Updike and the bobos

As a writer, John Updike is a spendthrift. He’s free and easy with his words because they come so easily to him. Like a trust-fund kid he can afford to be magnanimous and spread the wealth. Most of us, when we come up with a clever metaphor or a happy phrase, like to hold on to it, show it around a bit, recycle and reuse it as much as we can. Our coinages are like rare coins, not to be spent but rather hoarded and exhibited.

Look at what David Brooks did when he came up with the nice alliterative catchphrase “bourgeois bohemians” (soon shortened to “bobos”). Brooks was so pleased with himself when he came up with that one that he turned it into an entire book, Bobos in Paradise.

Has anyone noticed that Brooks’s brainchild had an Updikian ancestor? In a 1964 essay on Nabokov, Updike executed a beautiful little sketch of Lolita’s mother, Charlotte Haze, “with her blatant bourgeois Bohemianism, her cigarettes, her Mexican doodads, her touchingly clumsy sexuality, her utterly savage and believable war with her daughter.” Embedded in a much longer sentence, this encapsulation is thrillingly exact. Not only did Updike come up with “bourgeois Bohemianism” he also had sense enough not to stretch a clever bit of wordplay into a sociological tome.

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