Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 28, 2009

John Updike

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

John Updike, one of the U.S.’s most prolific and respected writers, died yesterday of lung cancer at the age of 76. As a novelist, short story writer, poet and critic, Updike was a man of many talents. Despite unevenness in quality, all of his output reflected a formal elegance that can rarely be seen today.

Updike was a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine where an archive of his work going back to 1955 can be read.  A May 26, 2008 short story titled “The Full Glass” is in the voice of an 80 year old man reflecting back on his life. Although the character’s job was refinishing floors, his twilight reflections are drawn from Updike’s own intimations of mortality. The prose has Updike’s characteristically shimmering beauty as well as capturing the character’s personality in a few brush strokes:

Approaching eighty, I sometimes see myself from a little distance, as a man I know but not intimately. Normally I have no use for introspection. My employment for thirty years, refinishing wood floors-carried on single-handedly out of a small white truck, a Chevrolet Spartan, with the several sizes of electric sanders and the belts and disks of sandpaper in all their graded degrees of coarseness and five-gallon containers of polyurethane and thinner and brushes ranging from a stout six-inch width to a diagonally cut two-inch sash brush for tight corners and jigsaw-fitted thresholds-has conditioned me against digging too deep. Balancing in a crouch on the last dry boards like a Mohawk steel walker has taught me the value of the superficial, of that wet second coat glistening from baseboard to baseboard. All it needs and asks is twenty-four undisturbed hours to dry in. Some of these fine old New England floors, especially the hard yellow pine from the Carolinas that was common in the better homes a hundred years ago, but also the newer floors of short tongued pieces of oak or maple, shock you with their carefree gouges and cigarette burns and the black scuff marks synthetic soles leave. Do people still give that kind of party? I entered this trade, after fifteen years in a white-collar, smooth-talking line of work, as a refugee from romantic disgrace, and abstain from passing judgment, even on clients arrogant enough to schedule a dinner party six hours after I give their hall parquet the finish coat.

Updike had the reputation of reflecting the life-style of affluent bedroom communities of the kind found to the north of Boston, but his roots are much more like the working-class character above. In an unpublished interview that appears in the latest New York Magazine (not the New Yorker), he reminisces about the Depression:

I was born in ’32, when the Depression was at its worst. It’s frightening: From one Depression to the next. Years ago I saw a psychiatrist for a couple of years, and when I’d done a couple sessions describing myself, he said, ‘Oh, it certainly smacks of the Depression.’ I’ll tell you what was nice about being born in 1932: There were a lot of only children. Because people were pulling in there, they were scared. My mother wanted to have another child, I believe, but my father was out of work. He was thrown out of work and my father simultaneously lost his investments. They weren’t enormous, but they were enough to sustain him and his wife in the nice small-town house where I grew up. The men combined forces, my father did get a job and scrape through, but it was a scraping-through, even relative to the other people in the town. A schoolteacher makes less than a full-fashion knitter, which is what a lot of the men did. But you’ve seen movies about that era, and there was a certain coziness, and a dollar went a long way, and people were kind of kind to each other. It was considered correct form to give a dollar to bums when they came to the back door, and when they did, we did. But … it was a very stable world for a child. Children don’t like change, they don’t like changing grades, or I didn’t, [they don’t] love changing houses, but the Depression froze small towns. And then the war came along, and froze them additionally. So by ’45, it was a world that hadn’t really changed in fifteen years. Now, you get used to nothing looking the same and nothing being there that was there. It’s a different world entirely.

Updike is a slippery figure when it comes to politics. There are obvious indications of less savory impulses, such as “Witches of Eastwick” that basically equates independent women with the Devil. Or the more recent “Terrorist”, which is Updike’s attempt to deal with 9/11. Ahmad, the 18 year old protagonist, was in the eyes of Harper’s Magazine reviewer Robert Boyers nothing but a one-dimensional “monster”. Considering Updike’s social ties as a successful adult to a mostly Wasp upper-middle class, it seems doubtful that his Ahmad could have been anything else.

Since it has been over four decades that I read an Updike novel, my memories of “Rabbit Redux” and “Couples” remain a bit dim. Written in 1971, “Rabbit Redux” was Updike’s attempt to come to terms with the radicalization all around him. As part of a four-part series of novels chronicling the life and times of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, this-the second in the series-has Rabbit paired up with a drug-dealing African-American Vietnam veteran named Skeeter, who argues with him about the war and racism. The novel has the same kind of mixture of fascination and disgust with the “Other” that can be found in Saul Bellow’s “Herzog”, a similarly flawed attempt to engage with the stormy political struggles of the period. In a N.Y. Times review of “Rabbit Run”, Anatole Broyard wrote:

Skeeter is something new in black characters, including those in books by blacks. He goes beyond the familiar anger and rhetoric into the wild humor blacks no longer seem to allow themselves. He is an inspired preacher of the inchoate religiosity that seems to be gaining ground with some militant blacks — a religion that seems to be midway between Black Mass and store-front revivalism. Skeeter is a compound of drug-induced delusions of grandeur, real indignation, homicidal rage and quirky genius. He has a talent for provoking, for getting to the absolute bottom, for traveling through disillusion and coming out on the other side, where everything is exposed.

He is a more potent bomb than any the black revolution has yet thrown. Neither good nor evil exactly, he is the ultimate catalyst or kibitzer, a blue-note howl of pain and laughter such as Charlie Parker might have blown. What Updike conjures out of the combination of Skeeter, Jill, Nelson and Rabbit makes most writing about blacks, sex and families seem like something out of a children’s book. It will leave Americans shuddering for a long, long time.

It should of course be mentioned that Broyard was an African-American himself, a fact that he kept hidden from everybody else. In 2007, Broyard’s daughter Bliss published a memoir titled “One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life — A Story of Race and Family Secrets” which described her discovery of her father’s true identity.

Although it was written 3 years before “Rabbit Run”, I have much sharper memories of “Couples”, a novel about wife-swapping in a wealthy Boston suburb that had all of the entertainment value of “The Witches of Eastwick” but little of its misogynist baggage. It is a good novel to bring along with you on a beach holiday.

In trying to come to terms with Updike’s legacy, I found two articles written in 1990 most useful. The first was by Gary Wills and appeared in “The New York Review of Books”. Titled “Long Distance Runner”, it is a review both of “Rabbit at Rest”, the last in the series, as well as its predecessors. Wills, a Roman Catholic progressive, holds a rather dim view of Updike’s politics as indicated on his judgment on “Rabbit Redux”:


Updike now says that he picked up the Angstrom story again because people kept asking where Rabbit went after running off at the first novel’s end. Those people had missed the novel’s point-that nothing can happen to Harry except perpetual flight perpetually baffled.

Rabbit Redux is an attempt to use Angstrom as a seismograph of the Sixties as he had been of the Fifties. But the sensors for registering the mild tremors of the Fifties were not adequate to record the earthquake of the Sixties-so Rabbit becomes an even less convincing instrument for Updike’s purposes. The lower-class “everyman” is drawn to the pinched agenda of Richard Nixon, defending the war in Vietnam and railing against long-haired hippies. He has a flag decal on his car’s back window. He flies into a temper with critics of the war:

He has gotten loud again; it makes him rigid, the thoughts of treachery and ingratitude befouling the flag, befouling him.

But the inner life of a Nixonite is not a thrilling vista for the novelist, so Updike arranges an entirely implausible way for Rabbit to become a fellow traveler of revolution. Janice [his wife] is now having an affair, and a black fellow worker at the print shop where Rabbit works invites him to a black nightclub. This black has a white hippie at the club he wants to get rid of, and he has chosen the bigoted anti-hippie, Harry Angstrom, as the most eligible person for this task. Harry takes Jill home, and a black revolutionary friend of hers moves in. Skeeter, the black, spends hours berating and catechizing Rabbit. In the resulting seminar-orgy, Rabbit obediently reads aloud long passages from Frederick Douglass (filling pages in the easiest way). Rabbit watches complacently as his thirteen-year-old son, Nelson, turns into one of the long-haired hippies he hates. Resentful neighbors finally burn down Rabbit’s house-the apocalypse of the Sixties scaled to angstrom measurement-and Jill dies in the blaze. Nelson hates his father henceforth for complicity in her death.

The novel is a mess, Updike’s attempt to show he is on top of all the trends of his chosen decade. Rabbit is even less a character and more a journalistic device. A middle American would not be so sympathetic with the less convincing aspects of Sixties rebelliousness; but an Ipswich sophisticate (toying with rebellious styles while wanting to preserve the order that upholds his prosperity) might indulge such fantasies. Under the fiction of Rabbit reaching up from the working class is the reality of Updike reaching down to a solidarity with Nixon’s values. In his memoirs Updike paints a picture of himself at war with the anti-war movement that is convincing in just the ways Rabbit is not. On the one hand, Updike and his friends “smoked pot, wore dashikis and love beads, and frugged.” On the other hand, Updike “felt obliged to defend Johnson and Rusk and Rostow, and then Nixon and Kissinger.” He regularly got angry in Rabbit’s way: “My face would become hot, my voice high and tense and wildly stuttery.” But Updike in his own person was reacting less to the actual situation in Indochina than to the style of Johnson’s and Nixon’s critics:

I feel in the dove arguments as presented to me too much aesthetic distaste for the President.

The protest, from my perspective, was in large part a snobbish dismissal of Johnson by the Eastern establishment.

They were full of aesthetic disdain for their own defenders.

War was being waged by a privileged few upon the administration and the American majority that had elected it.

Updike’s distaste for the aesthetics of protest is itself an aesthetic shiver, an expression of the reactionary dandyism he shares with Tom Wolfe and William Buckley more than with his working-class hero, Harry Angstrom. Critics noticed that there was too much of Updike’s sensibility in the Rabbit of Run. There is too much of Updike’s own political-theological nonsense in the Rabbit of Redux. So we get John Updike playing Peggy Noonan:

They, Unitarian or Episcopalian or Jewish, supported Roosevelt and Truman and Stevenson out of enlightenment, de haut en bas, whereas in my heart of hearts, I, however veneered with an education and button-down shirts, was de bas.

Joining Rabbit is now an act of homage, not of creation. Not so much a nostalgie de la boue. More like nostalgie du boob.

I can’t say that I can argue with Wills’s findings, although my memory of “Rabbit Redux” is rather faded as I stated above. However, I am inclined to take Nation Magazine reviewer Thomas Disch (a novelist himself who committed suicide on July 4th partly it is believed from the anguish he felt over being threatened with being evicted from his rent-controlled apartment) seriously in his own December 3rd, 1990 review of “Rabbit at Rest”, where he takes issue with Garry Wills:

Surely one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed these books so much is that I see myself and “my people” mirrored in them as in no other work of American fiction I’ve read. Most literary accounts of middle-class life, from Flaubert to Sinclair Lewis, have been satirical and dismissive, while popular fiction sentimentalizes and sanitizes Middle America out of recognition. Updike’s Rabbit and the landscape he inhabits more closely resemble the world I’ve witnessed during the span of the four novels-1959 through 1989-than any other work of American literature I know. And it does what art can in the way of valorizing its commonplaces. For me that makes the Rabbit tetralogy the best large-scale literary work by an American in this century (including the many-volumed magnum opuses of Dos Passos, Dreiser and Fauker), and Updike the best American writer. Somebody has finally written, albeit inadvertently and in the form of a tetralogy, the Great American Novel.


  1. I remember reading here recently that suburbia was dead. I rejoiced. Now its poet laureate has followed it. Updike was a highly skilled describer of things in detail. This allowed him to fill in Rabbit’s life with true to period suburban furnishings. Elsewhere it inclined him to depict people of faith involved in new copulative positions with troubled consciences. (For this he recently received a lifetime Bad Sex Award for the worst erotic writing.) His skill and facility with words made him confident enough to leave the suburbs and assume the role of a man of letters at large. He got away with invading the territory of the New York Jewish novel with the Bech books. But when he went farther afield, as in his novels, “The Coup”, about Africa, or “Brazil,” one wanted to apologize to that continent and that country. When, riding the 9/11 bandwagon, he fixed his suburban sights on the Muslims with “The Terrorist”, one prayed he would go back to the golf course. “Golf Dreams” was a good book.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — January 28, 2009 @ 8:32 pm

  2. David Foster Wallace had an amusing take 10 years ago on Updike:


    Comment by eugene — January 28, 2009 @ 9:22 pm

  3. It’s touching to see the idea of “The Great American Novel” still on its feet. A concoction of the blurb-writers of yore, it belongs to simpler times, (like “The Great White Hope”). There’s not going to be any, even in tetralogy. The novel, as Gore Vidal has whined for fifty years, serves only a niche public and is in no way central to national life. Good novels will still come along, but they won’t be by authors who try to typify three hundred million people and a country in constant flux. So, no Messiah. He’s gone the way of “The Great American Breakfast Food.”

    Comment by Peter Byrne — January 29, 2009 @ 9:33 am

  4. (Just to bury the subject.) Who wrote the Great A. N. isn’t the question. Dreiser caught Chicago at the moment of its most brutal vitality. Sister Carrie, whom he sits down there, preferred being a kept woman to working in a sweat shop. When she learned the ropes, she decided not to depend on men at all. They were weak vessels. All that was very new in the American novel whether it merited the jackpot or not. As for Faulkner, it’s interesting that Lionel Trilling nixed him in the Great A.N. stakes. For the canon-minded reader of Dickens and Balzac, Faulkner was too regional. Dos Passos tried to englobe the nation and the times but ended up with newsreels and laundry lists. And that’s what too much of his work reads like now. Arguing that Updike fills the Great A.N. bill makes us overlook why he should be remembered. He had a lot of energy and spent it trying to squeeze the best out of the English language.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — January 29, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

  5. the loss of John Updike makes me wonder if the literary world is being replenished at the same rate that it’s losing such great writers

    Comment by coffee — January 30, 2009 @ 6:45 am

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