Skip to main content

You are here

Dixie and the Dictators The Fourth Ghost: White Southern Writers and European Fascism, 1930–1950 by Robert H. Brinkmeyer Jr.

Summer/Fall 2009 - Vol. 51, Nos. 3 - 4

The Fourth Ghost: White Southern Writers and European Fascism, 1930–1950
by Robert H. Brinkmeyer Jr. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana
State University Press, 2009)

WILLIAM BEDFORD CLARK is Professor of English at Texas A&M University and General Editor of the Robert Penn Warren Correspondence Project.

Every serious student of the modernSouth and its literature will recognizethe author of this study as a scholarand critic of uncommon gifts and enviableaccomplishments. Professor Brinkmeyercan read closely when argumentcalls for it, penetrating beneath the surfaceof imagery and rhetoric in new and suggestiveways, and at the same time few ofhis peers exhibit so inclusive a commandof the twentieth-century Southern canonand the secondary material—historical,cultural, and critical—that best enhancesour reading of it. The Fourth Ghost representshis thinking and writing at its highestlevel and will likely take Southern studiesin new and quite promising directions.Its subject is a charged one to be sure, andBrinkmeyer's analysis is "historicized" tovarying degrees, but his enabling assumptionshave been appropriated, assimilated,and applied in concrete, ultimatelyhumane, fashion. Although the authorseems moved on occasion to flash his progressivebona fides, he is for the most partcommendably even-handed and largely(though not entirely) free of the sanctimonytoo many of his fellows display asa matter of habit. His style is direct andidiomatic, at times conversational, andthe reader stands to profit much from thisauthor's prodigious powers as a researcher,even when he remains dubious of a givenreading or conclusion. I found myself inhearty dissent when it came to a numberof the author's more sweeping assertions.Brinkmeyer does ride his thesis hard, butone need hardly agree with his less-thanmodestsuggestion that the writers he considersare "perhaps best read" in the lightof their engagement with the stark facts ofEuropean fascism to recognize the importanceand lasting value of this study.

As Brinkmeyer demonstrates in hisIntroduction, the South, with its regionalinsularity, valorizing of tradition, and preoccupationwith race, has been (and, onemight add, continues to be) particularly susceptibleto a tarring with the fascist brush.No group of Southern intellectuals wereassaulted more vigorously in that regardthan the Agrarians. Thus Brinkmeyerdevotes his first chapter to an account oftheir reaction to such indictments and theircounter-insistence that it was not Agrariansubsidiarity, but the industrialized modernstate (Donald Davidson's "Leviathan") thatposed the real totalitarian threat. Brinkmeyerlays out the unflattering history ofthe Agrarian alliance with the self-proclaimedfascist Seward Collins (a Yankeepatrician), but he balances this discussionwith an awareness of how the New Criticalaesthetic implicit in Agrarian socialtheory privileged a democratic multiplicityof contending voices and viewpoints(tensions and ironies) over the univocaldemands of propaganda art. His nuancedand sensitive reading of Allen Tate's wartimepoetry brings an unexpected andvaluable dimension into play. Still, onewishes he had pursued the implicationsof the Pound-Bollingen controversy a bitmore fully. The issues surrounding thatimpassioned affair remain vexing today,and it is worThnoting that not only Tatebut Katherine Anne Porter and RobertPenn Warren (each of whom warrants achapter in The Fourth Ghost) were membersof the jury that awarded Pound theprize, a fact that might have been pursuedto advantage.

Brinkmeyer follows his account of theAgrarians with a brilliant chapter on oneof their principal nemeses, W. J. Cash, inwhich he recreates in detail Cash's growingobsession wiThperceived parallelsbetween Nazi Germany and his nativeSouth and the role that compulsive exercisein moral equivalence played in thelong and torturous making of The Mindof the South. Brinkmeyer brings sympathyas well as unfl inching honesty to hisportrayal of Cash. The same might be saidof his treatment of the planter-apologistWilliam Alexander Percy, whose elegiacLanterns on the Levee (as Brinkmeyer notes)appeared the same year as Cash's crankyminor masterpiece (1941). There is indeeda measure of genuine (albeit exasperating)pathos in Percy's inability to connect theconditions operative in the refugee laborcamps he helped establish during the GreatFlood of 1927 with those he deplored inGerman-occupied Belgium during theFirst World War. Brinkmeyer demonstrateshow Percy's characteristic patternof denial and evasion caused "this veryunsentimental man to construct a very distortedand sentimental history of himself,his family, and the Mississippi Delta." IfCash was only too ready to find a nascentfascism in Southern institutions, Percy wasaltogether too reluctant, though it is significant that boThmen, different as theywere, saw the resurgent Ku Klux Klan asa band of proto-Storm Troopers. LillianSmith, the subject of Brinkmeyer's fourthchapter, offers an altogether different casehistory, that of a quintessential Southernradical whose consuming sense of socialjustice, focused primarily on issues of race,took her from pacifism and isolationism toa direct confrontation with external totalitarianthreats from the right and the left.By the end of Killers of the Dream (1949),she had arrived at a view that anticipatedthe hope most often associated with thehistorian C. Vann Woodward and others—that Southerners of probity and goodwill,chastened by the burdens of history, mightserve as a light unto the nations.

Brinkmeyer's chapter on ThomasWolfe, a Teutonophile whose serial tripsto Germany gradually forced him to seeNazism for the evil it was and culminatedin the powerful tale-of-witness "I Havea Thing to Tell You," traces that author'sgrowing awareness of and aversion to amalignant ideology that, ironically, took asits foundational "truths" many of Wolfe'sown deep biases—a fierce anti-Semitism,a pseudo-scientific racialism that glorifiedNordic stock, and a nativist xenophobia.As Brinkmeyer shows, Wolfe's recognitionof the German devils without provedinsufficient to purge the Southern devilswithin, but charity compels us to acknowledgethat his premature death in 1938, theyear before Hitler's Blitzkrieg shatteredPoland, meant that the project that wasThomas Wolfe—Man-Writing—wouldremain forever tentative and unfinished.William Faulkner, on the other hand,lived through the Second World War andon into the 1960s, and in what is one of hisstrongest chapters Brinkmeyer shows howFaulkner's creative enlistment against fascist(and later communist) authoritarianismbrought about a fundamental sea-changein his attitudes toward art and the artist'sresponsibilities. The committed modernistcraftsman brooding over his region's tragicpast and decadent present grew increasinglyvatic and nationalistic in the last twodecades of his life, and Brinkmeyer's handlingof Faulkner's Hollywood labors inthis regard is especially welcome. The studentof modern Southern writing will beequally grateful for Brinkmeyer's discussionof Katherine Anne Porter, an authorhe knows intimately, having published animposing monograph on her work. Evenso, one must question his rather curt dismissalof Ship of Fools as "a sad conclusionto Porter's career." Indeed, I would arguethat a residual strength of that novel is itsinsight into the human (all-too-human)origins of systematic fascism latent in thetwisted corridors of the individual heart.

Of the nine writers he considers individuallyand at length, Brinkmeyer recognizesthat Carson McCullers best fitsthe critical template he employs, for sheproved "the most ambitious in juxtaposingforeign and domestic concerns and indepicting the operation of fascist principleswithin Southern culture." Brinkmeyer'sreading of McCullers's precocious earlystories and The Heart is a Lonely Hunterreveals him at his best. It is applied criticismof a high order, although by chapter'send, still mining his thesis, he seems togo a bit too far. McCullers's fiction mayindeed have "thinned out" following theAllied victory over Hitler and the comingof the Cold War, but that was likely lessa consequence of an altered world-scenethan the result of the tormented author'sincreasingly debilitating physical and psychologicaldistress. Brinkmeyer draws toadvantage from Virginia Spencer Carr'sbiography of McCullers; some attentionto Josyane Savigneau's more recent CarsonMcCullers: A Life would have beenuseful. The specter of fascism hauntedMcCullers to be sure, but she had ghostsenough in her own closeted spaces. RobertPenn Warren was made of sterner stuff. Iam especially grateful to Brinkmeyer forhis sensitive attention to Warren's lettersfrom Mussolini's Italy and his discussionof Eleven Poems on the Same Theme andProud Flesh (the verse drama that eventuallyevolved into All the King's Men).Given his powers as a close reader and giftfor placing texts in suggestive historicaland ideological contexts, one cannot helpwishing he had found a place for at leasta brief look at Warren's Brother to Dragons.While the cutoff date in Brinkmeyer'ssubtitle is—rather arbitrarily—the year1950, he is anything but bound by it inother instances, and the omission seems allthe more regrettable. In any event, his finalverdict on Warren is a just one worthy offull citation:

Straightforwardly instructive literaturefor Warren was not a defenseagainst totalitarianism but the voiceof totalitarianism, and the best wayto silence that voice was to writecontested, complex, and ironic literaturewhose very form embodiedand affirmed intellectual freedomand democracy.

In radical contrast to Warren stands LillianHellman, the subject of Brinkmeyer's finalchapter, a confirmed Stalinist whose campaigns against fascism were largely pursuedin the interests of the Soviet Unionand various front groups. Strange to say,Brinkmeyer treats her with an unwarrantedsympathy that at times verges on commendation—silence constituting assent. Hellmanwas far more than the "dupe" or "fellow-traveler" her contemporaries alleged.She was a doctrinaire and ruthless championof communism (that other totalitarianism),an influential enabler whose wordsand actions had lamentable consequences.Brinkmeyer's instincts, as registered in anendnote, tell him that Hellman "probably"never joined the Party in a formal way. Thatmatters little. For all her fear of fascism athome, she was blithely complicit in theSoviet repression of many millions abroad,including fellow writers like Pasternak andSolzhenitsyn. Brinkmeyer is severe in castigatingThomas Wolfe for his sins, whichwere essentially thought-crimes. On theother hand, Hellman's impassioned supportof Stalin was literal, pervasive, andperennial. One is puzzled by the author'sreluctance to take her to task.

In his "Coda," Brinkmeyer treats twoSouthern novelists of a subsequent generation,Walker Percy and William Styron,giving us characteristically insightfulreadings of Lancelot and Sophie's Choice.Only in passing does he mention Percy'slast novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, yetthat work—given Brinkmeyer's thesis—cries out for attention, and a failure toaddress it adequately constitutes a majorsin of omission in what is, on the whole,a remarkably valuable study. Walker Percyreminds us of an inconvenient and importanttruth—that the culture of death atthe heart of Nazism was hardly dispelledby the Allied victory at the end of WorldWar II. It remains very much with us atthe start of the twenty-first century, when"progressive" governmental policy favorsand funds actions and research that oncecame under the category of crimes againsthumanity.