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Matthew Feldman: 

Ezra Pound’s Fascist Propaganda, 1935-1945

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Review by Alec Marsh

 

Matthew Feldman’s Pound’s Fascist Propaganda: 1935-1945 will change the way Pound is viewed. It fulfils perfectly the goals of Palgrave–Pivot for relatively short, timely, archive-based research that “changes the boundaries” of scholarly fields of study. In this case the boundaries of Pound’s political commitments to Fascism have now been shifted several more degrees to the Right. Evidently, Pound’s heroic efforts on behalf of a bad cause have a religious basis, which accounts for their persistence till near the end of his writing life. 

 Matthew Feldman brings a new and, as it happens, badly needed perspective to Pound and to Pound studies. Feldman is an expert on European Fascism. He is a student and collaborator of preeminent figures in the field, like Roger Griffin, having co-edited a massive five-volume study, Fascism: Critical Concepts (Routledge, 2004) with him. For Feldman, the Pound case is just that, a “case study” in Fascism. “For too long,” he argues, “Pound’s fascist activism has been …dismissed as either mad or bad, the product of political naiveté or misplaced political idealism” (2). As his most recent biographer, I am one of those Feldman refers to. Although I have worked hard to get to the bottom of Pound’s fascism and to find the worst I could find, I confess to being unprepared for what Feldman has uncovered; it appears that “Pound was a committed and significant English-language strategist and producer of fascist propaganda for nearly a decade:” 1935-1945 (ix). 

Feldman begins his study by looking at Pound’s considerable efforts on behalf of British fascism in the years immediately before the war. They were impressive. Pound first wrote for the British-Italian Bulletin, a publication underwritten by the Fascist government specifically to influence British public opinion. During the year it was in existence, Pound appears to have composed 29 texts for the 42 issues printed, including front-page leaders. After the cessation of the Bulletin in October 1936, Pound shifted his propaganda to the British Union of Fascists, contributing to the Fascist Quarterly, the British Union Quarterly from its inaugural issue as well as to Action—all in all, some 65 texts contributed by Pound without payment.   

Feldman’s evidence is unequivocal. And most of it comes from the Beinecke rather than squirreled away in obscure archives. Bolstered by FBI and MI5 files, Feldman has discovered that Pound’s radio propaganda 1940-1945 includes not hundreds, but thousands of items, from the relatively well-known speeches collected by Doob and Mary de Rachewiltz in the 1960s to a plethora of speeches to be read by others or performed by “personae” that Pound invented, to give his radio-work variety. There are also squibs, fake pro-Axis letters and, perhaps most damning of all, letters that show Pound actively crafting his propaganda efforts to the needs of the regime. Pound was not doing his own propaganda, as Hugh Kenner claimed, but crafting his propaganda to meet the needs of the state. For those of us who have wondered how Pound supported himself during the war years when royalties and remittances were stopped from coming into Italy, the answer is that Pound was working steadily for EIAR, the Axis radio, his first steady employment since being fired from The Dial in the twenties. Feldman reports that “at a conservative estimate” Pound earned about 250,000 lire between 1940 and 1945 as a fascist radio propagandist, worth about $185,000 today (108).

Feldman’s empirical evidence is enough to have convicted Ezra Pound of treason had he ever been tried. If anything like the evidence that Feldman has marshalled in this relatively brief volume had been made available to the Justice Department in time for Pound’s trial in the winter of 1945-6, Pound could have said little in his defense. Julian Cornell defended Pound better than he could have known when he went for the insanity plea. Pound was certainly non compos mentis by the time he was tried, but Feldman’s research shows the poet putting all of his considerable energy and literary savvy into his broadcasts. Their quirks, dialect and other oddities were calculated effects. Their literary content did not make the speeches literary; to the contrary, they reveal the political commitments in the literature. 

Although the bulk of Pound’s Fascist Propaganda is archival and empirical, Feldman’s greatest contribution to Pound studies may be theoretical. By bringing over to our field the new consensus in Fascist Studies that fascism is a kind of secular religion concerned with cultural, national and spiritual rebirth, we can now begin to re-evaluate Pound’s “hard Right turn” of 1934-5, identified by Leon Surette as the moment when Pound became an open and inveterate anti-Semite, as a religious conversion, rather than, say, a mental collapse. Evidently precipitated by Pound’s meeting with Mussolini in January 1933, a religious motive may account for the sudden and sustained release of almost illimitable energy on behalf of the regime. It also accounts for the religious language Pound used to describe the death of his hero (“the twice crucified”) and Hitler (a Joan of Arc). In St. Elizabeths he remained “Saint Adolf” to Pound’s right wing admirers and no doubt, to the Master himself. 

Feldman’s new book is a major piece of scholarship, which will change forever the way Pound’s political commitments are viewed and assessed. Pound Studies will have to readjust, as will those of us who have devoted our lives to this flawed genius, this ‘blind seer’ as David Moody called him. It’s much worse than that; it’s heart-breaking.