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Matthew Feldman: 

Ezra Pound’s Fascist Propaganda, 1935-1945

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Review by Greg Barnhisel

 

Matthew Feldman would like us to face up to the facts: Ezra Pound was a fascist and an anti-Semite. In Ezra Pound’s Fascist Propaganda, 1935–45 (Palgrave), Feldman, a scholar of “fascist ideology and the contemporary far right” at Teesside University in north-eastern England, shovels some new manure on top of the stinking heap of Pound’s political beliefs and activities before and during World War II. By doing so, he seeks to force readers—and, more importantly, scholars—to confront just how feculent that pile really is. He seems to think that this is news.

“Pound’s fascist activism” has for too long, Feldman argues, “been dismissed as either mad or bad, the product of political naïveté or misplaced economic idealism.” Although he equivocates here by using the passive voice, his implication is that scholars of “Pound studies” are the apologists who downplay Pound’s fascism. In reality, though, “Pound was a committed and significant English language strategist and producer of fascist propaganda before, and during, Europe’s most destructive war” (ix) and Feldman wants to make it impossible for future scholars to ignore or minimize this fact.

Feldman’s accusations are right, up to a point. Beginning in 1948, for twenty years New Directions (Pound’s American publisher after 1939) successfully taught scholars and readers to divorce Pound’s work from his politics. Through the 1970s and 1980s, much scholarship on Pound was formalist, and the work that did touch upon his biography tended to focus most heavily on the earlier, pre-Italian years. Moreover, he was undeniably mentally ill by the time of his capture and for some years later, allowing Pound scholars to read his madness backward, to the beginning of his fascination with Fascism.

But after Tim Redman’s authoritative 1991 Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism, nobody has seriously disputed that Pound was deeply attached to Fascism and pervasively anti-Semitic. For that reason Feldman’s study puzzles me. Exactly which contemporary scholars is he arguing against? Who are these blinkered “commahunters” (to use a Poundian term) or cynical apologists who want us to look past Pound’s ugly language, to ignore the man giving the fascist salute? They never appear in person in this book. Feldman cites and quotes Redman repeatedly, but he’s certainly not taking much issue with him, whose book he rightly calls the “gold standard” on Pound and Fascism. (It remains so.)

Feldman does complain that Redman “is chained to the fallacy that Pound’s radio propaganda was somehow disconnected from the ‘battles of the real war’” (116) and that “critics have consistently marginalized Pound’s engagement with wartime developments” (118). Here lies his actual argument. Pound scholars today do not deny that he was a dedicated Fascist and anti-Semite, and that these beliefs not only colored but by the mid-1930s actually drove all of his work. But, Feldman charges, Pound scholars treat his fascist involvement as a personal idiosyncrasy, possibly stemming from mental illness, but probably just the regrettable and erroneous conclusion to which his heterodox economic beliefs led him.

Pound was not, though, a fascist by accident or circumstance, Feldman forcefully counters. He was a deliberate and well-informed believer and operative. Pound was not just steeped in Fascist ideology and language (as one might expect from an impractical poet) but involved in the Fascist movement, particularly its propaganda wings, both in Italy and the U.K. Fascism and anti-Semitism were not incidental to or unfortunately resultant from his other ideas about culture; Fascism and anti-Semitism, Feldman insists, were the very core of his beliefs by the mid-1930s. 

It wasn’t just talk, either; it was Action! Pound was in close communication with the British Union of Fascists, contributing frequently to the party’s newspaper (Action!) and proposing propaganda strategies to its leaders, including Oswald Mosley (who then, tellingly, started talking up Social Credit). Feldman demonstrates that Pound was deeply involved in Radio Rome, from which his infamous wartime broadcasts emanated. The common understanding of Pound’s wartime work for Minculpop—the irresistibly named propaganda arm of the Italian Fascist government—is that he was a kind of independent contractor who trekked to Rome periodically, recorded a number of spots over a few days, and then retreated to Rapallo. 

But Feldman shows that this wasn’t true, that Pound should instead be viewed as a Minculpop official. According to materials from Pound’s papers at Yale, Pound frequently attended strategy meetings for Radio Rome and took a lead role in crafting the Italian propaganda program. Perhaps most damningly, from 1940 to 1945 EIAR, the Italian radio monopoly, paid Pound 250,000 lire—almost $185,000 in today’s dollars, a sum hardly befitting a dilettante or dabbler. Pound was, Feldman avers, not a naïve fellow-traveller but a Fascist ideologue, a staff mouthpiece for Mussolini’s government.

Using Pound’s FBI file, materials from the British National Archives’ War Office, and Pound’s papers at Yale, Feldman proves that Pound wrote and recorded far more broadcasts than the 120 reproduced in Leonard Doob’s Ezra Pound Speaking. Furthermore, many of his additional speeches, written or delivered under pseudonyms, increasingly use not just Italian Fascist but Nazi doctrine and language. Feldman shows that after he read Mein Kampf in 1942, Pound expressed enthusiasm for Hitler’s ideas about propaganda and urged his contacts at EIAR to adopt them. Provocatively, Feldman implies (although doesn’t actually state) that Pound considered becoming a propagandist for Hitler after Mussolini fell in 1943: a forged Italian passport was held for Pound at the German embassy in Rome in case he decided to decamp for Berlin to continue his work. 

He didn’t, though, and Feldman concludes by recounting Pound’s continued enthusiasm for Mussolini’s rump government (the Repubblica Sociale Italiana, or RSI), headquartered in the Lago di Garda community of Salò. If Pound’s unnamed apologists characterize this period of the poet’s life as a sad and purposeless one in which he came to realize that the Fascist dream was an illusion, Feldman insists that Pound was re-energized by the new challenge and by the prospect of even closer linkages between Nazi Germany and the RSI. In a fascinating and disturbing detail, Feldman shows that Pound’s scripts for a Salò radio program called “Jerry’s Front Calling” became leaflets printed by the Germans and dropped over RSI-controlled territory.1

Relying on many underused archives, Feldman has made it impossible to believe that Pound was not a committed Fascist, dedicated to the movement not just intellectually but as a day-to-day job, or that Pound was fully devoted to, active in, and entirely cognizant of the full scope of the Fascist cause not only in Italy but also in the U.K. and later in Germany. As an addition to what we know about Pound’s beliefs and activities during one of Europe’s darkest decades, it’s well-researched, informative, and original. But Feldman’s combative and indignant tone is baffling. Apart from Redman, and to some extent Humphrey Carpenter (in whose lengthy biography of Pound Feldman finds little to praise), Feldman appears to be taking on a battalion of straw men. Very little Pound criticism and biography published in the last twenty or thirty years underplays the central importance of Fascism and anti-Semitism to Pound’s legacy and later poetry. It’s a shame that Feldman sets his slim book up primarily as a rebuttal, because, lacking an adversary, it fails on those terms. 

Ezra Pound’s Fascist Propaganda, moreover, overreaches not just in its project to rebut a ghost argument, but also in its contention that Pound was one of the most influential propagandists at Radio Rome and EIAR. Feldman grounds this case entirely on English-language sources, primarily Pound’s own papers. Pound certainly thought he was a big man in Minculpop; but he generally saw himself as a key figure in anything. It’s one thing to report Pound’s own take, but responsible scholarship demands that one check what Pound’s employers had to say about the matter. Bizarrely, Feldman cites absolutely no Italian sources on the question; gives no overview of how Minculpop, EIAR, or Radio Rome actually worked; and in effect takes Pound at his word. Would Pound inflate the importance of his own service to “the Boss”? Ya think?

Finally, the book itself reflects the shakiness of some of its arguments. It’s a sloppy product that needed another draft from the author and a better in-house copyeditor at Palgrave. The book ends abruptly, without anything suggesting a conclusion, almost as if Feldman’s deadline arrived unexpectedly. Stylistically, it’s at best undistinguished, and at times just garbled, like this paragraph on page 35:

Fascism’s ‘empire of the spirit’ quickly turned corporeal following Italy’s undeclared war on Abyssinia Africa Orientale Italiana between 1935 and 1941, or Italian East Africa; now Ethiopia and parts of present-day Eritrea), in contravention of a 20-year ‘Treaty of Friendship’ signed in 1928.

That—the opening sentence of a chapter—is the worst, but by no means the only ugly or just incomprehensible sentence in the book. Numerous mistranslations and grammatical errors fuel my suspicion that Feldman has little or no Italian (and thus could not consult original sources from Minculpop) and that his editors don’t either. I was more surprised to note that Feldman missed many details—such as the fact that the 1937 collection is called the Fifth Decad (not Decade) of Cantos—that any Poundian would know. Feldman is quite perceptive about Fascist imagery, language, and even typesetting in Pound’s correspondence, so his carelessness with or ignorance of other such matters is jarring.

Feldman’s book is part of Palgrave’s new “Pivot” series, which promises to publish shorter scholarly works—original research longer than articles but shorter than monographs. This is a welcome development with real potential as an e-publishing platform, and an exciting new model for disseminating research. However, if Palgrave is saving money by truncating the editing process, as this book evidences on every level, I’m not certain that it serves readers, the profession, or Palgrave well. 

Feldman’s book makes some significant contributions to our understanding of Pound and fascism, Pound’s activities during the war years, and the relationship of modernism to fascism. His pioneering research should inspire future scholars to tell this story more fully—and to include Italian and even German sources. Unfortunately, viewed on its own merits, Feldman’s book just isn’t as good as it should have been.

 

 


 

1. See in this MIN number Jared Young’s summary of Bradshaw’s and Smith’s article “Ezra Pound, James Strachey Barnes ('The Italian Lord Haw-Haw') and Italian Fascism” for further scholarly clarification of both the passport and “Jerry’s Front Calling” issues.