Feature September 9, 2016

A Curious Friendship

Hemingway and Pound and their pursuit of a common aesthetic


The city of Hailey in 1895 was hardly a literary outpost, nor did it, at the time, promise much for the future of words and stories. It was a silver mining town in a vast untamed territory still five years from statehood. It had survived the economic depression of 1893—a downturn that sent unemployment rates in the East to between 25 and 43 percent—as well as the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which caused the price of silver to drop precipitously.

But it was silver that brought Homer Pound and his wife Isabel Weston to Hailey. And in 1895 Isabel gave birth in their Second and Pine Street home to Ezra Pound, one of the most influential and controversial literary figures of the 20th century. Sixty-six years later and just 13 miles away, a second pillar of the modernist tradition, Ernest Hemingway—controversial in his own ways—ended his life at his final home in Ketchum, Idaho. Ironically, these two men, so different in manner and appearance but tied together by unlikely geography and an aesthetic pursuit of clarity in writing, would be lifelong friends. It was a friendship that survived when virtually all others Hemingway had developed over the years dissolved in sundry slights, literary criticism and jealousies.

Paris in 1920 was a crucible of literary, intellectual and artistic life that few other places and time have ever matched. Over the course of the two decades prior to World War II, the city was host to the likes of Hemingway, Pound, Ford Maddox Ford, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Sylvia Beach, Archibald MacLeish, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro, among others.

Hemingway and Pound met in 1922 at the famed Shakespeare and Co. bookshop, a literary salon of sorts owned by Sylvia Beach, who would later publish Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Pound was, as Hemingway biographer Jeffrey Meyers described it, “an unofficial minister of culture who acted as midwife for new literary talent.” In addition to writing what would become some of the century’s most influential poetry, including “Ripostes,” “The Cantos,” and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” Pound was the editor of literary magazines and helped to publish in different venues and times T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, James Joyce and Hemingway. In fact, Pound was instrumental in publishing Hemingway’s first poems and writings, including “In Our Time.” For several years he guided Joyce in his writing of “Ulysses” and was the first to recognize Eliot’s genius in publishing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In 1921, he helped Eliot edit his epic poem, “The Waste Land.”

Pound certainly looked the part of the eccentric poet with his large velvet beret, flowing ties, goatee, spectacles and cane. Joyce once described him as “a large bundle of unpredictable energy.” But he was no poseur. He, like Hemingway, was extraordinarily committed to his art and perhaps even more so to those around him. In his memoir, “A Moveable Feast,” Hemingway wrote of his friend, “Ezra Pound was the most generous writer I have ever known … He was always doing something practical for poets, painters, sculptors and prose writers that he believed in and he would help anyone, whether he believed in him or not, if they were in trouble. He worried about everyone and in the time when I first knew him he was most worried about T.S. Eliot who, Ezra told me, had to work in a bank in London and so had insufficient time and bad hours to function as a poet.” Hemingway goes on to explain how Pound and other writers created “Bel Esprit,” a fund that enabled Eliot to leave his job and focus on poetry.

Perhaps the thread that most closely tied the two writers together was a common aesthetic approach to their writing that would become the core thrust of Modernist literature. Pound helped define Imagism—an effort to achieve clarity of expression through precise imagery. He rejected the abstract language of Romanticism and the strictures of Victorian iambic pentameter that preceded him. In a rhetorical letter to poet William Carlos Williams, Pound made his point: “When did I ever, in enmity, advise you to use vague words, to shun the welding of word and thing, to avoid hard statement, words close to the thing it means?” Pound’s focus was on precision and simplicity. In his essay “A Retrospect,” Pound lays out the tenets of what makes good poetry: “One: Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective; Two: To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation; Three: As regarding rhythm—to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.”

As is readily apparent in Hemingway’s stories such as “Hills Like White Elephants” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” or in the novel “The Sun Also Rises,” spare and direct prose lends intensity to the emotional tension of the narratives. Both Pound and Hemingway had little tolerance for adverbs, adjectives, or long complex sentences or lines. The Modernist thought went that the more direct the depiction of the action or subject, the closer the writing came to the truth. It was a directness and focus often achieved by the repetition of short, precise words—which added to the musicality of a line that Pound espoused—or even by an absence of words. In a 1958 Paris Review interview with George Plimpton, Hemingway explained the power of absence with an analogy: “If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show.”

Also in the Paris Review interview, Hemingway revealed his near obsession with finding the mot juste. He told Plimpton that he rewrote the last page of “A Farewell to Arms” 39 times before he was finished. Asked what had stumped him, Hemingway said, “Getting the words right.”

Beyond their common aesthetic visions, the two men simply enjoyed each other’s company. In Paris, they played tennis and boxed together. Hemingway famously described boxing with Pound: “He habitually leads with his chin and has the general grace of the crayfish or crawfish.” And in 1923, Pound and Hemingway took a walking tour in Italy together with their wives, Dorothy and Hadley. Hemingway always credited Pound with teaching him to write, as well as being a good friend. In a 1945 letter to Malcolm Cowley, Hemingway wrote of Pound, “He was a great poet and the most generous friend and looker-after of people …” For his part, Pound, late in his life, said of Hemingway, “Hemingway did not disappoint me … I never saw him save for his best.”

Ironically, both men’s independent and bizarre forays into politics brought them anguish in their later years. Living in Havana in 1941, Hemingway formed a private counter-intelligence network that sought to ferret out Nazi sympathizers. It was a program loosely associated with intelligence agencies, but one not sanctioned by the FBI. In fact, it became a point of contention for the agency, leading it to open a file (124 pages worth) on the writer and keep tabs on him until his death in 1961. The FBI, in 1942 and 1943, tried to discredit the writer by intimating that he was a communist as evidenced by his support of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, a tactic that Senator Joseph McCarthy would later employ in the 1950s.

When Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary, moved to Ketchum, Idaho, in 1959, the author was not healthy. He had high blood pressure, was drinking heavily and suffering from depression and paranoia. He feared the FBI was following him and spying on him. Oddly enough, records show that they were. Real or not, the fear surely contributed to his anxiety and his mental illness, in general. Late in 1960 and again in early 1961, Hemingway was treated with electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) at the Mayo Clinic. The treatment seemingly did not work and may have exacerbated his despair, though it is hard to know precisely. On July 2, 1961, Hemingway committed suicide in his Ketchum home.

Pound’s decline was longer in coming, though equally distressing to his friends. During World War II, Pound took to radio broadcasting his pro-Fascist sentiments. His rabid support of Mussolini led to his being charged with treason and eventually being imprisoned in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, in Washington, D.C., known officially as the government hospital for the insane. Pound was kept there for 13 years. Despite Pound’s politics, which veered to pro-Hitler and anti-Semitism, Hemingway stood by his friend, as did other writers who lobbied for his release. In a letter to Pound in 1956, Hemingway said he was going to give him his Nobel Prize medal, as well as $1000, to help him get back on his feet. He wrote, “I … send it because you are our greatest living poet; a small distinction but your own. It also goes to my old tennis opponent, to the man who founded “Bel Esprit,” and the man who taught me, gently, to be merciful and tried to teach me to be kind when all I had was omerta.” (The medal never came to Pound, but the money did. However, Pound never cashed the check.) Hemingway, along with Archibald MacLeish, Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot, submitted a letter to the U.S. Attorney General in 1957, which, ultimately, was instrumental in Pound being released and enabled his return to Italy.

While Hemingway famously spent the fall months bird hunting in Sun Valley—specifically those in 1939 through 1941, 1946 and 1947—and later made Ketchum his last home, Pound never returned to the Wood River Valley. He never went pheasant hunting with rancher Bud Purdy or movie star Gary Cooper, as Hemingway did. Neither did he walk the Idaho hills that reminded Hemingway of Spain, nor stay in the Sun Valley Lodge where Hemingway finished writing “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” nor enjoy long dinners at The Ram in Sun Valley that reminded the author of his time in Austria. The last time the two saw each other was in Paris in 1934, long before the troubles each would later face.

Their paths did cross in 1939, if only in the metaphysical sense. As Tillie Arnold reported in her book, “The Idaho Hemingway,” Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn (an eventual wife) went to Silver Creek one fall afternoon to scout out duck hunting areas. They met two locals, Chuck Atkinson and Bud Purdy, in Picabo, men who would become good friends of the writer. Hemingway later excitedly told Arnold how he and Gelhorn had stopped in at the Snug Bar in Hailey. There, walking through the back of the bar, Hemingway stumbled on to a makeshift museum the owner, Al Lewis, had set up honoring a famous writer who had by happenstance been born in this small Western town: it was an homage to his old friend Ezra Pound.

This article appears in the Fall 2016 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.