Thursday, July 17, 2014

the last book I ever read (Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer, excerpt nine)

from Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer:

Van Buren also lived on, as all presidents do, in the world of gossip, innuendo, and half-truth that lark in the shadows behind any important leader, especially one who disturbs the status quo. Near the end of his life, at the end of the nineteenth century, Walt Whitman remembered Van Buren fondly as a “brilliant manager,” though not quite Lincolnesque. He also added the confused recollection that John Van Buren was the illegitimate son of Aaron Burr. Nor was Whitman the only poet who dilated on the eighth president. Improbably, well into the twentieth century the great modernist Ezra Pound developed a literary crush on Van Buren, in one of the strangest artist-muse relationships in the history of creative expression. “Canto 37” of his Seventy Cantos is a long-winded poetic exploration of the issues surrounding the Panic of 1837, with some sections drawing upon Van Buren’s autobiography (written “in the vicinage of Vesuvius, in the mirror of memory”). It ends with an ecstatic Latinate celebration of the man Pound considered the author of economic freedom in America: “HIC JACET FISCI LIBERATOR” (here lies the liberator of money). Pound also wrote elsewhere that Van Buren was a “national hero” offering one of the “few clean and decent pages” in the history of the United States.

It is hard to say whether Pound’s advocacy helped or hurt Van Buren. It is safe to say that there were not many other modernist poets clamoring to defend him, or to attack him for that matter, and any attention helped. But Pound’s later zeal for Benito Mussolini did not do much to promote his reputation as a shrewd judge of character. In fact, his emotional embrace of Van Buren may have helped Pound more than it helped anyone else, because it offered convincing proof, as his defenders later claimed, that the poet was completely insane.

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