James Maxwell reflects on the life and work of one of America’s finest writers, John Updike
John Updike, who died last month from lung cancer at the age of 76, was a uniquely talented literary polymath who excelled as an essayist, poet, critic, commentator and fiction-writer. Over five decades as a professional author, he rigorously documented and explored the constantly shifting social, sexual and cultural mores of Middle America, with frequently controversial results. British novelist Martin Amis, a friend and admirer of Updike’s, recently remarked that “John Updike has that single inestimable virtue: having read him once you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh, that you will have to read everything he writes.”
Updike was born in rural Pennsylvania in 1932, in the midst of Depression-era austerity. As a child he developed a fascination with the artefacts of his future craft — fresh white paper, 0.45 pencils, roller-ball pens, type-writers, print-presses etc. — that fuelled his first creative efforts. He quickly became captivated by the processes and mechanisms involved in the physical act of writing. At school, Updike proved an exceptionally conscientious and industrious student. He left in 1952 as class valedictorian, and in 1953 earned a place at Harvard College, before swapping the States for Oxford the following year, where he studied drawing and fine art courtesy of a Knox Fellowship.
While Updike was in England he discovered that The New Yorker had agreed to publish a number of his short stories and was prepared to offer him permanent employment. He promptly returned to Harvard, graduated summa cum laude, and moved to Manhattan, were he spent the next two years as writer-in-residence at offices of The New Yorker on 155th Street. By the time he was twenty-three, Updike already had a wife and a baby, and the arrival of a second son was enough to persuade him that the city was not the right place to raise children. In 1957 he took his young family to the Massachusetts sticks, where he stayed until his death.
Despite his reputation for genuine warmth and generosity, Updike was often accused of being an irritant and antagonist, particularly by those on the liberal fringes of American politics. Much of the tension and discomfort Updike provoked stemmed from his refusal to capitulate to the dictates of popular or intellectual fashion. In the midst of the sixties’ sex revolution he wrote Couples, which ridiculed the conceits of the age and anticipated the darkened mood of the post-Nixon Republic.
He also foolishly offered some qualified support to the invasion and occupation of Vietnam, more, one suspects, out of exasperation with what he viewed as an infantile and petulant anti-war movement, as opposed to the integrity of his ideological convictions. However, Updike’s opponents were not exclusively of the left. Many conservative readers found his thematic preoccupation with sex crass and indecent, but the more reactionary among them also recognised how subtly subversive and radical he could be.
In his famous tetralogy, Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990) and Rabbit Remembered (2001), Updike ruthlessly stripped the gloss off America’s treasured image of suburban domesticity and exposed the dirt below.
Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom is a lousy, intermittently thuggish husband, a struggling father, and an inveterate mediocrity. He relentlessly subjects his slow wife and errant son to the worst consequences of his own failures, which are many and ever-present. Flooded with guilt, he nonetheless lacks the requisite intelligence to articulate or nullify it. Redemption and absolution are, for Harry Angstrom, congenitally elusive, and remain so until the end. The ‘Rabbit Books’ chart the passage of a peripheral and unsatisfactory life — the life of an American everyman — and to that extent should be read as a critique of the spiritual state of the Union.
Yet, Updike manages to tease out those rare moments of purpose and profundity sparsely scattered throughout, and, in turn, imbue his protagonist with a rough elegance. Angstrom is unquestionably Updike’s most fascinating creation; perhaps single-handedly securing the author’s status as one of American literature’s most significant and influential figures.
In many ways, Harry Angstrom is a vulgarized, fictional reflection of Updike. Updike belonged to a generation of American writers (largely deceased) that included Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer and, give or take a few years, Philip Roth. All were concerned with measuring the distance between the promise of the Republic and the reality; all were staunch and uncompromising modernists; all were distinctive and original stylists. Where Updike stood apart from his contemporaries, though, was in his refusal to embrace the ludicrous privileges that come with being a ‘famous writer’. He was, by all accounts, an extremely modest man; essentially free of the excessive intellectual vanity of his colleagues.
Although he collected a plethora of accolades and honours — including two Pulitzers and a Howells Medal — and enjoyed consistent and substantial success with both the high and low-brow public, Updike was never made a Nobel Laureate. In 2008, Horace Engdahl, the Swedish academy’s permanent secretary, accused modern American literature of being excessively self-referencing and parochial: “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.” Many interpreted these remarks as an official, pre-emptive, explanation for why Updike would not, in his lifetime, be awarded the grand prize.
There is, however, some validity to Engdahl’s criticisms. Too many of Updike’s novels are located in the northern corner of East-coast America, and hardly any stray outside U.S. territory; his occasional cosmopolitan excursions tend to start and end in Manhattan. Indeed, in Terrorist — Updike’s most limp and insipid work — the protagonist, an adolescent Islamist, doesn’t even make it to through the Jersey tunnel. Unfortunately, Terrorist — published in 2006 — was indicative of a once great mind in decline. His final hardback fiction, The Widows of Eastwick (a sequel to the massively popular Witches of Eastwick) suggests that toward the end of his life, the writer’s interest, as well as his talent, had begun to diminish.
On reflection, Updike’s vast back-catalogue is littered with failures. Perhaps the most notable embarrassment is Memories of the Ford Administration; a laborious and shambolic attempt to blend an unfinished biography of former president James Buchanan into a satire of post-modernity and bad sex. He would be lucky, and perhaps posthumously grateful, if it was quietly forgotten.
Updike himself, of course, will not be quietly, or, for that matter, quickly forgotten. His best novels encourage you to review your understanding of literature in a profound and permanent way. His prose possesses a remarkable and seemingly effortless fluidity. Updike was a humane and empathetic writer, who used his considerable gifts to elucidate the experiences of those not considered worthy by other lesser talents. As Martin Amis writes, “What Updike is saying – or conclusively demonstrating – is something very simple. That the unexamined life is worth examining, that indeed it swarms with instruction and delight.”