Felix the Cat & Blackface

Felix, a happy-go-lucky trickster. Is he presidential material?
Felix, a happy-go-lucky trickster. Is he presidential material?

Snorting has greeted Niall Ferguson’s new column, which begins like this:

President Barack Obama reminds me of Felix the Cat. One of the best-loved cartoon characters of the 1920s, Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky.

But aside from derision, Ferguson’s comments deserve some analysis. There is a reason why Ferguson, when he looks upon a cartoon character from the 1920s, lets his mind free-associate in the direction of black people. As many cultural historians have pointed out, the classic American animated cartoons emerged from the same milieu that produced blackface performances (like the Amos and Andy show) and minstrel music. Many of the great early animated characters — Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Bosko — had more than a touch of blackface and the minstrel show to them.

Felix the cat is a feckless, happy-go-lucky trickster. Culturally, he’s the missing link between Br’er Rabbit and Bugs Bunny: admirable in some ways but lacking in the “white” qualities of respectability and responsibility. It’s interesting that Ferguson managed to pick out such a potent, meaning-rich cultural symbol of blackness. It was probably subconscious on his part but still very revealing.

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Updike and the Begley clan

John Updike has long been a bountiful boon to the Begley family. In the early 1950s, Updike and Louis Begley were classmates together at Harvard, both studying English. Updike, of course, went on to become a famous writer. Begley had a long career as a lawyer but took up fiction late in life, starting to publish his first books in the early 1990s.

Begley’s most famous novel About Schmidt (1996) was made into a well-regarded film starring Jack Nicholson. The basic conceit of the film About Schmidt — a well-to-do American suburbanite write letters about his unhappy domestic life to a foreign child he’s sponsoring —  owes more than a little to “Dear Alexandros”, a short story Updike wrote in 1959.

Now Adam Begley, Louis’ son, has received an advance by HarperCollins to write a life of Updike. In life and in death, Updike continues to be, for the Begley clan, the gift that keeps on giving.

(Note: Thanks to a comment by reader DW, I’ve corrected this post to make it clear that it’s the film About Schmidt that borrows from “Dear Alexandros”).

Updike and Caniff


Milton Caniff and Joan Crawford, holding a drawing of the Dragon Lady

Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates was one of the great comic strips of the 1930s and 1940s: it had action, lovely ink-rich noir art, a winsome young hero who matures during the course of his adventures, an exciting Asian backdrop (which in the late 1930s became timely and even urgent), and sexy femme fatals (the famed Dragon Lady).

In 1946, Caniff left Terry and started a new strip, Steve Canyon, a move that caught the attention of comic strip fans all over the nation.

John Updike, then 15 years old and living on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, was one such Caniff follower. On September 6, 1947, Updike wrote a letter to Caniff, which I found among Caniff’s papers at Ohio State University.

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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.

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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.

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Updike’s Hamlet Trilogy

A scene from Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.

John Updike doesn’t like to do anything once or even twice. His preferred modus operandi is to work in clusters of three, four or five. Four books about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom plus a sequel about his kids (the novella “Rabbit Remembered”). Three books about Henry Bech plus an omnibus volume. Three novels which rewrite Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (A Month of Sundays, Roger’s Version and S.). The Witches of Eastwick, with its supernatural theme, also nods toward Hawthorne. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Updike said he’s attracted to the number four, it’s comfortably square like the sides of a table or the legs of a chair. (I’m quoting from memory).

Just before the end of the last century, Updike developed a mild obsession with Hamlet which manifested itself in three very different books. The inspiration for this Hamlet-mania was Kenneth Branagh’s adaption of the play, which Updike enjoyed. The slightest connection to Shakespeare’s play was Updike 1999 essay collection More Matter. The title is from Gertrude’s curt injunction to Polonius, “less art, more matter.” A rather self-deprecating title, a typical trait in an Updike essay collection (other titles: Assorted Prose, Picked-Up Pieces, Odd Jobs) where he tends to downgrade his work as a critic in comparison to his primary achievements as a fiction writer and poet. The title seems to cast Updike the essayist as a Polonius-type figure, a garrulous old man forced to rein in his arty flights of rhetoric in the service of mundane media-induced matter.

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John Updike on Comics: a dream anthology

John Updike, as seen by David Levine in 1978.

Years ago while doing some research at Boston University on the papers of the cartoonist Harold Gray, the creator of the Little Orphan Annie, I came across a fan letter that was unusually eloquent. When I looked at the name of the bottom right hand corner of the type-written page it all became clear: it was a missive sent in 1948 by John Updike, then an aspiring cartoonist, when he was 15 years old.  As I got to know Updike’s writing I started to realize that the letter was a simply one thread in a large and comfy biographical quilt. Like almost all American kids of his generation, Updike consumed comics even before he could read, so they were intertwined with his earliest experiences of art. Cartooning appealed to him as a potential vocation and he composed his first fledgling fan letters around 1942, when he was ten. After Updike settled on a literary career, he often returned to comics as a way of giving visual and mnemonic potency to his prose. His most recent writing on cartooning was his review earlier this year in The New Yorker of a much-disputed Charles Schulz biography. (For more on Updike and comics, see the articles I’ve written for the Boston Globe and the Guardian).  

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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.

Updike: Baby, Can I Blurb You?

Erica Jong

No man, no matter how much we might idealize him, is perfect, not even John Updike in his capacity as a book reviewer.  In the introduction to Picked-Up Pieces (1975) he lists all the hidden allegiances and human frailties that occasionally led him to be less than completely upfront and aboveboard in his reviews: “Here and there filial affection for an older writer has pulled my punch. Fear of reprisal may have forced a grin or two. In a few reprehensible cases I may have dreamed of sleeping with the authoress.”

Which “authoress” did Updike hope to seduce with a rave review? Take a look at the praise he bestowed in that same book upon Erica Jong for her middle-brow sex romp Fear of Flying (1973): “Erica Jong’s first novel feels like a winner. It has class and sass, brightness and bite.” As the review makes clear, Updike spent a lot of time looking at photographs of the young novelist: “On the back jacket flap, Mrs. Jong, with perfect teeth and cascading blond hair, is magnificently laughing, in contrast to the somber portrait that adorns her two collections of poetry.”

(The photograph of Erica Jong and her perfect teeth is taken from the Famous Poets and Poems website).

Updike’s Marginalia: the Writer as Reader

Great writers make demands on our time and energy which is why, to be absolutely frank, they can be so annoying.

Readers of John Updike will know what I mean when I say that the man, who has all the virtues a writer could want, is just too much. He’s too glib, too polished, too prolific, too kind-hearted, too equanimous, too wide-ranging, too tolerant, too knowledgeable, and, if this can be considered a fault, too good to be true. He’s so consistently and abundantly and unceasingly excellent you often want to throttle him. Of his 33 books of fiction, I’ve read 10; so I feel like I’m only on the foothills approaching Everest. As far as I can tell from my sea-level vantage point, he’s never written an inelegant sentence (although he is at times florid). He has a painter’s eye for the surface of life combined with an ear that any dramatist would envy, and, best of all, he has an exceptionally acute grasp of psychology, particularly the knotty emotional-dynamics that play out in contemporary family life.

Even Updike’s failures, say the bizarre middle section of Rabbit Redux where the ordinary-Joe American hero shacks up with a runaway hippy and a black radical, testifies to a strength, his literary daring: rather than staying safe in the suburbs (a locale that he knows better than any writer alive) he’s constantly taking risks by tackling characters and environments far outside his comfort range.

Aside from his primary achievements as a novelist and short story writer, he has merit as a poet (unfashionably formalist and always readable), art critic (where his eye-opening eloquence puts the professionals to shame), memoirist, and literary critic (more than a million words of book reviews for The New Yorker). Except for poetry, he takes these tasks less seriously than his fiction. “Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea,” Updike wrote in the introduction to one of his brick-thick essay collections. Yet even in these secondary efforts, the bastard is a master: I can’t think of anyone who has written as sensitively as Updike has on Kierkegaard, Borges, Nabokov and Phillip Roth. Reading his essays I’ve often wanted to beg him to just stop, to stop it, stop showing off, stop putting us all to shame.

In the latest issue of Harper’s, Wyatt Mason has a long, appreciative overview of Updike as a critic. Mason, the hardest-working young book reviewer around, as always goes above and beyond the call of duty in writing his essay. Purportedly, Mason is reviewing Updike’s latest omnibus collection Due Consideration, but actually the essay covers much of the writer’s earlier career and serves as a quiet manifesto on how to read. (Mason has something like Updike’s work ethic and typically seems to read all a writer’s work, including uncollected fugative squibs, before making the first critical comment). From the looks of the essay, Mason gone and re-read all of Updike’s critical writing and also trekked out to a small used bookstore in Massachusetts where Updike unloaded copies of the books he’s reviewed. Examining these discarded galleys, Mason notes how Updike blackens each book he reads with microscopically-detailed marginalia: the true sign of a intensive, focused, untiring reader.

Mason’s essay is available in full on Harper’s webpage, which also includes a 10-part slideshow of Updike’s marginalia. Find out what the great man really thinks of Tom Wolfe and Alice Munro. Here’s a sample from Mason’s essay:

Thus, you can sit on a couch in the store and open (until it sells, of course) Updike’s copy of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full. A penciled “ugh” greets the reader in the margin of page 12 adjoining the line “Inman was shaking his head so hard his jowls were lagging behind his chin and flopping around.” On the same page, the pencil pinpoints the phrase “an extraordinary pounding,” and then notes, supra, “clichés-a semi cliché in every sentence.” Yet that same reader’s pencil, so peeved so soon, does not fail to fit a “good” onto page 531 beside a description (“He surveyed the tiny red eyes and all the mangy faces looking at him”); or, on page 552, to tag a sartorial catalogue of some length with a “beautiful.” And in Updike’s galley of Gain, by Richard Powers, one notes a ballpoint-penned “awful” pinned to the phrase: “For over a century, Clare laid countless clutches of eggs whose gold only the niggling would stoop to assay”; whereas, nearby, a passage of reportage earns an approving “what a trick!,” and an epigram soon thereafter-“Funerals are for the living, to punish them for all that they’ve failed to do for the dead”-nets a tidy “ha.” A peppering of “ha”s, in fact, in pencil and various tints of pen, season the once-bland margins of many of Updike’s uncorrected proofs; Norman Rush’s Mortals, say, in which its 700-plus pages are stung with spidery tattoos-“graceless sentence,” “good,” “run on,” “good,” “a talky style,” “‘angel-tits,’ cloying,” “‘worse for war’-pun!,” “do we need this?,” “dithering,” “is this too blunt or excellent?”-not to say corrections, even to the novel’s final page, where a forgotten “in” has been planted with a caret.