- Consumption and Depression in Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky and Ezra Pound, and: Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge
These two new volumes constitute important additions to the cultural and political milieu of modernist poetics, combining a welcome historical and theoretical approach to the works of three influential figures. Both are ambitious studies of great scope and originality that illuminate the ways that their subjects responded to the political and economic debates of their time, without shying away from the self-contradictions and incoherence that were inevitably present in their positions.
In Consumption and Depression in Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky and Ezra Pound Luke Carson shows how Pound, Stein, and Zukofsky’s works are shaped by complex responses to political and economic realities and doctrines, largely in response to the Depression. Though Pound’s extreme positions have often been elucidated, I cannot think of any previous scholarship that so painstakingly examines the variety of modernist responses to the political while [End Page 179] respecting the contradictions and ambiguity that accompany the lyrical outcome. One of the chief pleasures of Carson’s text is the careful attention to the ways that marxist and psychoanalytical discourse (primarily Freud) were intrinsic to the response of these three very different writers to the social crisis engendered by mass consumption and the unprecedented emergence of corporate social forms. As for Pound’s presence in this study, Carson more than adequately traces the poet’s famous responses to the postindustrial consumer economy but rightly devotes more attention to the lesser-understood mutations of the modernist political aesthetic in Stein and Zukofsky.
According to Carson, the greatest cultural challenge faced by the modernists arose from the fact that, whereas nineteenth-century American capitalism drew on an ethic of scarcity for its moral authority, the mass production of the new century required an ideology that centered on material abundance. Particularly for Pound and Stein, the Depression, and to some extent the soviet marxism fashionable during its reign, produced a strong moral and psychological attraction to the idea of “expiation through sacrifice” through the “political institution and enforcement of scarcity” (8). For Pound, whose model of civilization derived from the classical Greek opposition of the private/economic and public/political realms, the “properly political had been excluded from the modern world,” which seemed exclusively oriented to the economic (53). Unlike Pound, Stein was equally wary of all the paternal figures of the 1930s (Hitler, Mussolini, and Roosevelt) because she was uncomfortable with the modern hyperorganization of social and economic life that each imposed. As Carson cogently argues, “Stein hoped that the Depression might dismantle the corporate subjective structures that threaten the private life of . . . the labourer by returning labour to its status as the worker’s private property” (9).
In an excellent chapter that provisionally argues for Stein as a “classical liberal” (“Gertrude Stein’s Great Depression”), he demonstrates how in Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography (1937), “Hitlerism, Fascism and Rooseveltism” together represented the paternal legacy of World War I that got everyone into the habit of submitting to “the comfort of being in uniform and receiving orders.” Human nature is not, however, only a form of behavior that can be corrected by knowledge: “everybody knows” that this leftover military structure persists, “and yet everybody does this.” 1 Hence, after returning from her thirty-one-year sojourn in France, Stein thought she recognized the germ of European-style dictatorship tactics in the America of the Depression:
There is too much fathering going on now. . . . Everybody nowadays is a father, there is father Mussolini and father Hitler and father Roosevelt and father Stalin and father Lewis and father Blum and father Franco is just commencing now and there are ever so many more ready to be one. Fathers are depressing. I say fathers are depressing any father who is a father and there are far too many fathers...