Tony Evans

Raising Ezra

Taking another look at Idaho's most famous poet/conspiracy theorist

Reprinted from the Boise Weekly - Idaho's Only Alternative website


      On the porch of a white Victorian house on Pine Street in Hailey, a bronze plaque commemorates the birthplace of the Ezra Weston Loomis Pound, 1885-1972. The plaque reads, "I have beaten out my exile."

      The quote is from Pound's poem "The Rest," a tribute to artists and "Lovers of beauty ... starved, thwarted with systems, helpless against the control."

      Pound was an irascible expatriate who left America as a young man and lived many years in rented flats in London and Paris. He spent his last years in silent exile in Venice, Italy, having been branded an anti-Semite and traitor to the United States. Only a controversial plea of insanity kept him from standing trial and perhaps from hanging.

      After spending 12 years in St. Elizabeths Hospital for the insane in Washington, D.C., he was released with the help of Robert Frost, Archibald MacLeish, and Ernest Hemingway, and hastily returned to Italy, giving a fascist salute upon arrival in 1959.

      Some scholars now theorize that it was Pound's childhood in the Idaho silver mining town that shaped his view of global economics, which in turn led to his fascist and anti-Semitic leanings.

Erin Ruiz

      Pound set out to change not only the world of poetry, but the world of banking and finance as well. His plan to eliminate debt by taking control of credit from central banks, and giving it to communities was fatefully tied to his apparent belief in an international conspiracy of Jewish bankers to rule the world through financial bondage. He accused these conspirators of "usury"—charging high interest rates on loans—which he claimed made slaves out of the citizens of a nation and pawns of their governments.

      While Pound's Jewish conspiracy theory may seem wildly misguided today, the perennial mistrust of the rulers of capital is still as fresh as a daisy in his hometown, where his childhood home now houses the Sun Valley Center for the Arts.

      Between the two World Wars, Pound became one of the giants of literary modernism; editing T.S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land," trading conversation for boxing lessons with Hemingway, and coming to the aid of many of the writers of his generation who worked, as he did, to free English verse from the moralistic, Victorian constraints of the 19th century.

      Among the contemporary poets who owe a debt to Pound are Allen Ginsberg, W.S. Merwin, Sharon Olds, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, all of whom have made pilgrimages to the white house on Pine Street where one of the most significant literary figures of 20th century was born.

      Do these pilgrims come to Hailey to pay their respects to Pound, or do they come to learn how a poet, with all the sensitivity and erudition that the title implies, could ever get it all so terribly wrong?

      "His thoughts would be in line with anti-globalization thinking today," says Hugh Witemeyer, a retired University of New Mexico literature professor.

      He calls Pound a "progressive Republican," who believed that private enterprise was a good thing for society, but says that Pound's economic theories bent his social views. "I do believe his anti-Semitism was driven to a great extent by his economic theories."

      The notion that Jewish financiers conspired to enslave the world is an old one, based on the historical prohibition against Jews owning land in Europe. The conspiracy theory was given new life in the 20th century when a bogus Russian manuscript called The Protocols of Zion was circulated, supposedly outlining Jewish plans for world domination.

      Pound scholar Leon Surette, author of Pound in Purgatory, claims Pound fell for the forgeries, which linked handily with the poet's suspicion that bankers charging credit on loans were the root of all evil in the world.

      Witemeyer has written about Pound's correspondences with U.S. senators during the Great Depression, including Idaho Sen. William Borah, in a futile effort to establish a social credit banking system in the United States. Between the wars, Pound sought political power in order to implement social credit, which he thought would cure the evils of the Depression and end the cycle of wars between nations.

The Beginning

      Recent scholarship suggests that even though Pound spent most of his life far from Idaho, his political and economic ideas derive from his family origins in the frontier mining town of Hailey, where the very nature of money was a hot topic of discussion.

      The Wood River Valley earned more than $2 million a year—a staggering sum in those days—from mining between 1885 and 1887, when precious metals were inextricably linked to the national currency. Silver and gold were mined mostly by hardscrabble locals, yet could be processed only with the help of investors from New York and elsewhere in the East.

      Pound scholar Tim Redman of the University of Texas writes that, "We can see in Hailey the growth of the greatest political division in this country after the Civil War—the quarrel between the West and the East, between Main Street and Wall Street, between producers and financiers. This tension led to the emergence of the populist movement, which dominated public political debate at the end of the 19th century."

      Homer Pound, Ezra's father, worked as an assayer in Philadelphia, testing the value and composition of precious metal ores, before being appointed as a clerk at the land office in Hailey. The Pound family had both mining and farming interests in the region. According to Redman, Homer's occupation would begin a lifelong interest in economics and the nature of money for young Ezra.

Pound's childhood home in Hailey;
now the Sun Valley Center for the Arts.
Sun Valley Center for the Arts

      During Ezra Pound's youth, silver producers in towns like Hailey were vying with "gold bugs" from the East for currency status in the U.S. economy. When worldwide silver production brought the price of silver down during the 1880s and 1890s, the populist People's Party called for the free coinage of silver at a stable price against gold. The bimetallists hoped this would increase the amount of money in circulation and combat recession.

      "A secondary effect, the populists thought, would be to break the financial stranglehold of the Eastern banks on the nation's economy and to free politics from its domination by big business and finance," writes Redman.

      The populists and bimetallists eventually lost in 1896, when their champion, William Jennings Bryan, was defeated by William McKinley in a run for the presidency. By then, the silver boom, which fueled economies like Hailey's, had gone bust.

      Redman suggests that Pound was tutored early on about the arbitrary nature of money, and the devastating effect governmental policy could have on local economies. But if the poet's interest in the nature of money began with 19th century Populism, his passion for radical economics deepened after World War I.

      "Pound was critical of munitions manufacturers and large private banks, which he believed kept WWI going longer than was necessary in order to maximize profits," says Witemeyer. "He felt that these two industries created the greatest harm to the world in his day, in particular certain large corporations in Germany and England, including the Rothschild banking empire."

      Social credit theory first emerged in England in the early 1900s and came from the understanding—common to many at the time—that the industrial revolution put enormous wealth in the hands of private bankers, who amassed fortunes by opening lines of credit.

      The social credit banking system was borrowed from Maj. Clifford Hugh Douglas, a Scottish industrialist who believed the root cause of the Depression was a lack of buying power due to tight credit enforced by banks after the stock market crash of 1929. Pound and Douglas, along with other "under-consumptionists," agreed with many economists that the Fed acted perversely during the Great Depression by reducing the money supply.

      Yet they saw in the Depression an opportunity to socialize the Federal Reserve and establish a collectivized administration of lending officials to issue credit, eliminate taxes, and return interest to borrowers.

      Under their plan, a "national dividend" would be dispersed universally, based on what Pound called the "cultural heritage" or productivity and inventiveness of citizens. Social credit also called for a "just price" for consumables. Pound also advocated a "stamp scrip," a kind of temporary currency that lost value over time to limit money hoarding.

      "Nobody at that time knew what was going to work to bring the world out of the Depression," says Witemeyer. "What surprised us was that his ideas were quite relevant. There was hardly an idea of Pound's that was not also shared by leading thinkers in Europe at the time. He was by no means the loner he was later painted as. There is a growing consensus that Pound's thought stems from a Jeffersonian Populism and the idea of the 'citizen farmer,' a landholder with a stake in society as a foundation of democracy."

      Thomas Jefferson believed that favoring unlimited expansion of industry and commerce over agricultural concerns would lead to the subjugation of wage earners and farmers. "Those who labor in the earth ... are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people," he once wrote.

      Pound admired Jefferson and gave lectures on his thoughts in Italy between the world wars, eventually comparing him to Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator who wrote a column for Hearst newspapers until 1935. (Adolf Hitler also wrote for Hearst, but missed deadlines and was later dropped in favor of Hermann Goering.)

      "Social credit theory held that the power to issue credit should not be in the hands of private bankers and guided only by profit motives," says Witemeyer. "But instead controlled by the government with an interest in what was good for the country. Under this system, an idea would be financed if it was seen as good for the country as a whole."

      In The Cantos, Pound encoded the origins of usury in the chartering of the Bank of England in 1694, combining it with an age-old strain of anti-Semitism, based ironically on the historical disenfranchisement of Jews.

      "Jews predominated in banking historically because they were not allowed to own real property," says retired economics professor Allen Dalton, who taught the History of Economic Thought at Boise State, and will teach Intermediate Microeconomics and Radical Economics next fall.

      "As a result of this prohibition, the Jews specialized in financial instruments instead, and also diamonds and other forms of portable wealth."

      Dalton says that in Pound's day, the fringes of both the Marxist left and the agrarian Populist right were calling for transformation of the banking and finance system; the left to empower the industrial workers, and the right to take control for rural populations.

      "Both of these were variants of state socialism," he says. Dalton does not believe Pound was technically a fascist, in that he didn't want to give control of the economy to an elite managerial class.

      "Pound wasn't against banking systems," says Dalton. "He and Douglas just felt that the control of loans was in the hands of the wrong people. He thought everything would be all right if they just had the right people in charge."

      Dalton compares Pound with libertarian Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who, like Pound, would eliminate income tax and stay away from overseas conflicts.

War, Poetry and Anti-Semitism

      Many critics of social credit maintained that the system would cause runaway inflation, and many of Pound's friends, including Hemingway, said he should have stayed away from economics entirely.

      Yet they knew the "Idaho Kid" possessed an understanding of history and culture that was both deep and broad. His interests ranged from pagan mythology and classical Greek to occultism and the writings of Confucius. He read Dante in medieval Italian and the Troubadours in Provencal, yet often wrote and spoke in an American doggerel that belied his immense intellect.

      In 1938, he began a letter to T.S. Eliot with, "Waaal Possum, my fine ole Marse Supial ..." with regard to Eliot's "Pasqual meddertashuns."

      Apparently the two poets were discussing the Pensée;es or "meditations" of renowned 17th century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal.

      As a critic, Pound helped promote the careers of William Carlos Williams, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, and many others while living in Europe. His dictum to "Make it New" was an exhortation to recover beneficial ideas from history for the modern reader. As a student of Dante, he idealized the period of the Italian Renaissance, which he considered the epitome of cultural and artistic realization.

      He invented Imagism, a school of poetry that depends upon absolute certainty in language to bring words to the level of experience. Like Dante, who was forced from his home by a rival political group, Pound would eventually live a life in exile because of his beliefs.

      Pound's extensive use of obscure historical references and allusions make his poetry unreadable for many. His magnum opus, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, is a diverse and experimental, book-length encyclopedic poem based on Homer's Odyssey and Dante's Divine Comedy. It contains many of his ideas on history and governance, as well as the arts. Written during 50 years of the poet's life, it is considered by some literary historians to be the most significant work of modernist poetry in the 20th century.

      "It is important to realize that the Poundian audience was pre-Holocaust," says Pound's grandson Dr. Walter de Rachewiltz. "In terms sentiment, I believe T.S. Eliot was more anti-Semitic. It was a petit-bourgeois kind of snobbishness of the time."

      De Rachewiltz has wrestled with Pound's legacy in ways few others have. In his youth, he lived with Pound for several years at Brunnenburg Castle near Merano, Italy. He still lives there today, hosting American college students interested in medieval farming methods and the writings of Ezra Pound. He has been criticized by Witemeyer and others as too dismissive of Pound's anti-Semitism, which Witemeyer says extended to a study of eugenics to solve the "Jewish problem."

      "After the first World War, having seen young men, British, British Jews, Germans, including many artists killed mercilessly, Pound wrote `Hugh Selwyn Mauberly,'" says de Rachewiltz. "It is one of the greatest anti-war poems. It rages against this massacre for a 'botched civilization.'"

      De Rachewiltz says that after the first World War, Pound expected a renaissance in the arts in a nearly messianic way, with artists as the "antennae of the world." He envisioned artists, politicians, and craftsmen working together to make something beautiful.

      "But seeing the massacre, he began looking for reasons why one war leads to the next, asking questions about what we call the military industrial complex today. He was not able to dismiss the fact that certain banks, such as the Rothschilds, were involved in the transactions," de Rachewiltz says.

      The Rothschilds are an international banking and finance dynasty of German-Jewish origin, which began in the 1700s and was later ennobled by the Austrian and British governments.

      "The only bad guys Pound had to pick on were the Jews," says de Rachewiltz. "He railed against the 'kikes in the banks' on Italian radio during the war, but they were largely symbolic of power and ruthlessness. At one point, he said, 'I only hate big Jews, not small ones.' His economic ideas may well be worth looking into but not on the basis of whether someone is Jewish. They should be looked into on the basis that someone happens to be a banker. Pound was critical of a certain kind of ruthless capitalism that reduces everything to 'where is the cheapest labor?'" says de Rachewiltz.

      According to Dalton, World War II eventually de-radicalized the radicals because the set of policies undertaken by FDR and the New Deal co-opted the supporters of radical programs, ultimately bringing many into the fold of modern state capitalism.

      "Many economists would agree that John Maynard Keynes (the economist favored by Roosevelt's New Deal begun in 1933) adopted many of Pound's ideas through reform of banking policies, including the Federal Reserve Act, which forced banks to lend and increased the money supply through monetary policy, primarily by adjusting interest rates," says Dalton.

      Pound supported some of the ideas of Louisiana Democrat Huey Long's "Share Our Wealth Program" but called Roosevelt's New Deal—which included banking reform laws, Keynesian monetary policy, emergency relief, and union protection—"Communism."

      He remained in Italy throughout World War II, supporting Benito Mussolini as the only world political leader he thought capable of enacting a social credit system. From 1941 to 1943, Pound's radio broadcasts from Rome decried Jews, including Bernard Baruch, a Jewish-American financier and statesman who advised Roosevelt during the implementation of New Deal programs.

Insanity Defense

      Scholars continue to debate whether Pound's beliefs were a philosophical position or a psychological condition.

      Pound scholar Wendy Stallard Flory states that psychosis in Pound's day was an all-or-nothing proposition. She attributes his obsessive convictions to a modern diagnosis of paranoid psychosis, albeit episodic, a phenomenon not accepted by the psychiatric profession in 1935, but identified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1987 as grandiose and persecuted types.

      Rick Ardinger, executive director of the Idaho Humanities Council, argues that Pound was quite sane throughout his life.

      "He won the Bollingen Prize for the Pisan Cantos, which he wrote while awaiting trial for treason," says Ardinger. "You don't do that while you are crazy."

      The Pisan Cantos were once read as evidence of the poet's act of contrition following the war, but Louis Menand offers a new interpretation in a May 2008 edition of The New Yorker magazine. "Pull down thy vanity pull down pull down ... " is read by Menand as a castigation of Pound's captors, the U.S. forces, following World War II.

      In either case, Pound came around enough by 1967 to apologize, rather lamely, for his anti-Semitism to poet Allen Ginsberg, calling it a "stupid suburban prejudice." In a statement from a foreword to a collection of his prose writings from 1972, he seemed willing to distance himself even further from his previous obsessions.

      "In sentences referring to groups or races 'they' should be used with great care. Re: Usury: I was out of focus, taking a symptom for a cause. The cause is Avarice," Pound wrote.

      Social credit never really caught on as Pound had hoped, although it did have some modest success in Alberta, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia into the 1980s.

      Keynesian economics, and the establishment of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank following World War II, superseded many of Pound's economic ideas. Modern monetary and fiscal policies would further abstract the "nature of money" and usher in an era of unparalleled economic growth.

      Today, critics of global capitalism are considering issues far more transcendent than the problems of under-consumption and under-employment in Pound's day. In light of rapidly diminishing natural resources, peak oil, and global warming scenarios, they often point to collusions between corporations and financiers as the cause for alarm.

      Some poets continue to critique the evolving science of economics. Among them is the poet and farmer Wendell Berry, whose ideas would likely find favor with both Pound and Thomas Jefferson.

      Berry sees a predicament in American consumer culture stemming from the Manifest Destiny era of Pound's forebears. He refers to the dilemma as the "Myth of Limitlessness" in an essay published in the May 2008 Harper's Magazine entitled "Faustian Economics."

      Berry says that a well-managed farm, and by extension a well-managed economy, can be inexhaustible, but the individual components are never limitless. He claims that we are living in an era of "autistic industrialism" which denies the inherent limits of living within a finite world.

      "The economic fantasy of limitlessness in a limited world calls fearfully into question the value of our monetary wealth," writes Berry, "which does not reliably stand for the real wealth of land, resources, and workmanship but instead wastes it."

      Pound would congratulate Berry on his hard look at the nature of money. Like Pound, Berry also has somewhat utopian ideals with regard to economics, but without the cranky speculations that doomed Pound in the end. Some of those ideals are being developed in Pound's hometown of Hailey.

Lasting Influence

      Kelly Weston is one of the founders of Idaho's Bounty, a regional food cooperative that began two years ago to connect small-scale, organic framers in the region with consumers in the upscale Wood River Valley surrounding Hailey. Weston's organization is part of widespread local-food movement taking hold across the United States, driven in part by suspicions regarding industrial farming methods, including the use of hormones, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers.

      "The commodification and industrialization of food systems in this country have been centralized and controlled by corporations and other entities," says Weston. "Their first priority is making profits for shareholders, not the health of communities.

      "If your living as a farmer depends upon taking care of your land in an ecological manner, that is much easier on a farm of 250 acres than it is on a farm of 250,000 acres."

      While Pound's social credit system never gained momentum, a form of social finance is in the works in Hailey. Nonprofits like Idaho's Bounty are usually established with philanthropic capital from nearby Sun Valley. In recent months, coalitions are forming between real estate developers, environmentalists, politicians, and workers to form a regional economic plan that works in a valley with demographics that range from the super-rich to the decidedly ranch-y.

      But at the end of the day, rising fuel prices, global food shortages, and the credit crunch make Pound's hometown look like the listless plaything of enormous, unseen forces.

      "As far as conspiracy theories go, I hear more and more these days," says de Rachewiltz, from his home in the Tyrolean Alps.

      "Maybe Halliburton is clean as a whistle and we will find further explanations for the war, but people seem always to be looking for ways to explain decisions made over their heads.

      "We are ultimately confronted with the same issues. We are perhaps not much better off today despite there being much more information than during Pound's day."