This post is one in a series of readings I’m posting of each poem in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, one (or a few) at a time. The readings are atypical, for reasons made clear in my first post in this series. I’m not sure whether the fiction project that inspired this series will ever come to fruition, but I’d like to try finish the Cantos just the same.
In this installment, I dig into Canto LXII, the first of the ten Adams Cantos, while touching on Merrymount and what Pound may have thought about it; parallels between the careers of H.G. Wells and Pound (yes, again); Pound’s curious conception of literate, logistically-inclined heroism (and why it’s hard to make films about founding fathers like Adams and Jefferson (I touch on the 1995 film Jefferson in Paris); and finally I discuss Pound’s choice of Alexander Hamilton as a villain… and what it says about an America where Hamilton is now being celebrated as a heroic figure.
… and now, we begin the Adams Cantos, with no little trepidation on my part. After all, everyone’s commented on how the China Cantos are straightfoward and sensible compared to the Adams set. Note, I’m proceeding slowly, but mainly just because I’ve been busy. I’m working on a book, helping raise a toddler, had to move house (and been distracted by all the political insanity unfolding here on the Korean peninsula, if I’m honest)… and April seems to be the month everyone wants to visit Korea, on top of all of that! 1
Still, that trepidation is real, given all I’ve heard about the Adams Cantos. Humphrey Carpenter suggests why this might be the case, on pages 572-4 of A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound, in passages like these:
Ezra rushed through the ten-volume Charles Francis Adams edition of the John Adams Works (1850–56)—as he had done with the de Mailla—picking out incidents from Adams’s life and activities that caught his eye, and transposing them into the Cantos. However, whereas de Mailla presented his Chinese information chronologically, the Adams Works were organized differently, with the material divided according to sources. Hard as it is to believe, Ezra simply ignored this, and put his chosen quotations into the Cantos in the order in which they happened to appear in the Works. In consequence he made complete nonsense of Adams’s life. (573)
It’s not the only line of criticism that’s been offered to the Adams Cantos (there’s a discussion of this and more in this writeup by David Ten Eyck), but it seems to illuminate a lot. So, too, does the fact that Pound seems to have been doing something H.G. Wells had busied himself with a little earlier: he was trying to play public intellectual. Wells, we may remember, had met with both of the Roosevelts in the White House—Teddy in 1906, and FDR in 1934—and had been given an audience with Stalin as well, in a meeting that proved important for the future of English Socialism. (Here is Wells’ interview with Stalin, in fact.) Wells’ fiction (and his imagination when it came to science fiction) grew less interesting as his personal identification with political ideology grew (and as he took on a “Prophet and Politician” identity, as Adam Roberts puts it on that same page—I’m rather enjoying Roberts’ blogging of his readings through Wells’ oeuvre, incidentally).
Mind you, I’d argue that while ideology can mess up a writer—Pound’s antisemitism is responsible for a fair amount of what’s stomach-turning in the Cantos, but his fixation on Douglasite economics seems to be responsible for the most utterly boring parts—I think it’s just as likely that an author who’s busy jaunting around and trying to interface with political power is often too busy to put in the quiet time sitting alone and thinking about what he or she is writing, or do the kind of judicious editing that often involves killing (or at least sanding down and reshaping) those ideological darlings that, when too prominent and overt in a novel, can ruin the text.
In any case, the idea of a parallel in the careers of Wells and Pound isn’t news to anyone following this series: I’ve been suggesting this parallel between Wells and Pound pretty much since I started this project, and having read G.B. Shaw’s (fairly scathing) account of Wells’ personality (written soon after Wells’ death), I find that maybe there was also a kind of temperamental similarity between the two men:
H G had not an enemy on earth. He was so amiable that, though he raged against all of us none of us resented it. There was no malice in his attacks: they were soothed and petted like the screams and tears of a hurt child. He warned his friends that he went on like that sometimes and they must not mind it. (…) He filled a couple of columns of the Daily Chronicle on one occasion with abuse of me in terms that would have justified me in punching his head; but when we met next day our intercourse was as cordial as before; it never occurred to me that it could be otherwise.
But could there be still more to the parallel?
Ezra Pound knew of Wells’ career, and was aware of his political activities, and though he claims to “despise” Wells in one of his letters 2 and went so far as to put the Fabians in hell, one can’t help but wonder whether, on some level, Wells nonetheless served as a model for Pound of the literary figure who took on “political importance”… or if perhaps part of the reason Pound “despised” Wells was precisely because he had found success in the same ambitions that Pound had progressed but little in? One cannot help but wonder whether Pound looked on Wells’ apparent success in politics with envy: why hadn’t he, a greater writer—in his own mind at least—attained the same success? One expects this, too, caused him to turn eagerly to fascists, who might be more receptive to his economic ideas, if not his writing.
Still, Carpenter takes the failing of these poems as a sort of unwitting psychological demonstration of whatever was wrong with Pound as a person:
Ezra purports to give Adams to us as an example of pragmatic wisdom, an embodiment of Confucian ethics. But he actually presents a frighteningly candid picture of his own intellect—a mind scarcely willing to fit anything together, to distinguish between the significant and the trivial, or to convey anything of its own interior pattern to the world outside; ‘a broken bundle of mirrors’ indeed. (573)
This is an easy thing to argue, of course, post-1945: Pound, after all, was a traitor to his country, a fascist, a Hitler apologist, an anti-Semite, and an inmate at a mental hospital. But even if you agree that Pound was crazy, it leaves one wondering how and why these Cantos are so very dull when, later, Pound was able to produce such widely celebrated work as the Pisan Cantos. It’s not that Pound mightn’t have rediscovered artistic sensitivity and care when forced to spend months alone with the truth of his life in a cage—perhaps conscience and regrets were as important to his artistic sensibility as the quiet time alone.
And yet even so, William Carlos Williams found some value in the China and Adams Cantos, as Carpenter notes:
‘He thinks he’s being terribly profound, frowningly serious,’ he wrote to [James] Laughlin, ‘and all he’s doing is building blocks, and it’s lovely.’ (574)
If you’ve read WCW’s Paterson, that probably makes sense: Williams also engages in a sort of playful building-blocks game, using texts about the city and chunks of history and contemporary life all stacked upon one another. But as much as anything, I’m willing to take Williams’ reading at some value since I value him as a writer—and while he might not be a better reader than anyone else, I still am persuaded to take his opinion at least as seriously as any number of critics who’ve written nothing of literary note.
I suppose I’ll have to try bear WCW’s response in mind, as I proceed through this jumble. The Adams Cantos may be less sexy that the Malatesta Cantos (which I discussed here and here)—but the jumble of bones ripped out of the crypts of the Tempio Malatestiano come to mind, and if Pound’s creation here has an element of disarray, it’s hardly the first time. That Pound’s tendency to jump about from idea to idea challenged even Santayana (as Carpenter discusses in the pages following this) is not surprising: it challenges everyone who comes to it, and while it’s charming in verse, one can only image what it was like in conversation—especially laden with an apparent desire to recruit someone into a Project.
(Especially when Pound seems to have believed that “philosophy” meant occult ideas—”Mysteries,” as Carpenter puts it.)
Still, Santayana comes into the picture after the Adams Cantos were done, and had been sent off already to Mussolini (!), so I should, I think, turn to the first of those Cantos, to see what I can see.
Pound begins by another textual invocation of a past “translator”:
'Acquit of evil intention or inclination to perseverenace in error to correct it with cheerfulness particularly as to the motives of actions of the great nations of Europe.'
That’s from John Quincy Adams’ biography of his father John Adams: the son was worried about how his father’s intentions might be interpreted in the text (and by history) and knew he couldn’t be definitive—that there would be errors, and that he could only offer cheerfulness to offset them. Pound, too, anticipates errors and flaws in his retelling of the story of Adams, though perhaps not the flaws others see in it.
Right off the bat, we’re exposed to a quick invocation of the settling of the region where the Adamses lived: that is, the area of Merrymount. My own first acquaintance with the settlement was either in the Hawthorne story, or in the opening scene of the film Elegy, where the film version of Philip Roth’s character David Kepesh discusses the settlement as a sort of alternative-American shut down by the Puritans who, it seems, were much bigger assholes than depicted in the Thanksgiving mythology of America:
DAVID KEPESH We're not all descended from the Puritans. INTERVIEWER No? DAVID KEPESH There was another colony, 30 miles from Plymouth. It's not on the maps today. Merrymount. INTERVIEWER Ah, right, you mentioned in your book... DAVID KEPESH The colony where anything goes... went. INTERVIEWER There was booze... DAVID KEPESH There was booze, fornication, there was music... They even... you name it... They even danced round the Maypole once a month, wearing masks, worshiping god knows what, Whites and Indians together all going for broke. INTERVIEWER Who was responsible for all of this? DAVID KEPESH A character by the name of Thomas Morton. INTERVIEWER Ah... The Hugh Hefner of the Puritans. DAVID KEPESH You can say that, yeah. I'm going to read you a quote ... of what the Puritans thought of Morton's followers. "Debauched aliens and atheists falling into great licentiousness and leading degenerate lives." When I heard that, I packed my bags, I left Oxford, I came straight to America. America the licentious. INTERVIEWER So what happened to all of those people? DAVID KEPESH The Puritans shut them down, they sent in Miles Standish, Leading the militia, who chopped down the Maypole, cut down those coloured ribbons, Banners everything. The party was over. INTERVIEWER And we became a nation of strait-laced Puritans. DAVID KEPESH Well... INTERVIEWER Isn't that your point though? The Puritans won. They stamped out, all things sexual... how would you say? DAVID KEPESH Sexual happiness. INTERVIEWER Exactly. Until the 1960's. DAVID KEPESH Until the 1960's, where it all exploded again all over the place. INTERVIEWER Right, everyone was dancing around the Maypole, then, "make love, not war"...
One can almost imagine Pound writing a libretto for an opera or musical titled Merrymount, with Thomas Morton as its protagonist, really!
Now, perhaps Merrymount’s just an incidental reference, but I can’t help but feel Pound would have appreciated it, given his interest in (and sympathy for) pagan resistance to (and defiance of) Christian attempts to control and undercut freedoms, including the sexual liberties he himself enjoyed… and just a few lines down, Pound seems to reinforce this idea, quoting Adams as having written about why he rejected the study of theology:
Passion of orthodoxy in fear, Calvinism has no other agent study of theology w/d involve me in endless altercation to no purpose, of no design and do no good to any man whatsoever...
There’s a reference to tcha next to the following Chinese character:
… which, if you know any Korean, Japanese, or Chinese (or, for that matter, Vietnamese), is recognizable as “tea.” (In Korean, it’s actually “cha,” presumably the same syllable Pound inscribes as “tcha”; the Chinese character is the same one used in all four languages.) Pound, of course, is talking about the tax on tea that was imposed upon the British colonists in America prior to Independence, but it forms a strand of connection with China, and between the China and Adams Cantos.
But soon Pound moves on to the Boston Massacre, only quickly framing the incident as being related to the preceding, and this by the resentment of British control in Boston—via the tea reference. It’s a passage thatwas opaque to me until I read up on the Boston Massacre a little, but Pound’s version of the story (presumably taken from Adams) was that a barber’s boy taunted a lone British soldier, who thereafter called his fellows for backup, which led to him being mobbed. The mob apparently unleashed a hail of snowballs and rocks at the soldiers, who fired upon the crowd…
… and finally it becomes apparent why they’re being mentioned, at least if you have Terrell open: John Adams, the lawyer and not-yet American President, undertook the defense of the soldiers, arguing that “in consideration of endocrine human emotions / unuprootable, that is, human emotions” the men had felt threatened, and had the right to defend themselves. The result was that six of the British soldiers were acquitted, and two received reduced manslaughter charges (receiving a brand upon the hand).
This, Pound holds up as evidence that Adams was a man with a measured understanding of human nature and the law—and a sense of fair impartiality… which of course, was what Adams had set out to demonstrate when he volunteered for the job anyway, so whether it’s an accurate presentation of such, or a case of Pound taking Adams’ propaganda at face value, it’s hard to say:
law not bent to wanton imagination and temper of individuals mens sine affectu that law rules that it be since affectu in 1770, Bastun.
What follows seems to be a reference to the implications of this: that the British colonies nonetheless were also living under the legal rule of the British crown, but in unjust conditions which led that law to fall under question: “Bad law is the worst sort of tyranny,” and the example of the judge Peter Oliver is mentioned next. The issue, if not the case, has come up in the news since Donald Trump became the U.S. President: the issue is emoluments, specifically the danger of an individual in office accepting payments that open up the power held by that person to purchase by some power—in this case, the British crown:
VOTED 92 to 8 against Oliver i.e. against king's pay for the judges instead of having the wigs paid by the colony no jurors wd/serve These are the stones of foundation J.A.'s reply to the Governor Impeachment of Oliver These stones we built on
Pound’s fascination with economy comes up on a more personal level, as Adams writes to his wife about the town hall meeting (with Adams serving as a moderator) where representatives of Massachusetts were chosen, and where it was voted not to pay the tax on British tea imports—that is, I guess, what led to the Boston Tea Party, leaving yet another timely reference in Pound to our own times, or, at least, very recent memory (one hears little about the Tea Party movement these days, but it has pretty obviously had a lasting influence on American politics):
I don't receive a shillling a month, wrote Mr. Adams to Abigail in seventeen 74 June 7th. approve of committee from the several colonies Bowdoin, Curshin, Sam Adams, John A. and Paine (Robert) ' mope, I muse, I ruminate ' le personnel manque we have not men for the times Cut the overhead my dear wife and keep yr/ eye on the dairy non importation, non eating, non export, all bugwash but until they have proved it in experiment no use in telling ’em.
There is another interesting link with the China Cantos here, where Adams argues against the necessity of international trade; in the biography that is Pound’s source, Charles Francis Adams argues that China and Japan were powerful examples of the fact that an embargo on all foreign trade might inconvenience Boston, but ought not to be expected to bankrupt the community. That said, Pound’s interest in currencies flashes again beneath the stream of the poem, where “bills of credit” (of Continental origin) turn up as a kind of provisional currency prepared for the coming conflict—for, as we all thing, things are now ramping up for the American revolution. Adams apparently wanted a navy, and was ridiculed for it.
But not everything Adams said or wrote was ridiculed: interestingly, Adams uses a penname in his public writings against the right of English law in the colonies, and the penname is “Novanglus” (New England)… another of those little details that caught Pound’s eye in an unsurprising way. Adams needed a penname, because he was busy pamphleteering for independence, and his pamphlets did have a strong and important influence, as Pound here suggests, in shaping the sense of how and why things ought to proceed:
Guided pubk mind in formation of state constitutions e.g. N. York and N. Carolina retain what experience has found good, central authority, war, trade, and disputes between states republican jealousy which seeks to cut off all power from fear of abuses does quite as much harm as despotism
The American Revolution comes, as any revolution, with all manner of intrigue:
spies and persons counterfeiting—or abetting in same— our continental bills of credit
… and mention of “privateers” besides. The bit with the privateers is an indication of where Adams differed from the public: they thought that open piracy upon British ships was a good enough form of independence, whereas Adams desired more:
sovereign state acknowledged of nations and all that sovreign state and all that by other nations acknowledged when his Brit. majesty lords commons have been excluded from crown protection
For those who want, there’s an exciting story to be told of Adams at this time: agitating, formenting rebellion. But Pound, characteristically, has a conception of hero that seems strange to us: the hero as the man of logistics, of inventories:
TO serve liberty at a higher rate than principle you shd/ have numbered yr/ regiments, you never send me accounts e.g. of guns, numbers, their weight of metal I never know of what size (frigates etc/) Impassible moderation of Washington saved us by stoppin' catfights between officers For proportional representation— Clearest head in the Congress (John's was) THUMON
That last word, Terrell glosses as being Greek for a whole bundle of heroic virtues: “Soul, life, strength, courage, mind.” But Adams is not really the Odyssean or Malatestan hero: Odysseus had a clear mind and a strong arm, and Malatesta wasn’t above getting involved in violence in the streets himself, whereas Adams fights mainly by the pen in these passages, by words and argument. That bit about “the clearest head” is an anonymous testimonial by someone in the Congress, but it amounts, more than anything, to a flattering blurb on Adams’ heroic mind.
This, at least, is a reminder of something: Pound is working from a conception of the heroic that—while it may be tinged by the pulp and by the cowboy movies he so fancied—alsois very much tied to brainy, intelligent, and even bookish heroism. This is the heroism of the library delver, the translator like Divus in Canto I, and Pound himself—in his own mind at least—throughout the Cantos. It’s a funny (and fundamentally puzzling) sort of agency Pound presents here: a hero is someone who counts, who writes, who spreads ideas of value. No bow and arrow or sword required.
And yet, this is oddly familiar to pulp readers: it’s a cultivated mind, a brilliant ability to argue and reason and think and to remain calm in dangerous times, that characterizes certain pulp literary figures from the time: Robert Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian, for example, is constantly made out to be intelligent, thoughtful, very aware of the issue of logistics and strategy. Conan may have a sword, but he also has a strong moral code, a mind of astonishing complexity, and a flexibility that crosses many domains. The simplified Conan of the films and comics may leave this out to varying degrees, emphasizing the iconic man-of-action character and brawny strength of the Cimmerian, but that, it seems to me, says a lot more about what we’ve come to accept as heroism than it does about the way Conan was originally intended. One sees this, likewise, with many other pulp characters, especially in noir and detective stories.
Perhaps this is why Pound twice mentions Birth of a Nation—with the capitalization just like that: he is surely referring to D. W. Griffith’s film of that title. Griffith’s film today is remembered basically as being a Civil War epic that turns into a pro-Ku Klux Klan nightmare about halfway through—rightly, because that is pretty much what it is. It was even on the poster:
D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation was based on a book written in 1905 by Thomas Dixon, Jr. titled The Clansman – An Historic Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Dixon dedicated the book to the memory of “A Scottish-Irish leader of the South, My Uncle, Colonel Leroy McTee, Grand Titan of the Ku Klux Klan.” Dixon considered himself a great defender of the Anglo-Saxon race, claiming that “the beginning of Negro equality is the beginning of the end of this nation’s life.”
However, it unfortunately seems unlikely that it’s the overt bigotry of Griffith that Pound took issue with here… and even if we don’t open up the door to whether the film has anything going for it3 it’s also important to get at that other objection if we want to understand the Adams Cantos. Now, remember that in Pound’s time, a lot of people were going around saying that films like The Birth of a Nation would change the way history was studied—that history books would be replaced with historical epic films.
This surely must have horrified Pound, who meanwhile was writing a poem which, among other things, he intended to “contain history.” That containment may be read in any number of ways, but in one sense, he surely meant his poem to encapsulate the most important and crucial moments and resonances throughout history. Since Pound is spending a lot of time on John Adams, one of the Founding Fathers, it makes sense for him to take Griffith to task: after all, Griffith’s argument seems to be that the birth of the American nation took place in the Civil War. Terrell mentions this in the gloss on the first reference, calling this a “20th century notion” and I’m guessing the currency of that notion was much greater in Pound’s time. 4
In essence, Pound is arging that the true birth of the nation didn’t occur in or after the Civil War at all, but back at the founding, due to the capable, thoughtful, and wholly intellectual efforts of John Adams and men like him.
This does help us a bit with Pound’s definition of heroism, though: Griffith’s America is born of strife and the division of the nation between north and south, father and son, brother and brother, in a crucible soaked with the blood of countless soldiers. It’s a bellicose origin myth, and one that works well on the big screen. Pound’s heroic origin myth would likely make a terrible movie: it’s an itinerary of political meetings and visits to bankers to get loans and credit extended from Dutch bankers to the fledgling nation, of interviews and articles published in European magazines, of a treaty signed with the Prussians. While Pound makes time for moments of biographical oddness—like Adams snipes at Ben Franklin’s morals, or when a post boy leads John Adams from John Street to Adams Street, and then to John Adams Street, or when Adams complains of his trip back to Holland from England (and how much worse it was than any other trip he’d made in his life)—it’s mostly not particularly dramatic. One cannot help of the film Jefferson in Paris, which—again, let’s set aside warranted discussion and criticism of the film—hinges on romantic affairs by Jefferson, with things like his horticultural and scientific interests being secondary. Nobody wants to watch a movie about gardening, but a gardener doing something else, we can handle that.
Pound, though, is prone to slapping us across the face and saying, “But science and gardening are important!” And they are. But they don’t sell movie tickets, in the same way that real espionage is less exciting and sexy than the hijinks we pay to watch James Bond work his way through. Pound’s John Adams reads Latin—and particularly loves the expression “Libertatem Amicitiam Fidem” (Liberty, Friendship, Fidelity)—and writes essays, and militates against the over-increasing power of fundholders in young America, and takes comfort in the fact that, as he wrote, “in thought, word, or deed I have never encouraged a war” (as Terrell gives us in note 127 on the Canto). There is not a blockbuster film in Pound’s Adams—even less of one than there would be in Confucius or Sigismundo Malatesta.
But I also want to note that there’s also a lot going on here that feels vaguely meta-biographical, in that Pound is writing about Adams in ways that allow him to write about his own life and experiences. Pound seems to be really interested in the period of itinerancy that brought Adams to Europe—he lovingly lists of all the cities Adams visited, and regales us with stories of the miseries of travel. Pound invokes Rapallo at one point, as if to remind us that he, like Hamilton, went to Europe to militate for economic and political change, and to create connections he believed would be crucial to America’s future. There’s a desire here in Pound to find common ground between himself and his epic hero. Is that surprising? Should it be? Pound’s already done it with Divus, and Sordello, and arguably with Malatesta and Confucius too, so why not Adams as well? Adams was his countryman, and a New Englander on top of it, so it’s not surprising if Pound felt the urge to look for a deeper kinship with his epic hero of the moment.
Pound’s oblique about it, but his interest in Adams’ attentivness to ancient writers, his apparent facility with Latin, his travel between England and the continent, his desire to prevent war, his honest straightforwardness (which even Santayana praised as one of Pound’s better qualities), and so on all seem to point us back to Ezra Pound, political and artistic expatriate—or even exile, as he probably on some level saw himself.
Pound goes into a lot of stuff involving Adams’ presidency in the last couple of pages of the Canto, though it’s a quote from Adams own hand (in a letter to his wife) that seems to encapsulate the ideals Pound really wants to praise:
Not vindictive that I can remember though I have often been wroth at any rate staved off a war roused the land to be ready a pardon for all offenders (i.e. poor dutch Fries and companions) formed own view of Hamilton's game (and his friends') which wd/ certainly have tangled with Europe
And yes, we knew this was inevitable: if Adams is a hero, then who’s the black-hat wearing bad guy? Apparently, it’s Alexander Hamilton (among others). Pound really wants to pose Alexander Hamilton as Adams’ constant nemesis, alongside the warmongering press and various other political opponents so relatively insignificant that, like certain eunuchs and concubines in the China Cantos, they get mentioned by name or nickname or epithet and dropped a moment later. In this, it seems Pound’s view of Hamilton follows one popular prior to the Civil War, and of course one that Adams espoused… but Pound skips over the fact no evidence was found of Hamilton’s corruption, presumably because, well… who would be his bad guy then?
(Also, Hamilton being on $10 bill—yes, he was in the 1930s, too: he was put there in 1928—means Hamilton had been enshrined as a figure of national importance within Pound’s adult lifetime, on the very currency that Pound found so problematic… and this had happened within very recent memory for Pound, just a decade before the composition of this set of Cantos.)
The reference to Hamilton brings to mind the recent (and ongoing) musical:
I can’t help but wonder what Pound would have written about it. (I don’t wonder what he would have made of it: I’m quite sure he’d have been baffled at the casting of nonwhite performers in the roles of historically white American figures—though, it’s worth noting, Pound grew up in a world where blackface minstrel shows were a common theatrical entertainment, and as I’ve noted, this definitely seems to have had an impact on his poetry… doubtless he would at least have grasped the inversion of the old theatrical norm, in a way a lot of people complaining about Hamilton (and perhaps some of those who support the casting, too) probably don’t consciously recognize.
Still, I think he’d have formally objected to Hamilton! The Musical on other grounds: that is, the eponymous character being presented as a heroic protagonist. After all, Pound was nothing if not obsessed with economic systems, and when Hamilton based America’s financial system on that of England, he set America—in Pound’s eyes—down the road to constant trouble.
After all, Pound openly pronounces judgment on Hamilton, right at the end of the canto, and a damning judgment it is:
(...) and as for Hamilton we may take it (my authority, ego scriptor cantilenae) 5 that he was the Prime snot in ALL American history
Still there’s a line in one review of Hamilton! that I think Pound might have agreed with: that Alexander Hamilton starts out as a pauper in the Caribbean, but the story of his life ends up being the story of each American’s life: Pound, quite comfortable in saying that America had gone to the dogs, would have agreed, and argued that anything based so heavily on “gangster music” (as he surely would have seen hip-hop) could only be a proof-in-concept of the wrongness of choice in a hero; in other words, Pound would probably have agreed that Hamilton does represent America’s virtues today, he just would have found it deeply unfortunate, an regrettable result of history having gone wrong somewhere along the way.
Then again, those of us who read The Cantos wonder at how Pound went so wrong somewhere along the way… and, well, even if you’re not convinced Pound is someone whose views are necessarily of any use at all in determining what some better outcome would have been, it’s an interesting kind of contrarianism to encounter. After all, when we celebrate Hamilton, we celebrate an America that has given us a lot of poverty and a lot of concentrated wealth, a lot of inequality and a lot of exploitation.
Perhaps it’s just one of those things: Americans in the late 1700s knew enough to resist the idea that America needed a king, but not enough to realize that without a new and experimental economic system, you’d still end up with poverty, exploitation, and the accretion of political power in the hands of a small elite. Or maybe they did know it—since, after all, they were part of that aristrocratic elite, in their own country’s terms. Celebrating Hamilton might—in terms of his influence on American economics—be something that gives people pause, a century or two from now: “Didn’t they realize Hamilton sowed the seeds of America’s decline and fall? Couldn’t they see the line leading from Hamilton’s adoption of the English economic system as eventually, inexorably, leading to the oligarchic pseudodemocracy of the 21st century?”
Of course, how could anyone have known in those benighted days of the early 21st century?
But, I must confess, the early days of American history are not very well known to me, and so I’m going out on a limb even just with this speculation. Perhaps those who know it better can tell me why celebrating Hamilton is a good thing, or some other, more sensible reason why it’s a bad symptom of something or other that doesn’t seem to be on my radar. As for me, I’ll leave off on this line of thought for now, at least till I can read up a little more on the man and what he actually did.
As for my supernaturalistic Pound: I think there’s perhaps three useful things I can get from looking into the Adams Cantos:
- A countercultural definition of heroism. Not that it’s new in the Adams Cantos, but it’s so prolonged and in your face. Pound’s sense of heroism involves doing your paperwork, getting the accounting right, and avoiding war. So how does this affect the kind of protagonist he’d be in a novel? I think it has to affect it, and I wonder if it can be done in a way that still renders him heroic… or at least compellingly interesting. I mean, there must be a way… but the path isn’t clear to me now, not exactly. Still, I feel like Pound-as-protagonist would have to be precisely this sort of logical, systematic, text-producing, logistics-aware hero. Or antihero, or something.
- A cannibalistic relationship with texts. Pound, in these Cantos, is pretty much cannibalizing and retasking text from a single series of tomes. The form is actually almost like that of cannibalistic consumption: we get fragments of masticated text jumbled together like scraps of flesh in the stomach, except that instead of breaking down further, they seem instead to solidify and take on a new form. It’s like he’s creating a textual homunculus, not from random words and scraps, but from carefully chosen ones. This seems like something that could be put into use as part of his occult procedures relating to poetry and writing in general, though, again, finding a way to make it dramatic and part of the story is crucial.
- History as presence. Flashbacks of Pound wandering about in revolutionary American places, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, won’t suffice. He’s going to have to find himself caught up in that world at times; haunted by it, as he is so many other moments in history. One also wonders whether one could have Pound (or the Pound-surrogate) glimpsing other histories that could or might or mustn’t have been, waiting in the wings of history… or perhaps, even, one might imagine that Adams (like Malatesta and Confucius?) shares something more specific in common with Pound than just the incidental points Pound admits: perhaps Pound believes these men were like him, engaged in the same secret, bloodless and infinite occult “battle”? I’m not sure.
I can certainly see why people warned me about the challenges of the Adams Cantos. I’ll push on through, though, in the trust that the Pisan Cantos (which I’ve never yet read) will make it all worth my while.
We are, after all, reading Ezra Pound here. If Pound’s anti-Semitism doesn’t consign The Cantos to the ash heap, then maybe something of value can be found in as hateful a film as The Birth of a Nation. It’s still a staple on film course syllabi, after all—it influenced all kinds of filmmakers in its day, even those who were not comfortable with its undeniable bigotry. Gordon Thomas goes into more depth on what might be found of value within the film. I’ll stay out of that discussion, though: my hands are full enough trying to figure out what to do with all the troubling material in The Cantos alone.↩
I’m a Canadian who went to university in the 1990s, and the idea that the “birth of America” happened in the mid-1800s is not one I ran into much in school: the refinement of America, maybe, or the achievement of true freedom in the emancipation of the slaves—those ideas, however critical we may rightly be of them, I ran into a lot—but the “birth” of America as I encountered the idea was always back in the 1700s, tied to the American Revolution.↩
that is, ("I, author of the cantos")↩