New Directions and Ezra Pound

Greg Barnhisel
James Laughlin, New Directions Press, and the Remaking of Ezra Pound,
University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.

Barnhisel’s book is an interesting history of James Laughlin’s New Directions publishing house, and by extension a history of American literary publishing since 1920 or so, but the main thing I’ve taken away from it is the conviction that Ezra Pound was the most obnoxious American author of all time.

You have to start with Pound’s cutesy, ranting, incredibly annoying epistolary style, which is the written equivalent of jabbing you in the ribs and tugging at your shirt: “There is no mony fer me in having sheets embedded. I mean whazzer USE in Nude Erections importing what won’t keep papa? … I shd/ think Nude Erek/ cd. do something more active than merely Sheeting the Polecats.” Except from a damaged friend or relative for whom I felt responsibility, I would be disinclined to continue a correspondence that went like that.

     Then, there is his continual stream of insults accusing more or less everyone else in the world, including the person he was writing to, of stupidity and worse. Pound was tremendously proud of his own ideas, which were shabby and worthless — Social Credit, developed by a saner crank, was the good part.

And then the Fascist-Nazi thing, which went deep. When he noticed Jews in his audience he made a point of reading his most anti-Semitic Cantos. His puzzlement and indignation at the poor reception of his Nazi beliefs in the US makes you think that his insanity plea, which I used to think was just a polite fiction for saving his neck, may have been entirely valid.

Laughlin marketed Pound to the civilized world with a combination of an insanity plea and “art for art’s sake”. To Pound his political writings were the most important of all, but to his handlers and supporters these had nothing to do his poetry. You sort of have to wonder about Laughlin.

The strange and savage American Fifties, back when I was a boy. The past is a different country, they say, not to be judged by the standards of today.

Published in: on December 11, 2016 at 7:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

“This Side of Paradise”


My last word on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. I am 70 years old and Fitzgerald was a little younger than my grandfather. He should be read as an author from the distant past even though his hipster-fratboy-dudebro aesthetic seems contemporary. And if you find his characters unpleasant, well, by and large they didn’t like themselves, and Fitzgerald really didn’t either. Read it as gritty realism about precious, spoiled people.


It purports to be the picaresque ramble of one Stephen Palms….

Fitzgerald in The Crack-Up, p. 252 — from a 1918 letter to John Peale Bishop describing The Romantic Egoist (the early version of This Side of Paradise).

 It is a well-considered, finished whole this time.

 Fitzgerald,  August 16, 1919 letter to Maxwell  Perkins, in Hook, p. 24.

 [Amory Blaine was] a wavering quality in a phantasmagoria of incident that had no dominating intention to endow it with unity and force. In short, one of the chief weaknesses of TSOP is that it is not really about anything; its intellectual and moral content amounts to little more than a gesture — a gesture of indefinite revolt….

 Edmund Wilson, 1924, in Mizener, pp. 80-81.

 A lot of people thought it was a fake, and perhaps it was, and a lot of others thought it was a lie, which it was not.

 Fitzgerald, 1936, in  Prigozy,  p. 336.

 I think it is now one of the funniest books since “Dorian Gray” in its utter spuriousness….

 Fitzgerald, 1938, in Prigozy, p. 337.

       Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise is the story of the early life of the author-to-be Amory Blaine, and in it we can watch Fitzgerald himself becoming an author. Fitzgerald called the book “a romance and a reading list”, and in it we we are given a very detailed picture of Amory’s literary development (which was much like Fitzgerald’s). Glenway Wescott wondered whether Fitzgerald was not “the worst educated man in the world”, but the truth is that his education was specialized toward the writing of novels the way Sherlock Holmes’s education was specialized toward the detection of crime. Fitzgerald’s reading (like Amory’s) was almost all literature, almost all of it written after 1800, and enough of it was popular literature of not quite the highest grade for him to easily find an audience.

While  Fitzgerald expressed confidence about his book, he  had no confidence that others would understand what he had done. As he often did, he abased himself before their criticisms, and I am convinced that his self-effacing meekness in the face of his friends’ incomprehension was one of the reasons why his book is still   merely regarded as merely a prelude to Fitzgerald’s other, better books.

This Side of Paradise is certainly not “a well-made novel”, and it is above all not a novel of purpose bringing the reader to a satisfying conclusion. It has aspects of a boys’ book, a campus novel, a romance, a bildungsroman, a “quest novel”, a novel of  ideas, a naturalist novel, a Catholic novel built around the medieval vices of Pride and Lust,  and an autobiographical novel. However, in most of these cases it can be seen as a takeoff or parody of these familiar genres: a boys’ book full preteen kissing games and a decadent mother, a campus novel about a feckless dropout, a romance about people incapable of love, a bildungsoman / quest novel ending in confusion and defeat, a fallen-Catholic book, a novel of not-very-good ideas, and the objective naturalistic description of spoiled, artificial people rather than slum dwellers.

When young Fitzgerald put together his first novel he seemed like a novice author faking his way to a book, but when the dust had settled he could be seen to have been inventing his own genre, as modernist authors often do. As a novel of youth rebellion and failure, or as the self-referential story of a narcissist , always watching himself (and watching other narcissists watch themselves) written by an author who is also always watching himself, This Side of Paradise certainly has many descendants (whether recognized or not). This book’s pastiche of poetry, drama and fiction is also sometimes seen today, but even now few authors insert into their fiction page-long  passages written by personal friends who are the real-life models for their characters.

Rather than a defective apprentice work, This Side of Paradise  should be regarded as a pioneering neo-decadent, self-referential, picaresque, autobiographical pastiche novel set in the familiar worlds of Midwestern boys’ books, American campus novels, early Twentieth Century progressive fiction, and post-WWI disillusion. At its core are reflections on the self: the narcissistic self  vs. love, and the true self vs. public roles. The incomprehension of the conventional readers of the time, together with their envy at Fitzgerald’s fame and financial success, have led to its being underrated to this day, even by those who still admire Fitzgerald’s other work.

Published in: on December 11, 2016 at 7:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ezra Pound Weirdness

(From Instigations, reprinted in Personae; written between 1917 and 1920).
The thought of what America would be like
If the classics had wide circulation
Troubles my sleep.
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America would be like
If the classics had wide circulation
Troubles my sleep.
Nunc dimittis, now lettest thou thy servant,
Now lettest thou thy servant
Depart in peace.
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had wide circulation …
Oh well!
It troubles my sleep.

After WWII when cheap paperback editions of classic literature started to become available (first at Penguin), many intellectuals (including left intellectuals) were profoundly uneasy at the idea of sharing their treasure with the unqualified masses. T.S. Eliot refused to allow his poems to be republished in anthologies sold below a certain price. The apotheosis of this point of view is Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind”; he clearly believes that “a little learning is a dangerous thing” and that it the masses to should be allowed to continue to wallow in ignorance.

Early Penguin and New Directions books were deliberately drab, to distinguish them from gaudy cheap paperbacks, though at some point Penguin switched and overdid it, putting a nude woman on the cover of “Beyond Good and Evil”. Once in a bookstore around 1960 I remember thinking something like “I WANT TO READ ALL THOSE BOOKS! — but couldn’t those guys lighten up just a little?”.

     Per this poem, despite his decadent elitism, at least early in his career Pound really had hoped for the wider circulation of high culture. During the 30s he also made a considerable effort to sell his Social Credit to such American politicians as Sens. William Borah and Bronson Cutting, along with the demagogue Father Coughlin.
     Around 1910 Chicago was a world center of English-language poetry, thehe place where aesthetes like Yeats and Pound rubbed shoulders with populists like Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg. Only Pound tried to combine elite decadence with populism, however — probably more evidence that he was really insane.
Published in: on December 11, 2016 at 7:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Two Jewels of American Literature.


Per Theodora Bosanquet (1918, The Little Review) Henry James’s ultimate feeling about Daisy Miller  “came to be like that of some grande dame possessing a jewel-case richly stocked with glowing rubies and flashing diamonds, but condemned by her admirers always to appear in the single string of moonstones worn at her first dance”.

(Cited by William T. Stafford in his “Introduction” to James’s Daisy Miller, Scribner, 1963, p. 3).


“It has been by a celebrated person [Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wilson’s lover at that time] that to meet F. Scott Fitzgerald is to think of a stupid old woman with whom someone has left a diamond; she is extremely proud of the diamond and shows it to everyone who comes by, and everyone is surprised that such an ignorant old woman should possess so valuable a jewel; for in nothing does she appear so stupid as in the remarks she makes about the diamond”.


Edmund Wilson, “Fitzgerald Before The Great Gatsby“, in F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Alfred Kazin,  World Publishing Co., 1951, p. 77 (also in The Shores of Light, 1952).

Published in: on October 18, 2016 at 7:42 pm  Comments (1)  

Tom Sawyer was a rentier, but Huckleberry refused that

Tom Sawyer was a rentier (see below), and he required applicants to his robber gang prove their respectability. Everything he was involved in was just a frat boy prank. Huck played Tom’s game for awhile, and could have been a rentier too if he’d wanted to, but at the end of the book (after 100 pages of Tom’s clownish romanticism) is making plans to run away from all that.

Now the way that the book winds up is this: Tom and me found the money that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich. We got six thousand dollars apiece — all gold. It was an awful sight of money when it was piled up. Well, Judge Thatcher he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched us a dollar a day apiece all the year round — more than a body could tell what to do with.

The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. But Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back.


But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.

Published in: on October 6, 2016 at 6:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

My Contribution to the upcoming “This Side of Paradise” Centenary.

Chapter II: 6

My name is Amory Blaine. You don’t know about me unless you just read a book by the name of This Side of Paradise that I just wrote. There is things that I stretched, but I told the truth, mainly. People say things against the book, but at this point it wouldn’t be realistic to have a guy like Amory Blaine writing a smooth book. That comes later. And anyway, I probably let some things slip out that a smoother writer would cover up, so you get that.

I, Amory Blaine, am a naturalist like Dreiser and all those guys, and and I show my characters with all their flaws, non-judgmentally. If they seem silly and artificial and fake it’s because I show the gritty reality of their lives, even though maybe they don’t look so appealing that way. I just tell the truth, and I even show you the half-baked novelist himself (me) right in the middle of his half-baked novel. (“I know myself, but that is all”. :-)).

Sometimes I wonder where my friend Edmund got the nerve to badmouth my book, given that he can barely write his way out of a paper bag, if even that. But then, I have a lot more nerve than he does, which is why I wrote a novel people will be reading a century from now and he didn’t.

Also, it’s a naturalistic novel, but its a morality play too, with a Virgin Mary (Clara) and a (succubus) Elaine and a several Eves, and if you read the book carefully you will understand how women and the devil lead us into sin.

Published in: on October 6, 2016 at 6:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

This Side of Paradise


[More to follow]

Published in: on August 14, 2016 at 3:46 am  Comments (1)  

The Original “Village Voice”


Recently while helping a friend sort through her storage unit I happened onto a copy of the July 7, 1960 (Vol. V, #37) “Village Voice”: 10¢. It was really eye-opening.

In 1960 Voice was 12 pp. long and was very clearly a neighborhood newspaper with no enormous ambitions and a few pretty good writers. About a third of it was advertising and notices which could have been found in any Midwestern newspaper — apartments, vacation spots, and miscellaneous. (The restaurant ads are notably commonplace: steak and seafood, Italian-American, “New England cooking”, and “self-service home-cooked meals”, with ethnicity represented by one French-American, one Spanish, one Mexican, and one Chinese restaurant: in fairness, one of the Italian restaurants offers frog legs and clams instead of just spaghetti and pizza). Even some of the stories were generic American, and altogether about half the newspaper could have been from any nondescript medium-sized or  or larger city

The only bylines remembered today are Nat Hentoff, Norman Mailer (just a short note),  and Jules Feiffer, whose cartoon about a smarmy sleazeball playboy dominates the front page (where square dancing, sports cars, and the community swimming pool are also featured). The politics is mainstream Democratic except for two small notices about  David McReynolds (a pacifist). Adlai Stevenson is big, John F Kennedy is unmentioned (though Mark Lane is there, talking about something else), and there is a bit of everyday local New York politics (Carmine DeSapio). Just like today everywhere, there’s grumbling about landlords, gentrification, and the good old days. Greenwich Village was originally an Italian neighborhood, and some of the locals apparently didn’t like the bohemians — belligerently inter-racial couples and riffraff are noted as problems.

What is there in the Voice that you wouldn’t have found in Omaha? Besides Feiffer’s cartoon and a long piece by Nat Hentoff about James Baldwin, you find a neighborhood-newspaper thumbsucker about The Future of the Village, short pieces about Salvador Dali, Sartre, bullfighting in Mexico, etc.,  and the obituary of a forgotten  author named William Poster.

The music ads and coverage and the music / movie / drama calendar were the main thing that you wouldn’t have found in Omaha. There was a long piece about the Newport Jazz Festival and Mingus’s alternate festival, ads for live Monk, Mingus, Tristano, Mann, and Lateef plus some folk (Tommy Makem and “Ertha” Kitt) — but no trace of rock and roll.

What struck me about all this was how pervasive the common American culture was then (chop suey, steak and seafood, pizza), how timid the post-McCarthy politics was, even in NYC, with only the least hint of militance — and how explosive the changes have been since. A dozen years later almost every city in the country had an underground newspaper politically and graphically more radical than the Voice, and by now none of the restaurants advertised there would be patronized by anyone but elderly squares.

But everywhere in the world the music ads are worse today.

Published in: on May 4, 2016 at 8:19 pm  Comments (1)  

Beavers, Mountain Men, and the Avant-garde

A Purely Literary Look at Washington Irving’s Astoria

Astoria is about the sea and the fur trade in the American West, which were also two of James Fenimore Cooper’s main themes. (It was Cooper’s maritime novels that drew Joseph Conrad from landlocked Poland to the sea, and Wild West fur trade novels have long been a staple of European fantasy fiction). Irving’s Hawaiian chapters also anticipate Melville’s “Typee”, published ten years later, reminding us that America started off as a maritime frontier nation delivering exotic products to the world market. And finally, the Alaskan digression anticipates Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf”.

The American fur trade was all about beaver, and this book was written at almost exactly the same time as Henry Murger’s historic but not especially good book Scènes de la vie de bohême. In Murger’s book the early bohemian Jean Wallon scratched out a meager living producing copy for the French hatmaker’s journal, “Le Castor” (“The Beaver”). This is an interesting coincidence, according to me: after all, a high proportion of the North American fur traders were of French descent and spoke French of a sort, and they lived free of the bonds of civilization (albeit at the price of near-starvation and the constant risk of sudden death) to a degree that effete French bohemians could only dream of. (Of the bohemians, only Petrus Borel the Lycanthrope and Arthur Rimbaud ever really left Western civilization, to my knowledge; Murger himself ended up semi-prosperous and, for all we know, wearing a beaver hat).

From the very beginning there were writers on the fur-trading frontier, and one of the ship captains in Irving’s book complained that his officers are wasting too much of their time on their journals (which have unfortunately not come down to us, since everyone on his ship was later killed in a dispute with the locals). Except for Irving, however, none of these fur trade authors were very good, and none were at all bohemian or avant-garde. (One of the earliest was a botanist from the Linnaean Society).

The last literary traces of the vanishing fur trade in world literature were Susan Sontag’s birth father, the fur trader Jack Rosenthal (who died on the job in China), and perhaps we might also add Sartre’s dedication of La Nausée to “Le Castor”– his nickname for Simone de Beauvoir. (Some say de Beauvoir got this nickname as a bilingual pun on her name, some say it was because of her prominent teeth, and some say it was because of her diligence. As far as I know nothing smutty was intended).

Irving’s Astoria is also a damn good book John Jacob Astor’s visionary but unsuccessful attempt to establish an American trade foothold on the Pacific Coast (at that time also claimed by the Spanish, the British, and the Russians. You should read it if you’re interested in that kind of thing.






Published in: on March 1, 2016 at 8:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Found in Translation: Thales’ Plummet according to Hans Blumenberg

Hans Blumenberg
The Laughter of the Thracian Woman
Bloomsbury, 2015

We do not know to which segment of Thales biography the anecdote of the well plummet refers (p. 105).

 Thales called his method metaphorology but this book is really anecdotology, though there are no punchlines or zingers, and Blumenberg’s writings intensely flat and bland.

Thales the Milesian, often thought of as the first Western philosopher, fell into a well while observing the stars. Blumenberg follows this anecdote and its variations over the centuries: Aesop, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes the Cynic, Tertullian, Brahe, Copernicus, Montaigne, Bacon, Bayle, Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, and many more. Some take Thales’ side, some take the side of the Thracian slave girl who laughed at him; some think of Thales as a philosopher, some as an astronomer, and so on. The moral of the story varies with the one telling it.

However, I am going in a different direction. The primary meaning of “plummet” is “drop straight down, plunge”,  but the other meaning is “plumb-bob”: a piece of metal, traditionally lead, attached to the end of a plumb line. A plumb line, in turn, is a line from which a weight is suspended to determine verticality (in carpentry, etc.) or to measure depth (navigation: in this usage usually called a sounding-line or lead-line).*

In his fall / plummet, thus, Thales was both establishing the just, right, true vertical standard and measuring depth. The philosopher is both upright (lotrecht) and deep, The contrast in the anecdote is between the philosopher and the girl, who represents the generic human: unphilosophical, shallow, crooked, skewed, and unjust.

There are two problems here. For one, Blumenberg’s presentation ends with Heidegger, and to Heidegger the whole point about depth and everything else good and real is that it cannot be measured.* However, since Blumenberg is basically unsympathetic to Heidegger, perhaps here Blumenberg was subtly disagreeing with him.

The second problem seems weightier.The German word translated “plummet” (stürzen: “fall, plunge, plummet, tumble, collapse”, or der Sturz: “the fall”)has nothing to do with the German word for plumb-bob (das Lotblei, das Blei). Furthermore, the three words “plummet”, “Lot”, and “Blei” are not even etymologically related but come from entirely different roots. (The only German word-group which might be etymologically related to “plummet” includes der Plumps “bump, thud, splash”, plumpsen “to bump, thud, or splash” and das Plumpsklo “toilet”).

However, while these words are not phonetically related, their root meanings are the same, since “das Lot”, “das Blei”, and “plummet” all trace back to the metal lead (Latin plumbum; German das Blei; and German das Löt solder)**. And indeed, philosophy has always had the reputation for being heavy and leaden (as the Thracian slave girl would certainly have agreed).

And of course there has always been the alchemist’s hope that lead might be transformed into gold.

Now, you may say: “John, this is merely an artifact of translation and has no significance whatsoever”. But nothing could be further from the truth! The fact that neither the original author nor the translator intended this nuance of meaning — “intended”, as if that means something! — or even noticed it ,  just shows how deep the metaphor is.

 * Mark Twain, by contrast, took his pen name from the sounding-line term for two fathoms or twelve feet, which is deep by some standards but shallower than you would wish if you were a riverboat pilot. Twain was not much like Heidegger.

 ** I am faking it here. The German word das Löt, seems not to exist, though löt is used in compound words having to do with soldering, and solder is sort of like lead and often includes lead.

P.S. Yes, my knowledge of German is weak. It’s pure cruelty when internet stalkers keep reminding me of that.

Published in: on January 19, 2016 at 9:41 pm  Leave a Comment