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John Updike and the Politics of Literary Reputation

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books and culture

John Updike and the Politics of Literary Reputation

A decade after his death, one of our greatest literary stylists has fallen into critical disfavor. September 24, 2021
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

In 1990, when Rabbit at Rest was published to broad acclaim, ending John Updike’s magisterial Rabbit Angstrom quartet, Updike was arguably the most admired writer in the United States and also its most characteristically American. Thirty years later, he is largely an object of resentment. His is a striking case study in the politics of literary reputation in a time of generational upheaval. Updike has not been a victim of cancel culture. He merely represents the ancien regime.

Updike was that rare thing: a literary prodigy. His fluid, assured, loose-limbed style was the envy of three generations of writers. At 28, he published “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” an essay on Ted Williams’ final game at Fenway Park. At the start of his own long career, he captured the pathos of another man’s finish: “On the car radio as I drove home, I heard that Williams, his own man to the end, had decided not to accompany the team to New York. He had met the little death that awaits all athletes. He had quit.”

Updike swaddled every subject with the same sonorous prose—always, as he put it, “giving the mundane its beautiful due”—behind which was sometimes a creeping existential terror. Here is the Lockerbie bombing, as imagined by Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom:

with a roar and giant ripping noise and scattered screams this whole cozy world dropping away and nothing under you but black space and your chest squeezed by the terrible unbreathable cold, that cold you can scarcely believe is there but that you can still sometimes feel packed into the suitcases, stored in the pressurized hold, when you unpack your clothes. . . . the merciless chill of death still in there.

Updike’s reputational decline coincides with a decisive shift in the aesthetic preferences of the American literary mainstream. Much of American literature is now written in the spurious confessional style of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Readers value authenticity over coherence; they don’t value conventional beauty at all.

It’s not that Updike was genteel. “I’m willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else’s living room,” he wrote, “but our reading life is too short to be in any way polite.” His novel, Couples, about the suburban “post-pill paradise” of the early 1960s, was a publishing scandal. But he assumed that he could attempt any subject with the right words. To some critics, that confidence looks like arrogance or shallowness. “Updike’s language has seemed to encode an almost theological optimism about its capacity to refer,” James Wood wrote in the London Review of Books in 2001. “Updike is notably unmodern in his impermeability to silence and the interruptions of the abyss. . . . Updike’s language, for all that it gestures towards the usual range of human disappointment and collapse, testifies instead to its own uncanny success: to a belief that the world can always be brought out of its cloudiness and made clear in a fair season.”

Updike’s self-effacing public manner now looks like a tactical error in the long game of literary reputation. Philip Roth and Toni Morrison never tired of singing the song of themselves—and why not, in the end, when the world is so crowded and busy? It’s not that Updike was modest about his talent; it’s simply that he embodied the cultural style we associate with American Protestantism. The vanquishing of that once-dominant mode has contributed to a growing incomprehension of Updike’s work.

Updike does occasionally succumb to a kind of spiritual complacency. (For Rabbit Angstrom, God’s presence is comforting but imposes no duties on him personally.) Just as his talent was always there, so God would always be there, and Harvard, and Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Updike’s benign cosmos may seem antique to younger writers who don’t enjoy such certainties, and his reliance on faith to give the American suburbs a numinous glow strikes them as eccentric.

It’s true that in his fiction Updike sometimes universalized mid-century, middle-American, white Protestant experience. This is what novelists do, of course; they ask us to accept their imaginative corner as representative of the whole, one tessellation in the carpet of human existence. Critics of Updike’s subject matter are not making a literary argument at all; they are merely expressing a vestigial resentment toward what was once a majoritarian culture. In his own critical essays, written for the New Yorker, Updike was admirably ecumenical, reviewing the novels of authors hailing from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. He was modest about the value of those reviews—“Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea”—but he held it as a point of honor to give every book placed before him “due consideration.”

Nowadays, Updike is also unfashionable on political grounds. A lifelong Democrat, he supported the Vietnam War, albeit reluctantly, when other writers were marching in protest. He thought Americans were “by and large, the happiest people the world had ever known.” Even so, he had an ambivalent relationship with American excess. He loved the large demand that Americans made on life, even our self-seeking and incoherent questing for freedom, but he understood the costs of our restlessness. The later Rabbit novels are the stories of Rabbit’s growing affluence and his panicked emptiness. In Rabbit at Rest, the dying Rabbit’s final word, after six decades of too much, is “Enough.”

Updike spoke with characteristic modesty of his own legacy, but at a safe remove, in his frequent writing on American art, he occasionally revealed an anxiety about whether his work would survive. “John Singer Sargent,” he wrote of the beau-monde portraitist, “misses getting top marks because he made it look too easy.” This is an astute comment on Sargent’s reputation; it is perhaps also a coded complaint about Updike’s own. In a 2008 National Endowment for the Humanities lecture, Updike said, “Inquiries into an essential Americanness are less fashionable, my impression is, than they were fifty years ago . . . in this age of diversity and historical revisionism.” Again, it is impossible not to hear an echo of special pleading here, for the worthiness (rather than moral stain) of his own “essential Americanness.”

Updike’s critics find in his imperial confidence a kind of effrontery. They want a literary language suspicious of beauty, of words, even of meaning itself. This is both a narrow argument about aesthetic preferences and a broad claim about American reality. Updike’s America was a nation bursting at the seams: self-regarding, vulgar, often at war with itself, but above all, vital and self-regenerating. He expressed that vision in a body of fiction, criticism, and memoir of rare grace and generosity. Whether we have the spiritual capacity to engage fully with that work seems, at the moment, to be an open question.

Photo by Michael Brennan/Getty Images

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