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Labor Action, 20 June 1949


Gene Greenberg

Chicago SYL Sponsors –

Howe, Mayer, Rago in Debate
on Ezra Pound Controversy


From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 25, 20 June 1949, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


CHICAGO – “Should the Bollingen Prize have been awarded to Ezra Pound?” was the topic for a symposium-lawn party, attended by 150 students, faculty members and others in Chicago, the featured speakers were Henry Rago, chairman of the Humanities department in the College of the University of Chicago, Milton Mayer, lecturer for the Great Books Foundation and contributor to The Progressive and Harper’s, and Irving Howe, literary critic, contributor to Partisan Revue, Commentary, The Nation, and co-author of the forthcoming book, The UAW and Walter Reuther. The round-table discussion was sponsored by the Chicago Socialist Youth League and the Women’s Educational League.

Controversy has raged over the award of the $1,000 Bollingen Prize to Ezra Pound, fascist, anti-Semite and supporter of Mussolini, for his Pisan Cantos, which admittedly contains anti-Semitic passages. The fact that the Cantos contain what is probably the best poetry written in the English language in 1948 was not contested.

Sees Bad Precedent

Mr. Rago claimed that the Pisan Cantos were of such amorphous structure as to make the anti-Semitic remarks insignificant digressions, and therefore the poem itself not an anti-Semitic one. “By the very nature of great art, the poem cannot contain truly vicious subject matter and remain a great poem. I think the Pisan Cantos is great art.”

In addition, Mr. Rago stated:

“The Bollingen award was given for the Cantos, not for the poet ... If we begin censoring anti-Semitic writings we might set a precedent for more and more suppression of literary work. It would be a difficult thing to stop and we would be on the road to totalitarian control of art ... Not to award the prize only differs in degree from stopping the publication and circulation of the poems.”

Milton Mayer’s position was similar to that of Professor Rago’s.

“Refusal to award Pound the prize is an open and shut case of suppression. If the poems were the best in the English language in the period at bar, it would seem that the essence of suppression and dishonesty is involved in the refusal to recognize them ... As far as the element of ‘honor’ is concerned, the prize does not honor Pound or his poetry, but rather recognizes both. Honor which accrues to both is incidental.”

“Objectionable subject matter is not important – the subject matter of Oedipus Rex is objectionable. The reason it is reproachable is the attitude it takes toward the subject matter – an anti-Semitic one toward Jews, Judaism and Jewish history. This being the case, unless anti-Semitism has a base in philosophy or science, many people find it offensive. But is offensiveness grounds for suppression? Better that people’s feelings be injured than art and science be restricted.”

Irving Howe disagreed with Mr. Rago’s contention that the poetry is not anti-Semitic.

“Anti-Semitism, especially in connection with usury, is one of the major themes cutting through the Cantos, and it is precisely because of the amorphous structure that each ‘digression’ becomes important ... Pound does not use anti-Semitism merely as a literary stereotype, as do many other poets, but as a topic for outright emotional ranting.”

“Human Cannibalism”

“Awarding the Bollingen Prize extends the hand of public fraternity between the judges and Pound. It would have been preferable to mention the high quality of parts of the Cantos but not to award the prize. This would not be censoring the poetry, but the act would show a refusal to fake responsibility for the poet or the poem. ... I will never condemn a poet for actions which are part of personal human frailty or a matter of doctrine – these have limited repercussions. Anti-Semitism, however, is a question of human cannibalism and a sharp distinction must be made between the two. I, a human being and intellectual, cannot honor Pound, advocate of human cannibalism.”

An animated question period was followed by refreshments. Although the locale of the debate was an inconvenient one, the audience was unusually large and interested. Interest in the meeting brought promises from many to attend further discussions sponsored by the SYL.

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