Ezra Pound’s Fascist Propaganda, 1935-1945
Palgrave Pivot, 2013
Ezra Pound’s Fascist Propaganda, 1935-1945
Review by Leon Surette
The title page identifies Matthew Feldman as “Reader in Contemporary History and Co-Director of the Centre for Fascist, Anti-fascist and Post-fascist Studies, Teesside University.” He has edited thirteen essay collections (3 still at-press at the time of publication), seven of which are concerned with Samuel Beckett, who presumably falls under the anti-fascist rubric. Ezra Pound’s Fascist Propaganda appears to be his first monograph.
Feldman belongs to the school of fascist study founded by Roger Griffin, and his definition of fascism is recognizably Griffinesque: Here is his definition in a self-quotation from his edited collection, A Fascist Century:
Since it first emerged in the wake of World War One, fascism can be profitably conceptualised as a specifically modern form of secular ‘millenarianism’ constructed culturally and politically, not religiously, as a revolutionary movement centring upon the ‘renaissance’ of a given people (whether perceived nationally, ethnically, culturally, or religiously) through the total reordering of all perceivedly ‘pure’ collective energies towards a realisable utopia; an ideological core implacably hostile to democratic representation and socialist materialism, equality and individualism, in addition to any specific enemies viewed as alien or oppositional to such a programme. (xi, original emphasis)
Following this citation, he quotes Griffin as (belatedly) in agreement about the “pivotal role of ‘political religion’ as a ‘secular, state religion to encourage the mass experience of national rebirth from decadence and collapse’” (xi).
To bring Ezra Pound under this definition is possible only if one ignores, or is ignorant of, all of Pound’s literary activity apart from his radio and journalistic propaganda in favour of Fascism, Nazism and anti-Semitism. Unhappily, Feldman meets that necessity. Despite his pro forma mention of several biographical studies of Pound, Feldman has no idea of the genesis of the views and beliefs that Pound embraced between his college years in New England, his poetic apprenticeship in Old England, his early cultural and literary criticism and his radicalization by Major Douglas’ Social Credit ideas during and immediately after World War I.
His opening sentence in the preface declares: “It is high time to start taking Ezra Pound’s fascism seriously” (viii), falsely implying that it is a subject that has been much neglected. That he should begin in this way is odd since throughout the text Feldman is generous in his praise (richly deserved in my view) of Tim Redman’s 1992 study, Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism. And, of course, Redman did take Pound’s Fascism seriously—as Feldman acknowledges in the last sentence of his introduction: “this study builds upon the intellectual and methodological framework used to such powerful effect by the principal book in this area to date, Tim Redman’s 1991 Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism, which argued that “Pound’s activity on behalf of Italian [F]ascism needs to be understood historically and with a great deal of specificity” (7).
After a further 126 pages detailing Pound’s propaganda activities on behalf of the Fascist regime, Feldman concludes that “one can only concur with Redman’s summation that the period between Pearl Harbor and his indictment for treason witnessed Pound “almost exclusively engaged in the preparation of his radio speeches and in giving aid to Italian propaganda” (133). Feldman certainly provides more details about the contents of Pound’s radio fulminations than Redman did—and even more than can be found in Leonard Doob’s 1978 “Ezra Pound Speaking”: Radio Speeches of WWII, which transcribed 120 typescripts produced by the American Army’s monitoring of Pound’s broadcasts. Feldman reproduces and comments upon a considerable number of previously unexamined texts for broadcast in the Beinecke collection—although it is not known if they were ever broadcast—and consults other files from British and American intelligence agencies.
Another principal source that Feldman cites frequently is Roxana Preda’s 2007 collection, Ezra Pound’s Economic Correspondence, 1933-40, which he justifiably describes as “outstanding.” As for scholarly commentary on Pound’s political opinions and behaviour, his coverage is rather spotty. He cites Carpenter and Wilhelm a couple of times; praises Noel Stock and cites Alec Marsh’ s recent Ezra Pound once (and thanks him in the preface). He even mentions my Dreams of a Totalitarian Utopia (2011) and Pound in Purgatory: From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism (1999), but does not engage the argument of those studies. Massimo Bacigalupo’s 1980 study, The Forméd Trace: The Later Poetry of Ezra Pound is dismissed with the remark that the “neglected insights” offered by Ezra Pound’s Fascist Propaganda “were also raised, now more than three decades ago, by a leading Pound scholar named Massimo Bacigalupo, who described The Cantos as ‘among other things the sacred poem of the Nazi-Fascist millennium’” (x). However, The Formed Trace is never mentioned again, and—like my own books—does not find its way into Feldman’s bibliographic note. The most cited biography is C. David Heyman’s idiosyncratic, The Last Rower.
Generally speaking, most of the relevant Pound scholarship gets at least a mention or a footnote in Ezra Pound’s Fascist Propaganda with the notable exceptions of Robert Casillo’s The Genealogy of Demons Anti-Semitism, Fascism and the Myths of Ezra Pound (1988)and—more damagingly—“I Cease not to Yowl”: Ezra Pound’s Letters to Olivia Rossetti Agresti (1998). The latter is a collection of Pound’s letters written to a fellow Fascist, between the years 1937 and 1963. ORA, as Pound called his correspondent, although a Fascist, was not an anti-Semite, and castigated Pound for his racist attitudes. Had Feldman consulted this collection, his simplistic view of Pound’s mentality might have been modulated.
However, I suspect that exposure to a less Manichean view of human nature would not have had much effect on Feldman’s posture. His only concern is to document the fact of Pound’s undoubted commitment to Mussolini’s Fascism and the Axis cause during World War II, and his equally undoubted anti-Semitism. Such documentation—as he concedes—had already been undertaken years, and even decades, before he took up the cause. What then is the purpose of the one hundred and fifty or so pages of his study? Apart from occasional swipes at identified (Carpenter 50 & 156) and unidentified (139 & 150) scholars who have scanted or denied Pound’s Fascism and/or anti-Semitism, except for recurrent mentions of Tim Redman’s accuracy and wisdom on the issue, Feldman does not engage Pound scholarship on the issues of Fascism and Anti-Semitism.
Admirable as Redman’s 1991 study is, he does not provide any account of how Pound fell into such egregious error about the merits of Fascism and Nazism, nor his moral blindness on the issues of racism and the brutality of the totalitarian states. That is an issue that I have addressed in both of the books Feldman mentions—but very likely did not read. It is also addressed—in a rather different way—by Massimo Bacigalupo, and in a still different and more accusatory way by Robert Casillo. Feldman, however, does not see it as an issue at all. He is only concerned to demonstrate that Pound embraced Fascism, Nazism and anti-Semitism – as, indeed, he did.
Unfortunately, such failings were shared by literally millions of other men and women in Europe in those years. Why should Feldman, or anyone else, be especially concerned with the moral and intellectual failings of an expatriate American living in Italy who wrote poetry? Perhaps because as a putative intellectual he ought to have known better? Other intellectuals made similar “errors”—Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man, to mention only the most notorious. My point is not that Pound’s guilt is diminished because others were just as bad, but rather that it behoves us to try to understand why intelligent and engaged men and women embraced such vicious and immoral doctrines as racism and militarism. And we should not suppose that the thirties and forties of the last century were a unique period and that such moral and intellectual failures are behind us.
The justification—such as it is—for Feldman’s choice of Pound is that he is representative of European fascists: “Even as an expatriate in Fascist Italy, Pound’s commitment to the ‘Fascist faith’ was far from idiosyncratic; it was representative” (xiii). Accordingly, Feldman claims that “Pound’s fascist propaganda offers remarkable insight into the propagation of ideological faith by the devotee of a totalitarian political religion” (xiv). In short, Pound’s “case” is offered as representative of the typical fascist ideologue. It would be difficult to imagine a less representative Italian Fascist than an expatriate, avant-garde and eccentric American poet.
If one is to take the content of Ezra Pound’s Fascist Propaganda, 1935-45 as an indication of the true motivation of Feldman’s choice of subject, it is not that Pound is representative of anything, but rather that Pound has left a massive documentation of his devotion to the fascist cause in typescripts of the radio broadcasts and his print journalism. However, Feldman’s examination of these sources reveals nothing more than what has been well established—Pound was for an extended period a loyal supporter of Fascism and of the Axis cause. Feldman, who restricts his study to the ten years 1935-45, ignores that such loyalty continued into the St. Elizabeth years. Nor is he concerned with Pound’s formative years in London beyond a casual (and erroneous) mention of his association with “Douglas’s exchange rate disparity” theory (16).
Ezra Pound’s Fascist Propaganda, 1935-1945
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.
Ezra Pound’s Fascist Propaganda, 1935-1945
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.