Money and Modernity: Pound, Williams, and the Spirit of Jefferson


Marsh locates Pound and Williams firmly in the Jeffersonian tradition and examines their epic poems as manifestations of a Jeffersonian ideology in modernist terms.

The modernist poets William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound were latter-day Jeffersonians whose politics and poetry were strongly marked by the populism of the late 19th century. They were sharply aware of the social contradictions of modernization and were committed to a highly politicized, often polemical poetry ...

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Marsh locates Pound and Williams firmly in the Jeffersonian tradition and examines their epic poems as manifestations of a Jeffersonian ideology in modernist terms.

The modernist poets William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound were latter-day Jeffersonians whose politics and poetry were strongly marked by the populism of the late 19th century. They were sharply aware of the social contradictions of modernization and were committed to a highly politicized, often polemical poetry that criticized finance capitalism and its institutions--notably banks--in the strongest terms.

Providing a history of the aesthetics of Jeffersonianism and its collision with modernism in the works of Pound and Williams, Alec Marsh traces "the money question" from the republican period through the 1940s. Marsh can thus read two modernist epics--Pound's Cantos and Williams's Paterson--as the poets hoped they would be read, as attempts to break the hold of "false" financial values on the American imagination.

Marsh argues that Pound's and Williams's similar Jeffersonian outlooks were the direct result of the political battles of the 1890s concerning the meaning of money. Although Pound's interest in money and economics is well known, few people are aware that both poets were active in the Social Credit monetary-reform movement of the 1930s and 1940s, a movement shown by Marsh to have direct links to Jeffersonianism via American populism.  Ultimately, the two poets took divergent paths, with Pound swerving toward Italian fascism (as exemplified in his Jefferson and/or Mussolini) and Williams becoming deeply influenced by the American pragmatism of John Dewey. Thus, Marsh concludes, Pound embraced the fascist version of state-capitalism whereas his old friend proclaimed a pragmatic openness to the new selves engendered by corporate capitalism.

Money and Modernity exemplifies the best of recent literary criticism in its incorporation of American studies and cultural studies approaches to bring new insight to modern masterworks.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"What I find most thrilling about Marsh's study is its rejection of traditional approaches to modernism as a purely aesthetic practice, together with its implicit assertion that modernist poetic strategies are responses to transformations in material culture. By addressing the Jeffersonian roots of the literary resistance to the authority of money, as well as the financial practices of centralized banks and the alternative recommendations of Social Credit adherents, Marsh presents cultural issues that are fundamental to our current rethinking of modernity and modernism."
—Bryce Conrad, Texas Tech University
Marsh English, Muhlenberg College, Pennsylvania provides a history of the aesthetics of Jeffersonianism and its collision with Modernism in the works of poets Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, tracing their analyses of money from the republican period through the 1940s. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817356958
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 9/23/2011
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 312
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Alec Marsh is Professor of English at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
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Money and Modernity

Pound, Williams, and the Spirit of Jefferson

By Alec Marsh

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1998 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8602-3



Debt and the Production of Value

The discourses of political economy and aesthetics are inextricable. As John Guillory has recently shown, "the problem of aesthetic judgement was as essential to the formation of political economy as the problem of political economy was to the formation of aesthetics" (Guillory 303). Thus, for the same reason that there can be no meaningful politics divorced from economics, politics cannot be divorced from aesthetics.

Just as any economic philosophy needs to decide what is valuable and what is not, so every aesthetic must discriminate between that which is beautiful, or at least meaningful, and that which is not; Jeffersonianism is no exception. To determine how this aesthetic is organized, I must explore the ideological implications of Jeffersonian economics, which have always been mythologized in American history as a symbolic struggle between Jefferson and Hamilton. The struggle between the differing political, economic, and aesthetic legacies of these two men provides a framework for understanding much of Pound's and Williams's writing. Their work is energized and made more meaningful by the poets' obvious strain in their confrontations with this uniquely American ideological antagonism.

Briefly, what is the struggle about? First, both positions are clearly fraught with what we now call postcolonial anxieties about cultural as well as political independence. These anxieties cluster around the theme of debt, both monetary and cultural. Jeffersonianism creates a positive program for debtors, regardless of whether they are rich or poor in real property—or in cultural capital. By contrast, Hamiltonianism is a creditor's philosophy. As it happens, the financiers associated with the Hamiltonian view have also been instrumental in the importation of cultural capital from abroad to the United States. Yet many American artists and writers have been embarrassed into silence by the social prestige of the best European masterwork that money can buy. "Morgan bought freely out of a conservative if rich imagination," Williams wrote. "But if he could have seen the field of art with the radical eye with which, perhaps, he saw the field of finance the result would have been to place America in an advanced position in the start superior to any" (EK 120). Williams means an advanced cultural position, but the tycoons, no matter how well intentioned, have tended to treat art like capital, which means that they have their eye on sound, and therefore "conservative," artistic investments. While financiers like Ford Frick or J. P. Morgan paid fortunes for European art, American artists, "doing modern work" (120), were struggling for recognition literally around the corner. And the same was true for American writers, who, to invoke Emerson, longed to discover their "original relation to the universe," to American particulars and Americanness.

This chapter deals with debt and value. It is about the Jeffersonian attempt to capture and redefine the meaning of debt and its moral consequences for the citizen and the artist. First I explore the relationship between Jefferson and Hamilton's understanding of debt and its political, aesthetic, and moral implications for the American experiment. The second part of the chapter deals with the site of value. In it I show how the Jeffersonian version of capitalism reflects a belief in use values rather than exchange values, "worth" as opposed to "value." Following the beliefs of the French Physiocrats, Jeffersonians see land and man as working in partnership, not in some subject/object relation. That is, Jeffersonians believe that wealth is partly "natural," an expression of the natural fertility of the soil on real property cultivated by an independent freeholder.

Hamiltonians—in this matter simply modern capitalists—believe that money (or credit) is, for all practical purposes, the same as wealth; they believe in value in exchange. Jeffersonians can never fully accept this proposition. They argue that money merely represents prices, and prices, which are determined by markets and the cost of money, can never accurately reflect true or natural value. For the Jeffersonians, the unreliability of markets and prices indicates structural problems that lie at the heart of Hamilton's financial system. Specifically, Jeffersonians believe that a clique of bankers fixes prices, manipulating the value of money by controlling the amount of money in circulation. For this reason the early Jeffersonians felt that inflationary paper money (they were particularly wary of banknotes) was merely the "sign" of value. Following some dubious logic, they assumed that metal coin was the adequate "symbol" of value—that it naturally embodied labor—although they constantly searched for ways to make paper signs cognate with the value of the things they stood for. Later, during the period of Populist money agitation, in an attempt to increase the media of exchange, the Jeffersonians championed silver and paper money as against the "god of gold." In all cases, as the ideology of the debtor classes, Jeffersonianism is "distributionist," that is, it wants to broaden access to money, either by increasing its quantity or by increasing its velocity of circulation. As Hamiltonian thinking is the justification of creditors, Hamiltonians are always interested in controlling and limiting access to the media of exchange; Hamiltonians want to keep money relatively scarce so as to increase its value, or its buying power.

Equally important for our purposes, the Jeffersonian emphasis on natural value, labor, and use values is obviously relevant for poets, who have little interest in resisting an atavistic belief in the worth of "natural" word magic and who often have trouble finding a market for their work. Is poetry valueless because it often cannot find buyers? No poet could sustain himself if he or she believed that the value of one's work is determined by the market. These are good reasons why Pound and Williams were attracted by the Jeffersonian critique of capital, and especially the objection to money as the arbitrary measure of value.

This line of thinking brings us to the Physiocratic roots of Jeffersonian thinking about value. Jefferson, Hector St. John (Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecoeur), and the "Jeffersonian" French political economist and moral philosopher Destutt de Tracy were all familiar with Quesnay's Physiocracy. The "natural" relationship between man and nature implied by the Physiocratic approach results proposes the man/nature relationship as a marriage, often imagined as the male freeholder's monogamous relationship to his female property, which responds to his virtuous "husbandry" as a giving wife. Significantly, we can find such Physiocratic imagery in famous poems by Pound and Williams, for example in Pound's Canto 45 and at the climax of Pisan sequence in Canto 82 and at moments in Spring and All (1923) and "To a Poor Old Woman."

This seemingly abstruse economic argument has implications for human freedom, because the freedom to stay out of debt is crucial for independent selfhood. Debt, in fact, is treated as a life-and-death matter by Jefferson; at bottom, Jeffersonianism is war on debt. Using the writing of Crèvecoeur, we can see how the American experience of "beginning the world" via homesteading echoes the revolutionary struggle to get out of debt and how the westward expansion of the country tended to recreate the same dependent debtor/creditor relationships that in part structured the American War of Independence. The relationship of the colonies to London was reproduced in the relationship of midwestern farmers to eastern banks in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The writings of Pound and Williams can be read as the continuation of the American War of Independence at the cultural level.

If, to the despair of many readers, Pound's Cantos and Williams's Paterson lack any clear narrative, they do have a clear agenda. They are partly Jeffersonian jeremiads and partly experimental structures through which Jeffersonianism can be renovated and modernity reshaped in such a way as to allow for a truly American independence.

Jefferson, Hamilton, and the Bounds of Virtue

Jeffersonianism is a dissenting ideology; idealistic and easily scandalized, in American life it has preferred to take the role of prophet in the wilderness. Its heroes, Jefferson, John Taylor, and Andrew Jackson (and retrospectively, a revised Lincoln), have all been mythologized as pure men of the West come to Washington to "chase the money-changers from the temple" and restore government and moral purity to the people. The contributions of other great Jeffersonians, especially James Madison but also Martin Van Buren, who do not conform to this mythic paradigm (despite Pound's best efforts on behalf of Van Buren), have therefore remained relatively obscure. In American poetry, both Walt Whitman and Pound (notably in his letters) self-consciously cultivated western personae as poetic "roughs" in order to tap this strain of republican virtue. So did Williams, who late in life delighted to think that he'd scandalized a Harvard Phi Beta Kappa assembly with a poem called "The Desert Music" about the seamy delights of Juarez.

Republican virtue is associated with the American farmer because he is imagined to be largely free of toxic social and commercial relations. "The substantial and genuine virtue" of "those who labor in the earth" that Jefferson praised is "suffocated" by the oddly unnatural temptations of human contact, of commerce with the world. For this reason John Taylor, who worked in his fields at the head of his slaves, can embody republican virtue, while certain doctrinaire types, like Pound, can regard Benjamin Franklin, a self-made but entirely urban figure, as "slithery" (SP 118).

As Jefferson wrote, the incorruptibility of the cultivators and husbandmen who till the earth

is a precarious affair, for others haven't their virtues. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their own subsistance, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers. Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. This, the natural progress and consequence of the arts, has sometimes been retarded by accidental circumstances: but generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregation of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption (Jefferson 290-91).

The ideological density of this much quoted passage makes it clear why it has become the locus classicus for generations of Jeffersonians. "Virtue" is natural, a seed to be nurtured, "husbanded," conserved, and protected from the "suffocating" weight of "dependance, subservience and venality"—all terms describing the corruptions of a mercantile economy replete with markets and manufacturing concerns. "The natural progress of the arts," which means the fatal progress of manufacture, moves like the advance of age towards the gradual and inexorable corruption of the mass of mankind, who more and more bear the "mark" of Cain. Already in the 1780s Jefferson sees the intrusion of manufacture and commerce as inevitable. As Drew McCoy has pointed out, "The Jeffersonian vision grew out of an attempt to reconcile classical republicanism with more modern social realities and American conditions" (McCoy 10). Fully aware of these conditions, Jefferson understands that any attempt to "retard" the "natural" progress of what amounts to history itself cannot succeed.

As we shall see, Jefferson's idealism is colored by a classical pessimism absorbed from the Roman poets and their Whig popularizers. The decline and fall of Rome laid out the path of republican virtue to decadent venality. Thus the "natural" decline and fall of the Roman Republic, first into Caesarism and then into an increasingly rotten Empire that deserved its destruction, underlies the parlous state of the "virtuous husbandman," who, like pastoral Abel, is always threatened by the Cain-like, artificial, predatory, and therefore modern, ephemeral, and fictional "progress of the arts."

These are arts in the worst sense; they verge on the diabolical. These have nothing to do with the fine arts, or even with artifice; they are the arts of "ambition" and specifically of buying and selling, of trade and finance, which prey on the independence of the husbandman and incorporate him into a web of obligations that will destroy his "virtue," his independent selfhood and manhood, and make him dependent, a child or a slave.

To the Jeffersonian, all obligations threaten to become debts and all economic activity that involves the transfer of money becomes "venal." Jefferson's use of the word "venality," a word with the same roots as "vend," implies that to sell is to be for sale. Through a false etymology linking venal to "venereal," there is also a sexual implication, a link to prostitution, which Jeffersonian writers like to evoke by alluding to the physical ravages of syphilis. Jefferson himself says that the proletariat ("the mobs of the cities") who have sold themselves for wages add "just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body" (Jefferson 291). The problem of sale was always, from the Jeffersonian point of view, intractable.

If selling amounts to selling oneself, then commerce is indeed a disease, but a disease, like aging, that is a fact of even the most stringent republican existence. The Jeffersonians accept this fact but remain "acutely aware of the moral dimension of economic life" (McCoy 7). They don't want to abolish what Thoreau called "the curse of trade" (Thoreau 378) but to ameliorate its unavoidable evils. Trapped in an increasingly commercial world, the Jeffersonians see themselves as fighting a holding action, resisting the intrusion of the market into the relationship between man and nature and also between man and his human nature, his sanity or cleanness-of-mind.

This sanity, as Pound points out, is, to a large degree, mental clarity. Mental clarity might be defined as the ability to distinguish what is meaningful from what is not, "to see clearly" and to read and write accurately. It is also the ability to make moral choices. The relations of commerce and of finance obscure the moral view by inserting fictions into transactions between people. Hence Jeffersonians have frequently found it rhetorically necessary to reconstruct Jefferson's corruption barometer to probe the body politic for signs of moral collapse.

In Walden, for example, Thoreau speaks of a "Realometer, that future ages might know how deep the freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time." This gauge would be set on some "hard bottom" we could call "reality," underlying church, state, poetry, philosophy and religion (Thoreau 400). Economy doesn't appear on Thoreau's list, but he clearly means everything we can conceive as political economy and aesthetics.

Pound took "usury" as his unit of measure and pegged his "realometer" to the rate of allowable interest on loans. A typical statement reveals a rhetorical stance and social anxiety indistinguishable from Jefferson's.

You can probably date any Western work of art by reference to the ethical estimate of usury prevalent at the time of that work's composition; the greater the component of tolerance for usury the more blobby and messy the work of art. The kind of thought which distinguishes good from evil, down to the details of commerce, rises into the quality of line in paintings and into the clear definition of the word written. (SP 90)

The "quality of the line" is something an artist of the Italian Renaissance might have termed its virtú, just as the ability and courage to say exactly what one means is the sign of virtue in a person. In either case, Pound's diagnosis is the same as Jefferson's: "commerce," the art without virtue, corrupts.

These very similar quotations have an explicit aesthetic agenda that is closely related to the preoccupation of American artists with originality or, looked at another way, to the burdens of cultural debt to England and Europe. "Original" is another way of saying "pure," which, in its moral form, is "virtue." Virtue carries with it echoes of vir as in "virile," or manly. Likewise, "the original relation to the universe," for which Emerson longs in Nature, is the wish to be free of cultural debt, to free himself from the "filial system of property" (Emerson 26). It is the same as Williams's wish to "enter the new world naked" (CP1 183), declared in Spring and All (1923), and reflects the same postcolonial anxieties. This wish inevitably embroils American poets in issues of political economy and aesthetics, especially "the money question," because money is to the economy as words are to language: money is the signifier of value and the bearer of desire. Money, in short, is like a language: it is the script we use to spell out our American identities. What is wanted, then, is a language free of history and a currency free of debt. Americans want to start over.


Excerpted from Money and Modernity by Alec Marsh. Copyright © 1998 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Jeffersonian Economics: Debt and the Production of Value 11
2 Three Aspects of the Jeffersonian Political Aesthetic 42
3 The Virtues of Distribution: A Genealogy of Poundian Economics 68
4 Fertility Rites/Financial Rites: Pound, Williams, and the Political Economy of Sex 111
5 Poesis Versus Production: The Economic Defense of Poetry in the Age of Corporate Capitalism 139
6 Dewey, Williams, and the Pragmatic Poem 164
7 Overcoming Modernity: Representing the Corporation and the Promise of Pluralism 217
Notes 243
Bibliography 269
Index 281
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