On Matthew Feldman’s Ezra Pound’s Fascist Propaganda, 1939-1945:

some notes further to Leon Surette’s review in MIN 1.2

A. David Moody


         Matthew Feldman’s “Preface” promises archive-based “empirical accuracy,” and the “Introduction” endorses Tim Redman’s principle that  "'Pound’s activity on behalf of Italian Fascism needs to be understood historically and with a great deal of specificity”’ (Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism, 1991).  One expects then that the "generalities" will "be born from a sufficient phalanx of particulars" (74/441).

            That is not what follows.  To the question “of precisely what fascism ‘is,’” the answer is a generic definition of “fascism.” There will be no account of the specifics of Fascism, nor of precisely what Pound made of Fascism.  To the generic definition of “fascism” is added “‘political religion’ theory,” as, in Feldman’s mentor Griffin’s words, “an indispensable concept for understanding interwar fascism.” The application of this theoretical construct to the particular case of Pound’s relations with Fascism will be not empirical but rhetorical, that is, it will be not evidence-based but a matter of imposing the theory by mere assertion and juggling with undefined terms.

            In Feldman’s view, Redman’s “pre-eminent monograph . . . was stopped in its otherwise trailblazing tracks” by his inability to explain “Pound’s frequent ‘reliance upon declarations of faith’” (see Redman 120-1, not "47" as in Feldman’s note, one of quite a number of wrong page refs.).  “By placing this indispensable aspect of fascist ideology at the heart” of his own work, Feldman means to expose what Redman, and all Pound scholars, have failed to grasp.

            That Italian Fascism took its “fede fascista” very far in aping a religious cult is not news; and Redman notes specific instances of Pound’s “declarations of faith.” For instance, he declared his belief “that Mussolini is driven by a vast and deep ‘concern’ or will for the welfare of Italy.” That is the sort of thing he believed in, and his faith in what he believed to be the constructive idea of Fascism was unshakeable. Whether or not it was well founded, it was, as Redman brings out very clearly, a belief in a social and political ideal – an ideal inseparable, in his mind, from that enshrined in the U. S. Constitution.  But he did not join the Fascist Party, he took no part in its rituals, and Feldman produces no evidence to support his repeated assertion that he was a “convert” to and “the devotee of a totalitarian political religion.”  That is rhetoric, not empirical accuracy.

            Feldman cites Pound saying, while he was being interrogated in Genoa in May 1945, that Hitler “was a Saint,” a “Joan of Arc,” and then comments,

This sacralized view of the Axis leaders, so in keeping with approaches to fascism as a political religion, had been a staple of Pound’s propaganda since his only meeting with Mussolini a dozen years earlier. (5)

The quoted remark is about Hitler, not “the Axis leaders.” And there is nothing “sacralised” in what Pound said about Mussolini on that occasion – that he was a simple man from the country, and that “When you see the ‘mess’ that Italy gets into by ‘bumping off’ Mussolini, you will see why someone could believe in some of his efforts.”  That belief “in some of his efforts” had been a staple of Pound’s propaganda, but there had been nothing “sacralised” about it.

            Terms such as “belief,” “faith,” and “religion” should be defined with care.  Account needs to be taken of what is believed in, as well as of how it is believed – there is the content, there is the quality and degree of commitment, and there is the outward or practical form. Pound’s practice of Fascism, so far as is known, went no further than occasionally giving the Fascist salute. His commitment as a propagandist is beyond question, but his commitment to what precisely? Feldman is not interested in that and barely touches upon the specific content of Pound’s faith in Fascism.  

            The terms “Fascist” and “fascist” are applied to Pound at every turn, and are left to signify whatever the reader’s associations suggest.  Specialists may keep the generic definition in mind; for non-specialists the terms are likely to be simply prejudicial. The latter is the more likely since in Feldman’s writing “Fascism” melds readily into “fascism,” and since both become identified with anti-Semitism. In effect, the real subject of the book is “Ezra Pound’s anti-Semitic propaganda 1935-1945.” The fact that anti-Semitism was not a characteristic element of Fascism before 1938, and not a prime element even after the formation of the Axis, is insufficiently noticed. Pound’s anti-Semitism was not, after all, due to his faith, such as it was, in Mussolini’s Fascism.

            Of Jefferson and/or Mussolini, Pound’s earliest and most sustained statement of his “Fascist faith,” Feldman notices the concluding act of faith and very little else.  There is next to no recognition of the detail which lay behind that belief in Mussolini.  But he finds room to list a handful of unpublished texts dated as of 1933 to 1935, apparently just for the sake of the “Fascist” or “Fascism” in their titles. Again, of what Pound had to say in those texts there is not a word.  Instead, and instead of examining what Pound actually wrote in J/M, Feldman assimilates its conclusion to Fascist rhetoric in general, and on that basis asserts that “Pound was but an expatriate believer amongst many millions of Italians deifying ‘the Boss’” (24-5). Applied to Pound, that “deifying” is nonsense. But Feldman’s agenda is to tie Pound in to “Fascism,” and to “fascism,” as closely as his rhetoric can achieve. What Pound actually made of Fascism, his highly selective and very personal idea of Fascism, and his efforts to shape it to what he believed it ought to be – as his trying at that first meeting with Mussolini to persuade him that taxes were unnecessary, and his urging monetary reform upon him still in 1943 – none of this appears in Feldman’s account.

            “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?”  That was Senator McCarthy’s line of inquisition, and Arthur Miller complained of “a lack of nuance” when he was subjected to it: any association at all with Communism was evidence of guilt.  For Feldman any association with Fascism or fascism is similarly damning, no matter what the nature of the association. Pound became a regular contributor to publications of the British Union of Fascists from January 1937, when he was assured that the B.U.F. accepted the Social Credit analysis, and in order to keep them to it. Bizarrely, Feldman somehow makes out that he wrote for it because of “his growing divergence from social credit” (46), and this in spite of recording that “from 1937 social credit texts and translations by Pound and his circle appeared frequently” (49).  But his emphasis is all upon Pound’s allying himself with Fascist propaganda, and the economic propaganda becomes simply “fascist.”  So it is apparently no more than fascist ideology to hold that “Money power,” being “the greatest economic power in the modern world . . . should only be in the hands of clean and responsible government, empowered by the people to use it in the national interest” (48). The critique of usury is altogether identified with fascism and anti-Semitism.  Even canto 45 is associated with fascism, because Pound offered “his ‘Usura’ sequence,” unsuccessfully Feldman tells us more than once, for publication by the B.U.F. in 1938; it is then further associated with anti-Semitism, because “in the wake of the 1938 Italian Race Laws, Pound would give an explicitly anti-Semitic meaning to [the term “Usura”] via the Hebrew synonym neschek” (48).  Some facts: canto 45 had already been published in February 1936, in Angold’s Prosperity; “The launch issue of the British Union Quarterly in 1937 [featured] Pound’s analysis of ‘NESCHEK,’ the corrosive usury” (Feldman 48); neschek was the term by which Jewish tradition named and condemned usury, so Pound’s using it (and using it before 1938) is rather more complicated than simply “anti-Semitic.”  Feldman so thoroughly besmears canto 45 that it does no harm to recall that it has its own historical context; that Pound attached to it a definition of usury; and that in neither the canto nor the note is there anything either fascist or anti-Semitic.  

            Like any prosecutor, Feldman will find only what serves his case against Pound, and he finds it abundantly in his penultimate chapter.  Here he presents the evidence of Pound’s serving the Fascist cause, and of the alignment of his own propaganda with Fascist then with Nazi propaganda.  Specifically, Pound was calling for an Axis victory; his anti-Roosevelt and anti-Churchill invective was part and parcel of Axis propaganda; and his holding the Jews responsible for the war was wholly in accord with Nazi propaganda.  This chapter makes a significant contribution.

            At the same time, Feldman neglects Pound’s own primary theme: that for him (however mistakenly) the major issue was economic and social justice.  The consequence is that he has nothing to say about Pound’s motivation.  He would leave us with a sense, if not of motiveless malignity, then of a “religious” adherence to fascist ideology.

            There is no mystery about Pound’s motive beliefs, if only one reads what he wrote.  But Feldman doesn’t properly read Jefferson and/or Mussolini, doesn’t even mention ABC of Economics, makes nothing of cantos 31 to 71 and The Pisan Cantos, and merely skims the contributions to B.U.F. publications; neither does he read the ninety or so contributions to Il Meridiano di Roma from 1938 to September 1943, nor the two dozen items in Il Popolo di Alessandria in 1944-45, nor Carta da Visita (1942) and the three essays of 1944 written for the Salò Republic, nor the two “Tigullian manifestos.”  Those writings in Italian through the war years “remain largely beyond this study’s purview” (83); yet they constitute primary evidence of Pound’s intellectual relations with Fascism, and to leave them to others to read (155-6) leaves a disabling gap in his own work.  Further, because he does not read Italian, he is unable to read all the unpublished writings and correspondence in Italian in the Beinecke archive.  He is of course unable to use, and does not acknowledge, the highly relevant work of Italian scholars such as Zapponi, Accame, Gallesi, de Turris, et al.

            A section of chapter 5 is headed “The content of Pound’s broadcast scripts.”  It goes into how widely, that is, how many countries, Pound was ‘likely’ addressing; the variety of accents deployed; his impersonations and personae; matters of style, audibility, transmission, and reception; his participation in round-table discussions and interviews.  At one point Feldman writes that there must be much more that is not known, and declares, on that unempirical basis, that it is “safe to speculate that, as with so much of Pound’s radio propaganda, his activities were far more extensive than previously acknowledged” (86).  Possibly so, but speculation is only speculation.  And what of the content, what was Pound saying?

            Feldman’s initial account (on pp. 90-1) of the material in the Beinecke archive is inaccurate and thoroughly misleading.  He implies that the US Justice Department files contained only material gathered by the FBI agents up to the time of Pound’s indictment in July 1943, and states that, because scholars (apart from Doob and Redman) have relied on those “limited archival materials,” “an enormous amount has been obscured.” Robert Corrigan, he asserts, was “certainly incorrect” in writing in 1972 that “‘all of the original typescripts (complete with handwritten corrections) for Pound’s broadcasts are to be found in the files of the Department of Justice.’” Feldman then writes, as if enforcing that correction, that “the original radio typescripts were eventually recovered by the Ezra Pound Estate and posthumously deposited, it seems overwhelmingly, in Yale’s Beinecke archives.”  But the simple fact is that those original typescripts, which had been gathered up by the FBI agent in 1945, were “recovered” in 1976 from the Department of Justice, in whose files they had been all along. 

            Empirical accuracy is not the mark of Feldman’s way with the archives.  He declares as an apparently factual finding, that “the broadcast texts extend, quite literally, into thousands” (90), and again, that Pound “wrote or broadcast thousands of radio speeches” (108).  How many thousands would be the accurate figure, two, ten?  There is no actual count – “coming to a precise number is beyond the scope of this study.” Nevertheless, “estimations . . . should be revised upward by a digit” (99).  That may be so, but no good reason is given for it, and it does appear to be a gross exaggeration.  

            Feldman writes of “the thousands of items indexed under the heading ‘Radio Articles A-Z’ in the Beinecke archives’ online catalogue” (106).  Now there are just short of 500 folders in that section of the catalogue (folders 5312 – 5804 in boxes 128-134), and the indexing indicates that about forty of these contain two or more scripts.  It is simply not true then that there are “thousands of items indexed under [that] heading.”  There are a further 72 folders (5220 – 5291 in boxes 126-128) containing anonymous and pseudonymous scripts, nearly all containing material related to a single title.  Those 565 folders contain all the materials which can properly be described as Pound’s “radio speeches.” Then there are in addition 20 folders under the headings “Radio—Miscellaneous,” and “Radio Questions” (5292 – 5311 in box 128), and these contain: Announcements; Miscellaneous notes and drafts in Italian and English; Music instructions and notes; Plans & instructions – slogans; Pound’s Italian investments and receipts for broadcast; Rejects and incomplete drafts; Scraps & Notes; Time Tables – Summaries – Synopsis; [Material by others]; [Unidentified]; Instructions and slogans; Radio correspondence; Political and history articles.  

                Feldman makes it appear that this uncountable miscellaneous material in box 128 is jumbled up with the quite countable radio speeches in the other boxes: “in Yale’s Beinecke archives . . . a minimum of eight boxes concern his wartime propaganda,” and “These contain all manner of typescripts and drafts, rejected scripts and fragments, instructions and slogans, payments and receipts; sometimes jumbled alongside correspondence, timetables and handwritten notes in varying states of completion” (91).  Feldman offers that as a reason for his being not able to say how many “radio speeches” there are, and not able to say either whether or how they were used.  He admits that his strong assertions are “estimations,” guesses; and the fact is that his “thousands of radio speeches” is very far from being “empirically accurate.” To accept it as a true finding would be a serious mistake.

          Feldman carries on about previous scholars having, culpably he seems to imply, neglected these archive materials. The irony is that Feldman, having them all at his disposal, mainly turns over the folders and counts pages. What is the use of going in to the archives if you don’t or can’t read what’s there?             

            The amount Pound was paid for his propaganda work is not of primary importance.  He made no secret of the fact that he was paid, nor of the amount. (It is worth noting though that the figure of 10,000 lire mentioned in 1940 (93) did not materialise, and was not in any case for radio work. It should also be noted that the monthly payments Pound was receiving from the Salò Republic were said to be not for his radio slogans and ideas but for his work with the RSI Casa editrice delle edizioni popolari.) But if one is going to make a point of it, then accuracy matters.  Feldman calculates that “between summer 1940 and spring 1945, Pound earned a minimum of 250,000 lire (about $12,500 US dollars in wartime currency; the buying power of an estimated $185,000 today” (108).  He was “comparatively well paid,” Feldman comments, and both Alec Marsh and Greg Barnhisel are impressed by his estimate, which they appear to accept at face value, and Barnhisel finds it damning.  No doubt “$185,000!” will now be passed about as established fact.  But those are rough figures and a back-of-the-envelope calculation which makes no evident allowance for the very different times and conditions. If we are going to do the sums, and all the more if you are going to damn Pound on that basis, then more than rough estimates and simple arithmetic are needed.

            There are errors which indicate how little Feldman bothered to acquaint himself with Pound’s life and works –some do matter for his argument:

  • “both [Sigismondo and Mussolini] hailed from the village of Romagna” (13).
  • Pound’s letter to Nancy Cox McCormack of 15 August 1923 did not constitute “a request for Mussolini’s patronage” (30 n.32).
  • The words Pound is said to have written to Tinkham, were actually written by Tinkham to Pound (36) – and the page ref. in the note should be 75, not “19.”
  • Ibbotson was never president of Hamilton College (72).
  • “Pound did, in fact, translate the second Confucian Ode as L’Assa che non vacilla [The Axis Will Not Waiver]” (83).
  • What Pound wrote to Olga Rudge on 22 August 1940, that the sum under consideration was 10,000 lire, had no connection with “wartime broadcasts” (93) – that was what he hoped he would be paid for translating Por’s Politica economico-sociale in Italia anno XVII-XVIII.   
  • “the two FBI agents sent to Italy to apprehend Pound . . . Special Agent in Charge Ramon Arrizabalaga [and] his deputy, Special Agent Frank Amprim” (108).  In fact Amprim was the FBI Special Agent in charge of Pound’s case – he had been gathering evidence in Italy since August 1943, and reported directly to Hoover, the head of the FBI in Washington.   Arrizabalaga was the Special Agent in charge of the US 92nd Infantry Division’s Counter Intelligence Corps Detachment, which had just, in May 1945, set up headquarters in Genoa.  He assisted Amprim in the interrogation of Pound there.
  • “On his uncertain journey north [in September 1943] it seems Pound was aided by an EIAR-affiliated German official named Carl Goedel” (145, 159) – the reference in 79/484, if that is what is behind this, is to a later occasion when Pound met up with Goedel in Milan.  (See EP/DP 63.)
  • The note refers to a letter of “Pound to Rudge, 13 January 1974” (161 n.4)
  • “his utopian description of the Salò republic” (145) at the beginning of Oro e Lavoro (1944) – a characteristic misrepresentation.
  • “amongst his extensive propaganda activities for the RSI, one representative instance has not received attention: Pound’s attempt in late 1943 to establish a biweekly regime journal entitled Volontà Repubblicana [Republican Will], discussing the politics and philosophy of Fascist Republicanism” -- Feldman dates the proposal as “[late November?]” (154, 163 n.34). In fact on 27 November 1943 Pound wrote to Dorothy Pound from Salò, on paper from the Office of the Prefettura, that Giacchino Nicoletti, who was about to be made Prefect and who had been a journalist, had shown him the proofs of a new journal, Volontà Repubblicana, and that it seemed to him to offer “at last the chance of a true or real review.”  The following January Pound did propose a daily or weekly newspaper to be printed in Rapallo, but was told the paper shortage made that impossible. (Redman gives this his attention on his p.242.)
  • “In the second half of the poem [Canto LXXIII] Cavalcanti recounted the rape of an Italian ‘peasant girl’ by enemy soldiers, upon 20 of whom she later avenges herself as a grenade-wielding martyr” (158).

         Alec Marsh wrote in his review: “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 his 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 defence.”  Leaving aside the shakiness of much of Feldman’s “empirical evidence,” so far as I know the Justice Department did have all the evidence. Amprim had gathered potential evidence from the Fascist Ministries in Rome, Salò, Milan; from Mussolini’s files; and from Sant’ Ambrogio, with Pound’s full permission, his own financial record of payments, his “MSS of Radio Discorsi,” and his “letter files”–“7000 pages of material” (Redman 228).  The latter material, as previously noted, was transferred from the Justice Department to the Beinecke, and is the Beinecke material Feldman makes so much and so little of.

            Marsh wrote that “Pound was certainly non compos mentis by the time he was tried”; and Barnhisel wrote that “he was undeniably mentally ill by the time of his capture and for some years later.”  “Certainly,” “undeniably”? This is a serious issue, and such things should not be said without sure knowledge. What do Marsh and Barnhisel know that warrants their diagnoses, at this distance in time, when the psychiatrists who examined him in the DTC in 1945 did not find him insane; and when all the St Elizabeths psychiatrists who examined him, except only their Superintendent, Overholser, could not find him insane in spite of the pressure from Overholser to do so?  And those who knew him in the DTC, and nearly all of those who visited him in St Elizabeths, did not consider him mad.  Cornell’s Affidavit to the effect that Pound was mad was demonstrable “bunk” (Pound’s term from a relevant context). The evidence of the four psychiatrists at the trial hearings in support of that Affidavit was, to put it mildly, hardly professional. (On this matter see Redman 228-9).

            Alec Marsh wrote: “Pound was not doing his own propaganda, as Hugh Kenner claimed” – “but actively crafting his propaganda efforts to the needs of the regime.”  The latter statement is part of the truth, but Kenner’s claim is also true (as Redman amply demonstrates – see, just for his conclusions, his pp. 251, 256). 

            Feldman himself correctly states in his conclusion: “it is clear that fascist mass-media organs provided key outlets for the propagation of [Pound’s] politico-economic views, from at least 1935 right until the end of World War II.” (160) But he doesn’t leave it there, and one needs to turn to Redman for the explanation, “that Pound believed fascism was the political movement best capable of putting into action the monetary reforms he envisaged as necessary to a just society” (Redman 267).

            Redman’s Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism (Cambridge University Press, 1991) remains the authoritative study of its subject. Where Feldman “narrows the horizon” (ix) to simply what will identify Pound with Fascism and with “fascism,” and to his anti-Semitism, Redman examines and analyses what Pound actually wrote and believed, and reveals the complexities and the contradictions of his propaganda.  His book not only renders Feldman’s largely superfluous, but disproves Feldman’s thesis that Pound’s propaganda was entirely and absolutely committed to “the fascist faith.” 

            Alec Marsh wrote that Feldman’s work “will change the way Pound is viewed,” that it “will change forever the way Pound’s political commitments are viewed and assessed,” that “Pound Studies will have to readjust.” In the face of that I would recommend “Pound Studies” to keep a cool head, as Surette does in his review, and to take Feldman’s book on board with due critical reflection and discrimination.  And read Redman. 

            I rather think that Feldman’s work will give further licence to all those, critics, reviewers, journalists, who automatically tag Pound whenever they find cause to refer to him – in a review of a biography of Basil Bunting, for one instance, or an article on Picasso -- as (in varying order), “a money crank, mad, fascist, anti-Semitic.” What is it that makes some of us so uncritically ready to believe the worst about Pound and to have it eclipse what is of permanent value in his work?