A SERIOUS CHARACTER : The Life of Ezra Pound. By Humphrey Carpenter. 1005 pages. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988. ISBN 0-395-41678-7.
No matter what one may think of Ezra Pound as a writer - whether he was a genius or a buffoon or a mixture of both - there can be no doubt that he was one of the most colorful and dynamic characters of the era, and that he led a rich and fascinating life well worthy of an intelligent biography. Pound's poetry, for obvious reasons (some of it being superb while much of it is just plain bad), has always had both admirers and detractors, with the former always taking great care to distance themselves from his 'anti-semitism' and economic theories while the latter seem to have seen little else, but Carpenter has amazingly succeeded in treading, with great diplomacy, the line between these two camps. While doing full justice to Pound's humanity and genius, he has at the same time made no attempt to slur over Pound's seriously flawed character, his disturbed sexuality, and the many occasions throughout his writings when his genius just failed to deliver the goods. He has in short given us, not a partisan's Pound, but an extremely fair-minded and balanced portrait of the whole man, though it's clear that Carpenter's patience with some of Pound's more outrageous eccentricities was sorely tested at times.
Besides being balanced, comprehensive, well-researched, well-documented, and extremely well-written, Carpenter's biography is also at times very funny. Pound's idiosyncracies could be quite amusing and they
are treated by Carpenter with great wit; one often finds oneself chuckling at the scrapes Pound seemed constantly to be getting into during the course of his hectic career. But there's more, for not only are we given a detailed and blow-by-blow account of the tragi-comedy that was Pound's life, and sympathetic portraits of the many literary and other figures who played a part in it, we are also treated to sensitive and fairly incisive analyses of many of Pound's works. In short, 'A Serious Character' is a fascinating study that both admirers and detractors of Pound will enjoy, though it isn't without certain predictable weaknesses. Carpenter has made no attempt to explain why a man as intelligent as Pound should have become and remained anti-semitic for the greater part of his life. Carpenter seems also a little too ready to accept the standard view that Pound's economic theories were 'crackpot,' although he redeems himself to some extent towards the end of the book by quoting Allen Ginsberg's remark when he met Pound that : "'... your economics are RIGHT. We see it more and more in Vietnam. You showed us who's making a profit out of war . . .'" (page 899, emphasis in original).
The third predictable weakness is Carpenter's seeming ignorance of and lack of interest in China. For Pound, Chinese language, thought, and history were important, and he has to be given credit as one of the very few who have realized how vital it is for the West to stop ignoring these. It's also true that he was certainly on to something when he developed the 'Ideogramic Method' which renders 'The Cantos' so obscure. Whether Pound himself realized it or not, their obscurity has the effect of pointing up a key weakness in Western thought, and anyone who is seriously grappling with 'The Cantos' might take a look at Chapter Three 'The Chinese Mind' (especially Part IV on 'Logic') in Lin Yutang's extremely informative 'My Country and My People.' It should help explain the reason for Pound's procedure in 'The Cantos,' a procedure for which he will find no adequate explanation in Carpenter. Lin Yutang states, and I don't think he was being facetious : 'I have great hope ... that the English language may one day become as clear and sensible as Chinese' ('My Country and My People,' pages 80-81). I think that Pound, although his knowledge of Chinese was limited, would have understood this. But it seems pretty clear that Carpenter would not.
Why was Pound anti-semitic? What evidence is there to support the validity of his economic theories? Why was he convinced of the overwhelming importance of Chinese language and thought? For answers to these the reader will have to look elsewhere. But apart from these omissions, Carpenter has given us a truly splendid study that no-one who is at all interested in Pound should miss. Strongly recommended.