“The Uses of History in the Anti-War Writing of Robinson Jeffers and Ezra Pound” appeared in Jeffers Studies, volume 20, 2017/2018. The article was published in January 2021. Although both writers condemned American foreign policy during World War II, they did so for radically different reasons. Pound’s reading of American history led him to a pro-fascist position on the war whereas Jeffers adhered to a standard isolationist position in the manner of historian Charles Austin Beard.
Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) and Ezra Pound (1885-1972) occupy places of infamy in the literary history of the Second World War. In the introduction to his Poets of World War II anthology, Harvey Shapiro describes the poems of his sixty-two authors as “bawdy, bitchy, irreverent,” as well as cynical and lacking in patriotism and piety (xxi). These are fair characterizations of the book as a whole, but none of them captures the true spirit of the writing by Pound and Jeffers. Shapiro includes them in the anthology, though not in a way that even minimally reflects their implacable fierceness in judging America’s wartime role to be an enterprise in equal parts criminal and lunatic. They based their condemnation of the United States, however, on radically different assumptions about the course of American history. Comparing the ways in which they thought about American history and American historians will help us to understand the cultural politics of both these literary masters and where they stood in the political context of their time.
Born in Hailey, Idaho, and raised in Pennsylvania, Pound found his true home in Europe. As a young poet in Edwardian London, he immediately won a critical following with his first collections of poetry, Personae (1909) and Exultations (1909). Ripostes (1912) and Lustra (1916) enhanced his fame and influence. He became a seminal figure in the modernist avant-garde that transformed early twentieth-century American and British literature. Success in London won him admirers back home in the United States, and for his generation of writers he played a key role in the cross-fertilization of Anglo-American verse. Pound influenced and promoted writers destined for fame, including James Joyce and T. S. Eliot. There seemed to be no limit to his artistic ambition and capability. In 1915, he published Cathay, his translation and brilliant reworking of classical Chinese poetry based on the notes of Orientalist Ernest Fenollosa whose scholarly work had deepened his interest in Asian art and literature. Pound belonged to the generation of 1914, not as a combatant, but as a caustically articulate voice of the disillusionment that followed the Great War. He stood in the front rank of the lost generation artists and intellectuals alienated from a capitalist status quo they blamed for having murdered ten million young soldiers. In 1920, Pound wrote in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”:
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them
For an old bitch gone in the teeth
For a botched civilization
Eliot judged this poem to be “a positive document of sensibility. It is compact of the experience of a certain man in a certain place at a certain time; and it is also a document of an epoch (xxiv).” The civilization Pound had in mind was corporate capitalism. Fascist and communist alternatives found many adherents among the artists and intellectuals of that era. Drawn to elements of both radical traditions, Pound ultimately chose fascism because he thought Mussolini—an ex-Marxist—had adopted the best of Marx’s ideas for the overthrow of capitalism. During his fullblown fascist phase beginning in the early 1930s, there would be little sign of these earlier mixed ideological affiliations, but they constitute a vital part of Pound’s political education1. Indeed, he had met Major Clifford Hugh Douglas, the radical Social Credit theorist and critic of the capitalist monetary system, in the offices of the New Age socialist magazine. Its editor, Alfred Richard Orage, hailed Douglas as “the Einstein of economics,” a judgment shared by Pound, who from 1911 to 1921 regularly wrote for New Age. As Tim Redman has shown in a landmark book in Pound studies, his economic ideas were derived from a serious intellectual formation on the subject (Chs. 1-2).
In 1924, Pound moved to Italy and would live there for the next twenty years, writing the epic poem generally considered his masterpiece, The Cantos, and a series of works glorifying the Fascist regime. He found in Mussolini the personification of an ideal leader and celebrated his genius in Jefferson and/or Mussolini (1935). During World War II, Pound strenuously defended Mussolini as well as Hitler, whom he habitually called a modern-day Joan of Arc. Enlisted by the regime as a propagandist during World War II, Pound fervently devoted himself to the Axis cause.
Leonard W. Doob edited a series of 120 programs that Pound presented on Fascist radio from October 2, 1941, to July 25, 1943, “Ezra Pound Speaking” Radio Speeches of World War II. Noting that Pound was a leading Fascist propagandist for a decade and that his broadcast presentations numbered in the thousands, Matthew Feldman describes Doob’s book as “the most scholarly and widely available edition of the radio speeches” (90). Pound explained in his wartime radio broadcasts that the American media—newspapers, movies, and radio—were “a mass of lies” (Doob 113). He bitterly complained about journalists and “their fake news” (76). Advancing an anti-Semitic interpretation of American economic and cultural life, he argued that Jewish interests completely controlled these media. Truth about the country could not be found in such sources. The work of honest historians he believed to be the only cure for the brainwashing routinely administered by, in his view, the country’s real masters, Jewish elites.
Pound commented at length in these radio talks about his favorite historians. The programs contain the names of thirteen historians. Most of those names are mentioned only once or twice, but he cites Claude Bowers, Henry Adams, Brooks Adams, and William Woodward repeatedly. No other source in Pound’s voluminous collected works contains more substantive references to his historical mentors than do these notorious radio broadcasts, deemed to be treasonous by the United States government. For his punishment, he first would spend six months in a prison for army criminals near Pisa, Italy, and then twelve and a half years, on charges of criminal insanity, at St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C.
Of the four historians most frequently noted by Pound, the name of Bowers is the first to appear in the radio scripts. Pound cited Bowers in nine of the programs, initially on February 3, 1942, praising him for having done “a bit of digging about” (Doob 30). He chiefly had in mind The Tragic Era: The Revolution after Lincoln in which Bowers attacked Radical Republicans for their vindictive policies against the South during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War when, as the book relentlessly proclaimed, white people underwent a reign of terror imposed by corrupt governments led by northern carpetbaggers and ignorant ex-slaves. He lamented, “the political parasites and looters, scalawags and scavengers, knaves and fools, took possession of the State Governments, and entered upon the pillaging of the stricken people” (219). In the Southern scenario depicted by Bowers, the Ku Klux Klan heroically fought to save white civilization from the destruction planned for it by the vindictive occupiers and their black allies.
Pound especially appreciated the way that Bowers highlighted the economic causes and consequences of the Civil War. Bankers, speculators, and capitalists moved into the foreground of American life during these years: “the new slavery power” consisted of combinations of capital and consolidations of monopoly Bowers 268). Bowers believed the high-minded democratic republic envisioned by Jefferson had given way to the most disgusting oligarchy in all history. Bowers, in Pound’s view, had caught the true spirit of the country, now in 1942 allegedly fighting a war for FDR’s trumpeted Four Freedoms. Pound subjected this wartime sloganeering to merciless ridicule as a cover for the country’s true objective of enhancing the wealth and power of its elites.
Henry Adams, a Harvard University historian and a grandson of John Quincy Adams, is mentioned in six of Pound’s radio scripts. He presents The Education of Henry Adams as a guide for understanding the power of money over American politics. When Adams writes, “[t]he world after 1865 became a bankers’ world,” he addresses the cardinal point in Pound’s interpretation of contemporary history (247). Pound singles out for special attention the book’s analysis of the Civil War, as “still EDUCATORY” (Doob 75). He has in mind such Adams observations as, “Little by little, at first only as a shadowy chance of what might be, if things could be rightly done, one began to feel that, somewhere behind the chaos in Washington power was taking shape; that it was massed and guided as it had not been before” (H. Adams 169). Financial elites harnessed this new power to serve their needs, a view in perfect consonance with Pound’s understanding of American politics. Bowers, too, made frequent use of The Education of Henry Adams in his analysis of America’s post-Civil War oligarchy.
Pound also cited Adams’s The Degradation of Democratic Dogma, a collection of essays posthumously published in 1920, to explain why “the American people gets dumber and dumber each year” (Doob 112). The key essay is “A Letter to American Teachers of History,” written in 1910. He analyzes the second principle of thermodynamics, regarding “the progressive degradation of energy by dissipation and levelling of intensities,” and discusses its implications for the study of history (H. Adams 51-52). Adams displays a virtuoso mastery of the scientific literature in multiple languages on this subject, but for understanding what the law of entropy entails for the American people specifically, Pound finds more help in the work of Henry’s brother, Brooks, who wrote a 122-page-long introduction for The Degradation of Democratic Dogma. Addressing “certain fundamental facts which are stronger than democratic theories,” Brooks Adams lamented that democracy had not proved out (vii). Instead of producing a polity that fostered the collective moral and mental growth of the American people, democracy American style had led to a uniquely crass and ignorant form of oligarchy, with results that foreclosed any prospects of high civilization.
Featured in fifteen programs, Brooks Adams comes up more often than all the other historians mentioned by Pound. The Law of Civilization and Decay: An Essay on History, Adams’s 1895 survey of civilization from ancient times to the present, Pound judged to be one of the most profound historical works ever written: “I quote him as a prospicient author whose perceptions are worth careful consideration” (Doob 230). In the 1952 edition of his Guide to Kulchur, Pound would list The Law of Civilization and Decay as the “most recent summary of ‘where in a manner of speaking’ we had got to half a century ago.” It was one of the books in modern literature without which a reader today “cannot measure the force of the others” (352).
Brooks Adams argued that one empire after another had ruled the earth through all recorded history. Beginning with the ancient Romans, great oligarchies would form the core elements of all the empires to come. Every empire had arisen from an economic foundation and had ruled through an imperial bureaucracy, as in the paradigmatic case of Rome: “This bureaucracy was the core of the consolidated mass called the empire; it was the embodiment of money, the ultimate expression of force, and it recognized and advanced men who were adapted to its needs” (91). Inevitably, though, the vitality of the world’s empires waned and always for the same reason: the fatal corruption caused by the greed of economic elites. Decline and fall inevitably followed. Then the economic center of gravity would shift to another empire and the process of civilization and decay would begin all over again.
Pound identified Jewish money lenders, bankers, and financiers as the most destructive of the economic elites denounced by Brooks Adams, himself an anti-Semite, though this point is not stressed in The Law of Civilization and Decay. Pound held that exploiters emanating from this peculiar race had undermined every society they had entered. He was in most respects a classic anti-Semite, and the vulgarity with which he expressed such views in the radio scripts knew no bounds. He did make a significant exception for the “small Jews,” those with no connection to the economic power structure, allowing they should be left alone. Without explaining this point precisely, he seems to have adopted the view that Jews were not necessarily tainted by blood to wreak havoc on earth. The Nazis, on the other hand, did condemn all Jews expressly for their ineradicable biologically determined evil. Pound insisted that only the “big Jews”—the money men among them—could be accused justly of conspiring to destroy non-Jewish society (Doob 115). Matthew Feldman traces the increasingly Nazi strain in Pound to his reverential reading of Mein Kampf in 1942 (116).
The defenders of Pound among mainstream literary critics who strive to salvage The Cantos for the canon make just this kind of argument regarding the important distinctions between the radically evil racial anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust and the merely regrettable conclusions that Pound drew about Jewish kingpins from his obsessive reading about the Social Credit economic theories of Major Douglas in Economic Democracy and numerous other works by him. Hugh Kenner is a good example of this mainstream critical approach to Pound’s work. He celebrates Pound as a writer deserving to have a contemporary stage of Western culture named after him—The Pound Era—while lamenting “the impotent vituperation into which Pound kept lapsing in the 1930s and 1940s and over Rome Radio” (243).
The Italian translator, writer, and University of Trieste professor of German literature, Claudio Magris, makes the same argument about Pound: a protagonist of the modernist revolution in art, he deserves to be recognized as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Such brilliant authors, Magris reasons, rise above their politics. In Pound’s case, fascism was “probably a great ingenuousness,” and his numerous friendships with Jewish writers prove that anti-Semitism for him “was not racist” (Magris 1, 42-43). Ezra in gabbia (Ezra in Jail), an intellectual homage play by Leonardo Petrillo, portrays Pound as a genius who should be remembered primarily not for unfortunate lapses in political judgment, but for his revolutionary artistic vision and his struggles on behalf of economic justice. The play opened in Venice’s Teatro Goldoni on November 16, 2018, and received national attention. Redman dismisses this approach to Pound’s work: “Pound was anti-Semitic, and I think it useless for Pound scholars to pretend otherwise or to see in his distinction between ‘big jews’ and ‘poor yitts’ some basis for exoneration” (4-5).
William E. Woodward, the least well-known today of Pound’s preferred historians, comes up for mention in four of the radio scripts. His major book, A New American History, appeared in 1936. Pound extolled Woodward as a generally reliable preceptor for understanding the complexities of American history. A New American History “is better reading after you have digested Brooks Adams taking the grand, but inhuman sweep, seeing ideas and material forces” (Doob 242). In effect, according to Pound, Woodward had written a kind of popularization of Adams’s master work, while remaining faithful to its theoretical structure of economic determinism. Woodward himself, though, appears to have been much more influenced by economic historian Charles Austin Beard than by Brooks Adams, who is never mentioned in A New American History. Beard, “eminent historian and educator,” is cited at key points in the narrative for the insights that he furnished in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) and The Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915). In these books, and the many others that he wrote during a long career filled with acclaim and controversy, Beard sought to bring into the light of day the overarching oligarchical and imperialist features of American history. Economic power he judged to be the driving force behind American politics, including and above all the country’s wars. His ideas fueled national debates about the American past and present.
Although Beard presided throughout the interwar period as the country’s foremost historian and public intellectual with book sales in the millions, Pound generally disregarded his work. He does mention him in the radio scripts, but only twice and both times without esteem. In a 1952 addendum to his Guide to Kulchur, however, Pound would give Beard credit for indicating “the essential omission from Adams’s thought” (352). Beard had written the introduction for the 1943 reprint of The Law of Civilization and Decay and ranked the book “among the outstanding documents of intellectual history in the United States and, in a way, the Western World.” According to Beard, “It has a distinct position in the long line of American protests against plutocratic tendencies in American development.” (3). The book served as an indispensable aid in understanding the country’s imperialist policies and wars. The omission in Adams’s thought addressed by Beard concerned the focus of the book on Western Europe, not on the United States. Adams had the depression of the 1890s uppermost in mind when he wrote it, but in the text does not deal with American history.
Beard and Pound differed fundamentally over the character of the U.S. Constitution. Pound revered the handiwork of the Founding Fathers and disputed Beard’s economic interpretation of it as a class document intended first and foremost to protect the financial and property interests of economic elites. In an undated radio script of 1942, he said about the Constitution, “Even if Charles Beard does think it a barrier against real democracy, I would remind Prof. Beard that Adams [John, the second president] studied republics. Even Beard now knows less of the Constitution than did John Adams and Madison” (Doob 393). Pound claimed that the problems with the U.S. Constitution had emerged not at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, but during and after the Civil War when northern and international economic elites, significantly composed of Jews, took over the country’s banking and financial systems. The seeds of America’s eventual downfall were sown then, but, contra Beard, from 1789 to the Civil War the United States had been blessed with the best form of government ever known to mankind, as Pound understood American history.
In a March 2, 1942, radio script, Pound included Beard in a group of historians who had “been gittin’ down TOWARD but not TO the real bedrock” (50). Anyone who takes the trouble to read these scripts in their entirety will understand exactly what Pound means by “the real bedrock” that Beard missed. Beard, according to Pound, overlooked the master variable of Judaism in the doleful subjugation of the American people to the world’s real command center, headquartered politically in Washington, D.C., but economically and, therefore, really in New York City with a permanent address on Wall Street. Getting down to the real bedrock, in Pound’s view, meant uncovering the eternally nefarious Jew and exposing him in all his hiding places.
Not in the books of his favorite historians did Pound find the ornate anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that he used to explain how the precious legacy of constitutional government had been subverted and lost. He combined facts and interpretations from those books with the theories of anti-Semites he admired, most notably in the radio scripts, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Speaking about Céline’s anti-Semitic pamphlets Bagatelles pour un massacre (1937) and L’École des cadavres (1938) over two programs, Pound rhapsodized: “Time to read Céline for the simple truths that stand there in his writing, expressed with perfect lucidity—and simplicity” (132). He also firm lbelieved the claims made in The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, commenting in one of the scripts about the charges of forgery and plagiarism made against this text: “you haven’t stopped to ask what they are a forgery or plagiarism OF” (201).
Pound certainly was right in his implication about Beard, who in none of his published work or known letters ever got down to this supposed Jewish bedrock. Beard had no inclination toward anti-Semitism.2 Confusion has arisen on this point because many admiring readers of Beard’s critiques of America’s intervention in the Second World War, including some of his foremost champions in the history profession, did embrace anti-Semitism and even Holocaust denial. Beard, however, kept clear of anti-Semitism in formulating his philosophy of history. Just such a formulation lies at the foundation of Pound’s Fascist radio scripts.
The radio scripts in 1943 betrayed increasing pessimism about the prospects for a Nazi and Fascist victory. The war would be followed, Pound feared, by the triumph of the American individualist liberal mindset. Liberalism, he complained, had no concern for the racial or even the cultural identity of the collective. The wealth and power of capitalist elites would be the only serious concern of American-dominated postwar power structures. Once the triumph of Americanization became complete, the West would cease to exist. There would be nothing to stand in the way of the homogenization of the West’s racial stocks and the degradation of its cultural legacy. White people, Pound believed, had no chance even of surviving biologically if Germany went down to defeat. He predicted that an Allied victory would make it impossible in the postwar era for “two Englishmen, or two Aryans of any kind, to produce and bring up two kids” (303).
To the end of the war Pound worked as a propagandist for Italian Fascism in radio, newspapers, magazines, and literature. During the regime’s Republic of Salò death throes from 1943 to 1945, he proposed to his Ministry of Popular Culture boss, Fernando Mezzasoma, a publication project featuring books by American historians. His list of titles included The Law of Civilization and Decay by Brooks Adams, The Tragic Era by Claude Bowers, and A New American History by William E. Woodward (Redman 257). He thought that such works would serve an educational purpose for American and English prisoners of war. In that way they could learn from authors writing in their own language about the real historical background forces that had led to the war. With the regime about to pass into the pages of history, the hierarchs had more pressing matters to contend with, and they denied Pound’s proposal. He fought on nonetheless for his fascist vision of a sane world nearly right up to the time the Americans took him into custody on May 3, 1945.
Pound had anticipated some of the concerns expressed by Jean Raspail in his dystopian 1973 novel, The Camp of the Saints, now enjoying a revival during Europe’s crisis over non-white, and especially Muslim, immigration. In his introduction to the 1995 English edition, Raspail described the book as a parable for the fall of modern Europe: “For the West is empty, even if it has not yet become really aware of it.” The West had no soul left and did not appear to be “cognizant of anything that would constitute the essential commonalities of a people” (xv). A young man in the book who wants his whiteness to disappear in the black mass of refugees descending on rich, weak, and stupid Europe embodies for Raspail the postwar generation’s betrayal of the West’s heritage. Marinated in the soul-killing values of the consumer society spawn of Madison Avenue and Hollywood, these young people cannot defend themselves and do not want to. The Europeans had followed “the example of urban America, fallen little by little into total decay” (227). Though different in some crucial respects from The Camp of the Saints, Michel Houellebecq’s Submission (2015) is frequently compared with the earlier book as a novel about the retreat of Western values before a civilizational challenge from a more vigorous and self-confident Muslim world. He declared in an interview, echoing Raspail, that Anglo-Saxon global culture dominates Europe as a prelude to the West’s extinction: “Of European culture, I see little today” (Montefiori 1, 11).
As a political prophet, Pound is enjoying a revival of his own, thanks to Italy’s extreme right-wing CasaPound party and movement.3 The country’s long-term economic crisis, political chaos, and fear of Muslim immigration fuel extreme right-wing movements like CasaPound.4 These proud young neofascists join with the country’s other right-wing parties in campaigns to oppose immigration, Italy’s membership in the European Union, and its participation in the euro monetary system. They nevertheless have a world view all their own derived from Pound’s ideas about the plague of usury, the existential threat that international finance poses to white Christian Europe, and the ruinous consequences of Europe’s consumer-society Americanization. Emblazoned on their web site is Pound’s claim, “If a man is not disposed to run risks for his ideas, either his ideas are worth nothing or he is worth nothing.”5 Though statistically insignificant as a national political force, the group has attracted a following of true believers among Italy’s alienated youth. The CasaPound web site claims a membership of more than twenty thousand in a hundred sections throughout the national territory. The collapse and virtual disappearance of Italy’s historic communist political culture and the total absorption of social democrats and liberals into an increasingly discredited corporate capitalist status quo leave the highly variegated neofascist right with political advantages and intellectual cachet in challenging the system. Of the voices from the fascist past, Pound’s is the most prominent in Italy today.
Compared with Pound, Jeffers is a somewhat indecipherable figure. Mysteries cling to him in ways that simply do not occur with Pound. His politics, for instance, lack the absolute clarity that we find in the long fascist career of Pound. Jeffers has been the subject of many important scholarly studies, but no full-length life and times biography of him has yet appeared. Partially filling this void is James Karman’s “The Life and Work of Robinson Jeffers: An Introduction” in the first volume of The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, with Selected Letters of Una Jeffers. A revised version of this essay appeared as a book under the title Robinson Jeffers: Poet and Prophet.
Jeffers did not leave a historiographical testament in the manner of Pound, who read history assiduously and, by identifying the historians he trusted, eliminated all guesswork about the sources for his historical outlook. Even Jeffers’s collected letters reveal little about the individuals he chose for intellectual masters and guides. For his general historical outlook, Robert Zaller identifies as especially important influences Hegel and Nietzsche. Commenting on the way that the cyclical view of history shaped the poet’s historical thinking, he writes, “Jeffers’s view of history is thus partly Hegelian and partly Nietzschean.” (“Jeffers and the Uses of History” 93). He also names Thucydides, Polybius, Machiavelli, Vico, Spengler, and the Egyptologist Flinders Petrie as the thinkers most in keeping with Jeffers’s historical outlook, but there is no mention in the essay of the American historians who might have inspired him.
For clues about where he could have found the historical instruction that informed his politics, the poetry itself offers the best source of insight. Jeffers, too, had a Pennsylvania boyhood. Unlike the single-minded Pound, however, he passed through a series of fleeting career interests before settling on poetry. Following some early writing derivative of late Romanticism, Jeffers established himself on the literary scene in 1924 with the critically heralded Tamar and Other Poems. This book sparked a cult following for him. Over the next twelve years nine more major Jeffers collections of verse appeared. These publications were literary events. On April 4, 1932, he became one of the few American poets to be featured on a Time magazine cover. Critics were far from unanimous about him. Very much on the negative side beginning in the 1930s, Yvor Winters and the New Critics school generally deemed his work pretentious, maudlin, and lacking in artistic merit (Brophy 22-23). Nevertheless, he remained in the front rank of American poets. His work partook of the Spenglerian postwar and Depression-era pessimism that was characteristic of much Western literature in those years.
Against the grain of the avant-garde literary fashions that Pound had done much to pioneer, however, Jeffers spoke as an anti-modernist in a voice inflected with overtones of ancient Greek tragedy. In his study of Jeffers’s literary and philosophical influences, Zaller frequently compares him with Aeschylus, devoting many pages to an analysis of the inspiration derived from the Oresteia trilogy for the long “Tower Beyond Tragedy” poem in Roan Stallion, a 1925 collection (216-29). Inspired by the beauty and power of the central California coast, Jeffers wrote magnificent nature poetry portraying the cosmos as an all-powerful force that subsumed man and rendered all his works vain and evanescent. Albert Gelpi describes Jeffers as “the poet of the sublime without peer in American letters (14). Zaller’s Robinson Jeffers and the American Sublime expands magisterially on this insight.
Living an intensely private life with his wife, Una, and their twin sons in the Tor House stone dwelling he helped to build in Carmel, California, Jeffers fanatically guarded his time and his inner life. Author Rudolph Gilbert, who knew Jeffers, described him as “a passionate introvert” (14). Gilbert took Jeffers’s part against the modernists. He remembered having been drawn to “the ‘tentative movements’ and ‘uncertain waverings’ of the Cummingses, Doolittles, and Pounds. Remember that happened ‘when we were very young.’ Now we have grown, we may be forgiven and they forgotten” (162). Jeffers would outlast all these rival authors, Gilbert predicted. Writing and stonework filled his days. He did not teach, seldom gave public readings, and scrupulously avoided literary politics. Radcliffe Squires writes about Jeffers’s “isolation from the cliques of poets who stalk the pages of the little magazines, reviewing the books of their friends—and their enemies” (9).
Unlike Pound, the reclusive Jeffers tried to stay out of politics altogether. Although many of his closest friends were active leftists, he refused to speak out publicly against fascism in Europe during the interwar period. When Jeffers declined to participate in the November 13-15, 1936, Western Writers’ Congress in San Francisco, an anti-fascist gathering organized by communist sympathizers he knew well, they judged him to be hopeless politically. In a letter explaining why he would not attend, Jeffers declared that such a meeting seemed quite useless to him, “for writers cannot be organized—except newspaper or film writers—and ought to associate with any or all classes in the community rather than with each other; and if they wish to express opinions they can write them.” He added, “And I do not think that culture can be maintained or handed down through conventions and committees” (CL 2: 600).
Most curiously, Pound from his Italian fastness in Rapallo took an interest in the Western Writers’ Congress and complained to one of its organizers about the way “bro Jeffers haz highHatted thet Kungress.” Though acknowledging Jeffers as a brother poet, Pound faulted him for disdaining to attend the Congress. Why, he wondered, would the organizers have put themselves in a position to “get highhatted by a local half-wit instead of communicating with the few centres (incarnate) of thought who wd/willingly have increased the communicativity of the said KINGRESS.” 6 Why, in other words, did the organizers not get in touch with Pound instead of Jeffers? This question, about his attending a left-wing writers congress, should not cause surprise. Pound’s main adversary was corporate capitalism, not communism. To him fascism beckoned as the middle path between these two inhuman extremes.
Jeffers had scant appreciation for Pound’s work. In 1958, he would write in a letter to Eva Hesse about the poetry of Pound: “I wish I liked his work better, but indeed I have read very little of it” (CL 3: 894). Hesse, Pound’s German translator and a steadfast friend, had written to Jeffers in the hope of finding a kindred spirit. For Jeffers, though, Pound inhabited an alien artistic and mental universe. In addition to his antipathies toward literary modernism, Jeffers would have made nothing of Pound’s complicated economic theories, had he bothered to try. In Ezra Pound: metodo e follia (1983), Hesse would shed much new light on his thinking about economics, particularly the influence on him of Silvio Gesell. For Pound, the ideas of this German economist in The Natural Economic Order (1906, 1911) supplemented and eventually overshadowed those of his earlier master, Douglas. Tim Redman observes of Gesell, “He provided Pound with an original and basic education in economics and an understanding of the true nature of money” (134). Such abstruse discussions about finance and money failed to engage Jeffers.
Despite their mutual aversion for each other, the two men came to the same conclusion about the nefarious role of Allied leaders as warmongers. Jeffers, too, systematically debunks patriotic interpretations of “the good war.” In his most famous collection of political poetry, The Double Axe and Other Poems (1948), he denounces Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin as war criminals every bit as evil as Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo. The two-part lead poem, “The Double Axe,” singles out FDR for merciless vituperation. He mocks the President for having made “the wah” in which American soldiers “were sold to death / By liars and fools” (CP 3: 217, 227). In one of the collection’s shorter poems, “Moments of Glory,” Jeffers denounces all the Allied leaders as “[c]ontemptible people” glorying in the vast slaughter of the war (3: 98). He makes no distinction between the two sides in moral terms. They were both irredeemably evil, fighting for the manifestly destructive ends of empire. No matter which side won, according to Jeffers in The Double Axe, the world would remain in the throes of imperialist disorder. The rich would continue to rule the poor.
Though Jeffers had tried to keep to himself and to avoid political controversy, the sensationally politicized Double Axe and Other Poems dragged him into the glare of national publicity in 1948. As William Everson lamented in his Foreword to the 1977 edition, “But though history may yet vindicate him, in terms of his poetic career his descent into the political arena was an unmitigated disaster” (x). Everson, an admirer of Jeffers and a close student of his poetry, sadly acknowledged that The Double Axe had been an “exercise to incense rather than convince” (xiv).
The reaction to the book, however, should not have been so extreme. Jeffers had gained fame as a nature poet with a strong proclivity toward philosophical speculation about the tragic human condition, but he had been writing about the central political themes of The Double Axe for much of his life, beginning in the early 1920s. Zaller analyzes the continuities between Jeffers’s postwar writing in both world wars. He places Jeffers’s interwar work in a larger context of earlier American authors, including Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman, who have written about “the idea of America as a redeemer nation destined to give light to the world” (273). For Jeffers, however, America as a universal redemptive force is an idea always to be treated with astringent irony.
In his post-World War I political poetry, Jeffers drew inspiration from the revisionist movement in which Charles Austin Beard figured prominently along with Sidney Bradshaw Fay, Edmund Dene Morel, Harry Elmer Barnes, and numerous other historians in Europe and America.77 In Revisionist Viewpoints: Essays in a Dissident Historical Tradition, James J. Martin describes revisionism as it has been used to interpret World War I and World War II. The revisionists, he summarizes, “sought to balance the propaganda accounts of the coming of these conflicts, by demonstrating through emphasis on the part left off the record by all the belligerents, the mixed nature of the problem and the universal fact of responsibility on the part of victors and defeated alike” (191). Martin also notes that historical revisionism enjoyed a much greater scholarly acclaim and widespread popular appeal after World War I than it did after World War II. No one in the 1920s and 1930s was writing about the Western Front as a “good war” in anything like the same sense that became commonplace in discussing the crusade against Hitler. Disillusionment with the war and the leaders responsible for it pervaded the lost generation years.
Jeffers did not fight in the war. He repeatedly sought to enlist but could not pass the physical because of high blood pressure. During the war, he appears to have been motivated by the conventional patriotic sentiments about making the world safe for democracy that had determined Beard’s own pro-interventionist stance as well. For Beard and the revisionists generally, the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 had a shattering effect. It was an imperialist peace bound to bring on another war. With his vast readership and scholarly prestige, Beard did more than anyone to promote the revisionist Beginning with his breakthrough success of Tamar, Jeffers’s writing about World War I fully reflects the revisionist outlook.
Tamar and Other Poems featured poems about the California landscape, but it also included “Shine, Perishing Republic” in which he described an America settling “in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire” (CP 1: 15). A year later, in “Woodrow Wilson” from Roan Stallion, he summed up the president’s war to make the world safe for democracy this way: “Your tragic quality / Required the huge delusion of some major purpose to produce it” (1:107). Wilson had deceived himself and the American people into believing that the war had been about something noble when in fact, as the egregious Treaty of Versailles made manifest, the ten million dead soldiers in that conflict had been sacrificed for empire, the root cause of all war. In “The Dead to Clemenceau: November 1929” from Dear Judas and Other Poems, Jeffers comments on the former French premier’s death at age eighty-eight with a chorus from the wartime dead: “Come (we say) Clemenceau. / Why should you live longer than others? The vacuum that sucked / Us down, and the former stars, draws at you also” (2: 127).
Such Counsels You Gave to Me and Other Poems, written from 1935 to 1938, is another revisionist book. In “Rearmament,” Jeffers somberly intones: “I would burn my right hand in a slow fire / To change the future . . . I should do foolishly. The beauty of modern / Man is not in the persons but in the / Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the / Dream-led masses down the dark mountain” (CP 2: 515). In “Air-Raid Rehearsals,” he sees “far fires and dim degradation / Under the war-planes and neither Christ nor Lenin will save you” (2: 516). “The age darkens,” he writes in “Hellenistics”: “Europe mixes her cups of death, all the little Caesars fidget on their thrones” (2: 527). Men will fight as they always do and create empire as they always do.
Jeffers’s task, he tells us in “The Great Sunset,” is “‘To be truthbound, the neutral / Detested by all the dreaming factions . . . ’” (CP 2: 535). “Not to be deluded by dreams” is a goal that he sets for himself in “The Answer.” In that same poem, he offers a precept: “To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted and not wish for evil, and not be duped / By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will not be fulfilled” (2: 536). If history shows anything to be true, he asserts in “Contemplation of the Sword,” it is, “Reason will not decide at last; the sword will decide” (2: 544). The sword in this April 1938 poem is a symbol for “the storms and counterstorms of general destruction; killing of men / Destruction of all goods and materials; massacre, more or less intentional of children and women; / Destruction poured down from wings, the air made accomplice, the innocent air / Perverted into assassin and poisoner” (2: 544). Not for a moment in Such Counsels You Gave to Me does the poet imagine the coming war to be a combat between the forces of freedom and tyranny. Staunch revisionist that Jeffers continued to be, he could see nothing in any war but a struggle for power and empire. There were no good wars. They were all evil, the coming one likely to be the worst of all. Already, the odor of doom for Western civilization was in the air. “What is that odor,” he asks in “Decaying Lambskins,” his image for “the Christian / Ideals that for protection and warmth our naked ancestors . . . but naturally, after nineteen centuries . . .” (2: 604). It would be doom by stages though: “Our civilization, the worst it can do, cannot yet destroy itself: but only deep-wounded drag on for centuries” (2: 605).
In Be Angry at the Sun, a collection written between 1938 and 1941, Jeffers comments on a peculiar defect in human psychology: “Ants, or wise bees, or a gang of wolves, / Work together by instinct, but man needs lies, / Man his admired and more complex mind / Needs lies to bind the body of his people together, / Make peace in the state and maintain power” (CP 3: 3). These lies Jeffers called the faith with which men went to war. On August 30, 1939, two days before the Nazi invasion of Poland, Jeffers wrote in “The Soul’s Desert,” “They are warming up the old horrors; and all that they say is echoes of echoes” (3: 15). We already have had the experience of slaughtering ten million young men. We did that in the years 1914 to 1918. Why do it again? What new lies will be employed to justify the carnage this time, or will the old lies do? In “Battle,” a poem written on May 28, 1940, he deplores the worst of this war’s horrors: “Foreseen for so many years: these evils, this monstrous violence, these massive agonies: no easier to bear. / . . . and we shall have to perceive that these insanities are normal,” even beautiful (3: 21).
America’s entry into the war Jeffers describes in the manner of Pound. In “Shine, Empire,” he rages, “Powerful and armed, neutral in the midst of madness, we might have held the whole world’s balance and stood / Like a mountain in a wind. We were misled and took sides. We have chosen to share the crimes and the punishment.” The punishment for America will be severe: “It is war, and no man can see an end of it. We must put freedom away and stiffen into bitter empire” (CP 3: 17). There are no exceptions for the curse that empire brings. All empires collapse in the end. Ours will as well: “Now, thoroughly compromised, we aim at world rule, like Assyria, Rome, Britain, Germany, to inherit those hoards / Of guilt and doom. I am American, what can I say but again, ‘Shine, perishing republic?’ . . . Shine, empire” (3: 18).
Be Angry at the Sun anticipates all the major themes of The Double Axe, though not its extreme verbal violence and fiendish imagery. In The Double Axe, Roosevelt is seen to be a warmongering monster alongside Hitler and Stalin. In “Great Men,” from the Be Angry at the Sun collection, Jeffers writes about Roosevelt’s “grandiose good intentions,” which tragically miscarried, but the tone of the poem is one of understanding. In the earlier collection, he is even fatalistic and hardly judgmental at all about American foreign policy, as in the title poem, “Be Angry at the Sun.” There he writes, “That public men publish falsehoods / Is nothing new. That America must accept / Like the historical republics corruption and empire / Has been known for years.” He adds, “Be angry at the sun for setting / If these things anger you” (CP 3: 24). Whereas in The Double Axe, Jeffers—Pound-like—dismisses Churchill as a run-of-the mill imperialist uncommon only in respect of his opalescent oratorical style with which he disguises the global depredations of the British Empire, in the earlier “I Shall Laugh Purely” he has words of praise for the fight Britain is putting up in the war: “ . . . count England, / Bleeding, at bay, magnificent, / At last a lion . . . ” ( 3: 30).
Perhaps the clearest illustration of the difference in temper between Be Angry at the Sun (1941) and The Double Axe (1948) can be gained from a comparison of the poem “Fantasy” in the earlier collection and the title poem of the later one. In “Fantasy,” written in June 1941, Jeffers imagines the end of the war: “On that great day the boys will hang / Hitler and Roosevelt in one tree, / Painlessly, in effigy, / To take their rank in history; / Roosevelt, Hitler and Guy Fawkes / Hanged above the garden walks, / While the happy children cheer, / Without hate, without fear, / And new men plot a new war” (CP 3: 109). The closing line is ominous, but in a cerebral not a visceral way.
In the title poem of The Double Axe, the main character, the revenant Hoult Gore speaks Jeffers’s mind. His indignant reaction to war peddlers’ lies and the people’s imbecility about their totally corrupt government rakes this dead soldier out of the grave. He has come back from the dead to speak the truth about the war, first to his flag-waving father and then to all those promoting Roosevelt’s foreign policies. All these pimps, as Hoult calls them, should be hanged, but not in effigy. They deserve an actual public execution: “‘You’ll be there, old man, right along with the President / And his paid mouths; and the radio-shouters, the writers, the world-planners, the heavy bishops, / The England-lovers, the little poets and college professors, / The seducers of boys, the pimps of death, the pimps,’” Hoult laments, adding “‘ . . . we were sold to death / By liars and fools”’ (CP 3: 227). He says, “ . . . all governments / Are thugs and liars,” the one in Washington, with its loathsome hypocrisies and double standards, the worst of all (3: 234). The shorter poems in The Double Axe follow in the same fierce condemnatory vein, as in, “Historical Choice,” written in 1943: “ . . . we were misguided / By fraud and fear, by our public fools and a loved leader’s ambition” (3: 122). Pound, in contrast, was more circumspect in calling for the death of FDR: “I think that it might be a good thing to hang Roosevelt and a few hundred yidds IF you can do so by due legal process. NOT otherwise. Law must be preserved. I know this may sound tame, but so is it” (Doob 289). Jeffers says nothing about the legal process in his poem.
As a modernist poet, Pound would not have been drawn to the traditional narrative style employed by Jeffers in The Double Axe.Technique aside, he would have assented strongly to the anti-Roosevelt message of the poems. In the Fascist radio scripts, Roosevelt and Churchill stand condemned as war criminals, just as they do in The Double Axe. No more than Beard, however, did Jeffers ever get down to “the real bedrock” of the historical process, which for Pound always consisted of Jewish money, influence, and control. When Pound writes about the corrupting influences in American life, he always means the Jews and their multifarious allies, enablers, and sycophants.
Jeffers never does. He does not identify the money power in ethnic or racial terms. The comments about Jews in The Collected Letters are invariably supportive and express commiseration over the prejudice against them in Nazi Germany. He shares this trait with Beard, who in writing about the destabilization of American life by Wall Street paid close attention to such entities as the banking house of J. Pierpont Morgan and the Standard Oil Company of John D. Rockefeller. The Morgans, father and son, were both Episcopalians in good standing. Rockefeller combined his dedication to wealth accumulation with assiduous Bible study and attendance at Baptist prayer meetings. There was plenty of non-Jewish money in the American power elite. It would appear to be inadvisable on factual grounds, let alone moral considerations, to become distracted by an obsessive concern over Jewish power. In fact, Beard wrote very little about the Jews, and when doing so tried to stick to discrete facts and to avoid ideological generalizations. Jeffers did the same. As a student of American history, Jeffers generally inclined toward Beardianism, and most sharply on the Jewish question, which for Pound was the only one worth bothering about for understanding the policy decisions that led to American intervention in World War II.
As a term in American historiography, Beardianism essentially stood for the same critical ideas that animated Jeffers’s political poetry. From his classic An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) to the valedictory President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: A Study in Appearances and Realities (1948), Beard sought to expose the overarching oligarchical and imperialist features of American history. He did so, though a man of the left, not only as a non-Marxist, but also as an anti-Marxist. Such a sensibility would have exerted a strong pull on the politically uncommitted but historically revisionist Jeffers. Neither man had any truck with the Marxist fashions that played a large part in the intellectual life of the interwar period and well beyond. Moreover, they both found nothing of political or moral value in Fascism or Nazism. Not for them the path of Pound. At the same time, Jeffers and Beard dismissed American exceptionalism as an intellectually disabled cause. The rich and the powerful ruled here as they did everywhere else in the world, only the truly exceptional feature in the American case consisted of a historically unexampled capacity for self-deception and self-congratulation about the country’s actual hegemonic role in the world.
Although the habitually close-mouthed Jeffers did not compose in the Pound manner detailed acknowledgments pages about the most influential historians in his intellectual biography, the historical content of his poetry itself powerfully suggests a sympathetic awareness of what Beard was trying to do in cultivating for his countrymen a realistic understanding of the American past and present. It is certain that he knew of Beard’s work by direct contact with it and by the cultural osmosis of his influence in the intellectual life of the time.8 When it came to distilling in poetic form the dark heart of American imperialism, Jeffers needed only one mentor among American historians, Charles Austin Beard.
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