Introduction

The accounts vary, but the consensus seems to be that in late April of 1945, in Sant’ Ambrogio, an American living in Italy heard a loud noise at the front of his house, which interrupted his translating into English The Book of Mencius, an ancient Chinese classic written by a disciple of Confucius. The disturbance, which turned out to be the slamming of two machine gun butts against the door, was not wholly unexpected. A few days earlier, the American, who was a fervid and well-known supporter of Benito Mussolini, learned that Il Duce had been apprehended and killed by Communist partisans near Lake Como while trying to escape to the Italian Alps. Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, were then transported to Milan, where their corpses were hung by their heels in the public square of Piazzale Loreto. Thus, when the man found at his door two Italian partigiani with Tommy guns, he was prepared to surrender. Indeed, in advance of rising from his worktable, he had slipped his copy of the Mencius and a Chinese dictionary in his coat pocket. On his way out through the garden under armed escort, he managed to pick a seed pip from one of the eucalyptus trees. Also on his departure, the American left his keys with a young woman in an adjoining flat and made a gesture to her suggesting he was doomed to be hanged.

In some versions of the story, the partisans believed that there was a large reward for their prisoner; in other versions, the American was sought for questioning at the highest levels. But, in any event, when it was discovered that he had been making a series of broadcasts in Rome, filled with pro-fascist propaganda, wild invective against the Roosevelt administration, and virulent Antisemitic slurs, he was turned over to the American army and sent to a Disciplinary Training Center (DTC) in Pisa. This military prison and holding tank contained some of the worst criminal offenders in the American military, including murderers and rapists who were sentenced to death. While most of the cells were indoors, a few special open “cages” had been built outside for those detainees who were deemed likely to attempt escape or suicide. The American man was placed in one of these, leaving him with little or no protection from the elements. At night he lay upon a slab of concrete but could not sleep owing to the constant glare of a light that shone on his cage. Within a few weeks, he suffered a severe mental and physical collapse; he was moved to the medical compound of the DTC, where he recovered sufficiently to resume his translation of the Chinese text. He was given a typewriter and allowed some books, all of which enabled him to begin as well a new series of poems. These were later entitled The Pisan Cantos, and in 1949 they were awarded the first Bollingen Prize for Poetry.

In November of 1945, after languishing for most of the hot Italian summer and early fall at the Detention Training Center, the American was transported to Washington, D. C. to stand trial for treason. Under the advice of counsel, he pleaded insanity to avoid conviction and the accompanying death sentence. He was remanded to St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he was to spend the better part of the next thirteen years. This American man, whose fanatical politics and other inexplicable obsessions had brought him to these depths, was Ezra Loomis Pound, arguably the greatest poet of the twentieth century, the man who was referred to as il miglior fabbro (“the better craftsman”) in T. S. Eliot’s dedication of The Waste Land, for which Pound served both as editor and “midwife.”

*       *       *       *       *

Meanwhile, in Toronto, a Canadian professor of English by the name of Herbert Marshall McLuhan, who had by the spring of 1948 completed the second year of his long tenure at St. Michael’s College, belonging to the University of Toronto confederation, was in search of collaborators to work on ‘ground-breaking’ scholarship in the area of modernist literature. To his great fortune, he found a younger man, Hugh Kenner, who had taken his M.A. in English at Toronto in 1946 and was winding up the second of his two-year teaching stint at Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario, where McLuhan had taught 1944-46. The two men had something else in common; they had both come under the wing of Father Gerald Phelan, a professor of Philosophy at St. Michael’s College, who helped McLuhan publish his first academic essay, on G. K. Chesterton, at the Dalhousie Review in 1936, and served as advisor for Kenner’s M. A. thesis on the same author, which was later published as Paradox in Chesterton (1946). Fr. Phelan had been instrumental in both men’s early careers, finding teaching positions at St. Louis University, Assumption College, and St. Michael’s College for McLuhan, and recommending Kenner for the Assumption job as well. He was also their spiritual advisor and urged their conversions to Catholicism: McLuhan’s in 1937 and Kenner’s much later. McLuhan’s faith and his training in Neo-Scholastic Thomism were crucial components in his literary criticism, as well as in his later work in media and communications.

In the hope of advancing their scholarly careers, McLuhan and Kenner agreed to a professional relationship. For starters, McLuhan wrote a letter to a famous poet who was incarcerated at a hospital for the criminally insane in Washington, D. C., asking if he and a colleague could visit him. The ostensible reason for this visit was to engage the poet in “some talk . . . about contemporary letters”; indeed, the claim was made that they were “serious” students and admirers of his work. In truth, they did not know much about his poetry or his prose. In those days, “contemporary letters” meant for McLuhan and Kenner principally the writings of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and, to a rather surprising extent, Wyndham Lewis.

Nevertheless, they went to call on this poet, imprisoned in an insane asylum, whose books they had never truly studied. In retrospect, it was of great import that they did go; for, to the extent that the appreciation of the poet’s career was turned, it must be credited that, in the first stages of that effort, McLuhan and Kenner were as much responsible as anyone. By 1951, Kenner would publish the “first study to criticize [the poet] on his own terms.” And in 1971, he published a masterful volume that placed the poet at the center of the entire modernist era. For ten years, McLuhan maintained a correspondence with the poet, before it was broken off as their interests diverged. By then, Marshall McLuhan was about to emerge as the media and communications guru of the middle to late 20th century, the man who coined the phrases “the medium is the message” and “the global village,” and the author of The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media.

*       *       *       *       *

The intended purposes of this presentation of the correspondence between Ezra Pound and Marshall McLuhan are manifold. The first, of course, is to record as accurately as possible the text of the correspondence. The second is to orient the reader to the references made in the letters through the use of annotations. The third is to highlight and expand upon the principal themes of the correspondence by means of commentary. The theme that becomes immediately apparent in the first part of the correspondence is the extent to which McLuhan, with Kenner as his collaborator, desired to make known to the scholarly world the enormous contributions Pound had made to literature and criticism. Although McLuhan initially hoped to accomplish this task by asking questions, it soon became clear to him that the only way was to read Pound’s poetry and prose side by side and look for correlations. To their credit, McLuhan and Kenner did just this, and, if we are to believe McLuhan’s former colleague and friend Felix Giovanelli, it was primarily McLuhan, at least in the beginning, who offered the insights and provided the analysis, and Kenner who turned these into comprehensible critique in the form of scholarly books. It is not the inclination of the volume at hand to judge which of the two deserves the greater share of the credit for bringing about the rise of ‘Pound studies’; let it suffice to say that this controversy was a sore point with Marshall and, indeed, his son and collaborator, the late Eric McLuhan, and that Kenner, for his part, repeatedly acknowledged McLuhan in forewords and prefaces.

In any event, one of the first ‘jobs,’ as McLuhan was wont to put it, was to account for the considerable difference in attention to and appreciation for the work of Pound and that of T. S. Eliot. Both McLuhan and Kenner theorized that these discrepancies were a result of the contemporary zeitgeist in which literary scholars and more common readers now rested. Eliot’s poems and essays were more approachable and less exacting than Pound’s, for even more than Eliot’s works, Pound’s demanded high erudition, deep study, and facility with languages, both classical and modern. There was also the matter of styles: Eliot’s poems appealed to an “auditory imagination,” whereas Pound’s verse was sculpted and hard-edged. Eliot’s prose was sententious and cogent, whereas Pound’s was laconic and “ideogrammatic.” As McLuhan studied more and more of Pound’s writings, he began to recognize similarities between Pound’s poetry and the film-making of Sergei Eisenstein; both employed abrupt juxtapositions, Eisenstein of scenes and Pound of images. Moreover, McLuhan now realized that Pound’s work represented not just a new form of art, but also a new way of thinking. He aligned Pound’s use of superposition in both poetry and prose with the Aristotelian principle of metaphor: the notion that the relation of A to B can be understood as existing in a precise ratio with the relation of C to D. Thus, for instance, in Pound’s famous haiku poem—“The apparition of these faces in the crowd: / Petals on a wet, black bough”—the foregrounded “apparition of these faces” against the background of “the crowd” can be appreciated as having a metaphoric relation to the foregrounded “petals” against the background of “the wet, black bough.” However, the relation between these two images is neither rationalized nor explained; it has to be intuited. As McLuhan discovered through Pound’s work, another name for this kind of art and the aesthetic philosophy that informed it was ideogrammatic.

McLuhan’s increased understanding of the ideogrammatic method led to a second important theme in this correspondence: namely, his awareness of the enormous potential for using such theories of art and language in comparing disparate fields and eras of human endeavor. If the relation between two images could be expressed without rational explanation, then the relations between culture and technology could be likewise presented for analysis. The foremost example in McLuhan’s theories is the effects of the printing press on European Renaissance culture as seen in relation to the effects of electronic technology on global 20th century culture. This insight, of course, was to come later, but the idea itself was, in part, a result of the new ways of thinking McLuhan appropriated from Pound, as well as other modernists. In its early form, McLuhan’s adoption of a new way of conceiving relations between seemingly unrelated eras in human history can be found in his first book, The Mechanical Bride. He intuited that the folklore of industrial man was made up of carefully manipulated cultural “icons” that became as powerful to the contemporary masses as Christian iconology was to the Renaissance (see Erwin Panofsky). Likewise, he began to understand what Sigfried Giedion meant when he insisted that mechanization was taking command of modern culture. But it was in large part through his study of modernist writers, and Pound in particular, that McLuhan began to envision clearly what he had intuited or partially understood. Even before he delineated to Pound the broad outlines for The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan was explaining how Pound’s use of allusion, not as ornament, but as a means of drawing energy from the source of the allusion, is comparable to a vacuum tube, which can draw a considerable reservoir of electric energy from a faint source.

And yet, whereas McLuhan profited greatly from this epistolary relationship, Pound was never satisfied with his correspondent’s commitment to “agenda.” This is yet another important theme in these letters. Most of the disagreements between Pound and McLuhan derive from their very different backgrounds and orientations. Pound, though born, raised, and formally schooled in America, had spent the bulk of his adult life in Europe. McLuhan, a Canadian who lived in Canada nearly all of his days, had spent only a few years in graduate school at Cambridge and a few more as an instructor in the United States. Pound had associated with some of the finest minds and many of the greatest artists of his time; indeed, he was at the center of multiple artistic movements. McLuhan had been taught by I. A. Richards at Cambridge and had met F. R. Leavis; he was also well acquainted with Wyndham Lewis. His time with the high and mighty would come soon enough, but he had not experienced anything like Pound had; indeed, by comparison, McLuhan was a provincial. And finally, and most crucially, simply stated, McLuhan was a devout Catholic, and Pound most assuredly was not. For McLuhan, it was not just a matter of faith and spiritual orientation, but also a matter training and philosophical orientation. As his letters reveal over and over, his philosophical bent was Neo-Scholastic; in particular, he was a devotee of St. Thomas Aquinas. But, whereas McLuhan found recourse to Aquinas with great success in his study of James Joyce, his attempts to align Thomism with Pound’s aesthetics were forced at best. In one letter, he even tries, without much success, to persuade Pound that the scholastic article as employed by Aquinas is ideogrammatic in form.

For his part, Pound was suspicious of Catholic philology, which he found to be too reliant on Aristotle. Likewise, he remarked in the correspondence that Catholic theology ceased to be a relevant force when the holy fathers no longer believed in their own dogma. Pound’s spiritual alliances, if they may be called so, were with Confucius and the Eleusinian mysteries. And he was not buying what McLuhan was selling in a letter suggesting a correlation between the work of Chinese Catholic priests and Confucianism. Moreover, Pound seemed to be rather surprised at McLuhan’s ignorance of the labyrinth lore associated with ancient burial rituals, not to mention McLuhan’s asking if such ‘occult’ knowledge was Masonic. And yet, in the end as in the beginning of their correspondence, the sticking point was really a difference in agenda. McLuhan was, at first, interested in aesthetics and literary techniques, and he was later engrossed in media theory and communications, while Pound was always interested only in ideas going into action. The main thrusts of the Poundian agenda during his years in St. Elizabeths were threefold: to support economic change along the lines of social credit theories; to encourage and develop communication between professors and other serious persons across all disciplines, and to reform the curricula in modern schools, colleges, and universities by identifying a new set of necessary texts. And, whereas McLuhan was in agreement with at least two of these agenda items, he proved unwilling to act as the unwobbling pivot Pound hoped he would become. Another way of explaining their differences is to observe that, although both men were committed to the resuscitation of the word, McLuhan was devoted to reviving the logos in every sense—linguistic, philosophic, and spiritual—whereas Pound was more interested in policing the literary use and public utterances of the word. And so a valuable and lively correspondence came inexorably to an end.

A Note on the Text

As mentioned in the preface, all of McLuhan’s letters to Pound are housed at the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana in Bloomington; the bulk of Pound’s letters to McLuhan are held by Canada’s National Public Archives in Ottawa, though a few can be found at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. Every effort has been made to present the letters as written. This means in the case of Pound’s side of the correspondence reproducing variant spellings, deliberate misspellings, unusual spacing, deviant punctuation, visual and verbal puns, profanity, and ethnic slurs. Indeed, it may seem to the reader of Pound’s letters that the editor has either failed at his job or has come to the task intoxicated. In fact, Pound’s correspondence is very much like his poetry in the sense that he often uses a kind of “telegraphese” for his diction and employs the space bar and return key of his typewriter to create rhythm and give emphasis to his syntax. Whether the reader will enjoy his unique style, or merely endure it, is a matter of taste.

I would like to acknowledge here that the following letters were previously published in Letters of Marshall McLuhan, eds., Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye (Toronto: University of Oxford Press, 1987): letter one, letter two, letter six, letter eight, letter nine, letter eleven (without the addition), letter thirteen, letter fifteen, letter sixteen, letter twenty, letter twenty-two, letter twenty-three, letter twenty-four, letter twenty-five, letter twenty-six, letter twenty-seven, letter thirty-three, letter thirty-five, letter thirty-six, letter thirty-eight, letter forty, letter forty-two, letter forty-eight, letter fifty-four, letter-fifty-six, letter sixty, and letter sixty-three.