Thursday, July 03, 2008
A Fourth of July Twofer
Two Kings of American Letters
DARK STARS (& STRIPES). I know there will be a lot of grand rhetoric over the next few days about the value of American freedom and liberty and the debt we owe to those who have fought for it over the centuries. But there is more than one way to fight. This year, as we enter the last mile of our quadrennial presidential festival of lies, smears, empty promises, and full-of-it reportage, I'm thinking it's a propitious moment to remind ourselves of another grand American warrior tradition: misanthropy.
We have celebrated diversity and the uniquely wonderful attributes of so many distinct groups in our rapidly dis-integrating melting pot that we tend to forget an important truth -- that there's a hell of a lot wrong with all of them, us included. It is perhaps an unusual but energizing act of patriotism to realize how great this country is despite the unending frailties of human nature and the ill-founded vanities of the loudest among us. And it's arguable that one of the reasons for our national greatness is that we have somehow tolerated and even nurtured a small but hardy stream of wits who speak the harshest truths and make us like it. I'm dedicating this Fourth of July to them.
Here's an excerpt from a book review:
THE NOBLE WHITE MAN
The Incredulous, accusatory question, "You don't like Mark Twain?" is one I heard throughout my young womanhood. The shocked inquisitor was always male. This particular gender gap has its roots in the way our schools teach Twain. In my day, junior-high English classes read Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and the story about the frog. Little girls despise little boys and frogs — the distinction is minimal at that age — so the damage is done. Whatever Twain we are forced to read in college invariably runs up against the pubertal mental block, so we spend the best years of our lives going around saying, "I can't stand Mark Twain."
I changed my mind in my thirties when l began to prefer non-fiction to novels and discovered Twain's essays. All of my old favorites, as well as some new ones, are contained in this superbly presented collection.
These books are secular bibles for our
times — and not merely
because they are printed on elegantly thin paper. Bill Clinton's living
obituary is contained in the 1901 essay "Corn-Pone Opinions," a
dissection of the man who "can't bear to be outside the pale; can't
bear to be in disfavor; can't endure the averted face and the cold
shoulder; wants to stand well with friends, wants to be smiled upon,
wants to be welcome, wants to hear the precious words 'he's on the
I don't want to violate the fair usage principle, but read the whole
review. It's a beautifully concise introduction to some of Mark Twain's
most outrageously "mean-spirited" writings, including what may be the
most devastating demolition of a supposed literary great ever printed.
The reviewer is a huge fan of Twain at his wickedest, and I'm a huge
fan of the reviewer, Florence King. Which is why this is a twofer. By
all means (re)acquaint yourselves with the dark side of America's first
genuine literary titan. It's no wonder this and that herd of
disgruntled sheep are still trying to run his books out of libraries
across the nation. Something about him remains fresh and sharp, still
capable of drawing blood with his pen. But so is Florence King. She is
a proud misanthrope whose essays for the National Review over the years have
skewered fools on the left and
the right in prose so distinctly apt as to seem unassailable. And, like
Twain, she is very very funny.
You can go look up her life story elsewhere. I'm going to give you
just a few excerpts to demonstrate her range of subjects and deftness
with words. This is thoroughly unfair to her, by the way. Each of
her pieces is its own whole, very difficult to cut InstaPundit style
biopsies from. Consider them appetizers instead.
To get rid of useless furniture today you must hire a trash hauler to take it to the landfill, or else take it yourself, provided you own a truck and, if a woman, can lift a bureau and don't mind driving to desolate places like landfills. Otherwise, you have to rent a truck and find two strong young men you aren't afraid to let into your home. The only guaranteed way to get rid of old stuff is to buy new stuff from a store that takes your old stuff to the landfill for free.
Then again, the landfill may not take it... I bought a new air conditioner from a store that promised to take the old one off my hands. I thought it was a free service but they said they had to charge me $25 labor to take the condenser out before they would be allowed to throw the AC away; otherwise the landfill "wouldn't accept" it. Waste not, want not condensers.
My attic storage room is full of 15 years' worth of fritzed appliances and electric fans, but with neither janitor nor incinerator I am now faced with taking them unspayed to the landfill and finding out what it feels like to be rejected by a dump.On TV cooks:
Emeril, who has a band, is the most nerve-wracking. All of them talk too much, kid around, do tricks with utensils, mug for the camera, keep up a steady stream of unfunny patter, and in general show off for the audience, who invariably respond like schoolchildren with a teacher who can't or won't maintain discipline. The din and distractions make it impossible to follow the recipes or study the techniques. Having an audience is part of the problem; it's like trying to cook and converse with your dinner guests at the same time. The kitchen is one place where show biz doesn't work; the sole shining exception being Julia Child -- a comic genius without trying.
Not all TV cooks are obstreperous. Martha
Stewart is a model of
discipline, but that's just the trouble. She reminds me of Fraulein von
Frumpel, the villainess in a WWII-era Saturday serial designed to keep
us phartlings pumped up for the war effort. Stewart says all the right
homemaker things, but I can't help feeling that somewhere in there is
an "Achtung!" waiting to come out.
The trouble with lists is that they are the work of conformists. Take, for example, that old standby, the Ten Most Admired, an annual exercise in lockstep opinion ever since I can remember. Year after year, it was always the same; an overnight newsmaker might occasionally break through the phalanx of acceptable thinking, but otherwise it boiled down to the President, the First Lady, and Billy Graham.
The millennial lists exceeded mere conformity to achieve the most rigid political correctness yet seen. Nelson Mandela was on everything except Entomologists Who Changed Our Lives, Gloria Steinem was right up there with Edison on the one about light-shedders, and Crazy Horse joined Oscar Wilde on Most Misunderstood.
If the cure for democracy is more
democracy, then the cure for lists
is more lists, so I have compiled People I Instinctively Like for My
Own Quirky Reasons Whether I Ought To or Not.
On a biography of Gloria
The parable of the mud turtle comes at the end of this hagiographic book, but it so perfectly illustrates the feminist blind spot of both biographer and subject that I shall start with it.
Here is how Gloria Steinem claims she learned to respect the right to self-determination:
During a science field trip in college, she found a turtle beside a road. Afraid that it would get run over, she picked it up and carried it back into the woods where it would be safe — only to be told by her professor that it had probably taken the turtle weeks to reach the muddy shoulder where she wanted to lay her eggs, but now, thanks to Miss Steinem's help, she would have to start all over again.
"It was a lesson Steinem never forgot," writes Carolyn G. Heilbrun.
Really? Coulda fooled me. Miss Steinem
has made a career of meddling
in women's egg-laying habits and taking them where she thinks they
ought to be. Now, in what is tactfully known as post-feminism, they are
faced with the task of starting all over again.
On the publication of the letters of Ayn Rand:
Her most notorious trait emerges in a letter to Archibald Ogden, editor of The Fountainhead, who was to supply an introduction to the 25th-anniversary edition. In his draft he made the mistake of relating the funny things that happened during the editing of the book, and was promptly hit by a Scud missive: "You are entitled to your own views about humor. But you know mine, and you chose to ignore them — and there is no meeting ground." She cast him out and wrote the introduction herself.
This book reeks of the sycophancy that Miss Rand always inspired, from its terse little editor's notes to Leonard Peikoff's grim promise that "an authorized biography of Ayn Rand will appear in due course." Considering that her birthday is given incorrectly here, it would appear that Peikoff and Berliner aren't even very good sycophants.
On Ughs (her term for the squalid in our culture):
"Gross-out" movies are now an actual genre, like sci-fi and Westerns, and we can't avoid watching them. Rubrics like "Just switch channels" are useless. Between promos aired repeatedly during station breaks and film clips featured on entertainment news, we get a Best Of sampling of green snot and half- eaten worms without leaving the privacy of our homes...
Since arrested development is as American as apple pie, it is easy to identify the subconscious motivation of the adult male Ughs who produce all these revolting movies and commercials. They are our tassel-loafered Taliban, engaged in a last, desperate striving for male domination under the tacit battle cry, "If you can't beat 'em, disgust 'em."
Unfortunately, it's getting harder and harder to disgust women these days, so the Ugh content of American life must keep expanding to fill the vacuum left by female modesty and delicacy. Consequently, our entire population now has a median age of 14, and a sense of proportion that never gets past the eighth grade.I won't pretend I've done her justice. But here's an archive list at NRO, where you can also learn how to procure larger collections of her work.
If you get tired of the clicheed bombast this weekend, though, remember where you can find some quick and deadly antidotes -- and take the time to celebrate the fact that we still (for how much longer?) have freedom of speech in our country.
Happy Independence Day.