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Waugh, Pound, and political modernism

While undertaking a long voyage – we’re not sure when or where to – Evelyn Waugh was forced, against his better judgement, to enter the second-class restaurant of his ship, and upon entering exclaimed, ‘My God, you can just smell the poverty, can’t you?’

Waugh had been a bully at school, and the writer and diarist James Lees-Milne called him ‘the nastiest-tempered man in Britain’. He was a conservative, both before and after the war, and believed in the ‘natural’ separation of servants and masters. He also saw inequalities in wealth as natural, and attacked the post-war Labour government of Clement Atlee. He believed the Catholic Church to be the last bastion of defense against a ‘Dark Age’ to be ushered in by the burgeoning welfare state. Waugh’s political opinions contributed to his reputation of being a snob, taking any opportunity he could to sneer at the lower classes.

Waugh’s work and political views were informed by an era of aristocracy, a class of English society all but descimated by the Second World War, and a view of society fixed in an Edwardian mindset of unapologetic class dominance, the abolishment of which was neither possible nor desirable. Nowadays, views such as these would rightly be thought unacceptable by most people, but when looked at alongside the political opinions of some of his contemporaries, Waugh’s pale from voraciously reactionary to a comfortable English conservatism based on a sneering elitism not wholly uncommon at the time.

A strangely large proportion of these contemporaries come from the ranks of the English and American expatriate modernists, who seem to have had a particular affinity with the radical right-wing, and often identified with outright fascism. There are a couple of notable exceptions. Ernest Hemingway was associated with the anti-fascist left for much of his life; he reported on the Spanish Civil War from the republican side, narrating and co-writing the screenplay of the loyalist propaganda film The Spanish Earth, and For Whom The Bell Tolls is a sympathetic portrayl of a republican guerrilla group during the war. Virginia Woolf, in keeping with the liberal and pacifist ethos of the Bloomsbury Group, expressed anti-war and anti-militarist views throughout her life, and penned the markedly anti-fascist long essay Three Guineas, asking, among other things, ‘How should war be prevented?’.

On the other side, the story of Ezra Pound is probably the most familiar. Having spent the previous three years in Paris, where his championing of up-and-coming writers such as Hemingway, James Joyce, and T S Eliot cannot be understated,  he and his wife moved to Italy in 1924. While in Italy, Pound quickly became enamoured with fascism. Mussolini had been in power for two years, after the fascists’ successful March on Rome in the autumn of 1922. He became convinced that Jews and ‘international usury’ had been the cause of the the First World War, and became so involved in spreading the ideas of fascism that one biographer was of the opinon that no other American or English poet had been so politically active since William Blake.

He travelled to America as what can only be described as an unofficial emissary for Italian fascism, meeting congressmen  and senators to convince them to foster closer relations with Mussolini’s Italy. He carried this on until the beginning of the war, and even met Mussolini at one point, who seems to have been wary of Pound’s intentions, although he received a copy of Cantos XXX, which he described as ‘entertaining’. He wrote anti-semitic articles for the Italian press, as well as for Action, a newspaper owned by the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley. He wrote that President Roosevelt represented ‘Jewry’, and began a habit of signing off his letters with ‘Heil Hitler’.

With the outbreak of war, he petitioned American politicians to keep America out of the war. Beginning in 1935, after apparent reluctance on the part of the Italian government, Pound was given permission to broadcast on Radio Rome, on which he made his now infamously anti-semitic and pro-Axis tirades throughout the early years of the war. He was in Rome when the Allies invaded Italy, and after fleeing the city was captured by partisans, who handed him over to the Americans.

He was interned in Italy for the rest of the war, and in November 1945 was arraigned in Washington DC on a charge of treason. He was found guilty, and institutionalised until 1958. Upon his release he recanted publicly on his past, while continuing to express anti-semitic beliefs in private. That same year he emigrated again to Italy, giving a fascist salute to photographers on his arrival in Naples.

Another modernist who openly expressed her admiration for fascism, and actively participated in spreading it was Gertrude Stein. She supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War, and after the outbreak of war in France in 1940 she was involved in translating articles written by Marshal Pétain, leader of the Vichy regime, whom she also compared to George Washington. Some have tried to write off her stance regarding fascism as one of expediency, being a foreigner and a Jew in Nazi-occupied France. This, however, does not explain her bizarre claim prior to the outbreak of the war that Hitler should have won the Nobel Peace Prize, in her words for,

‘removing all the elements of contest and of struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left element, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace … By suppressing Jews … he was ending struggle in Germany’ (New York Times Magazine, May 6, 1934).

Others held opinions bordering on eugenics, WB Yeats declaring that, ‘Sooner or later, we must limit the families of the unintelligent classes’, a thought echoed by DH Lawrence, “Let all schools be closed at once. The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write”.

DH Lawrence was another titan of the literary right-wing, and although he never become an outright fascist, this could be more down to timing. Lawrence died in 1930, before Hitler, Franco, and Europe’s pre-war fascist heydey. He wrote of his opposition to democracy, liberalism, socialism, and egalitarianism, and in letters he exchanged with Bertrand Russell around 1915 he disparages trade unions, and voices his opposition to enfranchising the working class. He also wrote against the French Revolution; Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity being a ‘three-fanged serpent’, and supported the idea of an absolute dictator to replace democracy.

Although he lived in Mussolini’s Italy and was not overly impressed with fascism there, it wouldn’t exactly have been surprising to see him embrace fascism had he lived another ten years to see it grow in power. The philosophical underpinning of fascism, the hostility to democracy, opposition to any attempts by the working class to assert themselves, and opposition to the ideas of the French Revolution – which all ideas of modern democracy and egalitarianism can be traced back to, as well as a yearning for dictatorship, are all apparent in Lawrence’s views.

In some less extreme examples, TS Eliot termed himself a, ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic [sic] in religion’, and was a life member of the reactionary Society of King Charles The Martyr. And F Scott Fitzgerald had some interesting, if apparently apologetic, views on race, writing in 1921 after an unhappy trip to Europe,

‘The negroid streak creeps northward to defile the Nordic race. Already the Italians have the souls of blackamoors. Raise the bars of immigration and permit only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons and Celts to enter’.

And then, seeming to abhor his own reactions, qualifies this with, ‘My reactions,” he wrote “were all philistine, anti-socialistic, provincial and racially snobbish’.

The views of many of those mentioned above often run parallel to a hostility or fear of the working class, or ‘common man’, and a desire to see him kept out of, or removed from, the cultural and political sphere. Especially in the remarks from WB Yeats and DH Lawrence quoted above regarding ‘limiting’ the families of the ‘unintelligent classes’, which we can clearly take to mean the lower classes, and the closing of schools for the ‘great mass of humanity’ who should ‘never learn to read or write’, we can see an obvious fear of various historical trends which at the time were fairly recent revelations. The schooling of all children, regardless of wealth, increasing literacy rates, self-education by working class people, and on the political side, the rise of European social democratic parties, as well as the spectre of increasingly powerful trade unions, working class unrest and communism across the continent, materialising in the revolutions in Russia (1905, 1917), Germany (1918-19), and Spain (1936), as well as the Biennio Rosso, or Two Red Years, in Italy between 1919 and 1920, after which the Italian bourgeoisie wholeheartedly embraced fascism.

This mistrust of an increasingly powerful working class, who with their increasing prominence in political life would bring with them an increasing prominence in cultural life, could be explained as the root of anti-democratic feelings among many European writers. This fear is apparent in Joseph Conrad, who was oppossed to democracy, ‘I have no taste for democracy’, and made his feelings towards the ‘common man’ obvious in his attitude to socialism, which he characterised as, ‘infernal doctrines born in the continental backslums’.

To Yeats and Lawrence, the working classes were to be kept out of the way, and if forced to confront them, they should be looked down upon, and if necessary, stamped upon. They saw themselves as living in precarious times, which they were, tasked with the protection of a culture of which they saw themselves as the elite, to be barricaded at all costs from the hands of the increasingly powerful ‘unwashed’. If fascism stood for order out of the chaos of unrest and the clamour for political and democratic freedoms, then it would find support among the cultural hierarchy. Modernist literature was particularly susceptible to this, with its emphasis on individualism, the aesthetics of beauty, and opposition to relativism and any ideas of equal value in art, leading to a hierarchical and automatic rejection of the perceived ugliness ugliness of popular, or working class culture. The growth of democracy was seen to be the vehicle for this shift in power, especially apparent in Europe, and it is no surprise that many exponents of this high cultural elite found it necessary to either stand on the right and sneer and laugh at the ‘common man’, as Evelyn Waugh did, or fully embrace politics of a more dangerous, and anti-democratic quality.


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