Nothing in Julien Cornell's early career as a New York lawyer, specialising in civil liberties, had prepared (or, some would say, suited) him for the challenge of defending Ezra Pound against treason charges in 1945, after Pound's notorious wartime broadcasts on Rome Radio attacking his native America and supporting Mussolini.
Trained at Yale Law School, Cornell was a Quaker with pacifist leanings, who had defended conscientious objectors. Brought into the Pound case by James Laughlin, Pound's publisher, Cornell found himself dealing with a client whose behaviour was a cross between Brer Rabbit and Groucho Marx. Once the incomparable lyrical poet of his generation - and still capable of using that poetic voice when he chose - Pound had by 1939 been driven by his natural eccentricity and geographical isolation (in Rapallo in Italy) to see Mussolini and even Hitler as necessary purgations of a Europe that had been corrupted by "usury" (he was obsessed with crazy economic theories). His Rome broadcasts attempted to get this across to a world-wide audi
e nce; in fact he screeched and ranted at the microphone like some demented Disney cartoon character, so that most of his friends, if they heard the broadcasts, just laughed.
Cornell, visiting this unbelievable creature in a Washington jail, decided that Pound must be mad - an opinion held by others, including Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot. In fact, close study of Pound's life shows that, if he was mad in 1945, then he mus
t have been in 1908, when he began to make a reputation as a poet; because nothing about him had changed. But Cornell decided that, if he could show that his client was insane, it could save Pound's life - because there was a very real risk of a capital s entence.
This was logical; but there was less wisdom in Cornell's surmise that, once Pound was judged insane, the US government would allow him indefinite bail. In fact the court proceedings had the opposite result: Pound was committed to the Federal mental asylum in Washington without any prospect of release. It took nearly 13 years of effort by his literary friends to procure his freedom.
After reading my account of his handling of the Pound case in my 1988 biography of Pound, which was not flattering, Cornell wrote to me: "There were no precedents to guide me . . . it seems to me unfair to accuse me of lack of foresight." Certainly Poundhimself never wasted breath criticising Cornell. His years in the mental hospital gave him an opportunity to play the tragic imprisoned poet, while getting on with his work. In some respects it was the happiest part of his life. But Cornell, blind
to the multiple ironies of his client, probably never appreciated that either.
Humphrey CarpenterReuse content