Updike: Alliteration and Stuttering

Porky Pig: Famous Stutterer

John Updike is addicted to alliteration and suffers, sporadically, from stuttering. Are those two facts connected?

Alliteration is everywhere in Updike’s work, most prominently in the titles he gave to his two famous multi-volume series (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; Rabbit at Rest; Bech: A Book; Beck is Back; Bech at Bay). Or consider this chapter heading from Hugging the Shore: “On One’s Own Oeuvre”. Alliteration doesn’t always work to the same effect: Bech: A Book is consonant heavy (not just the b sound but also the hard c of Bech and book). This makes the titles Bech: A Book and Bech is Back bumpy and jittery. Conversely the round rolling vowels of “on one’s own oeuvre” purr satisfyingly.

Falling into fits of stammering is a problem Updike wrote about in a chapter of his memoir Self-Consciousness titled “Getting the Words Out”. It’s largely a trouble of his younger days (although it recurred after his divorce in 1974 whenever he had to talk to his children). For anyone who has heard Updike speak the fact that he occasionally stutters seems improbable: at public readings, on the radio, or on TV he almost always seem unflappably fluid, spinning out perfect grammatical sentences with aristocratic casualness.

In his book U & I, a winningly demented study of Updike obsession, Nicholson Baker recalls seeing a documentary that recorded an offhand moment of the great writer’s easy eloquence: 

As the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid felicity, something about ‘These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,’ and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we are deal with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder! 

Yet Updike’s stuttering does resurface when he feels flustered or flummoxed, as in this NPR interview where he’s interrogated about the alleged sexism in his books. “I myself plead not g-guilty to the charge of the women in my women in my books being s-s-second rate c-c-citizens,” Updike responded, his tongue tripping over itself. Then regaining his normal smooth-talking composure, Updike is able to say without a bump: “I didn’t feel that way when writing about them and in some of my books the females are quite in the foreground.” (This revealing moment occurs at 20 minutes into the interview).  

Updike’s stuttering is all the more striking because he is so “naturally verbal.” As he himself notes, “there is no doubt that I have lots of words inside me; but at moments, like rush-hour traffic at the mouth of a tunnel, they jam.”  

Updike himself doesn’t explicitly connect alliteration to stuttering but the linkage lies latent in some passages of his memoirs. He starts his autobiographical essay on stuttering with a quote from Matthew Nesvisky of The Jerusalem Post: “Updike has the slight slurp of a speech impediment, the sort of thing once affected by cavalry subalterns.” Not a bad sentence for a newspaper reporter, especially the way it onomatopoeically describes stuttering as a “slight slurp of a speech impediment.”

Later we are told: “The prevalent theory about stuttering ties it to parental overcorrection of the three-to-five-year-old child’s flawed and fledgling speech.” The sensation of stuttering is described thus: “Or, sometimes, it is as if I have, hurrying to the end of my spoken sentence, carefully picked and plotted my way out of a room full of obstacles, and, having almost attained (stealthily, cunningly) the door, I trip, calling painful attention to myself and spilling the beans.” In that last sentence not just the alliterative phrases but even the punctuation (the commas and brackets) as well as the complex syntax serve to replicate the process of jangled, stretched-out talk.

A few pages later Updike records some helpful paternal advice he received for controlling his stuttering: “My flattering father would tell me I had too many thoughts in my head, and that I should speak slower.” Alliteration for Updike must have seemed like a way following his father’s advice, of slowing down the incessant outpouring of words by making them come out in similar-sounding spurts.  And indeed, Updike does defend stuttering as “a respectful attention, a tender alertness” to speech, hence a way of paying homage to language. 

No less than his great peer Philip Roth, Updike is a body-based writer (although both men are often unfairly dismissed simply as bawdy writers). Elsewhere in his memoirs, Updike links his skin disorder (psoriasis) with his literary sensibility: “What was my creativity, my relentless need to produce, but a parody of my skin’s embarrassing overproduction? Was not my think literary skin, which shrugged off rejection slips and patronizing reviews by the sheaf, a superior version of my poor vulnerable own, and my shamelessness on the page a distraction from my real shame?” What I want to suggest is that for Roth and Updike we need a new type of criticism, a body-centered criticism that looks at writers as physical beings, that links the frailties of the flesh with the wonderful words on the page.

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