In December 1945, Ezra Pound was committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC. He was then 60 years old, internationally famous, and under indictment for treason against the United States. In an infamous series of broadcasts made on Italian radio between 1941 and 1943, Pound had declared his support for Mussolini’s regime and his contempt for the Allied forces. He parroted fascist talking points but also added a layer of byzantine anti-Semitic conspiracy theory all his own. “You let in the Jew and the Jew rotted your empire, and you yourselves out-Jewed the Jew,” he admonished the British on March 15, 1942. In other broadcasts, Pound spoke of “Jew slime,” warned of the white race “going toward total extinction,” suggested hanging President Roosevelt (“if you can do it by due legal process”), praised Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and urged his listeners to familiarize themselves with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Pound had arrived at this vicious ideological position gradually. His early work, while always concerned with the relations between art and society, had rarely been political per se. Over the years, though, his long poem The Cantos, started in 1915, had drifted from a preoccupation with mythological subjects to an investigation of economics and governance, influenced by heterodox economists like C.H. Douglas and Silvio Gesell. By the time the Second World War began, Pound had come to blame the practice of usury, propagated by a secret network of nefarious Jewish bankers, for all the evils afflicting the world.
After relocating to Italy in 1924, Pound became an ardent supporter of Mussolini, who he believed shared his economic views. He collaborated with the regime right up until the fall of the Nazi-backed Republic of Salò in April 1945, when he turned himself in to American military officials, and spent months in a detention center in Pisa before being extradited to the United States and eventually institutionalized at St. Elizabeths, the nation’s oldest federally funded mental hospital.
At first, access to Pound was sharply restricted. For 13 months, he was held at Howard Hall, the hospital’s maximum-security ward for the violent and criminally insane, an area enclosed by a 22-foot concrete perimeter wall. Over time, however, these restrictions were loosened. In early 1947, Pound was moved to Center Building, a less fortified area, and granted more leeway in receiving visitors. He had been, by this point, a driving force in modernist cultural circles for over three decades, and many American writers he had helped or influenced were eager to visit him.
Some of the guests were old friends from the heyday of high modernism, like T.S. Eliot (with whom he played tennis), Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams. But he also attracted a legion of younger poets eager to pay their respects, including Charles Olson, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Louis Zukofsky, Elizabeth Bishop, W.S. Merwin, and Frederick Seidel. Eventually, Pound was granted permission to spend his days out on the lawn, lecturing to a group of eager young disciples who dubbed themselves “Ezrologists.” “It was the world’s least orthodox literary salon,” Daniel Swift writes in his elegant and provocative new book, The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound, “convened by a fascist, held in a lunatic asylum.”