John Updike: singing America

James Schiff
30 January 2009

I was in class with ten students on the afternoon of 27 January 2009, teaching a graduate seminar titled "Updike and Atwood", when my phone buzzed. I ignored it and all subsequent vibrations because our discussion of Rabbit, Run was going well. It wasn't until break (it's a three-hour class) that I read the text messages: John Updike had died. I was devastated. We had just been discussing the raw kinetic energy, zigzag structure and lyrical passages of his first "Rabbit" novel. Someone had even commented on how alive the novel felt. Now, suddenly, Updike was gone. I somehow got through the second half of class, in part by showing a video of Updike, as if, perhaps, to resurrect him. Yet I was in shock, and further unsettled by the snowstorm outside our window and a low-grade fever I was running from a bad cold.

James Schiff is professor of English at the University of Cincinnati. Among the five books he has written or edited on contemporary American fiction are Updike's Version: Rewriting the Scarlet Letter (University of Missouri Press, 1992), John Updike Revisited (Twayne, 1998) and Updike in Cincinnati: A Literary Performance (Swallow Press, 2007)

Updike had always been immense, the largest literary figure in America during my lifetime. His writing and career were nothing less than astonishing.  There was his productivity and breadth (sixty volumes, including novels, short stories, poems, essays, book reviews, children's books, a play, art criticism); his tremendous range of imagination (his characters were Toyota salesmen, biochemists, divinity school and history professors, Danish queens, African dictators); his intelligence (as Martin Amis wrote, Updike is "a master of all trades, able to crank himself up to Ph.D. level on any subject he fancies"); and perhaps most importantly, his verbal precision and lyrical prose.

A master of metaphor, scene, description and image, Updike wrote the most beautiful sentences of our time. Stretching himself across America, he wrote gracefully and memorably about everything under its sun: small-town life, the decay of religion, suburban adultery, cinema and media, psoriasis, the effects of aging, the Kennedy assassination, terrorism, 9/11, painters and sculptors, quantum physics and computer science. But most significantly, he wrote about domesticity and the sensations of daily existence in America. More than any other writer of our time, he helped us to understand who we are, as individuals and as a country. The thought of not having him here to interpret and observe is simply overwhelming.

A largeness of vision

Updike started his career as a writer of light verse and short stories depicting a Pennsylvania boyhood. His aim was to depict quotidian middle-class existence, "To transcribe middleness with all its grits, bumps, and anonymities, in its fullness of satisfaction and mystery." Within a few years, however, he evolved into a writer whose aim did not change but whose reach became far greater, as he stretched himself not only across the nation but back through history and across national borders. 

This imaginative embrace is reflected in the two books he wrote, Buchanan Dying and Memories of the Ford Administration, about America's so-called only virgin president, James Buchanan, one of the least successful occupants of the White House in American history (a resonant subject in light of the last eight years). He also wrote a novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, which chronicles four generations of an American family's passage through the entire 20th century; in tracing the family's relationship to God, the novel focuses on the decay of religion and the related rise of cinema.

There was moreover his splendid novel about Africa, The Coup, both a radical departure and a literary tour de force, delivered as the memoirs of a deposed African dictator with a fanatic aversion to the United States. Updike's astonishing range is evident too in the eight large volumes of criticism (book reviews, essays, art criticism), with hundreds of extended reviews of fiction writers from Africa, Asia, South America and Europe. In writing global criticism and by placing the names of relatively unknown writers, and sometimes even nations, on the map, Updike extended the literary vision of America.

Also in openDemocracy on modern American writers:

Tom McBride, "Big ideas and wandering fools: Saul Bellow" (6 April 2005)

Tom McBride, " The United States of Vidal" (28 March 2

David Hayes, " Bob Dylan's revolution in the head" (24 May 2006)

Angela McRobbie, " While Susan Sontag lay dying" (10 October 2006)

Christopher Bigsby, " Kurt Vonnegut : a voice for life" (11 April 2007)

Kasia Boddy, " Norman Mailer: a boxing life" (13 November 2007)

Angela McRobbie, " Susan Sontag: holding herself to account" (22 January 2009)

A "continental magnum opus"


It is appropriate that his five Rabbit books - four novels and a novella - are his best remembered and most famous, for they sing America in a way no one has since Walt Whitman. Updike's protagonist, Rabbit Angstrom, stands with Hester Prynne, Huck Finn and Jay Gatsby as an icon in American literature, a mythical protagonist whose story speaks eloquently to and reveals much about his national culture.

When Rabbit died at the conclusion of Rabbit at Rest, the news was of such importance that both the New York Times and Washington Post addressed it not only within their book-review sections but on their editorial pages. In the Rabbit books Updike spends 1,700 pages chronicling not only a man's life but a half century of American history, including the cold war, Vietnam, Chappaquiddick, the moon shot, the gasoline crunch of 1979, the Iranian hostage crisis, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, and much more. As Updike himself stated, the Rabbit novels contain so much more American history than any textbook.

As for Updike's take on his country, he suggested as early as 1959, in his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, that America was in moral decline, losing its belief as well as its connection to the land, to nature, and to the tools and materials used in personal craftsmanship.  In his 1968 bestselling novel, Couples, which depicts suburban adultery, protagonist Piet Hanema speaks of America as "unloved", and through the assassination of President Kennedy and the destruction of the local Congregational church by fire, the novel depicts an America which has fallen from grace. 

A few years later, in his "Scarlet Letter" trilogy, which retells Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) from three different perspectives (A Month of Sundays, Roger's Version and S.), Updike again shows America in trouble. However, the threat is no longer the grey, iron Puritans of Hawthorne's sensibility. Instead, Updike's America is threatened by a benign amiability, in which the nation has lost its energy and become fat, inactive and excessively comfortable. This lack of intensity makes for a nation desperately in need of renewal.

Perhaps that renewal will come with Barack Obama, whom Updike, who described himself as a liberal Democrat with some conservative inclinations, was very excited about. Although Updike has weaved many American presidents into his fiction, he will not, unfortunately, be here to chronicle the Obama presidency. 

Although Updike's oeuvre depicts America in decline, with grim forebodings about its future, he simultaneously celebrates and sings his nation, from its movie houses to its churches, its five-and-dime stores to its modernist painters, its small towns to its urban centres. With his inherent sense of democracy and his Whitmanesque desire to describe everything, Updike was unique among his contemporaries in his great love for his nation, even when he found it lacking. His charge, as he saw it, was to sing America as honestly and faithfully as he could, and his works stand, in his own words, as "a continental magnum opus", with the volumes as "mere installments, mere starts at the hymning of this great roughly rectangular country severed from Christ by the breadth of the sea."

The loss and the legacy

A few months ago I wrote a review of a new Updike bibliography, which concluded with this passage: "this [volume] is a cause for celebration among Updike scholars, students and collectors. However, once the festivities conclude and our lives return to normal, we are likely to discover that Updike, whose productivity over the last half century has been as regular and as marvelous as the rotation of the planet, proceeded to publish several new stories, poems, and essays, perhaps even a few books, which will require yet another bibliographic effort." 

It's hard to read that sentence now. Although a new collection of short stories will appear this summer and a volume of poems in the autumn, I was mostly wrong. I somehow imagined that his writing would continue forever. For those of us who loved his work, it's almost unimaginable to think that no new words or sentences will be forthcoming from John Updike, and that a new Updike volume will no longer appear each year. 

The loss for all readers is immense. We will miss him greatly. Yet the reality is that he has left us with so much, more than any reader could ever expect or deserve from a writer: sixty volumes filled with millions of glorious words that have sung our everyday lives and the life of our nation. These works, which comprise the most significant and distinguished literary output of our time, stand as a tremendously generous gift to readers everywhere, and they will surely nourish and sustain us for many generations to come.

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