Since the appearance of his first book, a collection of poetry entitled The Carpentered Hen (1958), almost three decades ago, John Updike has published with systematic regularity, and his readers have come to expect a book each year from him. The 1983 addition to the Updike canon, Hugging the Shore follows Assorted Prose (1965) and Picked-Up Pieces (1975) as another generous sample of the author’s nonfiction prose. In this latest collection, largely an assemblage of reviews done for The New Yorker during the 1970’s and early 1980’s, Updike displays a truly remarkable range of scholarship and perception about the works of his contemporaries both in the United States and abroad. The grand sweep over the entire field of literature that he makes in Hugging the Shore suggests comparison with critics such as Edmund Wilson and T. S. Eliot.
Not all of the pieces in this collection, however, deal with literature; Updike has also included character sketches, lectures, and reviews of books on religion, science, history, and art. One may wonder what prompted Updike to write many of these rather odd bedfellows; he says in the foreword that he was the instigator of some, while others were suggested to him. Nevertheless, it is clear that he is able to handle any assignment with a deftness that is at times almost annoying: He is clearly happy to show off the breadth of his own reading, willing to range the world for the appropriate comparison to make his point. What makes this offhanded brilliance a bit more annoying is that Updike tells the reader in the very first line of the foreword that “Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea.” It appears as if Updike is apologizing for this latest addition to his oeuvre; such apologies are not only cloying, but unnecessary.
Hugging the Shore is divided (far from equally) into two sections. The first, “Persons and Places,” consists of seventy-five pages of short sketches, largely of New Englanders and their habitat. In addition, there are two essays on golfing—one a catalog of differing perspectives on the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, another a golfing fantasy seen from masculine and feminine viewpoints. Also among this potpourri are short pieces about baseball, postal envelopes, and a 1999 visit to the planet Minerva. In many of these sketches, Updike strikes a familiar pose: the gentle satirist, eliciting from the reader a laugh which, as it rings in his ears, makes him recall that among the faces in the crowd at whom he laughs is his own. Updike’s descriptive prose is, as usual, precise: The scenes he views are captured in language that makes the reader see what has spurred the writer’s imagination.
By far the larger part of Hugging the Shore is its second section. Comprising more than seven hundred pages, “Other People’s Books” is a compendium of previously published reviews. Here, Updike ranges the world of literature, past and present. The texts of three lectures introduce the section. In these analyses of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman, Updike shows his knowledge of the American literary tradition of which he is now a part. There follow reviews of recent publications by and about Edmund Wilson, John O’Hara, Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Anne Tyler, Margaret Drabble, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, John Cheever, and dozens of others. In addition to Anglo-American writers, Updike has something to say about Europeans as well: The works of Gustave Flaubert, Raymond Queneau, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Robert Pinget, Italo Calvino, Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll, and Roland Barthes are among those that fall under the author’s gaze. Even Third World and Far Eastern literature is represented; Updike includes reviews of works by African, Indian, Japanese, and Chinese writers. Poetry and fantasy as well as realistic prose fiction receive attention; commentaries on nonfiction—letters, histories, religious studies, biographies, scientific studies—are interspersed throughout the collection. Perhaps the range of Updike’s interests can best be illustrated by noting that within the space of thirty pages, one encounters thoughtful and thought-provoking essays on the life of actress Doris Day and on the friendship of theologians Paul Tillich and Karl Barth; these are separated by pieces on silent-film star Louise Brooks and astronomer-turned-television personality Carl Sagan. One is reminded of John Dryden’s comment on The Canterbury Tales: “Here is God’s plenty.”
The last forty pages of this imposing tome are given to an appendix, “On One’s Own Oeuvre,” which Updike himself describes as...
(The entire section is 1947 words.)