“A crusty irascible cantankerous old person full of stubborn ideas.” is a rather pithy and accurate definition of the word “curmudgeon”, I dare say. That definition came out of the Wordnet project about five years ago. It’s an interesting word with a derogatory flavor to it, a word which is used by young people to describe old folks, and also by old people when referring to themselves in a humorous and self-deprecatory fashion; old people generally don’t mind using the word to describe themselves but might well take umbrage if you use it to describe them.
Many of the best essayists in the English language could be fairly described as curmudgeons. Complaints about the world are more interesting to read than passive expressions of smiling acceptance and complaisance, I’ve noticed.
H.L. Mencken, that journalist, pessimist, and general social gadfly, was a classic curmudgeon. Few escaped his scathing torrents of prose during the early years of the last century. Christopher Hitchens could be considered a modern example.
Some writers are part-time curmudgeons. George Orwell donned curmudgeonly robes when he wrote his classic essay “Politics And The English Language” — but some might call that particular piece shooting fish in a barrel.
Recently I was reading an essay by Roger Kimball called The Great American Novel. The essay is a lament, or perhaps a diatribe, concerning the sad state of affairs in English-language novel-writing these days. According to Kimball, very few novels of much value have been published during the past fifty years. Here’s a quote:
We get a lot of new novels at my office. I often pick up a couple and thumb through them just to keep up with what is on offer in the literary bourse. The delicate feeling of nausea that ensues as my eye wanders over these bijoux is as difficult to describe as it is predictable. The amazing thing is that it takes only a sentence or two before the feeling burgeons in the pit of the stomach and the upper lip grows moist with sweat. I am not generally a fan of the Green party, but at those moments I feel a deep kinship with their cause: All those lovely trees, acres and acres of wood pulp darkened, and for what? No one, I submit, should pay good money for a college education and then be expected to ruminate over the fine points of what is proffered to us by the fiction industry today.
Doesn’t Kimball’s prose just drip with curmudgeonly condescension? It seems that the man has decided to dislike every new novel that comes down the pike, as if the generations younger than his favored one can’t possibly equal the legendary efforts of the Writers of the Golden Age, the god-like scribes of the halcyon years of Kimball’s youth.
I did agree with a few of Kimball’s points, even though he’s on the opposite side of the political spectrum from myself. I wondered about how old the man might be. To be such a bitter curmudgeon, wouldn’t he have to be in his seventies or eighties?
I looked Roger Kimball up at the Wikipedia site. I was a bit bemused to find that Kimball is just one year older than I am! He was born in 1953. Perhaps conservative writers attain curmudgeonhood sooner than the rest of us.