Ezra Pound Defends James Joyce Against an Early Critic

I’m a fan of polemical writing, whatever the subject-matter.  In fact, my reading of Joyce’s letters and biographies has tipped me off to a future project: reading more Ezra Pound, those excerpts which have been included having been so creatively acerbic.  Pound’s is a name I’ve heard here and there but I don’t really know that much about him.

Ezra Pound

As I was reading through Joyce’s letters of 1916, I found an exchange included by the editors, between Pound and a publisher’s reader asked for his thoughts on Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  Pound’s vitriol is satisfying nearly a century later.

For context, here’s the publisher’s reader’s letter, to which Pound’s letter (second below) is a reply. – It’s written by one Edward Garnett of Duckworth and Company, London:

James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ wants going through carefully from start to finish.  There are many ‘longueurs’.  Passages which, though the publisher’s reader may find them entertaining, will be tedious to the ordinary man among the reading public.  That public will call the book, as it stands at present, realistic, unprepossessing, unattractive.  We call it ably written.  The picture is ‘curious’, it arouses interest and attention.  But the author must revise it and let us see it again.  It is too discursive, formless, unrestrained, and ugly things, ugly words, are too prominent; indeed at times they seem to be shoved in one’s face, on purpose, unnecessarily.  The point of view will be voted ‘a little sordid’.  The picture of life is good; the period well brought to the reader’s eye, and the types and characters are well drawn, but it is too ‘unconventional’.  This would stand against it in normal times.  At the present time, though the old conventions are in the background, we can only see a chance for it if it is pulled into shape and made more definite.

In the earlier portion of the MS. as submitted to us, a good deal of pruning can be done.  Unless the author will use restraint and proportion he will not gain readers.  His pen and his thoughts seem to have run away with him sometimes.

At the end of the book there is a complete falling to bits; the piece of writing and the thoughts are all in pieces and the fall like damp, ineffective rockets.

The author shows us he has art, strength and originality, but this MS. wants time and trouble spent on it, to make it a more finished piece of work, to shape it more carefully as the product of the craftsmanship, mind and imagination of an artist.


Here’s Pound’s reply [all apparent typos are his].

Dear Mr Pinker,

I have read the effusion of Mr Duckworth’s reader with not inconsiderable disgust. These vermin crawl over and beslime our literature with their pulings, and nothing but the day of judgement can, I suppose, exterminate ’em. Thank god one need not, under ordinary circumstances, touch them.

Hark to his puling squeak: too ‘unconventional’. What in hell do we want but some change from the unbearable monotony of the weekly six shilling pears soap annual novel; … the dungminded dungbearded, penny a line, please-the-mediocre-at-all-cost doctrine. You English will get no prose till you enterminate this breed … to say nothing of the abominable insolence of the tone…

Canting, supercilious, blockhead… I always supposed from report that Duckworth was an educated man, but I can not reconcile this opinion with his retention of the author of the missive you send me. If you have to spend your life in contact with such minds, God help you,


do accept my good will and sympathy in spite of the tone of htis note.

God!  ‘a more finished piece of work’.

Really, Mr Pinker, it is too insulting, even to be forwarded to Joyce’s friend, let alone to Joyce.

And the end… also found fault with… again, O God, O Montreal!

Why can’t you send the publisher’s reader to the serbian front, and get some good out of the war…

Serious writers will certainly give up the use of english altogether unless you can improve the process of publication.

In conclusion, you have given me a very unpleasant quarter of an hour, my disgust flows over, though I suppose there is no use in spreading it over this paper. If there is any phrase or form of contempt that you care to convey from me to the reeking Malebolge of the Duckworthian slum, pray, consider yourself at liberty to draw on my account (unlimited credit) and transmit it.

Please, if you have occasion to write again either in regard to this book or any other, please do not enclose the publisher’s readers opinions. Sincerely yours,
P.S. … as for altering Joyce to suit Duckworth’s readers – I would like trying to fit the Venus de Milo into a piss-pot …. a few changes required.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Ezra Pound Defends James Joyce Against an Early Critic

  1. Nates says:

    Well, I suspect that Pound’s antisemitism and his long support of Fascism came from the same part of his soul that produced this letter. That’s not in any way a claim of equivalence. But I do think that the hate in such a letter is indicative of something deeply wrong with his character. It baffles me that you enjoy this sort of thing.

    By the way, Garnett was no old-fashioned, literary prude, as you can see from his Wikipedia page. As an editor, he played an important role in getting both the D.H. and T.E. Lawrences published, along with Joseph Conrad! He was also almost certainly a fan of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky et al, given that he was married to one of the great translators of Russian literature. If Garnett didn’t manage to get the brilliance of Joyce, that’s surely forgivable. Even among the Modernists, he was hardly alone.

  2. Nates says:

    Actually, on a second reading, the fascist language really stands out: “these vermin”; “nothing but the day of judgement can, I suppose, exterminate ‘em”; “send the publisher’s reader to the serbian front”. Nice guy.

  3. Josh says:

    Gosh, I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that Pound was a good guy, or even that I liked him. I will say his letters as reprinted in the Joyce letters collection are quite sweeping and have a very distinctive voice. Maybe you won’t agree but independent of the potential ideological implications of the wording of this letter, as a piece of prose it’s quite striking. It’s funny (to me anyway) in the same way that Walter Sobchek drawing a gun on Smoky is funny, or, maybe to use a closer analogy, the way that some Sex Pistols, Clash or even Nirvana lyrics invoke violent imagery in the service of something more aesthetic.

    It is interesting that Garnett is the husband of Constance Garnett. I would never have made that connection.

    As for whether there’s something deeply wrong with Pound’s character, I’m leaning towards the idea that one letter is probably not a good basis for reaching that conclusion. Not to excuse it but fascism in the 1910’s-1930’s was by no means the province of the deeply troubled, at least insofar as it ended up being the ruling ideology, more or less, of several European countries for a few years. (I know you know that – again I want to emphasize I’m not excusing it, just saying we can’t take its embrace as evidence per se that someone is deeply troubled).

    Again, not saying his having been antisemitic (if that’s true – I don’t know much about the biography) or fascist is a good thing, but I’m saying it’s bound to be a complicated and vexed question in studies of Pound, just as it is with other intellectuals of the time, don’t you think?

    I basically know three factoids about Pound – 1) that he eventually embraced fascism, 2) that he was a poet and translated some poems of Propertius, which I ran into while doing research for a paper in a Latin class back in collect, 3) that were it not for him, neither Dubliners nor Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man would have been published, as far as I can tell. (3) might sound like an overstatement but after Joyce had sent manuscripts to different publishers for like 10 years, somehow Pound got a hold of
    them and started really advocating for him. He was crucial in getting both Harriet Shaw Weaver and also Sylvia Beach involved, and they provided much of the capital needed to get those books printed, and also therefore to allow Joyce to write Ulysses.

    That trio of factoids seems fairly odd, and also somehow suggests that understanding Pound might aid an understanding of the times he was living in. To use another literary analogy – while I wouldn’t say Dmitri Karamazov is a “nice guy,” (or Stavrogin fro _Demons_ for that matter) I’d still say they’re fascinating characters, and Pound seems like such a person too (just in real life, not fiction). Or maybe Dostoevsky is a better example – he also embraced some strident politics, but that’s not a reason (obviously) for writing him off. Is it really so baffling that that would be interesting as an object of study?

    As for Woolf and Joyce, I think it’s fair to say that her position was a bit more nuanced than Garnett’s as shown in that letter. Woolf’s “Modern Fiction” (not sure where that falls in the continuum of her evolving views) makes some stridently pro-Joycean observations, but then concludes that his prose is claustrophobic, which seems like a fair conclusion that a reasonable person could reach.

    I don’t think Garnett’s rejection of Portrait is unforgivable, just that it created a rhetorical context for Pound’s letter. I wasn’t even trying to say that Pound was right and Garnett wrong, just that the exchange was an interesting thing to stumble upon.

    From the letters it seems like Pound’s biggest problem wasn’t Garnett’s judgment on Joyce’s prose, but more on his very condescendingly bourgeois “I’ll-tell-you-what-the-people-want-to-read-and-how-you-can-make-money-on-that” sort of tone. He seems frustrated that Garnett’s letter doesn’t engage in substantive criticism – it even acknowledges the book to be well written, but sets that judgment quickly aside and instead thinks more about marketing. Of course, he’s a publisher’s reader, so that makes sense, but it also makes sense that someone like Pound, working more in an art-for-art’s-sake sort of crowd would be frustrated with that attitude regardless of its financial logic.

    Sorry this reply has grown so long – I’ve just got all these characters etc. kicking around in my head from being immersed in all these letters.

  4. Nates says:

    To be clear, I’m not challenging the importance of Ezra Pound or the worthiness of studying him. (I agree that he’s fascinating and very influential–on the work of T.S. Eliot too!) I was simply responding to your judgment that “Pound’s vitriol is satisfying nearly a century later.” The opening line of the post indicates that this satisfaction stems from the letter’s polemical character, and I took this to be stronger than the claim that Pound has a distinctive, striking voice. I was suggesting reasons not to find it satisfying, regardless of its rhetorical flair: namely that it’s hateful and ugly.

    (The Walter Sobchek example is interesting. He’s one of the most hilarious characters ever. But it only works because he’s fictional. If someone pulled a gun on you at the bowling alley, you likely wouldn’t find it as funny.)

    Anyway, I’m fine if we have different responses to this letter, but I just wanted to be clear about what exactly I was disputing. I don’t deny the sweeping character of the letter.

    Of course, I also see this as an episode in our ongoing debate about the importance of civility toward one’s opponents. And I suspect that our very different responses to this letter reflect our opposing views on this broader topic. (Returning to the point about fiction, one of my pet theories about internet and political discourse–I don’t claim any originality here–is that it’s all too easy to forget that we’re addressing real people.)

  5. Josh says:

    You’re right that this is an episode in an ongoing debate… I would say that “the importance of civility toward one’s opponents” probably biases the discussion one way, given that “civility” is generally a term with only positive connotations (though the way “civility” and “villainy” work in _Othello_ suggests there’s a bit more to it, and there’s some sort of Nietzschean point about the relationship between “civil,” cities, and that sort of thing, but I know etymology isn’t argument).

    A more objectively phrased question might be “what, if any, is the a proper place/use for anger in public exchanges?” Your right that such a question gains more urgency w/r/t the internet, but then, the Pound letter we’re discussing is from 100 years ago. I’ll perhaps write a blog about that subject (much easier to promise than to actually get around to).

    Just for clarification – I did say I thought Pound’s letter was satisfyingly vitriolic. I just took issue with your suggestion that I found POUND himself a good person because of that (which maybe you didn’t meant anyway). I think I can enjoy reading something without enjoying the author’s personality. I also thought the move to label him “deeply troubled” because of some words and phrases that he used to be at least premature, but also did hit on part of our earlier exchange: I don’t think anger is in and of itself a sign of mental problems.

    Walter Sobchek is a fictional character, yes. I was giving that example to give a case where you and I both found satisfaction in the expression of vitriol. I realize a fictional creation can be satisfying in a way that its real-life counterpart would be scary. There’s a great Onion article about this w/r/t romantic comedies and “romantic gestures” being creepy if they’re not on a movie.

    But I also gave two other other sorts of example: song lyrics, and authors. Song lyrics aren’t exactly “fiction,” as they’re written by real people. I know they’re not exactly letters either, but still the reason I gave the examples I gave was because I know those were also things you’ve probably taken some satisfaction in the vitriolic expression contained therein. Like Nirvana beginning a song with “load up on guns, bring your friends, it’s fun to lose and to pretend,” or the Sex Pistols’ “EMI,” which directs quite a bit of anger (very similar to Pound’s directed at an editor) at a record label, or the Clash writing “white riot, I want a riot, white riot, a riot today”, or (another example not initially used) Radiohead writing “when I am king you will be fast against the wall, with your opinion which is of no consequence at all.” Granted several of these examples were written by people who were fairly characterized as deeply troubled, but in your response to said it was “baffling” that I would find things like that satisfying… so here are some shared examples that both you and I do find to be so (with the exception of the Clash I think) – does that make sense?

    You used the word “hateful” and I think all the above examples are, to someone or other, hateful, but they’re also all satisfying as art. Your use of the word “ugly” is more difficult to capture the sense of. Maybe something could be “satisfying” and “ugly” at the same time though? Joyce and his “cloacal obsession” (HG Wells’ phrase) seems like a perfect case of that.

    Last category – authors – Dostoevsky for example: seems to have engaged in problematic politics and held antisemitic beliefs. He also wrote some similarly satisfying letters to the editor, non-fictional broadsides, and novels that enact similar emotions to the above.

    I really was just confused why you used the word “baffling,” as it seemed to suggest that my opinion wasn’t just not yours, but was somehow beyond the pale of acceptable opinion. But I was probably just overreacting.

    Potentially interesting related discussion: is there something to a character trait like the one we’re discussing that leads people to do things like write good music or novels but also make them not nice people? No doubt there are many authors who would count as “nice people,” but a lot of them seem not to be (I will say, though, from reading Joyce’s letters, that there is a private, much more kind-hearted and less Stephen-Dedalus-like personality there too, especially as regards his family life, about which he writes some very touching things).

    Other names to add to the list of not-nice-guys who create good art: Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. The whole joke of the final Seinfeld episode was what horrible people they are, but the characters make you half. And even if Curb Your Enthusiasm is a fictional show, I don’t get the sense that it’s that far off from the reality of at least Larry David’s mind, if not his outward actions.

    Again – please don’t take the extensiveness of this rely as confrontational, it’s just an interesting topic about which a lot comes to mind.

  6. Nates says:

    Well, although you acknowledge the importance of the fiction / non-fiction distinction, there’s still a lot of movement back and forth in your examples that I’m finding confusing.

    To me, it seems fairly straightforward. Dostoevsky denouncing “the Jews” in a letter is disturbing and problematic; Dostoevsky writing a novel about a character who does the same would likely be very good. The character Larry David using his mother’s death to get out of doing stuff is funny; the real human being Larry David doing that wouldn’t be very funny. Thom Yorke declaring in a song that “when I am king, you will be first against the wall” works; Thom Yorke making this threat (without joking) to his housekeeper would be troubling.*

    Likewise, if Ezra Pound had written a novella about an editor who overreacts to criticism of his author, that might be quite interesting. But what we have is an actual letter, directed to real people, dismissing one of them as vermin to be exterminated and wishing that he be sent to the front. (This during the darkest days of the worst war.) So, yes, I do still find it surprising that you find this letter satisfying, in the same way that I would find it surprising if you enjoyed watching other immoral acts. And my provisional explanation for this surprising fact is that, caught up in your literary project, you momentarily forgot that this was not fiction, but an encounter between actual human beings. But I’m open to other explanations.

    I have more to say on the issue of the role of anger in these discussions, but I think it makes more sense as its own post.

    * There are some examples from art that are less straightforward. For instance, “EMI” by the Sex Pistols. Or “Cop Killer” by Ice-T. (I realize I’m dating myself with these picks, but there you go.) Here, the performers seem to be engaging with specific, actual people–implying that the songs fall within the moral sphere. But it’s also possible to hear these songs more abstractly, as representing a particular attitude without embodying it (so to speak). So it’s tricky. But whatever ambiguity there is here, it doesn’t seem to apply to Pound’s letter.

  7. Pingback: On Political Anger | Original Positions

  8. Josh says:

    I guess we’re now into the terrain of talking about the relationship between artistic and propositional speech/writing? Some of the examples could be explained by the idea that irony is at work – that a song or poem is somehow distanced from a writer/speaker’s actual advocacy in a way that an essay is not. But the categories have to be a little more slippery than this, don’t you think? Songs, poems and letters can all exhibit varying degrees of irony, and can also be, to varying degrees, satisfying to read/listen to, and those two questions (of irony vs. of satifyingness) seem distinct.

    The Radiohead example seems like a clear one to discuss. So Thom Yorke writing that in a song is okay, but not speaking it to his housekeeper? The question wasn’t quite whether he was right to say that, it was whether it was understandable that one would take pleasure in either of those experiences. Again, I’m not defending Pound’s fascism, but perhaps discovering that someone with fascist tendencies might also be expressive of something in a way that’s satisfying. And things like “Thom Yorke yelling at his housekeeper” are very common objects of satisfaction to many (see youtube, reality tv, etc). Perhaps you think they’re all beyond the pale, but I think there’s a playfulness there in the experience of them that doesn’t affirm what’s going on within them.

    I wouldn’t say that Thom-Yorke-qua-performer is some drastically different entity than Thom-Yorke-qua-housekeeper-supervisor. Which is another way of saying I don’t quite think “fiction” is the heading under which we can place songs or poems. At some level, Pound’s letter is more performance art than an actual attempt at correspondence. Now maybe your problem is that he’s chosen to engage in an act of performance-art in a setting where other norms are at work. But those norms are quite often up in the air and depend on the particular nature of the author, the recipient, their previous correspondence, etc.

    The fiction/non-fiction distinction I’m okay with is saying “Stravrogin is an interesting character, but I wouldn’t want to live like him.” That’s between the representation of a character and such a character actually existing in reality. But the distinction between an AUTHOR expressing an idea creatively (poem, song) vs. THAT AUTHOR doing so prosaically (speech with housekeeper, letter writing) isn’t the same distinction at all. It’s two rhetorical/performative/speech-act sort of situations, not person-within-novel vs. person-in-the-world.

    So I’m not quite ready to say that “whatever ambiguity there is here, it doesn’t seem to apply to Pound’s letter.” Letters, just like poems, songs or novels could just as well be seen, as you write, “more abstractly, as representing a particular attitude without embodying it.” But that still seems distinct from the question of whether one takes pleasure in them.

    You use the phrase “the moral sphere” – which seems to be doing a lot of work. Two questions –

    1) Where does that sphere start and end vis-a-vis artistic expression?

    2) If something violates a norm of that moral sphere, is it also wrong to take pleasure in it? (or, maybe a slightly different question – do you you really not understand how someone might take pleasure in it [the claim you originally made, not that you didn’t think it was right to, but that you didn’t understand it])?

  9. Nates says:

    I think you’re putting way more weight than I ever intended on the idea of understanding someone finding this stuff satisfying. I don’t deny that there are various possible psychological / sociological / biological explanations for what’s going on. So I didn’t mean that it was literally inexplicable, like some sort of unsolved scientific puzzle.

    But if you consider the broader context of my comments, I think it’s clear that my concern throughout has been normative and moral in nature. Because I believe Pound’s sending that letter was an immoral act, I find it surprising that you enjoy it. More generally, I believe it’s morally problematic for people to take aesthetic pleasure in immoral things. That comes through in how I first brought up the issue in my original comment: “But I do think that the hate in such a letter is indicative of something deeply wrong with his character. It baffles me that you enjoy this sort of thing.” It’s the same, somewhat metaphorical notion of bafflement that’s at work when we ask, of someone who’s just done something wrong, “how could you do that?”

    Moving on, you make two points in your latest comment that help me understand your position better–and might even capture the difference in our reactions. First, you say: “Letters, just like poems, songs or novels could just as well be seen, as you write, ‘more abstractly, as representing a particular attitude without embodying it.'” Yes, I agree with that. Second, you write: “At some level, Pound’s letter is more performance art than an actual attempt at correspondence.” Here we may have our crucial point of disagreement. Although Pound could’ve written a letter that was primarily performance art, I don’t believe this accurately describes the letter under consideration. I see it as a genuine act of communication, expressing his genuine feelings toward the anonymous reviewer (even as it was written with a stylish, aesthetic flair). And now I’m wondering: maybe you found it too outrageously over the top to be intended seriously, and that you were thus inclined to read it merely on an aesthetic level. By contrast, I was coming to this letter with some background knowledge of Pound’s odious character and his history of abusive behavior, and perhaps this made it easier for me to recognize it as a genuinely immoral letter–thus limiting my aesthetic appreciation of it.

    But all of this depends on your agreeing that there is something problematic about aesthetically enjoying immoral actions. (I.e., that there are moral constraints on aesthetic pleasure.) If you don’t believe this, then the above diagnosis of our different reactions won’t work.

    A few further thoughts. Do I ever aesthetically enjoy witnessing immoral acts? No doubt I do from time to time, although I hope I recognize it as a guilty pleasure. The example that comes to mind is the voice message of Alec Baldwin to his daughter, calling her a rude pig. There’s a way of getting into a state of mind where it comes across as hilarious, and I think I may have briefly found it funny. Or at least fascinating. But the aesthetic effect only works if you block out the humanity of the people involved. And we shouldn’t do that.

    There are a variety of factors that encourage us to lose our moral empathy for others. In the case of the Baldwins, maybe there’s a kind of envy of celebrity status and wealth at work. In the case of Pound and Garnett, maybe the historical distance from the people involved plays a role. With internet discussions, we often find ourselves facelessly interacting with people we don’t really know, in a way that also hinders empathy (which links us back to the other discussion). And so on.

  10. Josh says:

    I agree there could be moral limits on aesthetic pleasure. What we’re arguing then (obviously) is whether this letter falls within those limits or not. This is why I continue to think all the other examples are relevant, regardless of their genre. If something partakes in morally objectionable content it is not ipso facto a reason to set it aside. Other factors could be involved. I have listened to very funny ethnic jokes, homophobic humor, etc. As I imagine you have. “Guilty pleasure” is a common phrase, and not always one that implies that we’re trying to rid ourselves of that pleasure. I also think it’s possible to partake in such a guilty pleasure and very easily bracket the guilt from the pleasure.

    I think if you read over your comments and place yourself in my perspective a bit, you might see that the phrase like “it baffles me that you enjoy such things” implies yes, a criticism of such a pleasure, but perhaps the sort of phrasing that implies also a kind of disbelief that felt (if we’re talking about moral constraints on communication) less than respectful in its expression. This is distinct from the objection you may have to the pleasure, which could have been stated in a manner that was not dismissive. It’s ironic that the letter we’re talking about also deals substantially in this very sort of dismissiveness.

    At the very least you might then see that it is sometimes tempting, even excusable, to use turns of phrase that perhaps appear literally disrespectful, but are less meant to be taken literally, and instead meant to imply a moral criticism. Obviously there is a huge difference in degree between Pound’s letter and your characterization of my enjoyment of it as “baffling” but it’s not a difference in kind. Pound’s demand that Garnett be dispatched to the Serbian front could also be said not to be literal in much the same way. It’s an exaggerated way of making a point.

    Sometimes there is pleasure in the exaggeration in and of itself, whatever form it may have taken, which is where I started in my expression of “satisfaction.”

  11. Pingback: Other Thoughts on Political Anger | Original Positions

  12. Nates says:

    OK, now I have a clearer sense of where our disagreement lies. I’m convinced that the relevant difference between my blog comment and Pound’s letter is one of kind and not degree. That seems obvious to me, but I’m not sure how to defend the point beyond what I’ve already said above. So perhaps we’re at loggerheads.

  13. Josh says:

    Okay just one more stab at explaining why I meant by degree and kind. Both involve forms of exaggeration and perhaps non-literal use of overstatement. Maybe that means our disagreement is over whether Pound’s language was intended non-literally. Or more along the lines of how I’d describe it – the extent to which it’s intended as non-literal, because I don’t think literalness is a black-and-white sort of thing.

    Your statement involved mild exaggeration (professing not to understand something, where the literal meaning was more like disapproving of it), his letter involved more extreme forms of exaggeration (professing a desire for a publisher to be killed in war, for example, where the literal meaning was more like his disapproving of that publisher’s reading of Joyce’s novel).

    Sorting out the extent which he meant any of those statements literally would require a biographical study. You’ve stated your hunches as to where that study would lead; I’ve said that perhaps your hunches are over-hasty. Bringing us back again to my original statement, vis: that I would like to know more about Pound’s biography and literary career.

  14. Nates says:

    OK, that’s fine. I basically agree with what you say. The only thing I’ll add is that I still think the difference that ultimately matters is moral. My blog comment was not meant to cause harm. (The not-understanding metaphor is a routine way of expressing disapproval, as in the example I mentioned before: ‘how could you do that?’ And, following Socrates, we surely don’t want to say that moral criticism is harmful!) But Pound’s remarks, however literally or non-literally they were intended, were meant to cause harm. And that seems an important difference.

    At any rate, I’m personally convinced they were meant to cause harm. I believe the biography would bear this out, but I can’t help thinking that the letter points in this direction of itself. However, since your reaction was quite different, perhaps I’m mistaken about the last point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *