The late Gore Vidal began his last set of memoirs: “As I move – I hope gracefully – to the door marked Exit…” Florence King, who died on January 6, one day after her 80th birthday, can justly claim credit for a graceful exit. The great humorist and cultural critic worked almost to the very end, publishing in The American Spectator, The American Conservative, and The National Review – venues whose regular readers knew her well, and whose younger contributors must have been thrilled to share a masthead with her.
Or so it would be nice to think, anyway. Among King’s most admirable traits was her determination to work strictly on her own terms, which included guarding her time and privacy. Having forsworn TV and radio appearances in the 1980s, King never kept a blog or set up a web page, much less a Twitter account. This hard-won obscurity makes her all the harder to describe to a generation of the uninitiated.
Defined in demographic terms, King was a Southern WASP – an agnostic high-church Episcopalian – and a sometime lesbian. Politically, she was a paleoconservative who, in 1989, declared she was ready to see the foundation of an American monarchy. By temperament, she was a misanthrope; indeed, she made her misanthropy into a badge of honor and its propagation into somewhat of a personal crusade. Titling her National Review column “Misanthrope’s Corner,” she heaped constant scorn on the grinning but essentially humorless busybodies who had transformed America into what she called The Republic of Nice.
Actually, to say that King “heaped scorn” on anything does injustice to her prose style, which was as finely balanced and as lethal as a hatchet. (Hopefully, that simile will please King, who took a lifelong interest in the Lizzie Borden case.) Every page she wrote contains phrases that verge on epigram-hood:
Americans are behaving like people subconsciously obeying the dictum, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” but since the first two will kill you, we are pouring all of our inchoate fears into being merry.
The civil-rights movement turned the white conscience into the eighth wonder of the world, a marble colossus that loomed over cocktail parties and transformed swizzle sticks into tridents of the heart.
[The Southern woman] is required to be frigid, passionate, sweet, bitchy, and scatterbrained – all at the same time. Her problems spring from the fact she succeeds.
King came by such clarity and elegance the hard way. A dropout of Ole Miss’s history master’s program, she saw writing as a skilled trade. She got most of her training on the job, composing feature stories under her own name for Raleigh, North Carolina’s News and Observer and publishing “sweet-savage” romance novels under the pseudonym Laura Buchanan. She worked from the principle that “popular” need not be synonymous with “dumbed down.” In her books and columns, she introduced everyday Americans to the Stoics, de Tocqueville, and Henry Adams. In her reviews, she scourged top authors, including Joan Didion and Jamaica Kincaid, whose repetitive or convoluted styles were winning widespread praise as signs of sophistication.
As a pundit, King shared some of the same targets, including second-wave feminism and political correctness, with countless other conservatives. What distinguished her was her membership in what she called the Different Drummer Corps. Like H.L Mencken, she saw her countrymen as conformists and Puritans at heart, no matter how they might label themselves or what causes they might take up. In her view, Hillary Clinton was “the great girl” – the type of compulsive joiner who tended to dominate 1950s sororities – “always leading where everyone else is already going.”
King was also quick to spot snobbery and even sadism lurking behind the postwar American determination to be compassionate at all costs. Of the anti-smoking movement of the 1990s, she wrote:
The anti-smoking campaign has enjoyed thumping success among the “data-receptive,” a lovely euphemism describing the privilege of spending four years sitting in a classroom. The ubiquitous statistic that college graduates are two-and-a-half times as likely to be non-smokers as those who never went beyond high school is balm to the data-receptive, many of whom are only a generation or two removed from the lunchbucket that smokers represent. Haunted by a fear of falling back down the ladder, and half-believing that they deserve to, they soothe their anxiety by kicking a smoker as the proverbial hen-pecked husband soothed his by kicking the dog.
“They didn’t hold opinions,” King wrote of her mother and grandmother, and Jensy, her grandmother’s maid and companion, “they held facts.” The same certitude stamped every sentence of King’s, and was made doubly impressive by the fact that she lived out her principles, even when they seemed to contradict each other. A lifelong spinster – she liked the term – she had affairs with members of both sexes but insisted on “Miss” over “Ms.” She smoked heavily, but never on the street. She loathed book tours but for many years made it a point of honor to answer her fan mail personally, by hand, and in fact kept up long correspondences with some of her readers.
Aside from some anthologies of earlier work, King published her last book in 1992. As late as 1999, I noticed copies of Southern Ladies and Gentlemen proudly displayed in the concourse book stores at Atlanta International Airport alongside copies of her memoir, Confessions of A Failed Southern Lady. But by now, I’m afraid, her readership has dwindled to a cult. This can’t have mattered much to King, but I maintain that America, linked to death by Google and scolding itself to inanity in jargon-happy national conversations, needs her more than ever.