On Nov. 27, 1945, a poet named Pound, married to a woman named Shakespear, was arraigned before a judge named Laws. No joke. The Honorable Bolitha J. Laws, Chief Judge of the District of Columbia District Court, saw Ezra Pound sit mute as the treason indictment was read. Pound’s lawyer, Julien Cornell, had filed an affidavit asserting Pound’s insanity and asking that he be admitted to bail to seek treatment.
Denying bail, Judge Laws did transfer Pound from the Washington Asylum to a mental hospital for observation and treatment. In “The Trial of Ezra Pound,” Cornell reports that Pound’s friends painted the following portrait of him: “a brilliant literary genius who lived in a rarefied atmosphere of his own creation, kind and generous toward his friends, vituperative and scurrilous toward his fancied enemies, including public figures whom he did not even know ….” Some called him eccentric, some said he was mentally abnormal.
Cornell hired a prominent psychiatrist. The government hired three. These four were appointed by the court to examine the defendant. They concluded that Pound “exhibits extremely poor judgment …, insists that … all of his radio activities … stemmed from his … mission to ‘save the Constitution.’” Further, they noted that “his personality, for many years abnormal,” had deteriorated “to the extent that he is now suffering from a paranoid state which renders him mentally unfit to … participate intelligently and reasonably in his own defense.”
There was clamoring in the public that Pound was faking insanity to save his own bacon. Yielding to pressure, the Department of Justice requested a sanity hearing. Before a jury! The trial took place Feb. 13, 1946. Cornell includes the entire transcript (61 pages) as an appendix to his book. The jury reached its verdict in three minutes: “Unsound mind.”
The court confined Pound to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Washington, D.C. After a few weeks in harsh confinement, looser arrangements came about, and within weeks, he was productive again – running his business, so to speak, from the visiting areas, with the help of wife Dorothy, who was now also his guardian, mistress Olga, and daughter Mary.
Lots of details I am not recording because of space restrictions. Various groups lobbied to have his case dismissed, which ultimately it was, in 1958. The Pound family returned to Italy, and took up residence in a small castle (his daughter had married a prince, no lie). Difficulties – with the castle and various people – led to relocation in 1959.
Health difficulties set in; Pound became tired, depressed, lonely, and silent. Paranoid about his own health, he stopped speaking, almost completely, around 1960. Dorothy gave up on him and left him with Olga. In 1961-1965, he lost close friends Ernest Hemingway, E. E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, and T. S. Eliot.
In a 1963 interview, he said, “Too late came the uncertainty of knowing nothing.” In the same time frame, he wrote Robert Lowell: “To begin with a swelled head and end with swelled feet.” In a 1967 conversation with Allen Ginsberg, he said, “The worst mistake I made was that stupid suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism. All along that spoiled everything.”
He died in Venice in 1972, shortly after his 87th birthday, with Olga at his side.
Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at email@example.com.