John Updike Updike, John (Hoyer) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John (Hoyer) Updike 1932–

American novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, and essayist.

Updike is an acute observer of the human condition and an extraordinary stylist. His major subject is the domestic life of the American middle-class and its attendant rituals: marriage, sex, child-rearing, and divorce. Against the placid setting of suburban America and in concurrence with his interpretation of the thought of philosopher Sören Kierkegaard and theologian Karl Barth, Updike presents people—usually men—searching for meaning in the painful awareness of their mortality and basic powerlessness. The tension in Updike's work is often the result of his characters' struggles to determine what is right, to know how to behave as changing individuals in a constantly changing world.

His recent novel, Rabbit Is Rich, continues the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom begun in the acclaimed Rabbit, Run. Rabbit, now wealthy and middle-aged, is involved in taking stock of his life.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 5; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)

Granville Hicks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The variety of subjects [in Assorted Prose] is impressive; Russia's first moon shot, a dinosaur egg, style in sports writing, the quiz show scandal, the assassination of President Kennedy. There are also obituary notes on John P. Marquand, Grandma Moses, and T. S. Eliot. Two longer pieces, one on pigeons and one on Antarctica, show how well Updike could handle a New Yorker research job.

Among his other apprentice works were several parodies…. Whether or not Updike is, or someday may be, a great writer, he is not a great parodist. Although the parodies were pleasant enough to read as they appeared in [The New Yorker], most of them—the principal exception is the parody of Harry Truman—scarcely seem worth republication.

Of greater interest are several longer pieces, especially "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," an account of Ted Williams's final game in Boston. Updike, a true enthusiast, wrote about the great day con amore. Although I am sure that the article would delight any baseball fan, it is interesting to me as a piece of writing….

Of the more or less autobiographical pieces, the most interesting is "The Dogwood Tree," which was written for a volume called Five Boyhoods. Updike speaks of it disparagingly, but I find it fascinating, not merely as a vivid reminiscence but also as a commentary on his fiction. Here are the settings of The Poorhouse Fair, Rabbit, Run, The Centaur, and many of the short stories. The youthful John Updike, as he presents himself here, is readily identified with boys we have met in his fiction.

Then there are the book reviews. Updike is not, and does not pretend to be, a great critic, but he is a consistently interesting literary journalist. He has reviewed a variety of books for The New Yorker and other...

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Bernard A. Schopen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The novels of John Updike have spawned a criticism rather remarkable in its contentiousness. His books have evoked critical outrage, bewilderment, condescension, commendation, and an enthusiasm approaching the fulsome. The same novel might be hailed as a major fictional achievement and dismissed as a self-indulgence or a failure. And evaluations of Updike's importance in the realm of contemporary American literature reflect a similar truculent diversity. However, a careful review of the commentary on Updike's work reveals that much of it is structured by assumptions that have little relevance to the themes, methods, and intentions of his fiction. This is especially true of those studies which discuss the relation of Updike's Christianity to the form and texture of his novels. While Updike has repeatedly expressed his views on religious and theological questions, his critics continue to interpret his work according to theories, religio-ethical systems, and ontologies he categorically rejects and his fiction does not embody. Updike's faith is Christian, but it is one to which many of the assumptions about the Christian perspective do not apply—especially those which link Christian faith with an absolute and divinely ordered morality. (p. 523)

Updike has often quoted approvingly Barth's remark that "one cannot speak of God by speaking of man in a loud voice." For both men the distinction between the divine and the human is absolute. God is Wholly Other. He is unreachable, unknowable. Thus the only religious—which is not to say theological—question is that of faith. But the existence of God, Barth and Updike jointly assert, cannot be proved. So the question becomes not, "Does God exist?" but rather, "Do I believe God exists?" To Updike, an affirmative answer to this question makes one a Christian: "I call myself a Christian by defining 'a Christian' as 'a person willing to profess the Apostles' Creed.'" And the Apostles' Creed is nothing more—and nothing less—than a statement of faith in the existence of God and the divinity of Christ. It requires only that one avow, "I believe."

Since Updike's Christianity is determined only by his profession of the Apostles' Creed, it contains no inherent moral system. Again his views are in accord with those of Karl Barth. (pp. 524-25)

For Updike … religious questions are those arising from the relationship between man and God. Moral questions are those which concern man's intercourse with his fellow man. The absolute qualitative difference between man and God, and consequently between ethics and faith, is the sine qua non of his theology. And there is no question that for Updike the problems of human morality are subordinate to that of faith. The problem of faith, though difficult, is simple and absolute; those of morality are relative, ambiguous, and "basically insoluble." Thus, insofar as it treats moral problems, Updike's fiction must be ambiguous and essentially static.

Updike has said that the central theme of each of his novels is "meant to be a moral dilemma," and that his books are intended as "moral debates with the reader." But to develop a moral theme in such a way that there is no resolution is to do something quite different from what the novel has traditionally attempted. All novelists deal with moral questions. Historically, however, the novelist has tried to resolve these problems, at least tentatively; he has tried to view the problems of human life from a moral perspective which indicates both their causes and possible solutions. Updike, however, believes that there are no solutions. And he specifically rejects the notion that literature should inculcate moral principles or precepts. On the other hand, many of his readers would agree with Wayne Booth's assertion that "an author has an obligation to be as clear about his moral position as possible." The work itself, this theory holds, must create a moral universe which clearly establishes principles upon which the actions of its characters can be judged. But Updike is up to something else in his fiction. Since the theme of each novel is a moral dilemma, discriminations in the effects of human attitudes and behavior are essential to its development. Updike's focus on the complex implications of his characters' moral decisions is constant and sharp, so that the issues are always clear and the consequences of each decision fully developed. But...

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Miles Donald

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

My consideration of Faulkner and Updike together is not arbitrary. Despite the differences in their generations and background, there are many surprising similarities in their work—one of these is particularly relevant to the future of the American novel: each author produces work which shows the contrary pulls of structure and the absence of structure. By this I do not mean that each writes some books which are structured and some which are not; I mean that repeatedly one encounters in their novels structures adopted and abandoned, and finds therefore one of the great problems of the twentieth-century novel—the relationship between order and meaning on the one hand, and chaos and nonsense on the other, a struggle which is fought out not only through their themes but through the very texture of the works themselves. The consequences for the novel's traditional habit of expressing all its themes (even ones of formlessness) in a formal structure are interesting—as interesting as the future of its traditional techniques. (p. 73)

[Updike's] novels have for the most part enjoyed a wide and varied readership, and as far as the general public goes his name is well known. However, neither intellectually nor academically is he as well thought of as he might be. Though he does not lack academic attention, all too often he is seen as slick, rhapsodic, glossy and middlebrow. While I think those criticisms are not entirely groundless, and am of the opinion that he has not come close to fulfilling his real promise, there is a great deal to be said for him as a writer of what is both good and representational in the modern American novel. (p. 91)

Updike's works, like Faulkner's, reveal an increasing unease with structure, whether in form or content; in Updike's case this shows particularly in the concentration on perception as a last desperate remedy for the problem of meaninglessness. Again and again, like so many modern novelists, he returns to describe and evoke experience—no matter what that experience may be—for, in the face of increasing social and personal collapse, the feeling of the moment is the only positive reality man has. Of course, his novels contain other elements, but their real texture and force come from the linking of moments of intense experience—for again it is only in these moments that his characters know they are alive…. The only thing Rabbit knows is how he feels; he does not understand external circumstances, the hard facts of his or Ruth's plight, the arguments about the rights and wrongs of the situation with the clergyman Eccles; the only right or good he can understand is the ecstasy of the moment. And it is interesting that in Rabbit Run we have the forerunner of something which comes to obsess Updike in Couples and Rabbit Redux—namely, the ecstasy to be got from inverting experience. Like some latter-day Huysmans, Rabbit deliberately desecrates his sacramental experience with Ruth. (I think this is a process still unresolved in Updike; as in Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, he manifests the contrary desires to shock the reader with the 'secret' knowledge of perversion and then to convince him that because it is knowledge it is not perverse.)

Updike's concern with the relationship between intense experience and morality receives a much more detailed treatment in Couples. (pp. 91-3)

Updike's treatment of sex in this novel has led him to be accused of pornography—there is so much sex and it is described in such, almost gloating, detail. Yet his intention is not pornographic. He goes over different sex between different people to discover what sex is. What is it this experience that is so important; why do we do it; why do we want to do it; do we want to do it? One is reminded of Faulkner's hypnotic waltzing round and round the subject, stressing by each return to it the importance of the same questions. Again like Faulkner, Updike is concerned with what the experience of sex means in relation to other experiences, and the various meanings we put upon them.

In Updike this concern is superficially more straightforward. His characters say out loud what Faulkner's never could; yet, as Couples goes on, we realise that things are not as simple as they seem. Even if Updike does not treat with incest and sexually intense violence, sex in Couples becomes more and more twisted; and the unsatisfactory nature of sex as a substitute for all that is wrong in life—and especially in American society—becomes evident…. There is something unbalanced about Piet's sexual obsession with pregnancy, and we can also see that his sexual experiences are becoming increasingly isolated and selfish. Indeed, if the affection and joy which Piet has given Foxy has turned into this, we see that his is really a barbaric...

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Roger Sale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rabbit Angstrom keeps coming back, like a song that says "remember." (p. 1)

[He] and Updike have a relation that may be unique in literature. Once Arnold Bennett created Clayhanger or Ford Madox Ford his Tietjens, each stayed with his character. Trollope wrote other books in between work on his Barchester and Palliser novels, but Trollope never focused his series on one place or character. Updike, though, published "Rabbit Run" in 1960, "Rabbit Redux" in 1971—and now "Rabbit Is Rich." In between, there has been no reason to believe that Updike cares any more about what happens to Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom that he does about characters he has been content to create and abandon. But then the summons...

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Eliot Fremont-Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rabbit, Run, that heart-stopping epiphany of 21 years ago, should never have had a sequel, and now it's got two. John Updike's privilege, I suppose; one must bend with the facts, if not forgive. Rabbit Redux still seems a rude trespass on what had become, after all, the property of my imagination; yet without it there could be no [Rabbit Is Rich] …, no renewal of affection, no return of grace. The alter ego stuff aside, there's a juicy bravado to Updike's long loyalty to Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom that I can't help liking. The desperate, fleeing angel of Rabbit, Run is now, surprisingly, "family," and we're all growing older together. There's caring in this, and even some dignity—Rabbit...

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Thomas R. Edwards

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In all the [Rabbit] novels, it is suggested—Updike is too canny to insist on it—that Harry, resolutely commonplace in most other ways, has a special spiritual gift, however poorly he understands or articulates it, a persistent sense of what William James in A Pluralistic Universe wittily called "a more": "the believer finds that the tenderest parts of his personal life are continuous with a more of the same quality which is operative in the universe outside of him and which he can keep in working touch with, and in a fashion get on board of and save himself, when all his lower being has gone to pieces in the wreck."

James's terms are helpful in making out Harry Angstrom....

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Daniel M. Murtaugh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Money helps. Just how much it helps is, perhaps, the most humorous and unfriendly revelation of middle age. It cushions every fall. As a result, Rabbit Is Rich is a more consistently comic novel, looser and easier and more cynical than its predecessors. Rabbit Run and Rabbit Redux each moved with a sharp clarity of purpose to a truly harrowing catastrophe. Years after closing it, Rabbit Redux still seems to me one of the most painful books I have read. In the new book, however, the plot is diffuse, its movements multiple, its catastrophes promised and then mockingly withdrawn….

The irony is manifold and humane in this novel. Its special quality has grown steadily from...

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Gene Lyons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Rabbit is Rich] is more than the author's best work in many years. It is a beautifully written, compassionate, knowing and wise novel by an at-last mature writer working at a level he has always had the capacity to attain, but seemed destined never to reach. Even near the end, when God is once again descried by Harry Angstrom hiding in a hitherto unsuspected aperture, most readers, I think, will be sufficiently grateful and, yes, moved by what has gone before that they will grant Updike his obsession and let it go at that.

One has only to compare Rabbit is Rich with its predecessor in the Angstrom series to see how far Updike has brought himself. Rabbit Redux was awful for...

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V. S. Pritchett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "Rabbit Is Rich"] Updike's difficulty is to find a means of insinuating the sins of the past without recapitulating them and to make the novel something more than a job of clearing up. All his astonishing technical virtuosity as a poet, chronicler, moralist, and storyteller is called for. I detect some change of tone, but he has at any rate escaped the journalistic telegraphese that ruined, say, the later "Forsyte" and other sagas. And if "Rabbit Is Rich" is in danger of becoming an essay in latter-day Babbittry, the author does fill out a man ashamed of his shamelessness; Rabbit is shown puzzled by his inescapable Puritan guilts, and relieved by bursts of rancor. As a onetime basketball hero, he has not much more...

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Alfred Kazin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Rabbit Is Rich] is a brilliant performance. As always, but more soberly and relevantly than in such subjective books as Couples and Marry Me, Updike revels in his great gifts of style and social—I mean domestic—observation. There have been times in the past when Updike's style was laid across the page like so many layers of marshmallow. How the prodigy loved his style! But here the always summonable Updike brightness, acuity, prancing wit are mostly on the mark. And the mark is inflation, inflated America careening wildly like an overpressured ballon over the pit of the Seventies.

Apart from the helplessness of the characters, just as drugged by the social fix as some kid on...

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Donald J. Greiner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When Updike publishes a novel or a collection of tales, most major journals and many general readers respond.

Such is not the case with his poetry. Only literary specialists know that Updike's first book is a volume of poems, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958), and that it is the first of, at this writing, his four poetry collections. The dust jacket blurb announces that the volume "charts a nice course between playfulness and sobriety." The book does just that. An antic mood prevails as Updike expresses his observations in a tone bouncing back and forth between tenderness and wit. A collection of fifty-five poems on topics ranging from basketball to the humanities to...

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Russell Davies

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[John Updike's] Rabbit is a big man and partly unaware of his own strength—emotional strength especially—but he is not big enough to build dynasties and oppose time and tide. He knows he is a victim, but he fights on with his remaining powers. Along with those veteran show-people who so often say it, he could claim, and with the same banal justice, that he's 'a survivor'…. [In Rabbit Run and Rabbit Redux Updike's] descriptions of the hypocrisy enshrined in life's furnishings had the glint of an elaborate sadism about them, and sometimes phrases would just take off into horror-poetry not to be treasured at all, except as exemplars of a Fabergé sickliness done into words. But all this is under...

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Judy Cooke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Was it right to make man in the image of rabbit? For all its narrative energy and wit, [Rabbit is Rich] is an immensely depressing book, perhaps because the author refuses to be angry about a society slowly and deliberately destroying itself…. There's plenty of sex and pain: no passion, no disgust, no dignity. Updike is too important a writer to leave it at that; it's time he cleaned out the hutch. (p. 19)

Judy Cooke, "Still Running," in New Statesman (© 1982 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 103, No. 2652, January 15, 1982, pp. 19-20.∗

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Robert Taubman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rabbit novels come out at the turn of each decade, like a series of reports on the state of America. Rabbit is rich, the third and latest…. is effortlessly informing about time and place; about smart money and car dealing, what they say about Chappaquiddick, TV ads, the contents of a bathroom cabinet. This is a corner of America in a mood of complacence ample enough to admit self-criticism, provoked in particular by the oil crisis and the queues at petrol stations…. Much scope for criticism of America is offered, but not inadvertently, for the criticism is all made or implied in the novel itself. And Uplike's trend-spotting instincts are not just alert to news-items but sustain whole scenes of social...

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