Eva Hesse: A Life for Literature

The author and translator Eva Hesse dedicated much of her long life to the study and translation of modern Anglo-American literature. During the 1950s, modern literature—due to the success of the American version of New Criticism—was mostly understood to be poetry, by poets such as William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and, to a lesser extent, Ezra Pound. Born in Berlin on March 2, 1925, Eva Hesse started enjoying language and literature at an early age. She grew up in London, then lived in Berlin before moving to Munich. She is the author of many essays and books, of translations and editions of a staggering number of Anglo-American Modernists, but also of political theory, such as Die Wurzeln der Revolution:Theorien der individuellen und der kollektiven Freiheit (1974) and Die Achse Avantgarde—Faschismus (1991). The poets she translated include Langston Hughes, Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, John Robinson Jeffers, and, especially, Ezra Pound. Among the many books she published about this author are Ezra Pound: Von Sinn und Wahnsinn; Ezra Pound; Ezra Pound Lesebuch; and “Ich liebe, also bin ich”: Der unbekannte Ezra Pound. In 2000, Hesse edited with Heinz Ickstadt the monumental Amerikanische Dichtung von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. It was also Heinz Ickstadt and Manfred Pfister with whom she embarked on her final project, a new definitive translation of the complete Cantos, Ezra Pound: Die Cantos, published in 2012.

In post-World War II Germany, the press was highly critical of Ezra Pound. Because of his support of Mussolini and the fascist movement, Pound was held at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC. In 1950, Eva Hesse wrote a radio program on Ezra Pound for the Bavarian Broadcasting Network, titled “Gegen die Strömung der Zeit.” When e.e. cummings wrote her a letter asking that she send Pound her radio program, she complied. Cummings was not the only writer who was eager to help Pound, who in turn had helped so many writers, both professionally and personally.

Eva Hesse’s sending the program started an encompassing correspondence of nearly 200 letters and a life-long friendship with the famous writer. Both she and her family (“Eva’s pa”) are also mentioned in the Cantos. Hesse and Pound met for the first time soon after Pound’s release in 1958 and his subsequent return to the Brunnenburg near Meran. Pound also repeatedly visited Hesse and her husband in their book-filled Munich apartment. In addition to these meetings, Pound and Hesse continued exchanging letters in which they discussed, among other topics, modern literature, politics, and Pound’s Cantos, and Hesse’s translations of the Cantos.

Eva Hesse was awarded numerous literary prizes (the Johann-Heinrich-Voß-Preis für Übersetzung in 1968 and Preis der Leipziger Buchmesse in 2013, and others), and, in 1993, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Munich, in recognition of her contribution to making American poetry known to German readers. Her work was remarkable in many ways: her innumerable books, her congenial translations, her correspondences and friendships with seminal poets and critics such as Langston Hughes and Hugh Kenner. She passed away on March 30, 2020, four weeks after her ninety-fifth birthday, in Munich. She will be missed.

Anna Flügge, LMU Munich