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The Roots of Treason: Ezra Pound and the Secret of St. Elizabeths, by E. Fuller Torrey


The Roots of Treason: Ezra Pound and the Secret of St. Elizabeths.
by E. Fuller Torrey.
McGraw-Hill. 339 pp. $19.95.

Edwin Fuller Torrey, M.D., is a member of the psychiatric staff at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. Although by all accounts he is an efficient administrator, his achievements as a scientist are dim to the point of invisibility. Nevertheless, he has become a fairly well-known figure on the Washington scene in recent years as a result of the controversial articles he has contributed to the Washington Post. For among the many prejudices of that powerful newspaper is a hostility to psychiatry, and in Dr. Torrey the Post has found the guru it was apparently looking for—a psychiatrist at war with his profession.

Dr. Torrey belongs neither to the American Psychiatric Association nor to the Washington Psychiatric Society, the two professional organizations with which one would expect a man in his position to be affiliated. In an obscure book called The Death of Psychiatry (1974), Dr. Torrey denounces the medical rhetoric of his profession—“disease,” “patients,” “diagnosis,” “treatment,” “cure,” and so on—as not only pretentious but stultifying. From Freud to Harry Stack Sullivan to Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, Dr. Torrey views the developers of the medical model as the progenitors of the “platypus,” the “dodo bird,” the “dinosaur” that is contemporary psychiatry. Dr. Torrey’s heroes, by contrast, are the anti-psychiatric psychiatrists of our day who either believe that people are wonderful, only society is sick, or who are confident that schizophrenia and other major psychoses are the result of specific structural or functional changes in the brain that will inevitably become the province of neurologists as soon as they are identified. Thomas Szasz, R.D. Laing, and Robert Coles are among the names admiringly invoked in the preface to The Death of Psychiatry—which may help to explain why Dr. Coles had nothing but praise for Dr. Torrey’s new book on the Ezra Pound case in his recent review of it in the New York Times.

The Pound case may be said to have begun in 1925, when Pound took up permanent residence in Italy but did not renounce his U. S. citizenship. Soon he was writing letters to Mussolini, offering gratuitous advice on economic issues and signing himself “with devoted homage” and “with all my faith.” He dated even his correspondence with fellow poets according to the fascist calendar, in which 1922 was known as Year I, in commemoration of II Duce’s march on Rome. In early 1941, a year and a half after the outbreak of World War II, Pound began speaking over Rome radio ten times a month. His broadcasts, only seven minutes in length, were nevertheless memorable because of their emotional intensity. The degree of hatred they expressed for Jews of all nationalities, the British empire, and the United States—in particular Franklin D. Roosevelt—can be measured by brief quotations from three broadcasts in 1942, all of which could be heard in the United States over shortwave radio:

I think Roosevelt belongs in an insane asylum now. His writers are lunatics. You have come down far when a Jew by the name of Finkelstein runs your country.

You ought not to be at war against Italy. You ought not to be giving the slightest or most picayune aid to any nation engaged in waging war against Italy. You are doing it for the sake of a false accounting system.

Well, you have been fed on lies, for twenty years you have been fed on lies, and I don’t say may be. And Mr. Squirmy and Mr. Slime are still feeding it to you right over the BBC radio, and every one of the Jew radios of Schenectady, New York, and Boston.

In 1943, the United States government indicted Pound for treason. When he was captured by Italian partisans in May 1945, they turned him over to American soldiers, who eventually placed him in a cage at a detention camp near Pisa. The following November, he was brought to Washington, where he underwent psychiatric examination at St. Elizabeths to determine whether he was fit to stand trial for his crimes. After four psychiatrists judged him to be unfit, he was committed to St. Elizabeths. There he lived until 1958, at which point he was released and allowed to return to Italy. His final years were marked by terrible self-hatred and a total inability to write significant poetry.



Toward the end of The Roots of Treason, Dr. Torrey characterizes the temper of American politics in the early years of Pound’s incarceration at St. Elizabeths. “A Committee on Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives had come into being, and zealous young Congressmen such as Richard Nixon were digging for Communists. Alger Hiss was one of the first to be pilloried.” Besides casting light on Dr. Torrey’s political intelligence, these sentences say something about his audacity. For in his zeal to use the Pound case as another stick with which to beat his profession, he himself pillories the integrity of Dr. Winfred Overholser, the superintendent of St. Elizabeths and the most prestigious of the psychiatrists who declared that Pound was insane.

The former president of the New England Society of Psychiatrists and the Massachusetts Psychiatric Society, and destined to become in 1947 the president of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Overholser was the last of the great psychiatrists at St. Elizabeths, the worthy successor in all respects of William A. White, the best-known psychiatrist of his generation. Yet the author of The Roots of Treason would have us believe that Dr. Overholser lied on the witness stand, that he was guilty not of misjudging the question of Pound’s sanity but of consciously aiding and abetting a fascist traitor’s efforts to escape legal punishment by faking madness. And why did Dr. Overholser lend himself to this monstrous charade? Because he was an erudite chap who liked literature, and Pound was a famous poet. Seldom has a slenderer motive been proposed for villainy.



According to Dr. Torrey, it was Ernest Hemingway who first suggested an insanity plea as the “solution” to the “problem” of Pound’s indictment for treason. Hemingway “saw in the transcripts [of Pound’s broadcasts] a way to save his friend.” Hemingway thought the broadcasts “could be used to prove that Ezra was ‘obviously crazy.’” By introducing an out-of-context quotation of the novelist’s words with cleverly slanted phrases of his own, Dr. Torrey makes it seem as if Hemingway’s plan was cynically conceived. But in fact, Hemingway was honestly convinced that Pound had been mentally unbalanced for years. “He is obviously crazy,” he asserted in a letter to Archibald MacLeish in August 1943:

I think you might prove he was crazy as far back as the latter Cantos. . . . It is impossible to believe that anyone in his right mind could utter the vile, absolutely idiotic drivel he has broadcast. His friends who knew him and who watched the warping and twisting and decay of his mind and his judgment should defend him and explain him on that basis. It will be a completely unpopular but an absolutely necessary thing to do. I have had no correspondence with him for ten years and the last time I saw him was in 1933 when Joyce asked me to come to make it easier having Ezra at his house. Ezra was moderately whacky then. The broadcasts are absolutely balmy.

Three weeks later, Hemingway wrote to Allen Tate:

They must not hang [Pound] nor must he be made a martyr in any way. He ought to go to a loony bin, which he rates and you can pick out the parts in his Cantos at which he starts to rate it. . . . When I last saw him in 1933 at Joyce’s, Joyce was convinced that he was crazy then and asked me to come around when Pound was present because he was afraid he might do something mad. He certainly made no sense then and talked as utter rot, nonsense, and balls as he had made good sense in 1923. So I think it would be outrageous for us who followed his decline into ridiculous nonsense and idiocy not to constaté the fact and also constate what a great and fine poet and generous friend he was before he went goofy.

The idea of an insanity plea may have originated with Hemingway, but it was MacLeish who rallied other writers behind it. In retrospect, says Dr. Torrey, MacLeish candidly admitted that “I never thought Ezra was insane unless a ludicrous egotism qualifies.” The admission, however, is taken from a letter that MacLeish wrote at the age of eighty-eight to none other than Dr. Torrey. The author of The Roots of Treason does not reproduce the letter in toto, nor does he tell us anything about the questions he addressed to the old man that elicited from him the reply that Dr. Torrey was fishing for. In the light of Dr. Torrey’s distortion of Hemingway’s point of view, it is difficult to have confidence in his representation of MacLeish’s. And when one turns to R. H. Winnick’s edition of the Letters of Archibald MacLeish (1983) in order to see what the poet had to say about Pound in earlier decades, new doubts arise about Dr. Torrey’s scholarship.

“Pound is crazy,” MacLeish told Hemingway on February 14, 1927. “Last letter he asked me to learn Arabic so as to write like myself.” Two days later, MacLeish advised Allen Tate, “Don’t expect anything of Pound. He’s cucku.” “Pound is a unicorn who turns into an ass every time you look at him too closely,” MacLeish informed Louis Untermeyer in 1932. “Pound is really such a bleeding fool when he is doing anything except writing verse,” he observed to John Peale Bishop in 1933. In an accompanying letter to the transcripts of Pound’s broadcasts that he mailed to Hemingway in July 1943, MacLeish declared, “It is pretty clear that poor old Ezra is quite, quite balmy.” The following September, he reported to his old friend from Harvard Law School days, the Boston lawyer Harvey Bundy, that “Hemingway and I have gone through the monitorings of the Pound broadcasts. We agree entirely that they are the product of a completely distracted mind.”



As soon as Pound was indicted, four psychiatrists were assigned to examine him. Two of them, says Dr. Torrey, lacked professional eminence—which is certainly a case of the pot calling the kettle black. The third was an associate professor at Johns Hopkins and a “respected psychiatrist,” in Dr. Torrey’s grudging phrase. The fourth was Winfred Overholser. Dr: Torrey accuses Dr. Overholser of having made up his mind to save Pound from prison before he even saw him. “He decided that Pound should be protected and then set about to insure that protection. The first thing he did was to get an agreement from the other psychiatrists that they would reach a common conclusion and submit a single report.”

Yet while it is true that Dr. Overholser took the lead in persuading his colleagues not to submit multiple reports, this was because he was anxious not to allow Pound’s sanity hearing to degenerate into what the poet’s defense lawyer, Julien Cornell, later referred to as “the usual farce,” wherein psychiatrists come to very different conclusions and thus “leave to the jury a decision which should be made by the medical profession.” Dr. Torrey’s sinister interpretation of Dr. Overholser’s pre-examination actions is utterly without foundation.

Nor is there any evidence to support Dr. Torrey’s contention that the superintendent of St. Elizabeths wrung an a-priori agreement from his colleagues that their collective opinion “should agree with his.” The author also does not tell us how he knows that Pound faked madness in all four of his examinations:

Pound . . . facilitated the examiner’s search for pathology by offering him his own version of what had gone wrong with his head. According to Dr. King’s report, Pound “experienced a queer sensation in the head as though the upper third of the brain were missing and a fluid level at the top remained.”

This “exotic symptom,” Dr. Torrey sarcastically comments, “corresponds to no known psychiatric or neurological condition.” But does not this very fact lend credence to the idea that Pound was delusional? Although the question is obvious, Dr. Torrey ignores it.

In their letter to the court, the psychiatrists found that Pound was abnormally grandiose, expansive, and exuberant in manner, and exhibited pressure of speech, discursiveness, and distractibility:

In our opinion, with advancing years his personality, for many years abnormal, has undergone further distortion to the extent that he is now suffering from a paranoid state which renders him mentally unfit to advise properly with counsel or to participate intelligently and reasonably in his own defense. He is, in other words, insane and mentally unfit for trial and is in need of care in a mental hospital.

Dr. Torrey is indignant that Pound’s attacks on the “usury” of the international banking system and his fervent belief that Jews controlled America should have been regarded by Dr. Overholser as examples of paranoid delusion. “A delusion,” he writes,

is usually defined as a false belief arising without stimulation or validation by others and which is impervious to reason. Pound’s economic and racial beliefs had widespread validation and are still shared by entire organizations, such as the Liberty Lobby and the Ku Klux Klan; they cannot therefore be called delusions in the generally accepted sense of the word.

Dr. Torrey is so convinced of the soundness of these observations that he cannot believe that Pound’s friends and examiners did not share them. Thus the Pound case was a conspiracy, hatched in the cynical brain of a famous writer and carried to completion by the perjured testimony of a famous psychiatrist. In the process of pooh-poohing the significance of Pound’s delusions, Dr. Torrey reveals his own.



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