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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 824-831



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Fascism and the Literary Imagination

Erin G. Carlston


Thomas Carl Austenfeld. American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics and Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford, and Hellman. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2001. viii + 189 pp.
Laura Frost. Sex Drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2002. viii + 197 pp.

The last few years have seen a spate of US-based scholarly works trying to unpick the relationship between fascist politics and cultural production. European theorists have naturally been concerned with this problem for decades, and scholars of modernism have long been interested in writers with known connections to fascist parties, like Ezra Pound. But increasingly, attention has turned to the question of how political events and ideologies in the early twentieth century affected artists without such an explicit relationship to a fascist movement or regime. Two recent books advance this project in quite different ways. Thomas Carl Austenfeld's American Women Writers and the Nazis discusses the historical experiences with National Socialism of a group of American women writers; Laura Frost's more theoretical Sex Drives looks at how and why nonfascist artists have eroticized fascism in their work. [End Page 824]

Austenfeld's book is a study of American writers Kay Boyle, Lillian Hellman, Katherine Anne Porter, and Jean Stafford. His thesis is that all four women were strongly influenced by their experiences as expatriates in Europe and especially by their exposure to Germany and/or Austria during the period 1933-45. In his introductory chapter, Austenfeld claims that these four writers, in contrast to expatriates like Ernest Hemingway or Djuna Barnes, are united by the way each developed an "ethic of care" as a response to their encounters with Nazism, which Austenfeld often refers to simply as "totalitarianism" (an elision some will find problematic) (2-3). The classic example of an ethic of care is that of the woman who, given the choice of either stealing medicine or letting her sick child die, refuses both options and attempts instead to obtain money through other means. It is a highly contextual moral system, unlike a Kantian, deontological ethic (which applies universal principles or rules to moral dilemmas), or a teleological ethic (which advocates making ethical choices based on outcome); in Austenfeld's words, "practitioners of the ethic of care may reject both alternatives and opt instead for ethical acts that privilege first those in one's immediate vicinity and then those further removed from oneself, while maintaining a care of self at the same time" (7).

In the seven chapters that follow his introduction (three on Boyle; one each on Porter, Stafford, and Hellman; and one on both Boyle and Porter), Austenfeld attempts to substantiate the claim that these writers practiced an ethic of care through careful readings of those of their works that engage, explicitly or implicitly, with National Socialism. In her 1936 novel Death of a Man, for instance, Boyle depicts a sympathetic Austrian protagonist drawn to Nazism, a portrayal that earned her accusations of being pro-Nazi herself. Austenfeld's nuanced reading of the novel shows that instead, Boyle "makes the point that ethical decisions are frequently contingent and that, by contrast, any purely abstract moral precepts that are supposedly valid regardless of the context are at once suspicious" (20). Similarly, he says that, in her writing, Porter "does not tire of reminding us that politics is for people, not in obedience to ideologies" (34).

Borrowing from feminist theorists and philosophers like Annette Baier and Carol Gilligan, Austenfeld asserts that this kind of context-based ethical reasoning is, specifically, characteristically female; indeed, he refers so frequently to "instinct," "woman's intuition," and so on that one suspects he thinks such reasoning is innately female. Aside from the troubling issues always raised by attempts to attribute specific affects or thought processes to gender, this uncritical linkage seems inconsistent within the context of Austenfeld's own [End Page 825] argument. For one thing, his examples don't always bear it out. In chapter 6, for instance, he demonstrates convincingly...

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