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The Suburban Prejudice

In response to:

Pound's Book of Beasts from the June 2, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

Denis Donoghue’s article “Pound’s Book of Beasts” [NYR, June 2] sent me, as an Idaho native, rushing to the dictionary with this sentence:

It [Pound’s anti-Semitism] started as a common suburban prejudice of Pound’s youth in Idaho and Pennsylvania….

Had I misused the word “suburban” all my life? No, it does, as I thought, mean the outlying part of a city, such as the North Shore of Chicago. What, then, is he talking about? Hailey, Idaho, Pound’s birthplace and childhood home, has become, in the last ten years, a kind of suburb of Sun Valley, but in Pound’s time Sun Valley, the resort, did not exist, and Hailey was a ranching village of, I would guess, fewer than 2,000 people. The only nearby town, Bellevue, was, if anything, a suburb of Hailey. In Pound’s time, all of Idaho had fewer than three quarters of a million people and the only “city” was Boise, which had a population of less than 50,000, and was a full day’s drive distant from Hailey. No matter how you stretch meanings, Hailey, Idaho, was not a suburban place during the time Ezra Pound lived there.

Of more interest is the general question of “common prejudice.” I grew up before World War II in Boise and Burley, Idaho. The latter was near to, and roughly the same size as, Hailey. I did not know what a Jew was, other than through Sunday School Old Testament history, until I moved to West Hartford, Connecticut. There, after I started the fourth grade, I missed the first Jewish holiday of the school year due to illness, and experienced a mystifying change in attitude among my classmates. It is the sharpness of my memory of this event which brings home to me the lack of Semitic prejudice in prewar Idaho.

Now, I am a generation younger than Pound, but my parents, both Idahoans through their college years, are not, and we have discussed these matters. Prejudices existed in Idaho, but mostly against Mormons and Basques. It would be the latter who would have been the principal targets of prejudice in a community like Hailey, which was in sheep ranching country and not in the path of Mormon migration. Yet Basques, proud, lonely nomads, who camped out alone for whole seasons with their sheep, would be the kind of person whom Pound revered.

The point of bringing this up is not chauvinism for my native state, but because, unless Hailey was an atypical pocket of anti-Semitic prejudice in Idaho, Pound could not have gotten his anti-Semitism as a “common suburban prejudice.” At least not from his Idaho days. It would be interesting to know how, then, it did come about.

Ivan Strand

Lake Bluff, Illinois

Denis Donoghue replies:

I should have made it clear that I was alluding to a now famous phrase in Ezra Pound’s vicinity. Talking to Allen Ginsberg in 1967, Pound confessed that his “worst mistake” was his “suburban prejudice” of anti-Semitism. In The Genealogy of Demons Robert Casillo quotes and discusses the phrase; he quotes, too, a distinction made by Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman between “the kind of ‘bona fide’ suburban anti-Semitism, which is not usually associated with a conscious political purpose, and totalitarian anti-Semitism, in which the Jew is primarily an object of political manipulation.” There is evidence in John Tytell’s Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano that suburban anti-Semitism was a fairly common sentiment in Wyncote during Pound’s years there. Perhaps Hailey, Idaho, was more enlightened, but I doubt it. Mr. Strand calls Hailey “a ranching village.” Tytell calls it “a frontier town of two thousand people, an outpost for miners or men selling mining supplies out of wooden shacks.” I’m not claiming that suburban anti-Semitism was commoner in Hailey, Idaho, and Wyncote, Pennsylvania, than in, say, Dublin, Ireland; only that there was enough of it around to make it, in Pound’s early years, unexceptional. Suburban as a word of topographical reference is of course a different and happier matter.

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