This Rash Adventure: Ezra Pound at Wabash College

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Aspiring poet Ezra Pound had a scandalous year of teaching at Wabash College. His experience marked his life and changed the course of modern literature.

by Douglas Wissing

[editor’s note: Douglas Wissing lives in Bloomington and is the author of ten books. His coverage of Indiana National Guard units in Afghanistan, Funding the Enemy: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, attracted wide attention among U.S. policymakers.  The following is excerpted from Doug’s collection of essays, IN Writing: Uncovering the Unexpected Hoosier State, co-published in January by Indiana University Press and Indiana Historical Society. It originally appeared in “Traces,” (Fall, 2007). Doug will read from his new book on March 29th at 5:30 at Springhill Suites by Marriott, 501 North College Avenue. The reading is sponsored by the Bloom Magazine Book Club.]

 

The winter of 1908 began with storms howling across the Indiana prairie, burying Crawfordsville’s stately Wabash College under swales of snow. Not long after yet another blizzard in early February, a distraught 22-year-old professor of Romance languages (and aspiring poet) wrote an emotionally jangled letter about losing his job to his father back in Philadelphia:

“Dear Dad

Have had a bust up. But come out with enough to take me to Europe. Home Saturday or Sunday. Dont let mother get excited.

Ez.”

The Most Godforsakenest Area

By early September 1907, when the new Romance Languages professor, Ezra Pound sat down at a desk to register incoming freshman, Wabash College was almost seventy-five years old and quite sure of its ethos and values. Founded in 1832 when Crawfordsville had scarcely a hundred houses, the school was staunchly Calvinist in its rectitude, organized by Presbyterian home missionaries to educate young ministers “to furnish the destitute with the preaching of the gospel,” as the school’s first document read.

Wabash College grew into a stolid bastion of mid-nineteenth-century societal norms, educating young men in the established New England college methods. “The traditions of Wabash are, as you are aware, extremely conservative,” President George Stockton Burroughs wrote in his 1899 resignation letter, going on to cite the crisis the school faced: Enrollment had dropped to 165 men in his last year, the lowest since the Civil War. Things had changed in the dusk of the century: Men now attended high schools rather than the college’s “prep” school; burgeoning state universities offered looser entrance requirements, such as foregoing facility in Greek and Latin, as well as offering individualized curricula once the students arrived.

And, of course, there was the issue of coeducation. Beginning with Indiana University in 1868, the state schools had gone co-ed one by one. Even the last Midwestern citadels of exclusive male education, such as Beloit, Kenyon and Illinois College, began admitting women. As the new century dawned, Wabash was a lonely outpost of bachelors, resolutely facing a perilous future.

Ezra Pound cut a foppish figure on campus, a tall, attenuated redhead with his black velvet jacket, soft-collared shirts with flowing bowties, patent-leather pumps and socks in a jaw-dropping spectrum of purple, orange, lavender and green. A wide-brimmed panama hat, Malacca cane and pince-nez that Pound copied from poet W.B.Yeats completed a look that was a sharp departure from the faculty’s typical boiled and stiff dignity.

Pound was soon challenging other Wabash mores. At Pound’s first residence, a Gothic-styled house at 500 Meadow Avenue where he rented a room, he began a cavalier flirtation with the landlord’s sister-in-law, Mary Moore Shipman Young, a young widow who was visiting her sister’s home. Availing himself of access to the parlor, Pound began entertaining Mrs. Young—though he was skating on very thin ice: President Mackintosh, himself a widower in quest of a new wife, also had his eye on Mrs. Young. (Neither ever found favor with Mrs. Young—Pound chortled fifty years later that “old Mac” never got the “widdy.”) When students began visiting Pound’s room until the early hours, it was all too much for the landlord, who suggested in October that Pound find other accommodations.

           

Homesick For My Own Kind

Not long after young professor Pound moved into a south Washington Street rooming house. Located near the Big Four Station, the place was frequented by students and vaudevillians. Two or three times a week Pound hosted a “soirée,” which began after supper and lasted until the wee hours. There was smoking and more than a modicum of forbidden drinking. Harold Hawk, a student in Pound’s French class, recalled beer, “a little vino” and Curaçao, “when we were ‘flush.’” Pound read Blake, Donne and his own poetry, discoursing—often in colorful language—on art, religion and the perfidy of straitlaced attitudes. In an institution that upheld a strict view of theology, Pound told his listeners, “Religion I have defined as ‘Another of those numerous failures resulting from an attempt to popularize art.’”

Rumors began to circulate about Pound. Beyond the drinking and smoking and general rebellion, some said he frequented the “Goose Nibble” girls, who lived across the tracks in the so-named poor section of town and reputedly bestowed favors on Wabash bachelors; others murmured of inappropriate relations with his students.

Pound seemed nonplused by the rumors, flaunting bohemian mannerisms better suited to Paris’s Latin Quarter than Crawfordsville, Indiana. He wrote his friend Bertam Hessler he had “a crying need…for mere degenerate civilization as represented by cocktails, chartreuse and kissable girls.” Wont to top off his tea with tots of rum while visiting proper Crawfordsville ladies, Pound quickly hid his flask if a faculty wife passed nearly. “The natives would never approve my Continental appetite,” he told his friend, Viola Baylis.

Ezra Pound’s nonconforming ways were soon to cause him grief. He had made friends with a British woman who lived in his rooming house. She was a touring actress who presented a monocled and tuxedoed male impersonator act in vaudeville burlesque shows. She was stranded in Crawfordsville, as the burlesque audiences evidently failed to appreciate her “toff” act—too “subtle” for the Hoosiers, Pound sniffed. Pound generously shared his coffee and food with the young woman, an act of charity some found unseemly.

In mid-November, Pound wrote a flustered note to Bertram Hessler:

“Two stewdents found me sharing my meagre repast with the lady-gent impersonator in my privut apartments.

Keep it dark and find me a soft immoral place to light in when the she-faculty-wives git ahold of the jewcy morsel. Don’t write home to me folks. I can prove an alibi from 8 to 12 p.m. and am at present looking for rooms with a minister or some well established member of the facultate. For this house come all the traveling show folk and must hie me to a nunnery ere I disrupt the college. Already one delegation of about-to-flunks have awaited on the president erbout me orful langwidge and the number of cigarillos I consume.” Terming Indiana “the sixth circle of hell,” Pound told Hessler he expected the administration would discipline him for entertaining actresses.

Ezra Pound flaunted bohemian mannerisms better suited to Paris’s Latin Quarter than Crawfordsville, Indiana.

Fleeing the scene of the scandal, Pound failed to take to a nunnery, but came pretty close, renting a room across from the campus at 412 S. Grant Avenue, an upright two-story clapboard house owned by the Misses Ida and Belle Hall, two of Crawfordsville’s most reputable citizens. Tall, prim and properly cameo-ed, the Hall sisters were self-appointed moral guardians, confidants of President Mackintosh, and near de facto members of Wabash’s Board of Trustees. Pound was moving into the room previously occupied by Professor Henry Zwingli McLain, a beloved Greek teacher and confirmed bachelor, who devoted his life to classics and the college. The previous January “Dear Zwingli,” as he was known, had suffered a fatal hemorrhage while in his church pew—in the view of his admirers, a perfect end to a faultless life. Pound could not have found more respectable lodgings.

But the Hall sisters were in for a change from “dear Zwingli.” Pound was, at best, an informal housekeeper. Student John A. Bays recalled, “There were scattered on the floor, piled on chairs or on the bed or in the corners clothing, shoes, shirts, underwear, extra suits, hats, etc. No pictures on the walls, one chair, his bed and sometimes a wooden box. Single-burner stove often on the floor. Student written exercises, exam papers and the like were usually visible in the wastebasket or on the floor near the basket.”

Pound continued his soirées. Wabash grad Fred H. Rhodes recalled, “After the preliminary formalities, Pound seated himself on a chair, while his disciples and satellites disposed themselves gracefully, but somewhat uncomfortably, cross-legged on the floor, at the feet of the master. The leader then began a spirited but disconnected discourse on many topics leaping from subject to subject with the agility of a mountain goat.”

 

Orphan in the Storm

Ensconced in the Hall Sisters’ house, Ezra Pound made it through the fall term that ended December 20 without further problems. He spent the Christmas holidays in Crawfordsville. By the time the winter term opened on January 7, 1908, the weather began to shift, snowstorms and blizzards commencing on the tenth. With students back in town and the locals done with their holiday gatherings, Crawfordville’s three vaudeville theaters booked full bills through mid-month. For the month’s lead-off acts, The Majestic offered Alice B. Hamilton, Character Singing Commedienne, and Annette Link, Soubrette, switching to Maudie Minerva’s Novelty Act, and Emmett & McNeil, The Singing and Dancing Sisters, for the week of January 13-18. The Grand countered with Burk & Erline, Automobile Girls, while the Music Hall had the Latimore-Leigh Stock Company’s High Class Vaudeville. After Pound’s long, lonely holiday, the town was perking with vivacious outsiders.

Late one February night, during yet another blizzard, Pound walked down to the Big Four Station to mail a letter, the night train being the last post available. While trudging back, he encountered the vaudeville actress he befriended at his previous rooming house. She was again down on her luck, stranded in Crawfordsville after her burlesque show had gone bust. It was cold; she was frozen. Pound offered her shelter in the Hall sisters’ house, where the actress slept in his bed.

The next morning he had breakfast with the woman, and then left for his 8:00 class. And then things got interesting. As the college historians delicately recounted it in Wabash College: The First Hundred Years, “The ladies from whom he rented the rooms, the Misses Hall, went upstairs to make the bed and found in it the girl from burlesque. Their only experience with roomers was with Professor McLain. This confrontation bewildered them. They telephoned the President, and a trustee or two.”

Not surprisingly, the college authorities called Professor Pound on the carpet for his grave moral lapse. But the complicating factor was that Pound didn’t sleep with the actress—or even in the same room. He spent the night shivering in his office, with only a coat for a blanket. Afraid of attracting the night watchman, he didn’t even turn on the light to read. During what the college history termed, “a discussion at distinctly cross purposes,” Pound stood his ground with the administration. Several of his Crawfordsville friends attempted to intercede with President Mackintosh, repeating Pound’s “orphan in the storm” story. It bore fruit: Faced with what appeared to be a case of mistaken immorality (though yet another example of Pound’s extraordinarily immature judgment), the Wabash elders reversed their decision to fire him. But faced with a recalcitrant firebrand, (Pound reportedly told the Board “To Go to Hell,”), the administration just cashiered Ezra Pound out of the college.

Pound did OK: The College Treasurer’s Report noted:

Ezra Pound

Feb. 12: Amt. paid him, balance salary to February 29, 1908 (order G.L.M.) $200.

With Pound’s earlier two salary payments at the start of each trimester, he received a total of $447.50—approximately a full year’s salary for an instructor.  Ezra Pound had enough to begin his search for the artistic community of his dreams—“kindred e’en as I am,/ Flesh-shrouded bearing the secret.”

 

A Lunatic Asylum

His teaching career behind him, the somewhat crestfallen Ezra Pound climbed on board the eastbound train with little more than a few belongings, his Wabash College severance pay and a severely bruised ego. No one knew he was beginning a journey toward the pantheon of world literature—and an infamous life shadowed by his Indiana scandal.

Pound sailed to Europe in 1908. After a brief period in Venice, he moved to London in hopes of meeting his great literary hero, W.B. Yeats. Befriending Yeats, Pound was soon employed as the poet’s secretary. Fleeing WWI zeppelin attacks on London, Yeats and Pound rented the famous Stone Cottage in Sussex’s Ashdown Forest, where the two of them studied Japanese Noh plays, dabbled with the occult, and, over three winters, revolutionized poetry. It is said that literary Modernism began in the Stone Cottage.

Along with friends such as Yeats, James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound was a driving force in a number of Modernist movements, including Imagism and Vorticism, which introduced, among others, William Carlos Williams (Pound’s college roommate), Marianne Moore, Rabindranath Tagore and Robert Frost. To his undying credit, Pound edited T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the first Modernist poem to capture a popular audience. In gratitude, Eliot dedicated the poem to Pound, as il miglior fabbro (the better craftsman).

In 1915 Pound published Cathay, a groundbreaking translation of ancient Chinese poets. Disdaining the strict meter and stanza of earlier translators, Pound cantered off into free verse translations, which still stand as some of the most poetic renderings of the classic texts. Pound eventually translated texts of ten different languages into English.

After WWI, Pound joined the Modernist avant-garde in Paris, where he hobnobbed with Joyce, Marcel Duchamp and Fernand Leger, while continuing to write his masterwork, The Cantos. Married to novelist Olivia Shakespear in 1914, Pound became involved with violinist Olga Rudge seven years later, forming a ménage `a trois that persisted to the end of his life.

In 1919 Pound began to compose concertos and operas, and, after moving to Italy in 1924, organized the Rapallo music festival, which revived the forgotten Vivaldi’s music. Pound made important contribution to literary criticism, championing the role of imagination in what he saw as a gray world of academic poetry.

It was also in Italy that Ezra Pound achieved his lasting infamy. Enamored with Mussolini’s fascism, Pound became a leading Axis propagandist, which climaxed with Pound’s arrest for treason in May 1945. After being incarcerated in an open cage in Pisa for 25 days, Pound suffered a nervous breakdown. His groundbreaking Pisan Cantos, written during his imprisonment about his own desolation amidst Europe’s ruin, won the Library of Congress’s first Bollingen Prize in 1949.

By then, Pound had been an inmate of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. for three years, after pleading insanity at his treason trial—theoretically sparing him the death sentence. St. Elizabeth’s proved to be a productive venue for Pound, writing three books while entertaining a string of visitors, from poets and academicians to the States’ Rights Democratic Party chairman, who conferred with Pound about preserving racial segregation.

Pound remained sequestered in the mental hospital until 1958, when he was released as “incurably insane, but not dangerous to others.” Emerging from St. Elizabeth’s, Pound famously decreed, “America is a lunatic asylum.”

 

History’s Vagaries

The rise of Ezra Pound’s star in the years following his dismissal left Wabash College with an awkward situation, the becoming emblematic of academic priggishness in certain intellectual circles that persists to this day. Pound biographer J.J. Wilhelm wrote, “To some people, the very name ‘Wabash College’ has become synonymous with provincial prudery.” The college history, published in 1932, attempted the best spin: The historians wrote of the school’s administrators, “But they were aware too, from the accumulated evidence of several months, of a gulf too wide to be bridged between two different philosophies. And they were content to use the occasion to make an arrangement about their contract that encouraged Mr. Pound to shake the dust of a small middle-western Presbyterian college forever from his feet and content to rejoice in his subsequent triumphs in poetry.”

After the Hall sisters’ house was demolished, Wabash preserved the gray and white paneled door to Ezra Pound’s room in the college archives, the record reading, “As a footnote to literary history, in February of 1908, Ezra Pound entertained one of the performers from a ‘stranded burlesque show, penniless and suffering from the cold.”’ But the vagary of history is equally cold: Not too many years ago a maintenance man, unfamiliar with the old door’s infamy, threw it out.