John Updike: unfairly ignored

Book Review: Updike by Adam Begley

John Updike has become unfashionable, but few writers have better captured the American character
April 23, 2014

Updike receives the Medal of Arts in 1989

More than once, Begley reports, Updike instructed New Yorker editors to put a short story in “the bank” (telling phrase), rather than publish it immediately, to avert legal action from the actual people, often his neighbours, conscripted in the service of what Updike cheerfully called his “relentless domestic realism.” His book editor, Judith Jones, doubled as his censor. Reading the manuscript of Couples (1968), his fable of exurban wife-swapping, she “immediately assumed that it was based on the author’s exploits among his friends and neighbours” and insisted Updike scrub out the incriminating details. He did and the result was a Time magazine cover and a bestseller. The critic Diana Trilling, one of many detractors in the tiny fierce world then known as “the family” of New York intellectuals, could sniff, and did, that it was “fancied-up pornography,” but what did Updike care? Pornography too was hallowed remembrance, complete with sound effects. (“How lovely. Oh. Fuck. How lovely. Fuck. Fuck,” murmurs one character in Couples.) At least some of the partners in Updike’s many real-life couplings apparently looked forward to seeing themselves ravished anew in print, if not necessarily to Updike’s microscopic inventories of their bodies.

That was in the orgiastic 1960s. In the raised-consciousness 1970s “family values” dampened the communal fun. In “Separating,” the best of his divorce stories—not a single false note or untapped emotion—Updike’s four children could relive, a year later, the shock of hearing their father say he was leaving them, and be freshly sprayed with his dinner-table tears even as he luxuriated in the memory (“The raw clench at the back of his throat was delicious,” Updike writes of his not quite fictionalised self. “He could not help himself.”).

Begley is very good on this side of Updike, the plunderer hiding behind one of the most insolent façades in modern American letters—smiling, genial, unfailingly courteous, neatly dressed and groomed in the manner of a liberal-arts college president. At intervals, Updike presented his “public marketable self” to the world, giving interviews and boosting sales, only to retreat once again to the fortress of his tireless industry.

If Begley dwells on Updike’s material success—his earnings and trophies—well, Updike did too. He talked often of being “lucky,” of having made good on the worldly terms artists usually pretend to abjure. Updike’s strength began in self-knowledge, and the happy sense that he was impressing the folks back home, his parents and the friends and classmates who knew he would soar far beyond Shillington, the Pennsylvania town he grew up in and so often revisited, in fiction and in fact. He was a fixture at class reunions and regularly went to see his mother, herself a writer whose work, as nakedly autobiographical as his own, he loyally helped to publish.

Those who know the very young Updike only through the fiction, and its tender record of pubescent yearnings, will be surprised to learn how buoyant and popular a teenager he was—a prankster with a trick of amusing classmates by tipping his gangling frame over bannisters and clattering showily down the stairs. Not that he was free of affliction: he never fully overcame his psoriasis or his stutter, somatic evidence of deep-seated anxiety. He conquered Harvard and then the New Yorker, but the campaigns were waged frantically. He needed not merely to please but to dazzle, to bask in the glow of the adoring adults. Still, he also watched and learned, first from his Harvard roommate Christopher Lasch, who would go on to become a major historian and acute social critic, and then from elders like William Maxwell, the esteemed New Yorker fiction editor who weaned Updike away from being one more elegant slicer of Manhattan life and encouraged him to pursue his true subject, his Pennsylvania boyhood, and to evoke the rhythms of life in a Mid-Atlantic state already facing extinction—the smokestack city of Reading, with its sooted storefronts, its alleyways and trolley tracks, and the verdant surround of pauperised farms worked by stoical Pennsylvania Dutch families like his own.

The early stories were exquisite, not so charming as Salinger’s but more intelligent and more culturally assured. At Harvard, Updike had systematically assimilated the English tradition, as prescribed by TS Eliot and the New Critics. It made him slightly off-plumb in the hushed halls of the New Yorker, haunted by its pantheon of withered local gods (James Thurber, SJ Perelman) and its quiet, suffering drunks who seldom completed an assignment. Once again, Updike was cherished—his beaky handsomeness, his cigarettes and horn-rimmed spectacles, his nervous energy, whinnying laugh, and always clacking typewriter. He was whispered to be a genius; even his “Talk of the Town” vignettes, unsigned whimsical sketches of the city’s crannies, pressed toward something higher, a radiant moral seriousness.

This success wasn’t enough. Incensed though he was by critics like Alfred Kazin who dismissed generic “New Yorker writers,” Updike knew that bigger claims were being staked outside the magazine and its narrow columns of tidy print. The most refulgent New Yorker names—Cheever, Salinger, O’Hara, Nabokov—all wrote novels, and none let himself be chained to the metal office desk. Deadlines were for circumscribed talents: AJ Liebling, Joseph Mitchell. Updike’s nagging fear was that he would join them and settle for being an “elegant hack,” squandering his heaven-sent gifts: the eidetic, sensual memory, the rush of fresh images, the “magical fluency,” in Begley’s phrase. Still in his mid-twenties, married and a father, with no assured income, he bravely fled to the pretty coastal towns of Massachusetts, remaining there for 50-plus years, until his death in 2009. Long before then he had become “a consummately professional author,” in Begley’s matter-of-fact mid-career summary, “a critically-acclaimed, paid-up member of the literary establishment, but also rich.”

That was Updike in 1974, when he was 42. Begley provides additional scorecards as the career ascends on its undeviating climb. Of Updike’s last phase: “in 27 years at Haven Hill, he wrote 13 novels; his memoirs; nearly 100 short stories; more than 250 poems; some 300 reviews; and countless odds and ends.” By this time, the numerology implies exhaustion, Begley’s as much as his subject’s. Updike’s efficient productivity was the result, in part, of a life free of crisis and trauma, save of the mildest variety. Born in the depths of the Great Depression, he nursed a petit-bourgeois idea of the artist, practising “his solitary trade as methodically as the dentist practised his.” Updike, not Begley, wrote that description. The ledger terms he thought in seeped into the work—by no coincidence his fictional alter egos are often advertising men. This inevitably coloured how others saw him. “His reputation has travelled in convoy up the Avenue of the Establishment,” Norman Mailer wrote of Updike when he was barely 30. “The New York Times Book Review blowing sirens like a motorcycle caravan, the professional muse of the New Yorker sitting in the Cadillac, membership cards to the right fellowships in his pocket.”

Mailer at least acknowledged Updike was a first-rate novelist. Others, including the critics Leslie Fiedler, Harold Bloom and, later, James Wood, did not. Updike reciprocated their disdain. “He never liked intellectuals,” a Harvard classmate recalled. That was another reason for his fleeing Manhattan. He travelled there at publication time, but seldom gave readings, though he excelled at them. New York audiences, he once wrote, “are too smart and left-wing for me.” Ah, politics: Updike was the rare literary man who publicly supported the Vietnam War and deplored “anti-American” campus protestors. That misdemeanour got him expelled from college curriculums. More unseemly still was his old-fashioned sexual glee. The next wave of writers, sensitised by feminism, judged Updike a particularly troglodytic “phallocrat,” as David Foster Wallace said, and guilty as well of book-a-year garrulity. Dentists are artisans, however adept, and not tortured artists.

In consequence, Updike barely exists today for many readers, though the loyal few—I admit to being one of them—are convinced he is a miracle of American literature. The hummingbird prose, the bright flutterings inside a thimble, do indeed enchant. But to fixate on it alone is to miss the eagle wingspan and panoramic reach.

Begley, so much in command of his subject, might have given us what Updike now most needs, an argument. The close-range psychological portrait and thoughtful close readings don’t crack the code of Updike’s authentic and original vision. The first clue is in those brazen ransackings, predatory but also sacralising. “In America his almost impossible style encountered, after 20 years of hermetic exile, a subject as impossible as itself, ungainly with the same affluence.” So Updike wrote of Nabokov. Updike, too, thrilled to the ungainly affluence, and he rejoiced, like Saul Bellow, in the comic duality of the American character—madly acquisitive and yet convinced of its higher spiritual mission, its “exceptionalism.”

While his contemporaries nursed their alienation, Updike, thriving in the middle years of “the American century,” gained unimpeded access to “the whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled America,” as he wrote in his memoir, Self-Consciousness. The truth, which Begley grasps better than most but might have explored more thoroughly, was that Updike was not ever merely a “literary writer,” in the abominable phrase. No more than Balzac, or Dickens, or George Eliot, or than his Modernist heroes: Proust, Joyce, Henry Green.

Updike gravitated to these writers because they defied the notion of aesthetic limits. Anything seen, felt, or thought could be described. There were words for everything. Too many, at times. Updike’s talent initially sagged under the gilded prose, the coiled sentences and tinselled clauses. But as he gained mastery and confidence, the writing grew looser, lighter, freer.

The first pages of Rabbit Redux (1971) signalled something new in American fiction, a kind of poetic journalism: “the granite curbs starred with mica and the rowhouses differentiated by speckled bastard sidings”; “a new development west of the city, ranch houses and quarter-acre lawns contoured as the bulldozer left them”; and this: “The township, where once charcoal-fed furnaces had smelted the iron for Revolutionary muskets, is now still mostly farmland, and its few snowplows and single sheriff can hardly cope with this ranch-house village of muddy lawns and potholed macadam and sub-code sewers the developers suddenly left in its care.”

“Left them,” “left in its care”: the indictment—of avarice overriding civic obligation, virgin soil literally bulldozed into ruin—is thorough, but free of condemnation or even dismay. Updike sympathises with the despoilers. Their striving is like his own.

Begley sees how bold Rabbit Redux is in its direct handling of race—most strikingly, the African-American Vietnam War veteran who is convinced he is the new avenging Jesus. He might also have noted that two of Updike’s contemporaries, Bellow and Bernard Malamud, both wrote novels at this same moment that explored similar themes—Mr Sammler’s Planet and The Tenants—but only Updike brought the conflict directly into the living room of “middle America.”

Sympathy also informs the third and perhaps greatest in the cycle, Rabbit is Rich, with its comical depiction of gasoline shortages and raging inflation, along with the craze for Japanese import cars and “package tours” to the Bahamas. Begley rightly draws parallels with The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch’s famous critique of the 1970s “me-generation.” But Updike’s novel, set in 1979, the same year that Lasch’s book was a bestseller, can be read as an explicit reply to it, exuberant in ways Lasch never allowed himself to be, though no less rigorous in its account of the cultural cost of our un-innocent ceremonies of self-adoration. Lasch was well-versed in Marx and Freud. Updike, a devout Protestant at a time when the dominant novelists were secular Jews (whom he parodied deliciously in his Henry Bech stories), was steeped in Christian thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich. The tension between the voluptuary and the spiritual in Updike put him in the romantic American line of Hawthorne and Melville, not to mention Reading, Pennsylvania’s other modern genius, Wallace Stevens, who wondered where, exactly, “the thought of heaven” might be found within the “balm or beauty of the earth.”

“Whatever the many failings of my work, let it stand as a manifesto of my love for the time in which I was born,” Updike once wrote, adding that his models were “men like Shakespeare, or Milton, or Pope; men who are filled with the strength of their cultures and do not transcend the limits of their age, but, working within the times, bring what is peculiar to the moment to glory. We need great artists who are willing to accept restrictions, and who love their environments with such vitality that they can produce an epic out of the Protestant ethic.”

Updike wrote this in a letter to his parents when he was 19. Even then he knew where he was headed. Adam Begley has located the man behind the giant oeuvre. What remains to be written is an account of the artist.

Harper, £25