target’s reputation and weaken his place in cultural memory. In attacking the posthumous enthusiasm for Pound’s work, these intellectuals were in effect condemning Pound to a second, cultural, death.

In this deconstructive effort, no arguments were too tenuous, and no line of attack was too abstract or extreme. Assaults on Pound’s legacy and work by these Jewish intellectuals in the decade immediately following his death were astonishing in their bitterness. When, in 1973, the English literary scholar Michael Wood wrote a positive review of two (gentile-authored) works on the poet, he was met with remarkable ferocity by the Jewish New York writer Max Geltman. Wood had committed the sin of writing that he perceived great tenderness in the work of Pound, to which Geltman responded by asking whether “the word ‘tenderness’ is meant to imply the kind of tender care lavished on the gas chambers.” In the protracted invective that followed, Geltman would deride Pound, with sneering condescension toward his rural origins, as that “sputtering comet out of Hailey, Idaho.” At its conclusion, Geltman would round off the piece with an obscure reference to a forlorn note allegedly written by a child at a “Nazi Death Camp.” Wood’s response was both brave and damning, describing Geltman’s attack as both “stupid and incoherent.” And Wood’s conclusion was a perfect indictment of Geltman’s tactical use of Jewish schmaltz: “There is, however, nothing in Pound which is quite as ugly as the closing paragraph of Mr. Geltman’s letter. If fidelity to the holocaust means exploiting the memory of that child for the sake of a cheap, polemical pathos, then I’m all for forgetting.”

Unfortunately, strong-willed non-Jews like Wood had by the 1970s been disprivileged numerically at the higher levels of academia and popular criticism. As a result, and in marked contrast to the enthusiasm and celebration of the early 1970s, by the 1980s the balance of opinion on Pound began to tip heavily against him. Alfred Kazin’s 1986 attack on Pound was even more significant than the Geltman affair, and would be described by an acquaintance of the poet as reaching “some heights of virulence,” with the “more than strong” suggestion that Pound “was to blame for the 7,740 Italian Jews who died at Auschwitz.” For Kazin the New York Intellectual, Pound was the epitome of the ‘White Imperialist,’ a “genius not least in his American gift for appropriating land not his own.” Above all though, Kazin’s scathing rebuke represented an attempt to push the popular Pound, and other Modernist poets associated with the reconstruction of Homeric myth, if not volkisch thought, back out of the spotlight:

Modernism…has threatened to take over the curriculum. Eliot’s prescription, that past literature should constantly be assimilated to the taste of the present, had led to a steady omission and distortion of actual history. Modernism must not become the only writer of its history…. Modernism is not our only tradition.

In this respect, Kazin found ready agreement from Princeton academic Theodore Weiss, who assented that “Whatever their fascination, Pound and modernism are overdue for relegating to the dead past,” and suggested that “Pound and modernism be ignored or, if dealt with, done so negatively, and that poetry itself be considered peripheral, inconsequential as it is in a modern industrial society.” More recently, David Biespiel states that if Pound’s “violent fascism and anti-Semitism” weren’t bad enough, his poetry should be dropped because it is “getting less and less contemporary and more and more lost to time.” Thus, through Jewish domination of the key ‘valves’ of culture, we have witnessed the steady shift from a situation in which “the literature on Pound is enormous and swells every month” to one in which Pound is a “peripheral” nothing; a “failure;” or worse.

The strong presence within elite Western English faculties of a Jewish bloc advancing Jewish interests (marginalizing an ‘anti-Semite’ and a literary movement ‘tainted’ with ‘anti-Semitism’) is somewhat ironic given that Jewish literary critics like Anthony Julius issued maudlin complaints that “it is well known that English faculties in America were once especially hostile to Jewish applicants.”[2] What Julius is referring to is the subtle conflict that played out across Western universities between the 1920s and 1950s; a conflict that would ultimately end with Jewish intellectuals like Weiss and Menand flooding the leading positions at Ivy League colleges, and other Jewish intellectuals like Kazin taking command of the leading avenues of criticism. If the WASP ‘old guard’ ever really exerted the privileges of academic and cultural gate-keeping, this had been conclusively wrenched from their grasp by Jews by the early 1960s.

The conflict cannot be seen as benign in either its progression or its results. In English departments, and presumably in many other disciplines, both WASPs and Jews perceived group interests as being at stake. At Yale, WASP professors expressed doubts and concerns that “Jews lacked the cultural and religious background for teaching English literature,”[3] which was presumably the subtle articulation of the belief that Jews would be implicitly hostile to much of the English literary canon. On the other hand, one need only survey a handful of memoirs by Jewish literary scholars to learn that such hostility was clearly in evidence. For example, when asked about his experience of 1950s Yale, Harold Bloom replied sardonically that it was “an Anglo-Catholic nightmare. Everyone was on their knees to Mr T. S. Eliot.”[4]

Given such evidence, any argument that Jews and gentiles shared the same cultural interests should be treated with a healthy scepticism. Indeed, it is concerning to say the least that a group evincing demonstrable hostility to the cultural figures, interests, and heritage of White Europeans now dominates the upper echelons of that same culture. Jewish academics have become an important segment of our hostile elite.

While we may be encouraged by our current culture-shapers to believe that the entry of Jews into our arts helped us to become more ‘worldly’ and ‘objective’ in our creative life, sober reflection on contemporary Jewish activity in English literature reveals quite the opposite. Even if we accept Bloom’s perspective, it may be said that we have merely replaced the ‘Anglo-Catholic nightmare’ with a Jewish one. And rather than being on our knees to ‘Mr T. S. Eliot,’ everyone is now on their knees to Jewish victimhood. The apparent Jewish inability to appreciate English literature beyond the narrow purview of ethnic interest is demonstrated with even the briefest of bibliographies from the field’s leading scholars:

  • Derek Cohen and Deborah Heller’s Jewish Presences in English Literature
  • Bryan Cheyette’s Constructions of ‘the Jew in English Literature and Society and his Between Race and Culture: Representations of ‘the Jew’ in English and American Literature
  • Harry Levi’s Jewish Characters in Fiction: English Literature
  • James Shapiro’s Shakespeare and the Jews
  • Edgar Rosenberg’s From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction
  • Gary Levine’s The Merchant of Modernism: The Economic Jew in Anglo-American Literature
  • Heidi Kaufman’s English Origins, Jewish Discourse, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel
  • Esther Panitz’s The Alien in the Midst: images of Jews in English Literature
  • Edward Calisch’s The Jew in English Literature: As Author and as Subject
  • Matthew Biberman’s Masculinity, Anti-Semitism, and Early Modern English Literature
  • Eva Holmberg’s Jews in the Early Modern English Imagination
  • Phillip Aronstein’s The Jews in English Poetry and Fiction
  • Nadia Valman’s The Jewess in Nineteenth-Century British Literary Culture
  • Frank Felsenstein’s Anti-Semitic Stereotypes: A Paradigm of Otherness in English Popular Culture
  • Jonathan Freedman’s The Temple of Culture: Assimilation and Anti-Semitism in Literary Anglo-America
  • Sheila Spector’s British Romanticism and the Jews: History Culture and Literature
  • Anna Rubin’s Images in Transition: the English Jew in English Literature, 1660-1830

These works represent only the tip of a very large and growing iceberg. They are in addition to hundreds of articles appearing in influential journals and magazines. Writers like Julius would have us believe that the position of the Yale academics of the 1950s was based on irrational bigotry — the ignorant anxieties of dusty old White men. And yet the trajectory of literature in the English language, both in respect of its past and present, has moved in a radically different direction since the end of the WASP dominance.

This new departure has not been for the better. The likes of Pound, Yeats, and Eliot have now given much ground to ethnically myopic works like Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), about a neurotic and compulsively masturbating Jew, and Howard Jacobson’s similar, if more periphrastic, The Finkler Question (2010). I am only half-joking when I suggest that our grandchildren will learn their Chaim before their Homer.

While I have labored on the importance of academic gate-keeping, it is important to note that the deconstruction of a cultural figure may take forms other than the assault of elite journalism and co-ordinated academic critique. It also takes the form of exclusion and socio-cultural taboo. In 1999 a panel of thirteen writers and poets, including John Updike, voted to honor Pound with a carved stone that would have put him beside such figures as T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe in a part of the nave of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, inspired by Poets’ Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey. The effort was ultimately thwarted by a concerted campaign of pressure on the Cathedral to block Pound’s inclusion. One of the few public representatives of the campaign was the academic and Pound ‘scholar’ Tim Redman, author of Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism. Redman, a Jewish academic who has made a career out of combining hate with attraction, explained his opposition to Pound’s inclusion with the remarkably curt, blunt, and unsophisticated retort that: “He contributed to a climate of opinion that enabled the Holocaust to happen.”

T.S. Eliot is often excoriated for his now infamous line that “The rats are underneath the piles / The Jew is underneath the lot.” Eliot and Pound may have both smiled wryly on learning that this august Cathedral apparently boasted a Jewish warden, Marsha Ra, who would earnestly explain to reporters that Pound “was giving anti-Semitic radio broadcasts while my people were being gassed.” Ra, a convert to Christianity, further insisted that Pound was “not representative of Christian values.” The New York Times later reported that it was Ms. Ra who organized, and was thus ‘underneath,’ the petition to block Pound’s inclusion. A panel of thirteen leading figures of contemporary literature was thus rendered obsolete by the activism and absurd moralizing of a middle-aged Jewish librarian.

To conclude, it is fairly evident that the struggle for cultural memory can involve more specific players, trends, and actions than the amorphous ‘neoliberal’ zeitgeist imagined by my colleague. Civilization, for all its greatness, is ultimately a fragile entity. It requires care, conservation, and occasional pruning. If our culture loses sight of its geniuses, we will be all the poorer for it — ideologically, spiritually, tactically, and culturally. We all have a duty to keep these figures and their work alive. Our ability to do so will ultimately determine whether there is life in our civilization yet, or whether, as Pound feared, there is nothing left but “an old bitch gone in the teeth.”

[1] A. Julius, T.S. Eliot, anti-Semitism and Literary Form (Thames & Hudson, 2003), 40.

[2] Ibid, 52.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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