- The Fourth Ghost: White Southern Writers and European Fascism, 1930–1950
The Fourth Ghost is Robert Brinkmeyer’s fifth book, but its genesis, as he reminisces in the “Acknowledgments,” is at least twenty years in the past. The long gestation gives The Fourth Ghost a peculiar anachronistic quality—peculiar, because Brinkmeyer admits, in the “Introduction” and “Coda,” southern literary studies has molted since his project first sprouted. What began as a contribution to southern literary studies (The Fourth Ghost is published in the long-lived and durable series of that name) has matured in the era of “the new southern studies” (2, fn.3) or studies in “the global South” (2, 310). In his footnote positioning The Fourth Ghost in “the global South,” Brinkmeyer salutes some of the work renovating [End Page 417] the field. But The Fourth Ghost is literary study of tried-and-true design: driven by a straightforward, paradigmatic thesis; bolstered by evidence mined from biographies and published collections of letters; and demonstrated by clear and concise readings of literary texts.
Brinkmeyer sums up his thesis: “this book argues . . . that rather than being turned incestuously inward, white southern writers during these two decades [1930–1950] were actually turned fearfully outward, haunted by the ghostly presence of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany (and, to a lesser extent, as another manifestation of totalitarianism, the Soviet Union)” (2). The importance of this redirection to the field of southern studies is potentially great: almost all of the scholarly foundation rests on the consensus that these decades, identified usually as “the Southern Renaissance,” incubated all that was crucial to southern literature in the twentieth century. For Brinkmeyer to maintain that it wasn’t the South itself that fueled the “Renaissance” (2) but rather “Europe” is a major intervention (22–23).
But there are problems with the thesis. Generally, paradigmatic theses like this one tend to scout the territory from an aerial view. Ground-level distinctions lose their sharp edges. For example, “Europe,” as Brinkmeyer uses the term, tends to steer him away from real differences. Among the Agrarians, the group under examination in his first chapter, “Europe” meant different things to different members. To John Crowe Ransom, it meant the eighteenth-century squirearchy of England; to Allen Tate it meant France; to Robert Penn Warren it meant Italy. In the chapter reserved for Warren, individually, Brinkmeyer does acknowledge that Italy is Warren’s synecdoche for “Europe,” but other complications arise in his treatment. For Warren “Italy”—as many of his poems show—was the conundrum of the Etruscans forward to Mussolini; for Brinkmeyer, Warren’s Italy is just Mussolini’s Fascist regime.
Another ping in the running of the thesis is the variety of signifieds for the signifier “totalitarianism.” Since Brinkmeyer deals almost exclusively with white southern writers (Ransom, Tate, Warren, W. J. Cash, William Alexander Percy, Lillian Smith, Lillian Hellman, Thomas Wolfe, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, and William Faulkner), the meaning of European fascism for African American writhers in the South (Hurston and Wright) is filtered through homegrown racism. For the white Southern writer, the “totalitarianism” might carry a range of meanings. Percy, for example, might have looked with horror at Nazi Germany, but the oppression he daily faced was patriarchially enforced heterosexuality, and that came from his own father and his own Delta community. [End Page 418] Brinkmeyer alludes to Percy’s sexuality as a factor in his response to world politics (97–98), but strides by quickly. When he turns to Percy’s poems and his memoir, Lanterns on the Levee, Brinkmeyer finds southern traditionalism in class, race, and sexuality to be larger factors than Nazism.
In fact, several of the southern writers Brinkmeyer examines found southern traditionalism to be the home-front version of European Fascism: Smith, Cash, McCullers, and Hellman (in Brinkmeyer’s own assessments) were at least as concerned with the Klan, Jim Crow, and the white southern class system as they were with Hitler. The outward focus he claims has a way of bending back inward...