Updike as a Personal Writer


In his 24 novels and nearly 200 short stories, John Updike, who died earlier today, created countless characters of all stripes and shapes ranging from a randy Toyota salesman to an African dictator to a coven of modern witches to a domestic terrorist. Yet there was one particular character-type who shows up recurringly in Updike’s fiction under various names and guises.

Sometimes he’s called Allen Dow, sometimes David Kern, sometime he’s nameless. Despite his different appellations, the lives of this character-type always follow roughly the same trajectory: He’s always a Pennsylvania boy, an only child born in the Depression, raised in a small town or farm by loving but embarrassingly dowdy parents and grandparents, a boy who dreams from a young age of flight from the constraints of his narrow upbringing. As he matures the boy gets to go to a good university, he marries young and fathers a large family but starts to feel stifled by domestic life. Again dreaming of escape, he starts having love affairs, but the pull of domestic life often thwarts these romances, as he’s torn between his children and his mistress. Even divorce and remarriage only complicate his family life, adding rather than subtracting to his web of emotional obligations. After his parents die, he takes another look at his Pennsylvania roots, visits the old haunts of his youth, and realizes that the life he tried to run away from was the source of all his particularity and individuality.

In these stories we see the central drama of Updike’s life: the attempt to escape from the gravitational tug of home, a flight that always circles back to its starting point. In the Rabbit novels as well, this story of flight and return plays itself out again and again.

The character-type I’ve been describing is, of course, a very close stand-in for Updike himself since his life followed exactly the same arc. Although he could range as far as Africa and South America, not to say the court of medieval Denmark, the best of Updike’s fiction was autobiographical, so many of the intimate details of the writer’s life will be familiar to readers of his work. Indeed, for anyone who has read Updike’s best fiction, it’s hard not to take his death personally. Even if you only knew him through the printed page, Updike feels like an intimate friend, someone who shared his most private thoughts with you.

The factual side of his life is easy enough to summarize. He was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania, his father a down-on-his luck school teacher, his mother a very strong-willed would-be writer (who eventually became a published author in her own right). The crucial moment of his young life came in the form of a gift from an aunt: a subscription to The New Yorker, which opened his eyes to metropolitan literary culture. At first, he wanted to be a New Yorker cartoonist, but eventually found his métier as a writer of short stories and novels. The New Yorker would be his literary home for 5 decades.

He married Mary Pennington in 1953, a year before he graduated from Harvard. The marriage was blessed with four kids but also undone by Updike’s repeated adultery. After the couple divorced in 1974, Updike would more lastingly marry Martha Bernard, a social worker, in 1977.

Family life, both its joys and traumas, would form the core of Updike’s fictional world. His first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, grew out of his closeness to his grandparents. Rabbit, Run, the more famous second novel, was about a high school athlete who married too young and tried to flee from his family responsibilities. This novel would be the first of four dealing with Rabbit Angstrom, an ordinary man, flawed in many ways, but also proof that even the simplest life is rich with meaning and emotion. Taken together, these novels form the core of Updike’s fictional achievement.

As a writer, Updike was almost supernaturally talented. He was to prose what Wayne Gretzky was to hockey and what Tiger Woods is to golf. He had a painter’s eye for visual detail, a poet’s verbal range, a psychologist’s sense of emotional complexity, a dramatist’s feel for dialogue.

He worked in two modes: the domestic and the exotic. As a domestic writer, he dealt with marriage, parenthood, adultery, and blended families. As skilled as he was in the domestic mode, his ambition often led him to experiment with more exotic material: setting novels in Africa or South America, borrowing characters from Shakespeare, and even writing a thriller about terrorism. While commendable for his daring, the exotic fiction tended to lack the depth of Updike’s domestic fiction, the stories that were closest to his heart. No one wrote better than John Updike about what it means to be a husband and a father, about the hearth as place of emotional warmth and also a trap, about the family as a cornerstone of life.

The great accusation against Updike was that he was a narcissist, constantly gazing into the navel of his own wonderfulness. David Foster Wallace, for one, called Updike a “solipsist.”   In many ways, this is an absurd charge: would a solipsist spend so much time carefully reviewing other people’s books, or writing about other lives and times far from his own (as Updike did in his exotic fiction)?

But let’s for the sake of argument take the criticism seriously. If Updike was a solipsist, he was a solipsist of genius: the whole effort of the last century of serious literature, from Joyce to the present, has been to show that ordinary life is worthy of the minutest attention. Updike was at the forefront of this effort. It’s true that his best short stories and novels are the ones most directly reflective of his life. But as he said, that’s the specimen that was closest at hand, and to illuminate one life is to say something about all lives.

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