By Bentley Boldt
A part of Ezra Pound has just been added to Special Collections at Washington and Lee University – 100 original letters written by the famous poet to an alumnus from the class of 1954.
Pound is considered the father of modernism in American poetry and a literary genius from the early 20th century. After World War II, he was charged with treason and seized by the U.S. government because of his fascist writings and radio broadcasts in Italy during the war.
He was found mentally unfit to stand trial and confined to St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Washington, D.C. Pound was imprisoned in the hospital from 1946 through 1958. He then returned to his beloved Venice until his death in 1972.
The letters look like the work of a mental patient, or a literary genius trying to avoid a capital trial. They are scattered on notepaper or postcards – anything but stationery. Pound typed the letters, then edited and rearranged the lines with hand-written doodles. He writes in his own kind of language: misspelling words, making words up.
The poet and the student
All of the letters were written to Thomas Henry Carter, who first wrote to Pound as a student editor of the university’s then-young literary magazine, Shenandoah, in 1952. Carter was only a sophomore when he became an editor of Shenandoah.
The publication had acquired a high enough reputation for Carter to write to numerous literary giants and get responses from Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, E.E. Cummings and T.S. Elliot, among others.
After graduating, Carter returned home to live with his mother in Martinsville while teaching English at a local high school. He had published some science fiction when he was younger, but after college became primarily an avid critic and editor.
He suffered chronic pain and poor health, and died in 1964 when he was only 32. Carter took walks through the town at odd hours of the night. One night, he stumbled in from one of these walks, collapsed and died. No obituary of Carter can be found today.
“I think we are looking at sort of a reassessment of this young literary genius whose life ended much too soon,” said Thomas Camden, W&L class of ’76 and current head of Special Collections and Archives.
How Camden acquired the Pound letters is a tale that exemplifies the excitement that Camden has brought to Special Collections.
Carter’s mother had given the Pound letters to the local two-year Patrick Henry Community College in 1980. Last summer, after a W&L student organized the Thomas Henry Carter Collection, Camden caught wind of the letters’ location and began pursuit.
“You have to be aggressive, and jump,” Camden said.
Earlier this month, Camden drove to Patrick Henry Community College where the librarian brought out the notebook with the Pound letters to Carter. The librarian said that nobody had used the letters for research since they were donated 35 years earlier.
“Well that’s a damn shame,” Camden said.
The letters were just appraised at $1,000 per letter, totaling about $100,000. But to Camden, the significance is not only that Pound wrote the letters from the mental hospital, but that they were written to Carter.
Camden has a vibrant passion for history. As director of special collections for the Commonwealth for 12 years, he initiated reforms that made the state’s official archival treasures much more accessible to ordinary people. He has dealt with documents including the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence.
The Pound letters are the latest installment that Camden has added to the already extensive W&L Special Collections since his start on Jan. 1, 2013.
“Here is a collection of material that’s so rich and relatively untapped,” Camden said of the Pound letter. “And to think that it’s coming here because of a connection with an alum.”
The Story of the seven stones
Camden often displays many of the artifacts stored in the vault tucked in the back of Special Collections. Some of the artifacts rarely get to come out. They are too fragile, immobile or sensitive.
For example, when he took the job in 2013, a box awaited Camden on his new desk, left unopened since its arrival two years before. He had no idea what he was about to uncover.
Camden opened the box to find a delayed thank-you note from the President of Hiroshima University, Toshimasa Asahara. The letter thanked W&L 60 years after Dr. James Graham Leyburn, acting president of W&L at the time, donated books and money to rebuild after the dropping of the atomic bomb.
Also in the box were seven “river stones.” The stones represent a haunting reminder of the devastation in Hiroshima. Legend has it that when the city’s rivers were overflowing with victims of the bomb, the souls of the dead sank to the bottom of the river and are now contained in the stones.
Camden displayed the stones once, at an alumni event dedicated to the study of World War II. But since then, they have remained in the vault. Camden, a religion major who retains a passion for eastern religions, said the seven stones of Hiroshima was the “most powerful and one of the most eerie” things he’s ever handled as an archivist.
Whether it’s a superstitious worry about the dead souls, or the remote possibility of radioactivity, “I still handle them with gloves,” he said.
Keeping up the collection
W&L’s Special Collections is an extensive assortment of artifacts that have been collected over the years, but officially cataloged beginning in 1978. It takes much funding to keep a collection of this magnitude. Camden luckily has a steady support system of both the university and its alumni network.
He has access to endowment money, set aside for use mostly at his discretion, but alumni have made the collection everything it is today.
The late Fred Farrar, W&L Class of 1941, was a well-known supporter of W&L Special Collections. Contributing throughout the years, he also hosted Camden at his home in Clearwater, Fla., for a week last summer. Farrar rolled around the apartment on his scooter while Camden meticulously sifted through his massive collection of rare books.
In the end, Farrar donated over 2,000 historic newspapers. W&L ended up with 75 percent of his entire collection.
Camden also relies on alumni support for repairs. Replacing 400-year-old animal skin is neither cheap nor easy.
Camden finds surprises not only in the apartments of aging alums but within the vault itself.
“It looks like Grandma’s attic,” Camden joked. Every few days or so, a staff member or Camden himself will stumble across something forgotten, but nonetheless valuable and interesting. Not that anything was missing.
“I look at it as sort of a rediscovery,” Camden said.
The vault is “bursting at the seams” with artifacts that span from ancient Egypt to current issues of the alumni magazine. Even handwritten letters from George Washington to his nephew during the Constitutional Convention have been forgotten and rediscovered.
Camden never wears gloves if he doesn’t have to. He flips the cover of a 17th century French Bible from Louis XIII. He strokes the front and flicks at the seams in order to explain the significance of a “vellum” cover.
Camden has tried to change the image of Special Collections. Make history come alive, he says, and stop worrying about the technicalities and qualifications most institutions require of their students to handle these artifacts. He thrives on the ability to not only to impress all of his visitors, but also to leave a lasting impact.
“I’ve always felt like there’s no point in having a vault full of treasures if you aren’t sharing them,” he said. “Treasures are not worth a damn if they’re buried. And we hear a lot about buried treasures…. Well, yes, but if you don’t dig it up, what good is it?”