Thursday, October 20, 2011
My Favorite Conservative Lesbian Feminist
I used hyperlinking without knowing it was a thing, and before computers.
My method developed rather quickly as a reaction to required reading in high school. Not the excellent lists Columbia or Harvard students are required to complete in the summer before they commence college, which if followed would have you half-educated already by September. No, what propelled me to find a way through to what genius, insight and inspiration was out there beyond my suburban-desert horizon was the demand, still puzzling to me, that we spend a half-year on Great Expectations.
Not to say we can do without Dickens. His minor works are delightful but you only need to read one of the magnum opi, and that one should be about any character other than Pip.
The school bookstore had one of those vertical spin-around carousels to display paperbacks, and it actually had some good ones that had passed under the notice of the curriculum police. Score. A year or so later, I found Sandy's bookstore on Grace Street in the Fan, and I was on my (own literary) way.
I took advantage of the authors' knowledge of and fondness for books of all types, not prescribed ones: contemporary, earlier 20th century, foreign, and just odd, and searched out those that sounded intriguing. I was off to the races.
Before out-of-print or rare books were so easy to find on the internet, the search itself was both challenging and frustrating. Norman Douglas' novel from the 20s, South Wind, was on my radar for over 20 years before I found it, in perfect condition, free on the local library give-away table. I almost said "my precious," but fortunately not out loud.
John Fowles, the British novelist whom most of us discovered after seeing the film version of The Collector, is as fine a guide to all things historical and literary as you could wish for. He mentioned how taken he was with a 1913 novel by a Frenchman who tragically died a month after he joined the army at the outset of World War I. Without the internet, I don't think I'd have every found a copy of Le Grand Meaulnes, and without Mr. Fowles would never have known of it.
Wallace Stegner's Beyond the 100th Meridian was mentioned by one of the many writers who held him in high esteem, and I'm still grateful for the tip, because it's now in my all-time top ten.
Today, on the blog Dispatches From the Culture Wars (on freethoughtblogs.com), I was introduced to someone I'd never heard of who is one type of writer I treasure: the cranky misanthrope. They're usually an older male, of the H.L. Mencken variety...but the 75-year-old Florence King is unique -- a Southern lady, a traditional conservative (the kind with a brain), a lesbian, feminist and monarchist. Lately, however, she just prefers "spinster." Isn't that someone you'd like to share a mint julep with (until she smacked you over the head with her cane)?
A descendant of colonial Virginia notables, the irony of her own lower-middle-class situation growing up must have bemused her as her mother and grandmother endeavored to raise her as a lady and a snob. And she followed a conventional path as college student, teacher and newspaper features writer until she just couldn't stay on the tracks anymore. Late in life came essays, novels, autobiography and even erotica and a romance (the less ladylike stuff under pseudonyms). For many years, Ms. King has written a column for the National Review, of all things, where she has laboriously "shovelled through mountains of bullshit." Andy Rooney is just the Reader's Digest version of this spitfire.
Take the time to read the blog post mentioned above. It quotes a series of letters between Ms. King and her agent, the subject of which is John Updike, and it's a skewering to remember. She's got a sharp eye and a sharper tongue, and you could fill a deliciously mean book with morsels like these:
"Writers who have nothing to say always strain for metaphors to say it in." (Touche, Mr. Updike!)
"Time has lost all meaning in that nightmare alley of the western world known as the American mind."
Link by link, you always find something or somebody you don't know how you lived without.