Saving Ezra Pound

The end of World War II in 1945 was a time for celebration, but it was also a time of reckoning. While the Nuremberg trials for Nazi war criminals were still in the planning stage, legal proceedings against enemy collaborators were well underway. In Great Britain, the trial of William Joyce (a.k.a. Lord Haw-haw) for treason due to his Nazi propaganda broadcasts led to his execution in 1946.

And then there was Ezra Pound...

As a major figure in 20th century poetry, Pound's expatriate life in Italy led to his becoming an advocate for the Axis powers. He opposed the war (particularly the involvement of the United 200pxezrapound_1913 States) and expressed his support for Mussolini and Fascism through numerous radio broadcasts and writings. Even after the United States entered the war, Pound continued to be active in Italian politics until being arrested by Italian partisans in 1945. His incarceration by American forces near Pisa (including 25 days in an open cage) led to a nervous breakdown. Only after the end of the war was Pound finally sent to the United States for trial but what happened then is still a matter of controversy. While being a world-renowned poet, Pound was also reviled for his anti-Semitic views and his role as a Fascist collaborator.

Since treason was technically a capital offense at the time, Pound and his defense counsel had ample motivation to arrange a plea bargain stating that he was unfit to stand trial. There was absolutely no indication that Pound was actually suffering from any mental illness but the plea bargain was quickly accepted to avoid embarrassing publicity. It seemed likely that Pound and his attorneys were hoping that he could be released after public furor died down.

Unfortunately for Pound, this gambit backfired. He was sent to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. where he would spend the next thirteen years of his life. His treating psychiatrists seemed confused about what to do with him and it was only in 1953, after considerable prodding from the Justice Department, that a formal diagnosis was given: narcissistic personality disorder. Despite the fact that he was never diagnosed as suffering from a major mental illness, Pound continued to be held in the hospital. There is also some controversy over whether Pound received special treatment while in hospital since he was able to continue with his literary efforts (he would write three books there),receive numerous visits from family members and fellow writers, and even engage in conjugal visits with his wife (not to mention his mistress). While in hospital, Pound continued to have an influence on a whole generation of new writers. Despite being allowed some freedom to pursue his writing, Pound hated his hospital stay and depended on his frequent visitors to keep him sane.

Only after numerous appeals from his fellow writers (including the poet Robert Frost) was Pound finally released in 1958 into the custody of his wife, Dorothy.  Interviewed after his release, he gave the famous quip that " all America is a lunatic asylum" and returned to Italy to live for the rest of his life. P ound would continue to write avidly but lived as a near-recluse with his long-time mistress, Olga Rudge (he and Dorothy separated after their return to Italy). While he became a little less rigid in his declining years and disavowed many of his anti-Semitic views, he remained largely unapologetic to the very end.  Ezra Pound died in 1972, just after celebrating his 87th birthday and is buried in San Michele Cemetery on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore near Venice.

What are we to make of this case? Critics of psychiatry often tend to paint Pound as a victim of psychiatric abuse while others regard him as a traitor who managed to escape justice.  Ezra Pound was not a sympathetic figure but his 13-year incarceration in a mental hospital remains a graphic example of how psychiatric hospitals can be used to "warehouse" people regardless of their actual mental status. It is a misuse of psychiatric hospitals that continues to occur in too many countries around the world.


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