Thursday, March 17, 2005

HOLIDAY: In Honor of St. Patrick . . .

I'm going to post about Florence King. Yes, the atheist, Republican lesbian feminist writer.

This is not nearly so insane as it sounds. Her legendary early bodice-ripper, The Barbarian Princess (published in 1977 under the pseudonym Laura Buchanan), featured a hot scene in which the heroine almost deflowered the young, handsome Patricius. Unfortunately, he was kidnapped at a critical moment, starting him on the road to sainthood but leaving the heroine with blue ovaries.

I recently reread her Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, which is right up there with James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times as a classic American comic memoir. It might be even better, for King's book has a profound theme: the search for a feminine identity.

Granny and Aunt Nana define it as fragility, although Granny prefers the pelvic weakness of being "delicate down below," whereas Aunt Nana plumps for insanity. (They collaborate on Cousin Evelyn Cunningham, who ends up hysterically obsessed with losing her uterus as well as her mind.) Herb, Florence King's self-educated Cockney father, explains it all in the terms of Henry Adams: the virgin and the Venus are archetypes of female power, but neither is American. For a while, Florence's love of the French language gives her an easy proof of femininity, but she loses her "-elle, -ette, and -euse" with heartbreaking results. She pursues self-definition in the embrace of men, women, and academia.

The book makes me laugh even on the dozenth rereading. It has deeper feeling than Southern Ladies and Gentlemen, although that's also brilliant. I've bought and given away ten or fifteen copies; it's my standard gift for Yankees moving south and for homesick southerners. (Yes, I am a Yankee, but I also have cousins in deepest Alabama. My cousin Bobby is a classic Good Old Boy, and his daughter is a belle.)

Some Florence King quotations:

"No matter which sex I went to bed with, I never smoked on the street."

"Like charity, schizophrenia begins at home."

"There is no such thing as a fallen woman; when she steps out of her place, she always steps up."

"Silver is the Southern woman’s proudest possession and highest priority as well as the subject of much of her conversation. The night before her daughter’s wedding, a Southern mother will sit on the bed and talk intimately about silver. Every decent woman goes to her husband with twelve "covers," and if the knives have hollow handles he’ll be running with other women before the year is out, you wait and see. No man respects a woman with hollow handles."

"Americans worship creativity the way they worship physical beauty -- as a way of enjoying elitism without guilt: God did it."

"Any hope that America would finally grow up vanished with the rise of fundamentalist Christianity. Fundamentalism, with its born-again regression, its pink-and-gold concept of heaven, its literal-mindedness, its rambunctious good cheer... its anti-intellectualism... its puerile hymns... and its faith-healing... are made to order for King Kid America."

"Judge not, lest ye be judged judgmental."

"Showing up at school already able to read is like showing up at the undertaker's already embalmed: people start worrying about being put out of their jobs."

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