Presaging the Youthful Rebellion of the 1960s
John Updike has been accused of writing extremely well about matters of very little importance. His prose, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, does read beautifully, perhaps more beautifully than anyone writing today. Erica Jong says, in an essay in Robert Luscher' s John Updike: A Study of the Short Fiction, that his detractors are "transparently envious'' of him. I agree with Jong. Updike's prose style is not separable from the content of his works, and that content is not trivial. The story we are examining here, "A & P," is a fine example, especially since many critics consider it a slight work describing an ultimately insignificant moment in a young man's small life.
A reader skating along the smooth ice of Updike's prose might be quite content to simply watch the approaching horizon, but the careful reader who looks below the surface will see all sorts of interesting, and sometimes frightening things lurking there. In "A & P," it seems that a grocery checkout clerk named Sammy quits his job to impress a pretty girl in a bathing suit. But just below the surface, we can see that Sammy has made a conscious choice to protest his manager's bad treatment of the girl. And if we get close and look even deeper, we can see that this story, informed by the social and cultural currents of the times, is an early harbinger of the youthful rebellion of the 1960s, which was in its embryonic stage at the time Updike wrote "A & P."
The 1950s were to some extent years of conformity, of marching in step, and also (it is said) years of sexual repression. Married couples portrayed on television and in the movies had to have twin beds. Censors dictated that bedroom scenes involving man and wife had to have at least one partner with a foot on the floor at all times. On the political front, a few influential people believed there were communists everywhere—or so it would seem from the headlines and speeches of the day. At times Hollywood seemed obsessed with communists and troubled teenagers, with films like I Married a Communist and Runaway Daughter. To be different in any significant way was to be suspect. In short, some Americans believed that there existed people "out there" who would seduce the nation's children, turn the country communist, and play rock and roll music all day in order to arouse the base, sexual longings of the populace. These people were more afraid of being labeled outsiders than they were afraid of the outsiders themselves.
Most people, of course, were not so dogmatic in their thinking. Most lived productive, normal lives, unrecognized and basically content. There were other people who spoke out in various ways against the uniformity of American society. But they were, by and large, on the periphery of the culture.
Among those who spoke out, the bi-coastal Beat Movement, centered around Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and various friends, fans, and hangers-on, came to the fore in the mid-1950s with the publication of Kerouac's On the Road and Ginsberg's Howl. Although neither work might seem dangerous to us in the 1990s, they were roundly condemned by mainstream society at the time for being too sexually explicit, encouraging the mixing of the races, promoting drug use, and instigating a host of other immoral and illegal acts. Combining a fear of sex, race, drugs, communism, and freedom of dress and self-expression, society labeled the Beats "beatniks." In fact, anyone who challenged the status quo was labeled, humiliated, criticized, and denounced everywhere, from the Oval Office at the White House to the pulpit of the local Congregational Church, from the halls of Congress, to the halls of Shillington High School.
It is into this rigid world that John Updike sends three young girls wearing nothing but bathing suits.
Youth is significant in this story. Sammy is only nineteen, and the girls are younger than he. Lengel and the shoppers are, one assumes, much older. Stokesie, the...
(The entire section is 8,452 words.)