The Wodehouse Conservative
ONE OFTEN HEARS WASHINGTON, D.C., shamed for its sartorial cluelessness. The putdown holds, more or less, that a fashionable dresser would be as out of place among the capital's armies of shabbiness as a harlequined jester in a sea of black turtlenecks.
Dork chic--with, famously, its regulation leisure wear of khaki pants and golf shirts for men--is certainly the reigning philosophy of style in town. But I have noticed more than a handful of gents, all of them righteous types, who are absolutely obsessed with clothing. No trendsetting metrosexuals, even less their Gap-addicted lagging indicators, they are cuff-link aristocrats who know more about broadcloth than should be considered polite or appropriate for straight men. They have their own tailors and their suits are all custom-made-not bought at the store and then adjusted, but built from the hem up. Their jackets have full linings; hell, their linings have full linings.
Ask one about an article of his clothing and you might learn of its distinguished origins. The shoes descend from medieval principalities mentioned in Machiavelli's Discourses. The cuffs are anti-Napoleon restorationists. The neckties have three surnames and entries in the Social Register. And their owners are young men, many of them in modest middle class professions like journalism. But their boaters crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower.
As I said, these fancy-pantsers are all right wingers--like this investigative reporter friend of mine (he dishes dirt, but never wears it) who was regaling me with the contents of a letter he'd sent to the editor of a men's magazine after reading their "stupid fashion issue." The offending glossy's expert on dapperness was so low-rent, according to my drinking pal, that the ideal shirt he described was merely the kind of thing you'd find at Thomas Pink. ("Pink," I've learned, is a men's chain with a store near my office. To get there, I would have to go past the Filene's Basement where I usually shop, then travel down the street and up several tax brackets.) Or like the well-dressed Hill staffer who, when I said I was a writer, told me his favorite piece of literature was "The Official Preppy Handbook," that out-of-print classic of comic sociology from 1980. For him, the Handbook was not a field guide to the species, but an owner's manual for his wardrobe and social life. Or like Senator Orrin Hatch, whose Edwardian collars and flawless sense of texture led Salon to call him the "wardrobe winner" of the 2000 presidential election.
THEY ARE MODERN-DAY DANDIES, a social type, to my knowledge, without an equivalent on the left. A characterological instinct tells them it is better to be a character and of less consequence than consequential but a dork and a grind. Gay is their mood and flip is their manner. Their beau ideal comes from the same Anglophile neverland as Bertie Wooster and Psmith. Often described as "debonair," in P.G. Wodehouse's Leave it to Psmith, the title character is told, "You look as if you were on your way to a garden party at Buckingham Palace." Applying for a job, the "irreproachably clad" young Psmith explains his high style thusly: "Employers look askance at a baggy trouser leg. A zippy waistcoat is more important to them than an honest heart. This beautiful crease was obtained with the aid of the mattress upon which I tossed feverishly last night."
Not coincidentally, many of the dashing urbanites I have in mind profess a sacred bond with Wodehouse. They are not the only ones. I myself recently discovered the master and immediately fell under his spell, following the example of many friends and betters. With the recent reissuing from Overlook Press of several Wodehouse classics, a couple of writers I admire took the occasion to do a plug for Plum, as the man was known to friends and family. The comedies, wrote Andrew Ferguson in the Weekly Standard, "reach a kind of perfection. They offer almost everything a reader for pleasure could want." Roger Kimball, in the New Criterion, recalled the moment "that I first acquainted myself with the sublime work of Sir Pelham Grenville," describing the Wodehouse habit as a "beneficent addiction."
Perhaps the most ardent of this bunch is Scott Walter, an editor at Philanthropy magazine, who not long ago gave a talk at the American Enterprise Institute for a new series of public events devoted to literary culture. It goes to show how dear Plum is to the conservative mind that when America's leading conservative think tank feels the impulse to celebrate fiction, the first really big writer they single out is him. Walter is a walking bibliography of Wodehouse phrases, anecdotes, and literary criticism. His favorite Wodehouse student, he says, is W.H. Auden, who argued that God's holy covenant with man is transmuted in the fools' talk of Bertie and Jeeves. Which may even be true.
The affection for Wodehouse is non-ideological, but for ideological reasons, one can see how conservatives might find it easier to warm to a world full of servants and rich people and various stock characters, all cast in some idyllic time and place that is mostly of Wodehouse's giddy invention. If social realism has an opposite, this is clearly it. Yet, Wodehouse has his fans on the left, like Alexander Cockburn (and countless other English writers), who penned a lovely introductory essay for the paperback edition of The Code of the Woosters. And when the apolitical Wodehouse was accused of treason for doing a series of radio spots on Berlin radio under Nazi occupation (they turned out to be wholly innocuous), his defenders Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, Malcolm Muggeridge represented many a political stripe.
If Wodehouse appeals more prominently to conservatives, here in America anyway, then it is to their little-mentioned eccentric side, their occasional embrace of a festive mood and farcical manner. The nattiness and pizzazz I've described are intentionally amusing. The Wodehouse conservative is unfailingly self-aware. Wodehouse's characters, too, seem to know what characters they are, only they never say so. Psmith, Jeeves, the Oldest Member of the golf comedies, each grins like the Cheshire cat. Nor do the Washington dandies ever lower themselves to letting on that their show is a wee something of a joke. Here again they follow in Wodehouse's steps. As Kimball puts it so well: "Wodehouse's real genius lay in his ability to endow patently absurd situations with momentary conviction."
Wodehouse is the conservative's Oscar Wilde--the key example of a most sweet frivolity, a landmark, a fixed point by which we navigate our way back and forth to the happy club where we join our friends for a drink and take in the pleasure of being alive.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard and editor of Doublethink, the magazine of the America's Future Foundation. This article appears in the winter 2004 issue of Doublethink.