Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446

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Half in jest, John Updike claimed to have commenced research on Buchanan Dying as an act of penance for the commercial success of his previous book, Couples. During this period, he turned forty, broke a leg, and buried his father. Buchanan Dying, he wrote, was “my final volume of homage to my native state.” Its publication coincided with the final days of Richard M. Nixon’s presidential administration, which had become imperiled by the Vietnam War and immobilized by the Watergate scandal. In that shrill political climate, the nation was preoccupied by the specter of an imperial presidency.

In immersing himself in historical research, Updike leaned heavily on President James Buchanan (1962), whose author, Philip S. Klein, expressed the hope that the former president would not again be the subject of character assassination. Buchanan Dying, however, is not a malicious attack at all. Despite all the insults hurled at him (hypocrite, mincemouth, harlot, sissy, imbecile, worm, and parasite are only a few), Updike’s Buchanan appears as a man of peace, a public servant who did his duty and gave the North four years to prepare for the inevitable bloodshed that would follow his country’s abandonment of moderation.

While many historians rank Buchanan among the worst American presidents, time has cooled passion and vituperation; all that remains is the stereotype of “Old Doughface.” Updike notes wryly that history has been kinder to strong, activist war leaders. While Buchanan made errors in judgment, Updike argues that he handled the secession crisis of 1860-1861 with considerable tact, especially considering his lame-duck status. He refused to recognize the dissolution of the Union or to abandon Fort Sumter, yet he would not be hurried into precipitate action that would cause border states to secede or would allow the North to be branded the aggressor. Abraham Lincoln followed essentially the same strategy, and the bold leadership of a George Washington or an Andrew Jackson in Buchanan’s stead would probably still not have avoided the carnage of war. Buchanan was a mediator who did what he was elected to do. As Updike has Buchanan declare, Pennsylvanians are known for good sense and sound judgment; they “stand as the daysman, between the extremes.” From a historical perspective, the dying Buchanan elicits compassion, even if he does not stir passions.

It should be noted that there is no historic proof that Anne Coleman committed suicide, only that she fell ill and died after a trip to Philadelphia. In his afterword, Updike makes a convincing case for artistic license when not in contradiction to known facts. Updike’s Buchanan has the final word on the matter. “Facts,” the old codger remarks, “are generally overesteemed.”