The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
It was high time for a change, and yet it occurred at hazard. If there had not been a beautiful season in October and part of November, 1932, permitting Miss Stein to spend that season quietly in her country house, the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas might never have been written. But it was written, and Miss Stein became a best-seller in America; she made real money. With Miss Toklas, she had a thrilling tour of the United States and found crowds of people eager to see her and listen to her. And at last she got what she had really wanted all along: to be published in the Atlantic Monthly and the Saturday Evening Post.
Now she had everything, or nearly. For a while she was afraid to write any more, for fear her latest efforts would not please her public. She had never learned who she was, and yet suddenly she had become somebody else. “You are you because your little dog knows you, but when your public knows you and does not want to pay you, and when your public knows you and does want to pay you, you are not the same you.”
This would be of course the proper moment to take leave, as our heroine adds at last a golden flick of light to her self-portrait. “Anyway, I was a celebrity.” The practical result was that she could no longer live on her income. But she and Alice B. Toklas moved into an apartment once occupied by Queen Christina of Sweden, and they began going out more, and seeing even more people, and talking, and Miss Stein settled every question as it came up, more and more. But who wants to read about success? It is the early struggle which makes a good story.
She and Alice B. Toklas enjoyed both the wars. The first one especially being a lark with almost no one getting killed where you could see, and it ended so nicely too, without changing anything. The second was rather more serious. She lived safely enough in Bilignin throughout the German occupation, and there is a pretty story that the whole village conspired to keep her presence secret. She had been a citizen of the world in the best European tradition; for though America was her native land, she had to live in Europe because she felt at home there. In the old days people paid little attention to wars, fought as they were out of sight by professional soldiers. She had always liked the notion, too, of the gradual Orientalization of the West, the peaceful penetration of the East into European culture. It had been going on a great while, and all Western geniuses worth mentioning were Orientals: look at Picasso, look at Einstein. Russians are Tartars, Spaniards are Saracens—had not all great twentieth-century painting been Spanish? And her cheerful conclusion was, that “Einstein was the creative philosophic mind of the century, and I have been the creative literary mind of the century also, with the Oriental mixing with the European.” She added, as a casual afterthought, “Perhaps Europe is finished.”
That was in 1938, and she could not be expected to know that war was near. They had only been sounding practice alertes in Paris against expected German bombers since 1935. She spoke out of her natural frivolity and did not mean it. She liked to prophesy, but warned her hearers that her prophecies never came out right, usually the very opposite, and no matter what happened, she was always surprised. She was surprised again: as the nations of Europe fell, and the Germans came again over the frontiers of France for the third time in three generations, the earth shook under her own feet, and not somebody else’s. It made an astonishing difference. Something mysterious touched her in her old age. She got a fright, and this time not for ancient vanished civilizations, but for this civilization, this moment; and she was quite thrilled with relief and gay when the American army finally came in, and the Germans were gone. She did not in the least know why the Germans had come, but they were gone, and so far as she could see, the American army had chased them out. She remembered with positive spread-eagle patriotism that America was her native land. At last America itself belonged to Miss Stein, and she claimed it, in a formal published address to other Americans. Anxiously she urged them to stay rich, to be powerful and learn how to use power, not to waste themselves; for the first time she used the word “spiritual.” Ours was a spiritual as well as a material fight; Lincoln’s great lucid words about government of the people by the people for the people suddenly sounded like a trumpet through her stammering confession of faith, she wanted nothing now to stand between her and her newly discovered country. By great good luck she was born on the winning side and she was going to stay there. And we were not to forget about money as the source of power; “Remember the depression, don’t be afraid to look it in the face and find out the reason why, if you don’t find out the reason why you’ll go poor and my God, how I would hate to have my native land go poor.”
The mind so long shapeless and undisciplined could not now express any knowledge out of its long willful ignorance. But the heart spoke its crude urgent language. She had liked the doughboys in the other war well enough, but this time she fell in love with the whole American army below the rank of lieutenant. She “breathed, ate, drank, lived GI’s,” she told them, and inscribed numberless photographs for them, and asked them all to come back again. After her flight over Germany in an American bomber, she wrote about how, so often, she would stand staring into the sky watching American war planes going over, longing to be up there again with her new loves, in the safe, solid air. She murmured, “bless them, bless them.” She had been impatient with many of them who had still been naïve enough to believe they were fighting against an evil idea that threatened everybody; some of them actually were simple enough to say they had been—or believed they had been—fighting for democratic government. “What difference does it make what kind of government you have?” she would ask. “All governments are alike. Just remember you won the war.” But still, at the end, she warned them to have courage and not be just yes or no men. And she said, “Bless them, bless them.”
It was the strangest thing, as if the wooden umbrella feeling the rain had tried to forsake its substance and take on the nature of its form; and was struggling slowly, slowly, much too late, to unfold.
“It Is Hard to Stand in the Middle”
E. P.: CANTO XIII (Kung)
The Letters of Ezra Pound: 1907–1941, edited by D. D. Paige,
with a preface by Mark Van Doren.
New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1950.
IN Mexico, many years ago, Hart Crane and I were reading again Pavannes and Divisions, and at some dogmatic statement in the text Crane suddenly burst out: “I’m tired of Ezra Pound!” And I asked him: “Well, who else is there?” He thought a few seconds and said: “It’s true there’s nobody like him, nobody to take his place.” This was the truth for us then, and it is still the truth for many of us who came up, were educated, you might say, in contemporary literature, not at schools at all but by five writers: Henry James, James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. The beginning artist is educated by whoever helps him to learn how to work his own vein, who helps him to fix his standards, and who gives him courage. I believe I can speak for a whole generation of writers who acknowledge that these five men were in just this way, the great educators of their time.
The temptation in writing about The Letters of Ezra Pound: 1907–1941 is to get down to individual letters, to quote endlessly, to lapse into gossip, to go into long dissertations on the state of society; the strange confusions of the human mind; music, sculpture, painting, war, economics; the menace of the American university; the weakness of having a private life; and finally the hell on earth it is to be at once a poet and a man of perfect judgment in all matters relating to art in a world of the deaf, dumb, and blind, of nitwits, numbskulls, and outright villains. One might go on for hours and pages citing instances, comparing letters, tracing change and development from year to year, noting enthusiasms turning into abhorrence, admirations into contempt, splendid altruistic plans to foster the arts falling into ruin because almost nobody would help, and following the frantic pattern of the poet’s relations with his assortment of friends, for such I suppose they must be called. Friendship with Pound seems to have been a very uncertain state.
There are very few landscapes; very little about health. The poet is married, a marriage that now has lasted nearly thirty-five years, so there must have been some sort of family life, but the reader would hardly guess it. Now and then he remarks on the difficulty of paying rent, but you understand at once that the difficulties of paying rent and being an artist are closely connected. He mentions once or twice that he is aging a trifle, or feels tired, but he is tired of fighting people who fight art, or he feels too old to take on a certain job of work. Once he mentions kittens in a letter to William Carlos Williams, but I feel sure he meant something else; it must have been a code.* To his father he writes literary gossip, and remarks that he is playing tennis that afternoon. To his mother he mentions the marriage of Hilda Doolittle and Richard Aldington, and later writes to her, “I am profoundly pained to hear that you prefer Marie Corelli to Stendhal, but I cannot help it.” He remembers Yeats’s father on an elephant at Coney Island; but that was Jack Yeats, after all, a painter—otherwise one knows he might have sat on an elephant all day without a glance from Pound.
No, this was not the point. Ezra Pound detested the “private life,” denied that he ever had one, and despised those who were weak enough to need one. He was a warrior who lived on the battlefield, a place of contention and confusion, where a man shows all sides of himself without taking much thought for appearances. His own individual being is all the time tucked safely away within him, guiding his thoughts and feelings, as well as, at a long remove, his acts and words.
How right he was in so many things. The ferocious urge of his energy, his belief in himself with all his fears, his longing to be part of the world and his time, his curious lack of judgment of things outside his real interest now appear in these letters, and it is the truest document I have seen of that falling world between 1850 and 1950. We have been falling for a century or more, and Ezra Pound came along just at the right time to see what was happening.
He was a man concerned with public questions: specifically at first the question of the arts, the place of the artist in society, and he had a fanatical desire to force entire populations to respect art even if they could not understand it. (Indeed, he demanded reverence without understanding, for he sincerely did not believe that art was for the multitude. Whatever was too much praised he distrusted—even to the works of Sophocles. This is the inconsistency of his attitude all the way through: the attempt to force poetry upon people whom he believed not fitted to understand it.)
He believed himself to be the most patient soul alive, but he was not patient, he was tenacious, quite another thing. He was blowing up in wrath regularly from the very start, but he did not give up. He did not give up because he was incapable of abandoning a faith so furious it had the quality of religious fanaticism.
Witness his running fight, beginning in 1912, with Harriet Monroe, who controlled Poetry; Poetry was Pound’s one hope in this country for a good number of years, so, some of the time, and at great cost to his nervous system, he controlled Miss Monroe. His exasperation with that innocent, unteachable, hard-trying woman came to the point where he was all the same as beating her over the head with a baseball bat. I should like to see the other side of this correspondence: her patience, or whatever it was, and her ability to absorb punishment, were equal to her inability to change her ways.
When Miss Monroe got really frightened at some of the things he sent her, he wrote: “Don’t print anything of mine you think will kill the review, but. . . the public can go to the devil. It is the public’s function to prevent the artist’s expression by hook or by crook. . . . Given my head I’d stop any periodical in a week, only we are bound to run five years anyhow, we’re in such a beautiful position to save the public’s soul by punching its face that it seems a crime not to do so.”
So it went for twenty-four long years, one of the most sustained literary wars on record, and yet it is hard to see what they would have done without each other. Harriet Monroe was his one instrument in this country, and continually she broke in his hands. She had some very genteel notions about language, and a schoolgirl taste for pretty verses that rhymed nicely and expressed delicate feelings, preferably about nature. (“No, most emphatically I will not ask Eliot to write down to any audience whatever,” Pound wrote her in 1914. “I daresay my instinct was sound enough when I volunteered to quit the magazine a year ago. Neither will I send you Eliot’s address in order that he may be insulted.”) Bloody, Harriet’s head undoubtedly was, but she would not let him go, and he would have been outraged if she had.
When after long years and in her old age, she tried at last to give up Poetry, to escape into private life with her family, he wrote: “The intelligence of the nation more important than the comfort or life of any one individual or the bodily life of a whole generation.” That is truly the public spirit, the Roman senator speaking. Why did he take the trouble? For he adds, in contempt: “It is difficult enough to give the god damn amoeba a nervous system.” Still, she had done her bit and could go, but she had no right to allow Poetry to die “merely because you have a sister in Cheefoo. . . .”
Pound was one of the most opinionated and unselfish men who ever lived, and he made friends and enemies everywhere by the simple exercise of the classic American constitutional right of free speech. His speech was free to outrageous license. He was completely reckless about making enemies. His so-called anti-Semitism was, hardly anyone has noted, only equaled by his anti-Christianism. It is true he hated most in the Catholic faith the elements of Judaism. It comes down squarely to anti-monotheism, which I have always believed was the real root of the difficulty between Judaism and the West. Pound felt himself to be in the direct line of Mediterranean civilization, rooted in Greece. Monotheism is simply not natural to the thought of such people and there are more of them than one might think without having looked into the question a little. Pound believed, rightly or wrongly, that Christianity was a debased cult composed of too many irreconcilable elements, and as the central power of this cult, he hated Catholicism worse than he did Judaism, and for many more reasons.
He was not a historian, and apparently did not know that religion flows from a single source, and that all are by now mingled and interrelated. Yet he did quote some things from ancient Chinese thought that are purely Christian in the sense that Christianity teaches the same ethics and morality, and so do the Jews, no matter from what earlier religion either of them derived it. So he was reckless and bitter and badly informed, but said what he thought, and in religious matters, in this period perhaps the most irreligious the world has ever known, it is still dangerous enough to be frank on that subject. “Anti-Semite” is a stupid, reprehensible word in that it does not mean what it says, for not only Semitic peoples have taught the doctrine of the One God, and Anti-Semite is used now largely for purposes of moral blackmail by irresponsible people.
Pound’s lapses, his mistakes—and this would include his politics—occur when he deals with things outside his real interest, which was always art, literature, poetry. He was a lover of the sublime, and a seeker after perfection, a true poet, of the kind born in a hair shirt—a God-sent disturber of the peace in the arts, the one department of human life where peace is fatal. The
It held exasperation, too; and related to the exasperation, but going deeper, are the cursing, and the backwoods spelling, and the deliberate illiteracy—at first humorous, high animal spirits, youthfully charming. They become obsessional, exaggerated, the tone of near-panic, the voice of Pound’s deep fears. His fears were well founded; he was hard beset in a world of real and powerful enemies. I heard a stowaway on a boat once, cursing and shouting threats in that same monotonous, strained, desperate voice; in the end his captors only put him in the brig for the voyage. The artist Pound knew had become a kind of stowaway in society.
With the same kind of energy and obsessional faith Pound collided with the Douglas theory of social credit. He himself appears to have a basic principle of thought about economics: “Debt is slavery.” Ernestine Evans said she heard it on a gramophone record that got stuck, and Pound’s voice repeated steadily at least fifty times: “Debt is slavery.” She said the more often she heard it the more sense it made. This technique of repetition, in this case accidental, is known to the spreaders of lies. Maybe, though, it would be useful to repeat now and again a simple basic fact like that. “Debt is slavery.” But for Pound even the Douglas plan was immediately drawn into the service of the arts.