The Genuine Article

Florence King, the essayist, fiction writer, literary critic, and wit, died last week at the age of 80. King is being hailed as “one of the most provocative and uncompromising prose stylists of her generation,” and rightly so.

In the 1980s, many of us yearning to write for a living went to school on the newspaper and magazine articles of people like Joseph Epstein, John Simon, P.J. O’Rourke, and Florence King. Discovering King’s rollicking prose was especially influential in my case. The memorable King apercus piled up in my quotation bank over the years.

For example, King captured—and this was long before reality television and selfies—the way that our media culture has affected our national character, “as more and more celebrity wannabes wander from green room to green room like mendicants with begging bowls, offering up their privacy and dignity for enough fame to keep body and soul together.” This is like what Andy Warhol said with his 15-minutes point but it’s even funnier.

A skeptic of modern women’s assumption that they can “have it all,” King called Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Erica Jong, and Adrienne Rich “pseudo-feminists.” The implication was that she, a Republican, was the genuine article. “Spinsterhood is Nature’s Own feminism, the only kind that works,” she declared. Real feminism was 1) not having a husband or children, 2) being financially self-reliant, 3) enjoying being ignored by society at large for the freedom it gives you, and 4) being secure in your person by packing heat—hence the cover of Lump It or Leave It, her 1990 essay collection, which had a photo of a grinning King standing behind a vase of flowers and waving a handgun.

What strikes me in rereading King is not just her wit but how compellingly she could blend the intellectual with the personal. Her writing cast a spell over the reader—one didn’t notice, or at least I didn’t, how disparate were the subjects that could be touched upon in a single essay. “Good King Herod” (1989) is a good example. Some of its ingredients: her grandmother’s old wives’ tales; the contempt for their elders shown by antiwar protesters in the 1960s; a gift given to her by her 94-year-old Aunt Cora; and fundamentalist Christianity, which she scorns in a Mencken-esque way without ever mentioning H.L. Mencken. It ends with a hilarious takedown of a Mary Gordon novel. The thread tying everything together is King’s opinion that Americans overvalue youth.

It is an ornery opinion, one of many that filled her articles, book reviews (she was a twice-a-week reviewer for Newsday), and books, the most well-known of which was Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady (1985). She was a misfit, a misanthrope who said that “The very words group, team, committee, and movement make me sick to my stomach.”

She was a feminist who didn’t want to be part of feminism. Later in life describing herself as a conservative—and she did give off a certain aura of throne-and-altar romanticism—she made sure to differentiate herself from other conservative women like Phyllis Schlafly. (And indeed her 1960s-style bluntness about sex must have made Schlafly blanch.) Discussing the lesbian affair she had in grad school in Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady had turned her into “the darling of radical left-wing females,” which was unwelcome and left her chagrined. All that awful prose emanating from the “jargon-spewing socialists and Earth Mothers” of the women’s studies presses was “an excellent argument for keeping Lesbianism furtive,” she quipped.

There is really a lot going on here, and much of it rife with contradictions. Housewifery holds no attraction for her yet she writes of her passion for cleaning floors and scrubbing bannisters, and milks it for laughs. A more significant contradiction is that she sneers at women for desperately seeking role models but it is clear, especially in Confessions, that she has spent her life in search of role models.

The ones she prefers tend to be noblewomen, particularly fallen aristocrats with enough pluck to foment counter-revolution. She writes about Charlotte Corday, for example,

the slip of a girl with nerves of steel who singlehandedly conceived and carried out the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat during the French Revolution, and behaved like such a brick on the scaffold that the executioner, infuriated by her unfeminine stoicism, slapped the face of her guillotined head.

Confessions is actually about two women who didn’t make the grade as Virginia belles, not one: the author and also her rebellious, foul-mouthed, athletically inclined mother. This makes the book very much resemble King’s breakthrough volume published a decade before, Southern Ladies and Gentlemen (1975). In both, we see that it is Granny, King’s mother’s mother, who set the standard that loomed so large in King’s unhappy youth. Think of the sadness of a child who knows that she fails to meet a standard; but then think of that child’s perceiving how deluded and vain the standard-bearer is, and the comedic/sardonic possibilities start to become apparent. King mined this comedic/sardonic vein for all it was worth.

Granny was a Virginian proud of her colonial ancestors, so much so that she made them out to be much more distinguished than they were. For this she is made fun of in King’s books, in fact throughout her writings. The one-liners about Granny—“an arch-segregationist with perfect manners”—are everywhere. One chapter heading is a Granny quotation, “You Can Tell She’s Got Good Blood. She’s Delicate.” Satirizing this woman’s “First Families of Virginia” snobbery is one of King’s major themes. Yet there is a quirky and very human ambivalence, a doubling back, as the satirist obliquely lets on that she values what her silly grandmother valued. (The acknowledgments in the 1975 book have a charming tribute to King’s editor, a woman working for Stein and Day who is “a direct descendant of Governor Spotswood of Virginia.”) That is another of the King contradictions, one of the most interesting and subtle ones.

King grew up in the 1940s in humble circumstances in Washington, D.C. Her father, a mild-mannered Brit, earned a modest income as a musician. She was a “poor-but-bright kid” who aspired to the life of the mind. That and her family’s Virginia Cavalier pretensions made her a budding elitist, of sorts. “Though a scholarship student, I received an aristocrat’s education,” she said of her time at American University and graduate school in Mississippi. Studying European and ancient history had formed her into what she called a “polished proletarian.”

But what career was a “polished proletarian” with an elite education fitted to pursue? One option was to become “a pornographer,” in her words, which she did. After all, “polished proletarians have to make a living.” Between 1968 and 1972 she wrote 37 “paperback porn novels in which I was supposed to sound like a man and did.” These were the days of “the new raunch,” as the late critic Mary Cantwell put it. By the mid-1970s King was earning top dollar for humor pieces printed in mass-circulation magazines like Redbook, Harper’s, Ms., and Cosmopolitan. (The one that Cosmopolitan ran in its October 1974 issue, “The Contraception Capers,” was editor Helen Gurley Brown’s all-time favorite piece in the magazine.)

By the mid-1970s, King writes in her collection Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye, “the anti-feminist backlash had produced a demand for lushly romantic bodice-rippers” that sold millions of copies. Wanting to “get in on the gravy,” she tried her hand at this upgraded kind of schlock, historical fiction, and in 1978, using the pen name Laura Buchanan, she published a novel set in the 5th century called The Barbarian Princess. (Whenever a Roman soldier attempts to have his way with the Celtic princess she cries desiste! in Latin. If it’s several soldiers at a time, she begins “screaming desistite!—gang rape takes the plural.”)

King got a lot of mileage out of that one (her uproarious essay about it is called “Sex and the Saxon Churl”). For someone so good at weaving her fancies in with her facts, historical fiction would seem to be a perfect genre. But it drove her to drink:

No matter how much pride I took in my research, no matter how much Latin I added for flavor, the fact remained that I was spinning a pointless, plotless, endless chase scene whose only purpose was keeping a good-bad girl one step ahead of the long short-arm of the lawless.

The 1982 novel When Sisterhood Was in Flower bears her real name, which is to say that it was her most ambitious novel. Heavily autobiographical, it was set in 1971 and concerned a Southern conservative woman’s reluctant participation in a women’s commune. It was the above-mentioned Mary Cantwell who reviewed it in the New York Times—she was complimentary in some respects, but gave a thumbs down over all. So dedicated to her craft was King, and so high were her standards, that it may be supposed that she took that verdict as final. It was the last novel she published.

King’s own literary criticism—usually discerning, but not often showing the tact that Cantwell showed her—was geared to the readers of newspapers. She skewered John Updike and Joan Didion as pretentious. This rather places her in the middlebrow middle, where she would probably have least wanted to put herself. She didn’t like majorities, sympathizing as she did with those above, and those below (if they had what it took to rise to prominence like she did).

On the other hand, she wanted contact with the people out in newspaperland. “I consider my readers sacred,” she said, and answered assiduously whenever they wrote to her. The articles she was writing for National Review until just a few years ago included her mailing address: a post office box in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Curmudgeonly but reaching out—yet another human, all-too-human, contradiction in one of my role models, Florence King.