Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Odd Couple: Gertrude Stein & Ezra Pound

Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound are the odd couple of American letters, who, despite enormous contrasts of surface, had much in common. Both spent early years in the American West—Stein in California, where she was raised, Pound in Idaho where he was born. Both were highly educated in ways no longer widely understood--Stein eventually at Harvard under William James, among others, Pound more widely—at Cheltenham Military Academy—then at the University of Pennsylvania but everywhere with the monomaniacal appetite of the brilliant autodidact.

Stein was nouveau riche in American terms, and Pound, though poor much of his life, descended from the earliest English in the New World. But both were far from any American or other lower class.

Both were ex-patriates by choice and for a long period of their lives, Stein in France, where it is said she got on quite well in later years with some high-ranking NAZI officials, Pound in various venues, including London and later Fascist Italy where he carried on in radio broadcasts, sometimes in his most backwoods American dialects.

Pound is generally identified as a virulent anti-Semite most of his life, which is not so much inaccurate as incomplete. Part of his vitriol was purely literary, to preserve an earlier and traditional English usage of “Jew”, shared with Shakespeare, for example. Interestingly enough, he often used the same word to describe the greed of some of the leading gentiles, British and American, whom he saw as examples of the same traits.

Stein, on the other hand, wholly secularized and independent, early rejected the whole characterization of being Jewish, especially in terms of significant self-characterization.

Their dislike for one another was intense, though with respect, and on occasion they sat down to supper together, less over what food and spirits were served, than over the shared topics of art and literature.

They were both great poets in their own and different ways, and revolutionary, and also patrons of others, Stein most notably of Pablo Picasso, Pound of T. S. Eliot, whom he early promoted and whose early work he edited brilliantly.

Interestingly enough, in relation to another reversal and thus similarity, Stein was clearly what might be called the harder and more masculine of the two, in which the terms are not meant to carry obloquy of any sort, but just the opposite.

In short, both were uniquely American in new ways, and in ways that will never occur again. It is clearly a case of two sides of the same coin, or, as Stein herself subtly implied, the city mouse and the country mouse.

Both were cutting wits, though in vastly different modes. Stein was the stiletto who skewered in an instant image, Pound the scalpel that more carefully and laboriously sliced opened and cut a away.

In this Stein surely had the upper hand, describing Pound quite neatly as “the village explainer”, useful if one is in a village and not, if not. Pound's riposte, if any, is not recorded as far as one knows. In  distant retrospect,  it is obvious enough. If Pound was the explainer, Stein was the national pain in the ass.

Both roles were key not only in what passed for American “culture” at the time, but also, insofar as both managed to escape into a wider literature than that of the still provincial and crass United States, for Europe, and through Europe, for the world.

E. A. Costa 31 December, 2014 Granada, Nicaragua

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