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Our Florence Nightingale

National Review's greatest loss, now available in a perfect anthology.

By 3.25.04

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In Review:
Stet, Damnit!
The Misanthrope's Corner, 1991-2002

by Florence King
(National Review Books, 506 pages, $29.95)

It is daunting to be charged with composing a notice of Stet, Damnit!, the valedictory anthology containing all the columns that Florence King wrote for National Review between 1991 and 2002. For one thing, she is herself a peerless reviewer, as TAS readers well know; for another, you might leave a participle dangling tumescently out there in the ether, and if it reached print she might see it and snicker at you. I'm not sure, but I think I might have been sent the book as a punishment for belittling my editor's moaning about writer's block. ("C'mon, isn't that just a euphemism for laziness?")

Another problem is that George Will came annoyingly close to saying it all with his oft-reprinted comment that "If Mencken were alive, he would be her." This captures King's loathing of human beings in the mass, and usefully calls attention to her unclassifiability. No intelligent human can wear the label "conservative" with complete comfort, except insofar as he has decided that his private definition of the term is the right and proper one. It might be more useful if we spoke in terms of "1833 conservatives" or "1065 conservatives" or "44 B.C. conservatives," depending on what exact state of human society the referent hopes to conserve.

I'd peg Florence King somewhere around the mid-eighteenth century, perhaps earlier. Her ideal America -- an America of baronetcies, male-only suffrage, and public floggings for comma abuse -- must strike most as a comic scenario from speculative fiction. If she doesn't exactly mean all her wildest denunciations of the contemporary Tocquevillian inferno, one can at least sense, rereading a decade's worth of fortnightly columns, that she is continually looking around in desperation for a good reason not to mean them.

Her own popularity is perhaps the best one. There is a thriving King cult, and her departure from NR's back page caused muted but strenuous national grieving. Women and fellow writers venerate her particularly keenly, and I would be startled to read a bad review -- in a respectable place -- of anything she had written. I have personally known female King devotees aged 75 and 25. Anyone with even a hint of literary or comic sensibility who now attempts to parse Southern society has to acknowledge a debt to her books and journalism.

STILL, SHE IS OUT OF PLACE even in the chivalric underbelly of the American republic, as she knows. That fine-tuned ear for dialect and cant is, and could only be, an outsider's. When King is written of, much is often made of certain intriguing facts of her biography: reviewers have often burbled, for instance, about the presence of a "bisexual" in NR's rumble seat, which only goes to show what sort of person typically makes a living reviewing books.

The real biographical key to King's writing, if there is one, is that her father was an Englishman. Far be it from me to contradict conventional wisdom about an "Anglosphere" held together with sinews of iron, but literature proves the geographic truth that Great Britain is more than a brisk swim from Maine. Try naming another American writer who can be placed in the "Tory anarchist" line to which Florence King belongs. (Max Beerbohm coined the term; Orwell used it of himself, and of Jonathan Swift; Auberon Waugh adopted it, and it suits his father as well.)

Mencken? I revere Mencken, but his brain got rather spongy in the presence of his Teuton household gods -- scientists, composers, Nietzsche. You can take the German out of Germany, but you can't take the reflexive earnestness out of the German. In the field of the comic novel, you won't find an American who is as plain mean as King. The acknowledged masters are huggy types like John Irving or Kurt Vonnegut who wouldn't slap a horsefly.

Among her rival print columnists, there are few left who believe anything but that the prescription for society's ills is voting for the Good Guys, whoever they may be, next time around. King's own treatment would probably involve great quantities of benzene and a Zippo. Anyway, the very job of freewheeling "culture commentator" is dying out: as she never quite gets around to asking in Stet, Damnit!, how can you have a culture commentator without a culture? King will remain, I think, a lonely bluestockinged bird perched on her own crag.

ALL THAT REALLY NEEDS to be said of Stet, Damnit! is to reiterate that it contains the complete "Misanthrope's Corner," and, hence, is a required purchase. It is a tour de force, a book to be saved for the grandkids. You will find, once you own it, that it is a particularly useful chronicle of the Boy Clinton years, though it is a bit surprising in retrospect how little fun King actually had at his particular expense. One would have thought Clinton was exactly the yeasty sort of material for which her scalpel had been whetted, and occasionally it flashes: "I knew there was something familiar about Bill Clinton. The moment Paula Jones said 'hotel' and 'convention' my youth came back to me. The Prez reminds me of the Man on the Plane, the ubiquitous middle-aged businessman with husband written all over him who lives for out-of-town flings."

But these moments of personal violence are rare. She was more interested in recording the vapid climate of effeminacy and sensitivity that begat President Pantyremover and shaped his destiny. Stet, Damnit! establishes Clinton's place in history as a helpless, lumbering Blakean emanation of the Nineties. We are reminded, to take one example, that then Cincinnati Reds manager Jack McKeon ordered his pitchers not to work around Mark McGwire when he was sitting at 59 home runs, on the verge of a record, in the fall of 1998. Clinton was being impeached, and McKeon wanted to do something nice for "all those people that have been calling my voice mail wanting me to heal the country." O tempora!

Really it's no wonder she quit. Ten years is an awful long time to urge logic and clarity on a country that issues hunting licenses to the blind, devises lightweight hand grenades for female combat soldiers, and puts warning labels on balls of string.

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About the Author

Colby Cosh is a columnist for the National Post of Canada.