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Andrew S. Gross. The Pound Reaction: Liberalism and Lyricism in Midcentury American Literature. Heidelberg: Winter Verlag, 2015.

review by Greg Barnhisel





It probably doesn’t matter whether the 1946 treason indictment or the 1948 Bollingen Prize controversy definitively marked the bottoming-out of Ezra Pound’s public reputation. The two events—one legal and one cultural, but both profoundly political and ultimately aesthetic—were intimately linked, the culmination of a complex of forces and dynamics that reshaped American cultural politics. And bouncing up from this bottom, Pound’s reputation rode these forces and dynamics to be recognized as perhaps the major American poet of the 20th century.

The Bollingen affair is familiar territory to anyone conversant with twentieth-century American literary history. But in his erudite new book The Pound Reaction: Liberalism and Lyricism in Midcentury American Literature (Universitätsverlag Winter), Andrew Gross offers a highly original argument about the repercussions of the prize. For Gross, “the Pound award was the decisive moment in the crystallization of a liberal aesthetic that would play a brief but important role in postwar culture” (9). No, that’s not the original part; Gross is not referring here merely to the “new cultural consensus” between the leftist New York Intellectuals and the conservative New Critics in support of the prize that has been exhaustively and repeatedly documented by many scholars (including myself) over the years. Instead, Gross argues that the prize catalyzed a poetic response that drove the evolution of lyric poetry over the next several decades.

Gross is less interested in the obvious ethical problems the Bollingen Prize raised for poets—how can a society give a prize to a poet who waged war against it, and whose work endorsed the values of the enemy?—than in how they responded to the controversy’s resolution, which enshrined the principle that politics and aesthetics could and should be understood in isolation from each other. If this was true, then what did this mean for the lyric, which had long been seen as the paramount literary genre for expressing the individual subject’s thoughts and feelings? Where did that leave political commitment, if it were central to a lyric poet’s expression?

To answer this, Gross looks at the work of several high-profile postwar poets who wrestled with these questions. He begins with Karl Shapiro, one of only two Bollingen judges who voted against awarding Pound the prize, stating that he did so because “I am a Jew and I cannot honor anti-Semites.” But, Gross points out, this reasoning violated the now-dominant “liberal aesthetic” that not only insisted that we cannot evaluate art in the context of any politics it might contain, but also held that individuals should speak only as individuals, not as members of a group. So Shapiro, in Gross’ reading, had to return to a “more classically liberal definition of selfhood as a set of individual choices” (rather than as membership in a group, in Shapiro’s case Jews) in his postwar verse.

The remainder of the book moves away from the Pound controversy itself to trace how several other midcentury writers dealt with this unfolding problem: does selfhood come from our free choices, or are we shaped and constrained by the groups to which we belong? In chapters on W.H. Auden, Katherine Anne Porter, Leslie Fiedler, and John Berryman, Gross traces the evolving (and crumbling) “liberal aesthetic” through astute and welcome analyses of once-popular works that are no longer much read. And while Gross didn’t make me want to read, for instance, Auden’s verse drama The Age of Anxiety or Leslie Fiedler’s stories from Tear Down Vanity, he effectively uses them to illustrate his argument that the story of Cold War literature was an evolution “from individualism to identity.”  

The lyric, according to the “liberal aesthetic” that Gross identifies, should focus on the individual self; lyric poetry was then judged according to how well and personally and vividly it depicted the consciousness of the individual subject. (Hence the popularity of the “confessional verse” of poets such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath in the 1950s and 1960s.) But Gross is most interested in those poets who declined to take the confessional road, and who thus laid the groundwork for the “identity politics” that re-entered literature and lyric poetry in particular in the later 1960s. As it manifested itself in the U.S., identity politics was the tendency for individual members of marginalized groups (women, gays and lesbians, African Americans) to focus on the common oppression they experienced as members of those groups rather than on their individual consciousness. The personal, in other words, became political—which was precisely what the liberal aesthetic insisted that the personal not do.

I was particularly grateful that Gross dedicated an entire chapter to the largely forgotten poet Peter Viereck, who sought a conservative response to the “liberal aesthetic.” Unlike Robert Hillyer, the Harvard professor and poet who attacked the Bollingen Prize fueled by antimodernist fervor and a touch of xenophobia, Viereck rejected the populism that grew to characterize the conservative response to modernism as the once avant-garde movement started to dominate universities and literary criticism. Gross deftly shows how Viereck struggled, in his verse and political writing, to find a path between the “institutionalized rebellion” of modernism and the increasing anti-intellectual, nativist populism of the conservative movement—a populism that, Gross suggested, had some surprising aesthetic and spiritual commonalities with identity politics and confessional poetry.

In my previous two reviews for Make It New (of Matthew Feldman’s Ezra Pound’s Fascist Propaganda 1935–1945 and Alec Marsh’s John Kasper and Ezra Pound: Saving the Republic) I’ve criticized the careless copyediting and sometimes haphazard production of those books, so fairness dictates that I should address this mundane matter with Gross’ book as well. I’m pleased to note that The Pound Reaction is in every way an outstanding product: carefully edited and proofread, very attractively designed and produced, and even a pleasure to hold. (Something about the texture of its binding just feels good.) It’s been distressing to see how much American and British scholarly presses are economizing in this area, so I’m pleased to see that German publishers still maintain high production standards.

Gross’ book is intellectually ambitious, to a fault at times. He’s attempting intellectual and aesthetic history, and so must bring in the ideas of quite a few disparate thinkers from different spheres—George Kennan to Bruno Bettelheim to Jean-Paul Sartre. Unfortunately, sometimes the building-blocks don’t quite fit together; or, perhaps more accurately, aren’t set forth clearly enough so that the reader can see how Gross is using them in conjunction and in sequence. Some of his summaries of thinkers can get a little rarified—a bit over-theorized and under-explained—and the architectonic of his argument can get a little fuzzy as a result. Particularly later in the book I was reminded of Mark Greif’s recent and much-lauded The Age of the Crisis of Man, which similarly tried to construct a Big Picture of the western mind in the 1950s and 1960s but failed at times to sufficiently explain the ideas of the many individual writers it touched upon.

This is ultimately a minor criticism of a book whose major contribution is a startlingly new way to think about how Pound—not Pound’s poetry itself, but the cultural crisis of the Bollingen Prize incident—might have affected the development of American poetry. Through his astute close readings, Gross identifies a third strain in postwar writing, part neither of the confessional school nor of institutional modernism, that these well-known writers were practicing without anyone noticing.