Critical Context

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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