Florence King, author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, died this January at the age of 80. She was a humorist, columnist for the conservative journal National Review, literary critic, onetime smut writer, and misanthrope who “dwelled in that 14th Amendment of the human spirit known as ‘Everybody stinks.’” (Her words.) Humans may have been unworthy of her respect, but language was sacred: “I don’t care what people do to each other but I care passionately about what they do to English.”
King was an expert categorizer of people: Southern ladies and gentlemen (“other people enter houses but Southerners surge in on the wings of speech”); “that many-splendored thing called a good ole boy”; High WASPs, whose priorities can be gleaned from their grocery lists (“Alpo, 9-Lives, Harper’s, tomato juice, Worcestershire, Tabasco, vodka, food”); the New Hypochondriacs, who “want to skip both illness and health so they can get to prevention and recovery, co-dependency and enabling;” and William “Bill” Fletcher, the embodiment of the regular American guy. He is a loud, importuning “self-proclaimed expert at spotting arcane lubricious distinctions across a crowded room” who subjects women to lecherous bonhomie:
A woman is wise to shriek with laughter over [his] bon mots. If she merely smiles wryly she is effectively announcing that she has experienced mild pleasure but not orgasm. In William “Bill” Fletcher’s world, “Did I make you laugh?” and “Did I make you come?” are interchangeable questions, so he keeps pumping away, repeating the punch line and elbowing her in the ribs in a symbolic attempt to send her over the top. Fake the laugh. If you don’t, he will put a comforting arm around your shoulders and say, “You’d be a great gal if only you’d develop a sense of humor.”
Woe to him who finds himself the object of King’s withering gaze, be he a boorish flirt or the male Southern author of dynastic novels:
He must show a long line of men, each of whom was half as good as the daddy before him, until he gets to the autobiographical character who, by definition, has undergone the most complete mathematical reduction of all.
What an elegant way to call someone a zero.
King labored over her crisp, epigrammatic prose — “Some women primp; I rewrite” — and used it gleefully to mock what she saw as the excesses or shortcomings of liberal culture: its fulsome praise of multiculturalism; conviction that well-funded government programs can fix all societal ills; sanctimonious outrage; fatuous buzzwords; and a leveling tendency that deprived the world of its heroes and its once noble breed of “hussies.” Waxing nostalgic for the old “hierarchies that once made life colorful and provocative,” she laments in a 1992 essay that “hussydom, by definition an elite sisterhood, has been democratized.” Her flimsy argument: Whereas once verbally dexterous libertines like Nell Gwynne, who calmed an anti-Catholic mob surrounding her carriage by explaining that she was Charles II’s Protestant whore, filled the annals of gossipy history with their bon mots, today “egalitarianism has replaced the arch wordplay of sexual tension with the soporific drone of equal partners.”
King’s essays are rife with controversial opinions and slopes plunging towards phantom precipices. “Will incestist make it to the majors?” she wonders à propos of the burgeoning culture of universal acceptance: “Anything is possible in a madhouse, even a very small madhouse, and the one I’m talking about stretches from sea to sea.” This is King doing her best right-wing radio host impression, and indeed, her relentless insensitivity, however wittily expressed, can be tiresome and unpalatable. So can relentless sensitivity, she would surely rejoin.
Satire pollutes even as it cleanses, and King’s is no exception. Her Juvenalian derision blazes a trail through a thicket — make that a forest — of liberal pieties: “Feminists will not be satisfied until every abortion is performed by a gay black doctor under an endangered tree on a reservation for handicapped Indians,” reads her most notorious line about the culture war’s arms race. King’s sneering dismissal of anything that smacked of liberalism is perhaps surprising given the sexism and bigotry she faced as a bisexual woman coming of age in the 1950s. At her freshman college orientation, the president welcomed the incoming class by avowing that he’d “never seen a prettier collection of females in all my days…You’ve got a fine supply of heifers for the barbecue tomorrow, fellas.” King entered into her first lesbian relationship while a graduate student at Ole Miss in the 1950s. The menacing anonymous calls her lover received clues her into “the Deep South’s exquisite balance between hatred and hospitality.” But King was at heart a Randian libertarian, seeing identity politics as antithetical to her sacred sense of individualism and thus worthy of scorn.
She conceived of feminism, for example, as an elite rather than universal sisterhood, as:
…the freemasonry that exists among intelligent women who know they are intelligent. It is the only kind of female bonding that works, which is why most men do not like intelligent women. They don’t mind one female brain if they can enjoy it privately; it’s the idea of two or more on the loose that upsets them.
Some icons don’t merit entry into this freemasonry. In her criticism, King disparages Erica Jong’s “sow-in-heat prose style;” calls Gloria Steinem the “divine afflatus of feminism who has made a career of leading the herd to trendy saltlicks;” and describes Betty Friedan’s case histories as having “the dreary gusto of public service announcements and television commemorative minutes.” She is vicious on scholars who have a “penchant for dragging the rivers of deserved obscurity for third-rate neurotics,” and equally vicious on the supposedly third-rate neurotics themselves. Sylvia Plath, “feminism’s patron saint,” comes in for particularly harsh treatment, particularly her decision to undergo psychotherapy:
Now she became a shrink’s pet, intent on having the best anxieties, the neatest dreams, the sharpest memories; striving for straight A’s in penis envy, gold stars in schizophrenia, and the Electra Complex honor roll. The handwriting was on the wall and it said Phi Beta Kaput.
One could justly call this callous and unfair, but as invective it approaches perfection.
King wrote many Regency romances and bodice rippers (The Barbarian Princess) under pseudonyms, her writing career beginning when a true confessions magazine accepted one of her stories, “I Committed Adultery in a Diabetic Coma.” Her first and only “Florence King” novel, When Sisterhood Was in Flower, features a young writer, Isabel, being “shanghaied into the feminist movement” in the 1970s. “You may as well know, before you get any further into this,” says the narrator early on, “that my politics were and still are Royalist; I believe in absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings. One thing I like about Bloody Mary: she never said a word about lung cancer.”
When Sisterhood Was in Flower is a comic novel about literal and figurative walls — between rooms, people, philosophies. A bomb goes off in the narrator’s Boston apartment building, bringing down the wall separating her apartment from that of her neighbor, Polly. A member of the Bradshaw clan, “leaders of Wasp America’s loony left,” Polly has a Richard Nixon dartboard, hosts a feminist talk show on PBS exploring alternative child birth methods (e.g., the “birth bucket, used for centuries by women before male physicians conspired to make us give birth in a prone position”), and volunteers at a local Self-Sufficiency Center, solemnly explaining to Isabel that “[t]hey need all the help they can get.” Thus are the odd couple, “two people in search of a wavelength,” thrown into a communal living environment.
Each benefits from the situation. Polly wants to help everyone she meets, while the narrator wants material for a satirical novel. The compulsive activist and the chain-smoking, agoraphobic misanthrope become partners of sorts. They eventually head out West to start a women’s commune at a sprawling house in Los Angeles. (Its walls are in danger too, from termites.) By then their group has swelled to include a woman fleeing her survivalist husband and a reticent medieval music historian obsessed with the gruesome death of Edward II, supposedly killed by having a “hote spitte” inserted into his rectum. Without revealing exactly how King works the sad tale of “Poor Ned’s Burnyng Bunghole” into the plot, suffice it to say that the women mount a spirited defense of their castle when it comes under attack from an abusive male.
In his essay on comedy, Henri Bergson identified mental as well as physical rigidity as a central feature of the comic. Polly is the ultimate Bergsonian figure, inflexibly pursuing a “ruthless humanitarianism” with little understanding of the human. Opposing her is the reclusive, and equally inelastic, ironist:
[Polly] would never understand that agoraphobia was my quirky armor against a gregarious America, and a tool that had helped me to acquire the inner resources and private space she wanted for all women.
Polly’s crusading energy puts a chink in that armor, and Isabel’s resistance forces Polly to become marginally more flexible. But this comedy is more about acceptance than conversion; the novel concludes on a utopian note, but still makes it clear that walls crumble more easily than firmly held convictions.
Sisterhood is a diverting satire; Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady is a minor masterpiece of autobiography. Like all coming of age stories, its central drama revolves around self-definition. Will the memoir’s heroine turn out to be a Southern gentlewoman, as her grandmother, a “frustrated ladysmith,” would like? Or a “malkin,” her father’s term for a pusillanimous non-entity? Or a “virago,” which as her first female lover explains to her, is “a woman of great stature, strength and courage who is not feminine in the conventional ways”? The Education of Henry Adams is a key text, particularly Adams’s theory that puritan America deprived its women of any feminine ideals: “An American Virgin would never dare command; an American Venus would never dare exist.” (King’s grandmother objects to his theory on the grounds that Adams is “just some old foreigner who doesn’t understand our ways;” King’s mother repeatedly refers to him erroneously, and contemptuously, as John Quincy Shitass.”)
King grew up in Washington D.C. with her ribald dynamo of a mother, bookish father, a British jazz musician, and her grandmother, one of the great comic creations in American letters. She is an endless source of information about “female trouble,” delivering endless monologues on troublesome wombs — “The Ovariad” King’s father calls them. Later, an African-American woman, Jensy, joins the household ménage, famous along the U Street corridor for her moral rectitude. She returns letters from insufficiently pious relatives by scrawling “Return to Sinner” on the envelope. “The three women who raised me all behaved like freewheeling, slightly mad Popes,” writes King.
The education of Florence King begins with her reluctant schoolchild: “I wasn’t used to children and they were getting on my nerves. Worse, it appeared that I was a child too. I thought I was just short.” She later becomes enamored of French literature, specifically Jean Racine, whose taut dramas open up her world: “Once exposed to the neo-classical restraints of Bérénice, I began to resent males for their power to distract me from the life of the mind I craved.”
Confessions is also a story of King’s sexual education, and she is, predictably, very funny on sexual miseducation. One of her classmates, presumably a malkin, fears that she must be a nymphomaniac because she had a clitoral orgasm:
The source of her woe was an author whose theory of the subcontracted orgasm read like a directive from the Interstate Commerce Commission. He said that while the clitoris was not licensed to operate independently, it was a spur line of female pleasure that helped carry the delirious consignment to its final destination.
Her frank accounts of her own sexual adventures are equally funny — during one she worries about disrobing because “in the fifties, tits weren’t up to snuff unless they could be used to put out Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear” — but they also allow King to show just how well she could write in a more introspective mode. This she does in the latter part of the book, wherein she coolly assesses heartbreaks and tragedies while displaying her flinty comic resilience.
I should reiterate in closing that this exceptional American humorist was also a bit of a crank. Consider “Two Kidneys in Transplant Time,” an entertaining, if slightly unhinged, essay in which she performs a linguistic analysis of “transplantese:” what we talk about when we talk about organ donation. King was an expert, making a habit of collecting articles on the subject. A sentence from such a clipping strikes her as particularly menacing: “A donor heart was located and flown to the hospital.” The passive voice, “the voice of Sneaky Pete,” puts King on alert. Just what are medical professionals and their journalistic boosters up to? Her hackles raised, King turns her Orwellian glare on the phrase “donor heart:”
People who tailor words to suit their own needs will tailor anything to suit their own needs. The originator of that ‘donor heart’ phrase snatched the noun out of its proper place and put it in where it was needed. See what I’m getting at?
By transplanting the noun “donor” into the adjective position, the conspirators have inadvertently laid bare their perfidious plans:
…somebody out there in Democracyland is getting ready to render some of us organ-free for the benefit of the organ-deprived…I have visions of mad dash of Nice Guyism gone awry. The lugubrious pleas for a kidney here, a liver there, a heart in Sheboygan that descend like a sledgehammer on a neurotically friendly nation could easily inspire an organ Robin Hood to kill healthy people just to be able to arrive at the hospital in the nick of time with the needed part.
Behold the paranoid style in American politics in fine form, the scheming Papists of yore replaced by scalpel-wielding good Samaritans. I’d like to add my own, more uplifting vision to accompany King’s dystopian one. In a sick ward, an uninspired humorist of this “neurotically friendly nation” is slowly wasting away. Then a miracle occurs…
A donor spleen was located and flown to the hospital.