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BOOK IN FOCUS

Alec Marsh. John Kasper and Ezra Pound: Saving the Republic. London: Bloomsbury 2015.

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Review by Greg Barnhisel

 

 

WHAT WE WISH WE DIDN’T KNOW

 

rsz kasperThe Monti neighborhood, just north of the Forum ruins, is one of the up-and-coming parts of Rome—“history-adjacent,” a realtor might say. It’s an old working-class quarter, lots of modest 19th-century apartment buildings, but now a hipster contingent has brought wine bars and boutiques and such to the old storefronts. Moses also lives there: Michelangelo’s horned Moses, who strokes his dreadlocked beard in the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli.

Not long ago I had an hour to kill in Monti. Wandering around its little streets, I came across a storefront in via di S. Martino ai Monti with striking Vorticist/Futurist paintings on its doors. “La Testa di Ferro: Libreria Non Conforme,” it was called (“Iron Head: A Nonconformist Bookstore”).

Unsurprisingly, the store wasn’t some sort of shrine to the late American football player Ironhead Heyward. Instead, the front vitrine was full of two-fisted titles by Marinetti, Bukowski, Nietzsche, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Beppe Grillo (a populist comedian/politician). And Mussolini. And, occupying the entirety of the top shelf, Ezra Pound.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Italy over the last twenty-five years, and so I shouldn’t be shocked to find actual Fascists there. Still, I was taken aback. To the man next to me, also checking out the window, I exclaimed in amazement, “This is a Fascist bookstore!” He gave me that wry, cynical look that is the Roman birthright, as if to say “what, were you born yesterday morning?”

“La Testa di Ferro” is associated with the “CasaPound” movement, a neofascist social club that started in 2003 in another working-class neighborhood in Rome and that claims to take its inspiration equally from Fascism and Ezra Pound. I’m a sporadic Pound scholar and a longtime Romanophile, but CasaPound was new to me. (I’ve since learned that the Pound scholarly community is well aware of CasaPound.)

Learning this, I was dejected. No matter how much or how strenuously Pound’s advocates, like me, try carefully to distinguish his poetry from his politics, and to disprove the connection so many others have made between his work and their own repellent political views, people with nasty politics just won’t stop finding Pound a kindred spirit.

This is distressing in itself. But more troubling is that even though it’s not Pound’s responsibility that some thuggish street activists in Rome revere him, it gets harder to argue that they shouldn’t. The space on which we can defend Pound keeps shrinking.

Given the revelations about Pound’s political activities that have come out at least since Tim Redman’s 1991 Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism, few still deny that Pound was a dedicated Fascist and anti-Semite from the 1930s through the war and his capture. However—one defense of Pound has gone—it was only fascism in its Italian flavor to which Pound regrettably adhered; we should not conflate Fascism and Nazism, and he was no Nazi. But in a recent book I reviewed for this publication, Matthew Feldman pretty conclusively demonstrates that Pound was an equal-opportunity Fascist. After Mussolini fled to Salò Pound not only offered his assistance to the rump Fascist government, but wrote in favor of Hitler (and the Nazis used his works as propaganda, likely with his acquiescence). The Nazis even prepared a pseudonymous German passport for Pound in case he needed it to flee Italy.

Okay, perhaps he was not only a Fascist but also dabbled in Nazism. But the 1930s and the war were a kind of a fever, a fever from which Pound recovered after his capture. (This has been New Directions’ tacit stance, for instance.) Those who’ve made this argument grant that while quite a few unsavory disciples flocked to St. Elizabeths while Pound languished there, Pound had no control over who wanted to see him. Anyway, it’s understandable that he would have welcomed any visitors, especially those who admired him and knew his work. It’s not his fault that some of them went on to do unsavory things with his ideas.

But in his deeply researched, deeply saddening book John Kasper and Ezra Pound: Saving the Republic (Bloomsbury, 2015), Alec Marsh persuasively argues that Pound not only held on to his most repugnant views through the 1940s and into the 1950s, he reconfigured them to the American political context, and inspired followers with them. Just as Pound’s rage at usury became anti-Semitism in the 1930s, in the 1950s Pound’s interest in the turn-of-the-century naturalist and anti-evolutionist Louis Agassiz became pseudoscientific racism, which then manifested itself in a vocal support for segregationists and even the Klan, Marsh shows. Pound’s Jeffersonian mistrust of the power of a centralized federal government became a public endorsement of state and local resistance to integration, even after this resistance became violent.

How did Pound get here? Delving deep into the Beinecke archives, in which much remains undiscovered, Marsh characterizes Pound’s views in the Pisan cantos and the sections published in the St. Elizabeths years (Section: Rock-Drill and Thrones) as the “‘Southern’ version of American history.” Pound came to this perspective from his growing sense that “the defeat of the South in the Civil War and the defeat of the Axis in the Second World War [were] incidents in the same sequence, homologous phases of the same war of creditors against debtors, usury against productive capital” (21). In fact, Marsh asserts that 1956’s Canto 105 can be read as “Pound’s heavily coded response to what he considered the judicial usurpations of the Warren Court and renewed ‘northern aggression’ against the South” (126). This sympathy with the South then combined with a belief in racial purity and a horror at “mongrelization” that Pound got from Agassiz, “the most influential scientific racist of the nineteenth century” (64).

And, inevitably, it returned to the Jews. “It is perfectly well know[n] that the fuss [a]bout ‘de-segregation’ in the U.S. has been started by the jews,” he wrote to Noel Stock. “Plenty of Americans have been getting on nicely with coloured people for nearly a century… The [Beria]-Frankfurter gang advocates mongrelization” (92). One wonders who precisely would fall into the Venn diagram intersection of the followers of Stalin’s NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, but a null set offered no obstacle to Pound’s fancies.

At the center of this depressing story is the young firebrand John Kasper, perhaps “Pound’s most important reader in the 1950s,” Marsh suggests (xvi). Kasper started a Poundian bookstore, “Make it New,” in Greenwich Village in 1953, but in those years he seemingly wasn’t a bigot. Quite the contrary: Kasper employed and developed a close friendship with Florette Henry, a young African-American woman. Soon, though, Kasper became an enthusiastic, energetic, and virulent racist. He went South and hooked up with anti-integration activists and politicians in Alabama (gubernatorial candidate Admiral John Crommelin and Asa Carter, author of George Wallace’s “segregation now, segregation forever” speech). By 1957, Kasper had become not just an ideologue but an agitator, and helped organize several violent protests, including the bombing of an integrated school in Clinton, Tennessee. He eventually served time for conspiracy in a Federal prison.

But Pound shouldn’t be held responsible for how his admirers pervert his ideas. The book darkly disagrees that Kasper twisted Pound’s beliefs in any way. Marsh doesn’t explicitly state, but his book strongly suggests that Pound’s core principles—the Agassiz notions of racial purity, the anti-Semitism, the hostility to a strong central government—catalyzed Kasper’s inchoate beliefs in 1954 and 1955 to produce the particularly vicious racism that resulted. More damningly, Marsh shows that Pound was with Kasper the whole way: “For Kasper, once he started agitating, school integration was identical to mongrelization; Pound did not disagree” (89). Even after Kasper resorted to violence, Marsh charges, “Pound could have put a stop to Kasper’s activities at any time had he so desired. That Kasper was not called on the carpet by Pound can only mean that the poet did not disapprove of Kasper’s actions” (173).

Certainly Kasper saw his work as the practical application of Pound’s philosophy, and wanted the master to know that the people were hungry for his wisdom. “Everywhere I go,” Kasper wrote back to his master in 1958, “people ask me about E.P. from crackers, red necks, wool hats, and hillbillys in the cornfields and on the mountain ridges to high brows and jewspaper reporters… Hillbillies talk of E.P. as readily as Dan’l Boone or Davey Crockett” (225-6, 190). This is likely wishful thinking, or simply flattery, but Pound ate it up. More importantly, in all of his extensive correspondence with Kasper he never objected how Kasper used or interpreted his writings.

K in the crowdThis is depressing enough, but Marsh goes on to argue that Pound’s ideas continue to ripple through the U.S. political fringe in other ways. In December 2015, a group of antigovernment activists, motivated by fury at the Federal government, the inspiration of a patriarch named Cliven Bundy, and a canon of sacred scriptures including the Constitution, the Book of Mormon, and the writings of Mormon rebel Cleon Skousen, uninvitedly came to the aid of two Oregon ranchers who were facing prison time. Near Burns, just a few hours from Pound’s birthplace in Hailey, Idaho (and even closer to Klamath Falls, Oregon, where both of my parents grew up), this small group took over a remote wildlife refuge and held it for several weeks. But the mass uprising they hoped to spark never materialized. After several weeks of standoff, the protesters were captured—one killed in the process—and indicted on federal charges.

John Kasper and Ezra Pound provocatively suggests that we can see Pound also in this fiasco. The antigovernment fury that motivated the defenders of the Oregon ranchers—indeed, the acts of the ranchers themselves—was rooted in the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the 1970s and 1980s, when Westerners who made their living from agriculture and natural-resource extraction began to rail against Federal regulations and control of the land. A key theorist behind the Sagebrush Rebellion was T. David Horton, a Carson City, Nevada activist—and one-time Pound disciple, and Kasper’s partner in the 1950s Poundian publishing venture Kasper & Horton. Many of the foundational ideas about the illegitimacy of central authority that Kasper and Horton (and another Pound acolyte turned far-right activist, Eustace Mullins) started disseminating in the 1950s became cornerstones of the American antigovernment movement in the West decades later.

Given the care Marsh has taken with his research, I found it surprising that in another area the book shows a real lack of attention. The proofreading is so haphazard, particularly near the end of the book, as to be distracting. Dropped commas, incorrectly used colons and semicolons, inconsistent capitalization of titles like the “Committee to R[r?]estore the Constitution,” Archibald “MacLiesh” twice in one paragraph and “MacLeish” twice in the next, “stationery” spelled “stationary,” even the dreaded “its/it’s” confusion. It’s notoriously difficult, given Pound’s resolutely nonstandard spelling and punctuation and usage (and his followers’ compulsion to model their writing after his), to proofread a text based on Pound’s correspondence, but these errors aren’t just limited to quotes from Pound.

Academic publishers’ budgets are severely pinched, and even the top houses are outsourcing their proofreading. I don’t fault a first-time author, in need of a publication for tenure, if her book is a hash of run-ons and comma splices. Marsh’s book, though, is different. He’s not a newbie; he’s one of the leading figures in the field, and this is a very significant and original work of scholarship. So why is this book’s text so sloppy? It’s troubling that Feldman is the series editor here, as his own otherwise important book (with Palgrave) was a similarly shoddy product. I’ll grant scholars some leeway in this climate of austerity, but we’ve got to do better.

Dismal as it is, John Kasper and Ezra Pound is a crucial book, not only for the study of the life and work of Ezra Pound but for those who want to understand the rage of American antigovernment militants. We need to take these people seriously, and understand their ideology. On these grounds Marsh justifiably calls me out, pointing out that in my first monograph (on Pound and New Directions Books) I dismissed Kasper in passing as a “crackpot” crony of Pound’s. But in truth, Marsh conclusively shows, Kasper “was not [just] an unstable crackpot on the fringes of Pound’s community at St. Elizabeths” (233). (I will limply defend myself with my first published article, an enumerative bibliography of Kasper & Horton, which took Kasper more seriously, and which Marsh doesn’t cite.) Kasper understood what Pound was trying to say about American politics and society in the later 1950s, and “tried faithfully, if imperfectly, to put his Master’s ideas into action and save the republic” in those years (233). We should be glad that he failed, just as Italy, chaotic and corrupt as it is, should be glad for CasaPound to remain a fringe movement.

While John Kasper and Ezra Pound will be catalogued and shelved with the Pound books, and like J.J. Wilhelm’s The American Roots of Ezra Pound (1985) it links Pound’s ideas and sometimes even his poetry to the American cultural context, it’s not solely or even primarily a book about Pound. Pound looms in the background for most of the book, sending and receiving letters, but the real central character is Kasper. Marsh (with assistance from Archie Henderson, a nonacademic who is one of the most generous researchers of the Pound scholarly community) follows Kasper almost day by day through the late 1950s, and in so doing provides a truly unique portrait of a freelance racist moving through the South as desegregation began. Given this, the book is as valuable as a ground-level study of radical resistance to civil rights, and the sometimes-unlikely theories behind that resistance, as it is as a contribution to Pound studies.