Pound Wins the Bollingen Prize Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A controversy concerning the relationship between an artist’s life and his work erupted when the first Bollingen Prize for poetic achievement was awarded to Ezra Pound, who was incarcerated at the time for committing treason during World War II.

Summary of Event

On July 26, 1943, a District of Columbia grand jury delivered an indictment of treason against Ezra Pound and seven other Americans who were broadcasting under the auspices of the Axis Powers. Pound was living in Italy then, and when he was eventually apprehended by Italian partisans in May, 1945, he was interned by the U.S. Army in Pisa. During the time he was held there—at first in a semi-outdoor barbed-wire stockade and, later, in a medical compound—Pound composed the poems that came to be known as The Pisan Cantos Pisan Cantos, The (Pound) (1948). Bollingen Prize Treason;United States Poetry [kw]Pound Wins the Bollingen Prize (Feb. 20, 1949) [kw]Bollingen Prize, Pound Wins the (Feb. 20, 1949) [kw]Prize, Pound Wins the Bollingen (Feb. 20, 1949) Bollingen Prize Treason;United States Poetry [g]North America;Feb. 20, 1949: Pound Wins the Bollingen Prize[02860] [g]United States;Feb. 20, 1949: Pound Wins the Bollingen Prize[02860] [c]Literature;Feb. 20, 1949: Pound Wins the Bollingen Prize[02860] Pound, Ezra Eliot, T. S. Laughlin, James MacLeish, Archibald Shapiro, Karl Tate, Allen Cummings, E. E. Cornell, Julien Carruth, Hayden

On November 17, 1945, Pound was flown to the United States; in December, he was placed in the criminal and lunatic ward of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., after a jury found him not competent to stand trial for treason. From the moment of Pound’s incarceration, friends in the literary community (including T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway) began to plan a strategy to win his release. Pound, though, was held in St. Elizabeths until April, 1958, in spite of the continuing efforts to free him. One of the reasons for his lengthy incarceration was the tremendous controversy surrounding the 1949 Bollingen Prize presentation, which, according to Pound scholar Harry Meacham, “made cowards of us all.”

Many of Pound’s old friends in America, including William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukovsky, Marianne Moore, and E. E. Cummings, came to visit Pound, and after he had adjusted to the conditions of the ward life, he began to read and write with something like his old energy. In 1947, James Laughlin, who had been urged to begin New Directions Press New Directions Press by Pound in the late 1930’s, published Pound’s Confucian translations as Confucius: The Unwobbling Pivot and the Great Digest (1947); meanwhile journals such as Poetry, The Sewanee Review, and The Quarterly Review (which devoted an issue to assessing Pound’s reputation in 1948) presented a number of his most recent poems.

Laughlin was prepared to publish The Pisan Cantos in one volume, but he held back, fearing an adverse reaction. After a meeting between Laughlin, Archibald MacLeish, W. H. Auden Auden, W. H. , Cummings, and Allen Tate, a plan was conceived that had as its key the award of the first national prize for poetry to Pound. The award, the group reasoned, would place the Department of Justice in an “awkward if not untenable position” that would hasten Pound’s release.

The Bollingen Foundation had been established by Paul Mellon Mellon, Paul , a financier and patron of the arts, to publish the collected works of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (the foundation took its name from the name of Jung’s home). In 1943, Allen Tate, then the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, had proposed that a committee of fellows in American literature meet to award an annual prize for the best book of each year, and the Bollingen Foundation was approached as a possible source of funds. The foundation’s trustees agreed to take part, but the details were not worked out until 1948.

Léonie Adams Adams, Léonie , the foundation’s poetry consultant, served as chairman, and the remainder of the judges were made up of accomplished writers and prominent socialites who knew Pound either by reputation or personal acquaintance. The judges included younger poets such as Robert Lowell Lowell, Robert , Louise Bogan, and Karl Shapiro, transoceanic celebrities such as Auden and Eliot, respected critics and poets such as Tate and Conrad Aiken Aiken, Conrad , and Katherine Garrison Chapin Chapin, Katherine Garrison (the wife of former Attorney General Francis Biddle, who had prepared the original indictment against Pound). The committee met for the first time on November 18, 1948, and Tate remarked that a nomination for Pound’s Cantos (not necessarily only The Pisan Cantos) seemed probable. On the following day, though, three other nominations were offered to the committee.

The only challenge to Pound’s work was William Carlos Williams’s Williams, William Carlos 1948 volume Paterson, Book Two; Paterson, Book Two (Williams) on the first ballot, eight judges voted for The Pisan Cantos, three voted for Paterson, Book Two, and two abstained. The three judges supporting Williams’s book were Shapiro, Aiken, and Chapin, although Tate urged Shapiro to support the Pound nomination, saying that such a vote from the only Jewish member of the panel would “give anti-Semitism a telling blow.” Shapiro, however, felt uneasy about anti-Semitic comments made by Pound in some of his wartime radio broadcasts and in some of his earlier writings and considered resigning from the committee. A debate continued, and a decision was made to have a postal ballot taken in February.

Eliot’s stature in the literary community made his strong support for Pound hard to resist, and Williams himself remarked that he thought Pound should be awarded the prize. Adams wrote to Julien Cornell, Pound’s lawyer, wondering if the publicity surrounding the deliberations would be harmful to Pound as his case was about to be reviewed; Cornell replied that he doubted that the award would hurt Pound (a miscalculation) and that it might cheer him up. When the postal ballot was taken, Aiken also voted for Pound, a position consistent with the support he had shown for Pound when Random House had attempted to remove Pound’s poems from its Anthology of Famous English and American Poetry Anthology of Famous English and American Poetry (various) in 1946.

Lowell, who admired Williams, nevertheless continued to support Pound, in part because of his own incarceration as a conscientious objector during World War II. Shapiro did not support Pound, explaining that “I am a Jew and cannot honor antisemites”; in addition, Shapiro stated, he believed that “the poet’s political and moral philosophy ultimately vitiates his poetry and lowers its standards as literary work.” Katherine Chapin remained displeased that Pound was even considered for the award, and her husband wrote to the foundation’s librarian, Luther H. Evans, that he “recommended strongly against the decision.” Tate, on the other hand, had written to Evans a month before the announcement saying that it would be “cowardly” to choose Paterson, Book Two or not to make the award at all, since The Pisan Cantos “had been universally acclaimed” as the most significant book of the year.

Huntington Cairns Cairns, Huntington , a senior officer of the Smithsonian Institution who had helped establish the Bollingen award, visited Pound on the weekend before the official announcement was made on February 20. He reported that Pound knew about the award and was “obviously excited.” According to Cairns, Pound had prepared a typically wry statement for the media, “No comment from the Bug House,” but had decided against releasing it. The award carried an honorarium of one thousand dollars, which Pound accepted. He observed to Cairns that the committee’s action was “Bollingen’s bid for immortality” and often called the award the “Bubble-Gum Prize.” Since Pound had had expectations of winning the Nobel Prize in Literature for The Pisan Cantos, anything less had to be a disappointment.


The public reaction to the award was even more agitated than the committee anticipated. The New York Times, in an uncharacteristically tabloid-like headline, announced, “POUND, IN MENTAL CLINIC, WINS PRIZE FOR POETRY PENNED IN TREASON CELL.” Some of Pound’s severest critics, including Albert Deutsch Deutsch, Albert and William Barrett, condemned the prize committee. Deutsch wrote in the leftist journal PM that Pound was like Benedict Arnold and that those who had supported him were turncoats. Radio Moscow, seizing the opportunity to attack capitalism, observed that the quality of poetry in the United States had to be very low if “even the insane and verified ravings of a confessed madman could win a literary prize.”

Among the more measured responses, Shapiro explained his position in Partisan Review, Partisan Review (periodical) contrasting his views with the official statement of the prize committee, which he called “evasive, historically untrue, and illogical.” In the same Partisan Review symposium (May, 1949), other prominent writers and cultural commentators offered opinions that ranged across a spectrum of considered philosophical and aesthetic positions.

W. H. Auden directly confronted the question of anti-Semitism, widening the debate to reflect the devastating revelations of the Holocaust, which had just begun to be assimilated by the Allied countries after World War II. “Anti-Semitism is, unfortunately, not only a feeling which all gentiles at times feel,” he wrote, “but also, and this is what matters, a feeling of which the majority of them are not ashamed.” George Orwell Orwell, George called Pound’s broadcasts “disgusting” and said that after reading the written transcripts, he had the impression that the broadcasts were not “the work of a lunatic.” Neither man addressed the quality of Pound’s poetry.

The art historian Clement Greenberg Greenberg, Clement attempted to tangle with the difficult question of suppression of any artist’s work, saying, “I am not against the publication of The Pisan Cantos, even though they offend me,” arguing from a classic First Amendment position that his “fear of censorship” outweighed his “sensitivity as a Jew.” Greenberg also commented that he was prepared to “swallow” the consequence of his position but that he wished that the Bollingen committee “had been, or shown themselves, more aware of the additional consequence when they awarded their Bollingen Prize.” The critic Robert Gorham Davis also argued for publication of The Pisan Cantos but stated that “they deserve no prize.”

The most severe and sustained attack by a serious literary critic was Robert Hillyer’s Hillyer, Robert two-part essay (June 11 and June 18, 1949) in The Saturday Review of Literature. Saturday Review of Literature, The (periodical) Hayden Carruth, a man of liberal sensibilities who frequently wrote for the progressive journal The Nation, regarded Hillyer’s attack as scurrilous and edited an issue of Poetry entitled The Case Against the Saturday Review of Literature. Case Against the Saturday Review of Literature, The (periodical issue) The Poetry issue contained statements by Tate, Adams, and Evans (who “stood like a rock during the Pound trauma”), reprints of reviews by MacLeish and Mark Van Doren, and letters from well-known critics Yvor Winters and Cleanth Brooks and from the poet John Berryman Berryman, John .

Berryman charged that “under the pretense of attacking the award of the Bollingen Prize to Ezra Pound” The Saturday Review of Literature had “sanctioned and guided a prepared attack on modern poetry and criticism.” Seventy-three signatures were appended to Berryman’s letter. Carruth himself wrote an editorial in which he said that “whatever is the outcome of the Ezra Pound case, the enemies of poetry must not be allowed to damage the process of our art through their untoward anger.” He went on to explain that “many generations will pass before a young poet can overlook the work of Ezra Pound”—a prophetic insight—and contended that “truth and experience” would provide a necessary perspective to judge poetry of even the most damaging sentiments.

For his contribution to the debate, Carruth was fired by the trustees of the magazine. Their action reflected the fear and alarm that ran through the cultural community. While individual artists often acted on principle and with courage, the social patrons who were involved in financing and supporting publications were frightened by actions like those taken by Senator Jacob K. Javits Javits, Jacob K. of New York, who demanded an investigation of the award. The Library of Congress bowed to the pressure to the extent that it was decided that Yale University would assume responsibility for administering the award in the future.

Pound himself was already convinced that the government of the United States was misguided in its policies, and the controversy over the award did nothing to alter his opinion. He showed Cairns a box of clippings and letters concerning the prize on April 2, indicating his awareness of the public furor in spite of his presentation of a facade of indifference. He was probably amused by a telegram he received from Cummings that said, somewhat sardonically, “Hearty congratulations to Capitalist system and to Andrew Mellon in particular.” Although Pound was too close to death to appreciate the historical parallel, the Bollingen affair was repeated in 1972, when Pound was nominated for and then denied the Emerson-Thoreau Medal. The debate that ensued recapitulated the one that had taken place in 1949, and came no closer to resolving the question of how a person who was such a poetic genius could have also been such a political imbecile. Bollingen Prize Treason;United States Poetry

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carpenter, Humphrey. A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988. An extremely detailed and lively biography that thoroughly covers the Bollingen controversy. Effectively uses the minutes of the Bollingen prize committee in the Library of Congress.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heymann, C. David. Ezra Pound: The Last Rower. New York: Viking Press, 1976. Described as a “political profile,” Heymann’s work contains extensive quotations by participants in the Bollingen controversy but is biased by the author’s dislike for Pound.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hickman, Miranda B. The Geometry of Modernism: The Vorticist Idiom in Lewis, Pound, H.D., and Yeats. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005. Delves into the relationship between fascism and Pound’s aesthetics, especially his embrace of the “clean line.” Compares pound to fellow British poet and fascist sympathizer Wyndham Lewis. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaplan, Harold. Poetry, Politics, and Culture: Argument in the Work of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2006. Discusses the relationship between politics and poetics in Pound’s work and the extent to which his poetry can be seen as making political and cultural arguments. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norman, Charles. The Case of Ezra Pound. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968. A close examination of the actual case brought by the government, with lengthy quotes from transcripts, useful annotations, comments from supporters, and other documentation. See also Harry Meacham’s The Caged Panther (New York: Twayne, 1967), which provides the text of many letters from and to Pound during the time he was at St. Elizabeths.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stock, Noel. The Life of Ezra Pound. New York: Random House, 1970. Draws on Pound’s family papers; Stock had the approval of Pound’s wife Dorothy in the project. A somewhat limited but accurate factual account.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tytell, John. Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano. New York: Doubleday, 1987. An incisive, stylish biography that offers balanced judgment and a useful bibliography. Written with a perceptive sense of Pound’s accomplishments as a poet.

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