Article Index

 

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

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  review by Alex Pestell

 

 

rsz kasperThe first volume of this journal saw a controversy unfold over several issues. Its subject was a book by Matthew Feldman (Ezra Pound’s Fascist Propaganda, 1935-1945) that had been published by Palgrave Pivot, a platform for mid-length studies that offers scholars the opportunity to publish research that is unconstrained by the usual publishing model. Pivot books are shorter than full-length monographs, and published within a matter of weeks: this makes them ideal for the kind of intervention Feldman’s book is intended to be, and as intervention the controversy in Make It New shows it to have been brilliantly successful. The dispute began with three reviews published concurrently in the second issue, by Leon Surette, Alec Marsh and Greg Barnhisel (MIN 1.2). To put it briefly, Surette and Barnhisel took issue with what they saw as an over-reliance on rhetoric in Feldman’s argument. No Pound scholar, they argued, would today deny the poet’s adherence to a right-wing politics (albeit one whose exact contours are still debated). And yet Feldman (partly, perhaps, because of his lack of expertise in Pound scholarship) has entered the lists brandishing a large quantity of documentary evidence designed to prove to a blinkered Pound industry that the poet was an unambiguous supporter of Fascism. Closer reading of the extant literature on Pound’s fascism and anti-Semitism, their reviews suggest, would have made it harder for Feldman to remain satisfied with the redundant demonstration of Pound’s ugly politics and perhaps forced him to confront the far more difficult task of trying to understand how Pound, or anyone for that matter (for as Surette points out, Pound was merely following the crowd in his politics), could fall into this error. Issue three saw A. David Moody provide a more detailed critique, adding to Surette’s comments an indictment of Feldman’s asserted ‘empiricism’, offering a fairly damning list of errors in the book, and finishing with a request that Pound scholars focus on what is of ‘permanent value’ in the poet’s work.

By contrast, Alec Marsh’s review – appearing alongside Surette’s and Barnhisel’s – claimed that, far from rehearsing a well-established theme, Feldman’s book ‘will change the way Pound is viewed’ (MIN 1.2, 11). In his review and in a response to Moody’s piece, published in issue four of Make It New, Marsh argued that the value of Feldman’s book lies precisely in his distance from the Pound industry. If this distance means that there will inevitably be some errors of omission and commission, on the plus side it leads us to a view of Pound we don’t often see: one in which the politics need not necessarily be read through the aesthetics, as if the latter have an instrumental purity which allows us to analyse the former. In other words, we need not approach Pound’s politics with the prior knowledge that he was one of the great artistic innovators; he was also, and with as much conviction, a fascist, and the huge body of work he produced in this capacity is comparable in scale and sincerity to his literary criticism. There is, then, no reason to assume that, just because his aesthetic career was chronologically prior to his political career, that it somehow has a privileged status: the latter can shed as much light on the former as vice versa. The virtue of Feldman’s book is that it tips the scales in favour of the political writings, redressing a long-held bias in favour of the literary texts. If Pound scholars are eager to pounce on the errors in his study, Marsh implies, this may have more to do with a certain defensiveness over their territory, or over Pound himself, than with a concern for scholarly inaccuracies.

I begin with this lengthy summary of an argument about another book because I believe it provides an essential context to the work under review here, Marsh’s John Kasper and Ezra Pound: Saving the Republic. The questions raised by the dispute in Make It New resonate with the themes of Marsh’s research since Money and Modernity: Pound, Williams, and the Spirit of Jefferson (1998). To what extent can Pound be said to be the exponent of the politics of those groups he fell in with? What is the relationship between his literary and political work? Perhaps most saliently, what does it mean to be intimate with the life, works, and didacticism of Ezra Pound? None of these questions are broached by Feldman’s book, but Marsh’s scholarship – including Saving the Republic – is driven by them, and that is what makes this work the one that “will change the way Pound is viewed.” Marsh is a lifelong devotee of Pound’s: the pain with which he has encountered the results of his research is evident in this book, but he does not shy away from them. More importantly, Saving the Republic begins to dismantle the artificial barrier between the political and the literary which Marsh (in my view wrongly) argued might begin to be eroded by Feldman’s book.

Kasper mainSaving the Republic tells the story of the relationship between Ezra Pound and John Kasper, a far-right militant with a literary bent who began a correspondence with the poet while still a student at Columbia. Marsh’s book could in one respect be seen as simply a biography of this American terrorist, told from the perspective of his letters to Pound. But buried among the reams of archival evidence there is also a strong, subversive thesis, which Marsh announces in his preface: ‘All in all Kasper was Pound’s most perspicacious reader, seeing through the elaborate and recondite surface of the poem to its radical, and therefore simple intent: to “save the republic”’ (xvi). The thesis is broadly this: Pound could not put his name to political screeds of the kind he had composed before and during the war, for fear of sabotaging any attempts to have him released from St Elizabeths. Instead, his “disciples,” a heterogeneous group of usually young men and women, became the channel for the poet’s political ideas, setting up presses and bookshops, writing letters, pamphlets and articles, and presenting radio shows aimed to promulgate the Poundian paideuma. Of these disciples, Kasper was the most energetic, the one who was most willing to put into action what he saw as the oppositional energy of Pound’s ideas, ideas which (Marsh argues, here and elsewhere) infuse the final volumes of The Cantos.

In telling this story, Marsh makes use of letters from Kasper to Pound now held at the Lilly and Beinecke archives (Pound’s letters to Kasper have yet to surface, and are presumed lost). Marsh’s narrative shows Kasper following a trajectory from anti-Semitic bookseller, involved in the bohemian artistic scene of Greenwich Village, to racist with contacts to the Ku Klux Klan, and engaged on a very public and probably violent campaign against desegregation in the schools of the American South. A subterranean theme running through the book is that Pound was undergoing a similar ideological transformation in his Washington years, and that the letters Kasper wrote to Pound relating his journey through the American far-right reveal that this journey was not made independently of Pound’s influence, and vice versa. Obviously, without being able to read the letters Pound wrote to Kasper, Marsh is unable to define the precise nature of this influence, which remains as a haunting vacuum on the periphery of Marsh’s narrative. But there is much more to the book than that. What makes it so pivotal in Pound studies is, first, its comprehensive investigation into the political and historical contexts of Pound’s post-war writing, and second, its insistence that these contexts make Pound’s political and literary activities inextricable from each other.

Marsh’s book covers a huge amount of ground (too much to cover in this review), cramming seventeen chapters into 250 pages. In order to understand John Kasper, Marsh takes a long view of the anti-government, isolationist, and racist ideologies he adopted, at the start focusing on the aftermath of the Civil War, understanding Reconstruction as an event that is still being played out in America today. Kasper’s first, diffident communications with Pound are set against the backdrop of a New Christian Right united by McCarthy in an anti-Communist crusade, though as Marsh points out, the anti-Semitism of Kasper and Pound, which was not shared by the majority of McCarthyites, meant that they “remain to the Right of the rightists” (28). When he visited Washington, Kasper met not only Pound but David Horton and Eustace Mullins, key figures in postwar attempts to disseminate Pound’s ideas. According to Marsh, the meeting was transformative for Kasper, whose letters to the poet took on an adulatory tone, demanding tasks from the “ILLUSTRIOUS PRINCE” (32). Marsh’s problem here is that, given the absence of Pound’s letters, he can only speculate as to the degree to which Kasper’s manifold schemes were the direct result of Pound’s urgings, or received his approbation. Marsh is forced to read between the lines, extrapolating Pound’s gist from the tone and syntax of Kasper’s responses. These conjectures occupy only a small part of Marsh’s book, and to my mind he offers enough circumstantial evidence to support them, but Pound’s side of the story remains, necessarily, somewhat in the shadows.

Among Kasper’s schemes were the setting up of the Square $ press with Horton, and the establishment of the Make It New Bookshop in Manhattan. One of the reasons Kasper is so fascinating is this cross-over between literature and politics: from the beginning Kasper was thinking politically through Pound’s reading list. As Marsh puts it, ‘The Make It New Bookshop is in so many ways a Poundian microcosm, a paideuma’ (38). He stocked, for example, “all novels recommended in ABC of reading,” as well as a great deal of revisionist history, Gesell and Douglas, and Mein Kampf (39-40). The debate that Kasper and Pound evidently had over the contents of the shop brings to light far broader political vistas. For example, Kasper is compelled to defend his choice of writers against Pound’s accusation that he is stocking too much “JEW ROT”; this leads into a passage where Marsh outlines the complex ways in which the presence on the shelves of some figures – at the time under investigation by McCarthy’s committee – may have been “camouflage” for the more radical politics of Kasper’s shop. The double nature not only of the allegiances of these figures, but of Kasper’s displaying them in his “office,” shows how slippery questions of allegiance are when we talk about Pound’s political milieu, and this slipperiness extends to Pound’s writings.

This incident does bring to light the extent to which Kasper was controlled by Pound, with attempts to depart from his curriculum discouraged, debates over politics conducted through the medium of clandestine texts and revisionist histories. Since this pretty much describes the methodology of The Cantos as a whole, it raises questions about what it means to be a Poundian, to be a good reader of Pound, to be intimate with his curriculum. (One stalwart Poundian, regular contributor to Paideuma and editor of Pound’s letters to Laughlin, David Gordon, at one point worked in Kasper’s bookshop, and agitated against desegregation [3].) Given the investment readers need to make in the texts that compose Pound’s post-war cantos if we are to understand them, is there a point at which we become so immersed in these texts that we effectively hand over to Pound control of the political reference points by which we assess his poem (a poem which, as Marsh notes, Pound saw as a “political weapon”)? 

At any rate, it seems that Pound’s curriculum continued to influence Kasper after his stint in Greenwich Village. Reading Frobenius may have encouraged Kasper’s admiration for Black Nationalism, and he believed that it might be possible to enlist the support of African Americans against the threat posed by Jewish finance capital. Perhaps more importantly, Marsh suggests that Kasper took from Pound’s misreading of Frobenius’s paideuma as “the grisly roots of ideas going into action” the notion that the poet’s texts were not there simply to be passively ingested, but required action to activate their latent energies (55). Combined with his study (also Pound-inspired) of a very different scientist, Louis Agassiz (Kasper edited an anthology of his writings, Gists of Agassiz), Kasper was led towards a rigid understanding of the “purity” of race, a notion that eventually led to his opposition to desegregation; it’s another aspect of Marsh’s long view that he provides a chapter on the history of Pound’s encounters with eugenics, racialism and Nazism. This leads into the more Kasper-centric section of the book, in which Kasper becomes a key player in the fight against school integration as mandated by the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision of 1954.

According to the logic of Kasper, Pound and others on the far right, the Supreme Court was acting according to the hidden dictates of a powerful cabal of Jews, who saw desegregation as a means to ‘mongrelize’ the US and in the process, apparently, weaken it to the point that it could be more easily enslaved (90). Kasper swiftly became involved in the activism directed against Brown and attempts to put it into practice, first assisting with Admiral John Crommelin’s campaign for the Senate primary in Alabama (on a platform at least partly based on Pound’s advice [123-4]), then, after coming into contact with prominent members of the KKK, becoming the rabble-rouser that he is now remembered as in histories of the period. Marsh unpicks the complex chronology of this period in Kasper’s life, which involved multiple run-ins with the police, and tours of the states affected by desegregation, delivering soapbox speeches against integration, against a backdrop of terrorist firebombings to which he might or might not have been connected. The question of Pound’s influence, or awareness, of Kasper’s activities here becomes crucial, since these activities risked adversely influencing any attempt to have Pound released. Marsh is able to marshal a good deal of circumstantial, and not-so-circumstantial, evidence, but here the absence of Pound’s side of the story is sorely felt.

Whatever the precise details of this part of the relationship are, Saving the Republic establishes a rich panorama of characters that cannot be ignored and must be taken into account in any future criticism of Pound’s post-war life and writing. Marsh gives essential portraits of other figures in the network of far-right agitators with which Pound was in contact, often through the offices of Kasper. Pound shared with his disciple David Horton, for example, a friendship with General Pedro del Valle, an ex-US Army General, then leader of the Defenders of the American Constitution, a right-wing pressure group obsessed with States’ Rights. Marsh claims that Pound was the eminence grise behind del Valle’s “Benton Memorial Award,” given annually to the member of Congress thought to have “best defended the US Constitution in the previous year” (107), and named after Senator Thomas Hart Benton, whose memoir Thirty Years’ View was a key source for the post-war Cantos. Another disciple (of Kasper as well as Pound) was David Wang, who had worked in Kasper’s Make It New bookstore and was instrumental in forming a splinter group of the Wheat In Our Bread party (named by Pound), a segregationist, States’ Rights formation led by Kasper. Robert Furniss (99ff) was a segregationist, lawyer and broadcaster, who assisted Kasper in the establishment of a second Poundian bookshop, the Cadmus in Washington, and eventually became Pound’s lawyer. The list goes on. Marsh demonstrates conclusively that Pound’s politics were not cranky, sui generis, or visionary, but of a piece with a recognisable strand of political thinking at work in the US from the fifties to the present day. Saving the Republic – which will hopefully soon be supplemented by a volume connecting its concerns with The Cantos – shows not only that Ezra Pound’s propaganda did not stop with Pisa, but also that the questions of purity, permanence, and justice that permeate the post-war cantos only become intelligible in the context of Pound’s political views.

 

Kasper arrested