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The She that Was a He and How He Got Lost to Time

As we await today’s Super Tuesday presidential nomination race results with a grim sense of foreboding, we’ll take a moment to grimly chuckle about Time Magazine’s recent revelation that Evelyn Waugh is one of the most-read female authors in America’s colleges today.
If you’re not familiar with Waugh’s work, you really should be. Waugh is arguably the English language’s greatest fiction writer of the past century, the author of such masterpieces as “Brideshead Revisited,” “Scoop,” “The Loved One,” “Vile Bodies,” “Black Mischief,” “Decline and Fall,” that terrific “Sword of Honour” trilogy, and other worthy fare, all works that have a special relevance for these grim times. Waugh’s is a certainly a name that the supposedly hip-and-well-read folks at such a once-august magazine as Time should know, and they should also know that, in addition to being unfashionably dead and white, Waugh was also very much male.
It’s a common mistake, and even such a supposedly important journalist as Matt Yglesias “tweeted” his confession that he had also assumed Waugh was a woman, “Evelyn” being a name he associates with women, and we recall asking the clerk at a local locally-owned bookstore that prides itself on a well-read staff about a Waugh title and hearing him cheerfully admit that he’d never heard of her, and we suppose he got a lot of “Boy Named Sue” style kidding about it while growing up. He was married to a woman named Evelyn, and although his name was pronounced Ee-vellin and hers was the more common feminine form, their friends liked to distinguish them as He-evyln and She-vylyn, so some confusion is understandable. Still, we note that in a more literate age not so long ago the staff at such a highfalutin rag as Time would have been embarrassed not to know who Evelyn Waugh was, because their middle-brow readers sure did, and that in that not so long ago age the world was bit more civilized.
If the youthful staffers that Time can still afford to employ were to dip into some Waugh, despite deadness and whiteness and maleness, they’d find themselves brilliantly satirized by “Scoop,” that smart set they hope to mingle with had already been ridiculed by “Vile Bodies,” that their hollow understanding of war and peace has been shamed by the “Sword of Honor” books, and that the age they live in was witheringly described decades ago in “Decline and Fall.” If their middle-brow readers were more familiar with Waugh they might have been better prepared to avert the glum outcomes of today’s Super Tuesday voting.
Perhaps the glummest part of our slightly amusing story is that Waugh came in number 97 on that list of most-read female authors. It’s not that we’re altogether sexist, but as much as we love some good old Barbara Pym and Muriel Spark, who remind us very much of Waugh, and Dorothy Parker, who was a more American sort of dame, and Zora Neal Thurston, who is dead but black and female, and although we can think of others and freely acknowledge there are a lot more than we have had the opportunity to read, we seriously doubt that there have ever been a full 96 women of any color or original genitalia who deserve to be more widely read than Waugh. Literary quality takes a back seat to identity politics among the Democratic party’s mart set these days, though, and we don’t expect that either former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or the self-described socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie sanders with the intellectual hairdo and academic elbow patches pay much heed to Waugh’s warnings against modernity.
Nor are we particularly elitist in our literary tastes, and we’ll also go on about our enthusiasm for Jim Thompson, the alcoholic white trash Okie whose delirium tremens dime novels expressed our cultural failings with a self-loathing religiosity that is much needed these days, and we’re suckers for Dan Jenkins’ sports novels and certain Stephen King works and corny old O. Henry short stories and the occasional cloak-and-dagger tales that our Pop so loved, but we do think the Republicans could stand some more reading of those dignified dead white males who suddenly seem out fashion even in the Grand Old Party. As the party enters the modern reality show stage of its long history, forged in the Civil War, it would do well to recall an exchange between two characters in “Scott-King’s Modern Europe.” A stuffy old headmaster declares that “Parents are not interested in producing the ‘complete man’ anymore. They want to qualify their boys for jobs in the public world. You can hardly blame them, can you?” The protagonist responds that “I can and do. I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world.”

— Bud Norman

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One response

  1. Here I must enter a humble brag: I knew that Waugh was a male even though I do not recall reading one of his books. However, I have been buying some of the classics on my Kindle and your list prompts me to get some of his books.

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