The Roots of Treason: Ezra Pound and the Secret of St. Elizabeths

Essay by gemini_84B, April 2009

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The Roots of Treason: Ezra Pound and the Secret of St. Elizabeths

The incarceration of Ezra Pound for insanity caused controversy in its own day and still is cited in some quarters as an example of the unjust way in which the United States treats its poets. Throughout the twelve years he was there, there were doubts, on the part of both supporters and enemies of the poet, that he was insane. Those who resented his treasonous broadcasts for the Axis during World War II saw his insanity plea as a means to avoid trial, while many who supported Pound pointed out that as a result of the insanity judgment, he was imprisoned for a longer time than was served by such notorious Axis broadcasters as Tokyo Rose. E. Fuller Torrey, a physician on the staff of Saint Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., where Pound was incarcerated, gained access to Pound's files through the Freedom of Information Act.

(Torrey, who came to Saint Elizabeths long after Pound's release, notes that the book had its origin in his sense that, quite by coincidence, he had frequently crossed paths with Pound in the course of his academic and professional career.) Virtually no one at the hospital believed that Pound was insane, Torrey claims, yet a conspiracy of his friends and supporters got him declared so, in order to protect him. Rather than exposing an America which mistreats its poets, Torrey reveals how easy it was, even in the emotion-charged years following the war, for a sympathetic psychiatrist and literary community to protect a poet who could have been executed.

Perhaps because of the Romantic tradition, most cultivated readers want their poets to be special. They want them elevated from the common, able to see beyond societal conventions, and freed of the...