Ezra Pound and Bollingen Prize controversy

an excerpt from William McGuire, Poetry's Catbird Seat (the consultantship in poetry in the English language at the Library of Congress, 1937-1987), Library of Congress, Washington, 1988, 512 pages, ISBN 0-8444-0586-8.

In 1948 The Bollingen Foundation's trustees voted an allocation of $10,000 for ten years of literary awards. [ . . . ] (The Foundation's name had been Mary Mellon's oblique way of honoring C. G. Jung, who had a country retreat near a Swiss village called Bollingen.) [ . . . ]

On March 4, 1948, a Library of Congress press release announced the Bollingen Prize in Poetry. Carrying a purse of $1,000, the prize would be awarded each February for the best book of verse by an American author published during the preceding calendar year. The jury of selection would be composed of the Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress. [ . . . ]

A final ballot was cast by mail in February (as the 1948 prize would lapse on February 28): ten first places for Pound [for The Pisan Cantos], two for [W.C.] Williams, one abstention (Paul Green's)-and the vote of Theodore Spencer, who had died a few weeks before, was taken to stand as a first place for Pound, as it was he who had placed the Pisan Cantos in nomination back in November. [ . . . ]

The story was broken on Saturday night, the nineteenth, by Charles Collingwood in his radio news broadcast. The Sunday New York Times headline was characteristic of the press reaction: "Pound, in Mental Clinic, Wins Prize for Poetry Penned in Treason Cell." As Evans (Luther H.Evans, the Librarian of Congress) later observed, "The award possessed that bizarre quality that makes news. Along with excited reports, indignant editorials appeared in the press." An editorial in the New York Herald Tribune, however, stated: "This emphasis on an objective criterion of beauty and excellence, akin to belief in an objective truth, is fundamental to a free and rational society. In maintaining it the judges acted in the only way that is open to men who are sensitive to a later verdict of history." In the same paper, Louis Untermeyer called the Pisan Cantos "a ragbag and tail end of Pound at his worst. It shows a very disordered mind, one affected by the seeds of Fascism," and Robert Hillyer thought the award "regrettable" for aesthetic rather than political reasons. "I never saw anything to admire, not one line, in Pound." [ . . . ] Robert Frost, in a memorandum to his secretary Kay Morrison soon after the award was announced, called it "an unendurable outrage" and Pound "possibly crazy but more likely criminal." [ . . . ]

Huntington Cairns, in his journal, described one of his visits to St. Elizabeth's. "I saw Pound for an hour on Saturday, Feb. 19th. The director of the hospital had informed him that he had won the Bollingen Prize, and he was obviously excited by the news. He had prepared a statement for the Press: 'No comment from the Bug House,' but he had decided not to give it out. [ . . . ] Walter Winchell quoted Pound's comment on the same occasion: "Democracy is more stupid than ever I said it was." Tate, incensed, asked Pound's wife to check on that. "Total lie" was Pound's answer. He called Winchell a "Jewish bedbug." [. . . ]

For a time, controversy over the prize subsided. It was suddenly revived when the Saturday Review of Literature, in its issues of June 11 and 18, published two long articles by Robert Hillyer - "Treason's Strange Fruit" and "Poetry's New Priesthood." Hillyer, earlier a professor at Harvard (his students Howard Nemerov and Robert Fitzgerald remembered him as a gifted teacher), won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1934, and in 1939 was president of the Poetry Society of America. [ . . . ] Hillyer was regarded by many of his literary peers as an isolated figure who had carried on a long critical campaign against Eliot and Auden, whom he regarded as his poetic rivals. During the late spring, Evans and Adams had had letters from Hillyer and from Harrison Smith, the editor of the Review, putting questions about the award. Hillyer's were marked by a threatening tone, with insulting references to conspiracy and negligence. The F.B.1. had been alerted, he said; and an article would be published. [ . . . ]

In his two articles, Hillyer declared that the Cantos are "the vehicle of contempt for America, [of] Fascism, anti-Semitism, and . . . ruthless mockery of our Christian war dead." He implied that the award was part of a conspiracy against American ways of life and literature, and that the conspirators included T. S. Eliot, Paul Mellon, Jung, the Bollingen Foundation, Pantheon Books, most of the Fellows in American Letters, admirers of Eliot and Pound, the New Criticism, and various literary quarterlies. Their common aim, he argued, was to seize power in the literary world and undertake "the mystical and cultural preparation for a new authoritarianism. . . . In a spiritual morass where language, ethics, literature, and personal courage melt into something obscure and formless, a guided impulse has stirred the amorphous haze into something approaching form, something shaped out of stagnant art by groping Fascism." [ . . . ]

On June 24, Congressman Jacob K. Javits, of the 21 st District, New York, wrote Evans: "After having read the editorial 'Treason's Strange Fruit' . . . I am particularly concerned about the awarding of the Bollingen-Library of Congress Award of $1,000 to Ezra Pound. I would very much appreciate your advising me how the Fellows who make this award were chosen, who they are and the basis of their selection." [ . . . ] On July 19, another congressman, James T. Patterson, of Connecticut, addressed the House regarding the award ("Should we encourage the activities in literature of moral lepers?") and inserted into the Congressional Record the Hillyer articles, Evans's letter, and the Saturday Review's reply. On the twenty-first, Javits called for an investigation ("Must we not be equally diligent to investigate the infiltration of Fascist ideas especially in so august an institution as the Library of Congress?"), and the matter came before the Congressional Joint Committee on the Library of Congress, whose chairman was Senator Theodore F. Green, of Rhode Island. What transpired was not an investigation but a resolution, on August 19, to the effect that the Library should abstain from giving prizes or making awards. ("I think it is a bad policy for the government to give prizes and awards, especially in matters of taste," the Senator told the press.) Evans immediately announced compliance. The awards that the Library discontinued, besides the Bollingen Prize, were the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Medal for "eminent services to chamber music" and three prizes endowed by Lessing Rosenwald in connection with an annual national exhibition of prints.

In that same feverish summer of 1949, William Carlos Williams was also the object of a small cloud of protest, raised by his review of the Pisan Cantos in the spring issue of Imagi, a very small poetry quarterly published in Baltimore. During July, Evans received a few letters, all alike in content, protesting Williams's appointment as Consultant in Poetry - evidently the result of confusion with his appointment as a Fellow earlier in the year. Some of the letters came from the editors of other small verse magazines (in Arkansas, California, etc.), saying for example, "That [Williams] should defend such a work places him in the same category with Pound, that of utter contempt and treachery to all the ideals for which America stands. . . ." [ . . . ]

After the prize was barred (and $9,000 returned to the donor) the Bollingen Foundation received a number of requests from universities to carry it on. In early 1950, the Yale University Library was granted the funds to continue making the awards. The winner of the 1949 Prize, selected by a committee whose members - Adams, Aiken, Shapiro, Chapin, Warren - had all been Fellows in American Letters ]at the Library of Congress], was Wallace Stevens. [ . . . ]

In 1963 the amount of the award was increased to $5,000, and thereafter it was given every other year. After 1968, when the Bollingen Foundation ended its programs (except for the Bollingen Series, which it gave to Princeton University Press to carry through its publication), the Andrew W Mellon Foundation took over, and in 1973 made an outright endowment of $100,000 to enable the Yale Library to continue awarding the prize in perpetuity. By now [1988] more than thirty poets, including many of the Consultants, have received the Bollingen Prize. They keep coming on.

Cowley to Tate, October 21, 1949: "I went to a literary tea for Nehru. Present were the editors of the Saturday Review... Harrison Smith saw me and advanced beaming. 'I was going to write and congratulate you,' he said, 'on the article about Hillyer. I think you had the right dope. Of course, we just printed the Hillyer articles and the editorial to start a controversy. It was a great success. We thought it would give us three exciting issues but it went on for six.'



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Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:28:11 EDT