As expatriates in Germany and Austria in the 1930s, Kay Boyle, Katherine Anne Porter, Jean Stafford, and Lillian Hellman saw the rise of Nazi ideology firsthand. And while all four clearly realized—as their work demonstrates—that ethical behavior is the personal corollary of political conviction, scholars of these important American writers have long neglected the significance of the mingling of writing, ethics, and politics in their work.
In American Women Writers Thomas Austenfeld restores ethics and politics to the central places they held in the lives and work of these four women. By documenting the political and ethical apprenticeships each woman served in Germany and Austria, Austenfeld convincingly argues that the genius of these writers exists precisely in their ability to continue the development of their best creative sensibilities—in spite of and indeed because of the ethical challenges they faced as women writers in the tense prewar world.
Kay Boyle's analysis of the language and cultural expression of occupation, Lillian Hellman's exposure of diplomatic language as furthering war, Katherine Anne Porter's implicit critique of Weimar Germany's class consciousness, and Jean Stafford's searching meditations on guilt and responsibility all argue afresh for the pragmatic goals that fiction and drama can serve in a politically unstable world.
Much has been written of late regarding modernist writers—almost always men such as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot—who either colluded with fascist leaders or who expressed sentiments that were sometimes alarmingly fascist in nature. With its emphasis on women, politics, and ethics, American Women Writers and the Nazis provides a needed and intriguing chapter on the relationship of American writers to one of the most devastating political movements of the modern era—indeed, of any era.
American Women Writers and the Nazis is a deeply interesting book about a turbulent—and suddenly relevant—period. The passion of its judgments and the clarity of its prose recommend it.