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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.)
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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 magazines, and he appears to have approached each of them with the liveliest kind of curiosity. (p. 25)
The reviews are also interesting because they suggest some of Updike's values as a writer of fiction. Sillitoe's stories, he remarks, show "enviable assurance and abundance in the writer"—qualities that Updike surely possesses. He says that Sillitoe is "well-armed with intelligence, humor, and (my guess is) stamina." He describes Muriel Spark as "one of the few writers of the langauge on either side of the Atlantic with enough resources, daring, and stamina to be altering, as well as feeding, the fiction machine."
Updike's versatility is as obvious as his mastery of the language. But, some people ask, isn't he spreading himself too thin? Has he written anything that is worthy of his talents? Isn't it time he wrote a Great Book?
Updike himself has something to say on this general theme in his review of Salinger's Franny and Zooey: "When all reservations have been entered, in the correctly unctuous and apprehensive tone, about the direction he has taken, it remains to acknowledge that it is a direction and that the refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one's obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all."
But, the opposition inquires, what risks has Updike taken, and is he driven by obsessions of any sort? So far as the use of language is concerned, he is extremely bold and extremely effective, but how often does one feel a sense of urgency in his fiction?
These are reasonable questions, but I should be sorry if Updike were to pay much attention to them. Certainly we want him to write a great book, but we don't want him to feel that he must do something great or be a failure. In a wise comment on James Agee, Updike says: "A fever of self-importance is upon American writing. Popular expectations of what literature should provide have risen so high that failure is the only possible success, and pained incapacity the only acceptable proof of sincerity." If, he goes on, Agee had justly estimated what he had done, instead of weeping over what he had wanted to do, he would not have taken so unhappy a view of his career. In the same way, it might be a good thing for critics to contemplate what Updike has accomplished in a decade—two excellent novels and many first-rate stories—and not to spend so much time worrying about the books he hasn't yet even attempted. (pp. 25-6)
Granville Hicks, "They Also Serve Who Write Well," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1965 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLVIII, No. 20, May 15, 1965, pp. 25-6.
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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 while Updike's characters are quick to judge each other, their creator refuses either to bless or to condemn; and each novel clearly demonstrates that the specific moral problem it treats is irresolvable. The world Updike creates in his fiction is morally ambiguous. And it is so, in large part, because of the perpetual conflict between two antithetical forms of human morality.
Updike has suggested that the human conscience constantly suffers guilt for transgressing the laws of two different moralities. One is external, abstract, made up of biblical injunction, social and cultural mores, and all the precepts our civilization has established to enable men to live together in harmony. But "Another kind of morality is a sort of response to an inner imperative"; this subjective morality is less a system than a "feeling" or "sense" of the propriety of a given act. And while Updike believes that "Morality tries to keep us from pain," he admits that "I don't see either solution as being perfect."
In Updike's novels the dilemma created by this dual morality is often embodied in the women between whom the protagonists must choose. In Rabbit Run Rabbit Angstrom vacillates between his wife and his mistress. The external and codified morality, of which Jack Eccles is the chief instrument, demands that Rabbit return to Janice; but Rabbit's inner apprehension of what is "right" for him directs him to Ruth. Similarly, Joey Robinson's dilemma is represented by his two wives, and also by Peggy and his mother. (pp. 525-27)
Many of Updike's readers find the moral ambiguity of his fictional world morally offensive. His refusal to establish a rigid and clearly discernible moral perspective from which his characters should be viewed often leads these readers to assert that Updike is unwilling or unable to deal with serious moral issues, that he has "nothing to say." The objective presentation of life's pervasive ambiguity also leads many of his sympathetic critics to misread him; they simply assume that Updike shares their own moral attitudes, or those associated with Christianity in general, and interpret his fiction accordingly….
Much of the difficulty critics have with Updike's fiction stems from their unwillingness to acknowledge the validity of one or the other of the two moral imperatives Updike recognizes. To Updike, however, they are equally valid and equally imperfect. In his fiction they stand together as irreconcilable forces, distinct from and often irrelevant to the problem of faith. Thus they exist in ambiguity and tension, which are basic to the human condition as Updike understands it. It is this condition which is always the subject of his novels. (p. 527)
[His] more recent novels continue the patterns established in Rabbit, Run. Like it, they deal with the problem of faith and the difficulty of moral decisions; and they too dramatize a moral dilemma through the complexities of sexual love. But the key to understanding Updike's treatment of this aspect of his sexual themes is found not in his second novel but in his third. In the first chapter of The Centaur, when Venus attempts to seduce Chiron, the centaur hesitates, listening for the rumble of Zeus's thunder. Suddenly Venus disappears, for "Love has its own ethics, which the deliberating will irrevocably offend"; Caldwell/Chiron is left alone "with a painful, confused sense of having displeased, through ways he could not follow, the God who never rested from watching him."…
The "ethics" of love are of a piece with the "inner imperative" which Updike defends as a valid, if imperfect, form of morality. As such they will usually be in opposition to those ethical dicta by which society regulates the sexual impulse, and will demand behavior unsanctioned by that society—that is to say, adultery. However, while Rabbit Angstrom oscillated between these two ethics, the protagonists of Updike's later novels tend to hang suspended between them, to exist as best they can in an uneasy compromise with each. The inevitable result of this compromise is a constant sense of guilt and an overwhelming fear of decisive action.
This general inability to act is a primary brace in the psychological scaffolding Updike constructs around his lover/hero. Critics have made much of the "passivity" of his later protagonists, but the novels indicate that this is the result of something much more complex than moral indolence. These characters all become subject to so many conflicting moral demands, and are presented with so many insoluble problems, that they retreat into a sort of moral catatonia. (pp. 531-32)
There is an additional reason for the inertia of these characters: each experiences what is clearly an existential and religious crisis. More specifically, each has reached the halfway point in his life—precisely that position between birth and death which Updike described in a long poem. "Midpoint" is a poetic recapitulation of Updike's past for the purpose of determining the proper course for his future. And three of his protagonists confront the same situation. Joey Robinson and Piet Hanema are thirty-fve, Harry Angstrom thirty-six—each at the midpoint of his allotted threescore and ten; and each must attempt to make some sense of his life, to understand himself and his relation to God and to his fellow man, and to defend himself—with faith and love—against the ominous possibility of eternal death. The specter of mortality haunts these novels and their protagonists, who must leap again and again out of "total despair" to a faith assaulted on all sides by reason and doubt. And they must endure the distrust and recriminations of those characters who exist exclusively in the moral and merely human world. Invariably these characters are women.
Updike's remarks about the female characters in Couples apply to all the women in his later novels: "The women in that book are less sensitive perhaps to the oppressive quality of cosmic blackness, and it is the women who do almost all of the acting." (p. 533)
If Updike's protagonists are morally "paralysed," they are so in part because of their sensitivity to "the oppressive quality of cosmic blackness": obsessed by death, exhausted by their effort to believe, and convinced of the impossibility of sorting through the ramifications of each moral decision, they can merely wait, and hope, and suffer the guilt of the inactive even as they acknowledge that "all this decency and busyness, is nothing." Their women, unconcerned with the problems of death and faith, take control of love and life in the quotidian. (pp. 533-34)
Bernard A. Schopen, "Faith, Morality, and the Novels of John Updike," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1978, Hofstra University Press), Vol. 24, No. 4, Winter, 1978, pp. 523-35.
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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 exploiting tenderness of the sort Lawrence was always quick to portray in the characters he disliked. Thus the healing restorative quality which Updike's characters seek in the sexual experience seems to be not only transitory but in the end destructive, itself reasserting the very confusion and unhappiness it sought to solve. Sex, which was 'good' to Piet, becomes in the end for him what it is to the other couples—something to pass the time, to ward off boredom, to occupy the blank meaningless space between adolescence and senility in a blank meaningless universe.
This blankness and meaninglessness is illustrated by the other alternatives to sex that Updike offers. Among these, religion and politics are paramount. Like Faulkner, Updike is obsessed with religion, or rather with religions. He himself said that the question his novels are posing is 'after Christianity what?', and he always introduces religion early on. In Rabbit Run, for example, we are told in the first few chapters that Rabbit and his wife Janice are Christians, and the interest in and influence on their problems which the clergyman Eccles is allowed to take illustrates a particularly American phenomenon—the continuing conventional importance of religion in American life. (pp. 93-5)
[When] Updike introduces the Church into his novels, he is dealing with a local historico/social as well as a universal religious phenomenon….
[The] loss of religious meaning is seen as the loss of traditional American social meaning. (p. 96)
But religion does not provide meaning any more than sex does. For one thing, it does not greatly affect the characters' lives….
Politics is equally ineffective as an alternative. It, like the question of religion or the fear of death, haunts and punctuates the characters and their actions. (p. 97)
Throughout Couples we hear of the growing American involvement in Vietnam; in Rabbit Redux the theme continues (one of the achievements of Updike's writing is that he can make Harry into a 'hawk' on Vietnam because of his sensitivity—and make us believe it). In both books, politics intersect with the characters' lives only to make them appear more terrifyingly inexplicable. (p. 98)
After considering at such length meaninglessness and its relation to experience, one should notice Updike's own tendency to opt out of any final, definite impression left by his books. He likes to see his novels as open-ended, a fact that sometimes bothers his critics. He has made it plain that the end of Couples is ambiguous…. (p. 99)
[Although] there is more than one way to read the end, and therefore to interpret the whole of an Updike novel, I am not finally convinced. As with Faulkner, the coherent interpretations which may be placed upon the book do not adequately express the impression that the work itself makes. As with Faulkner, there is a strange dissonance between what the book talks about (its ideas and issues and themes) and what it is about (the feelings it engenders and obsessively returns to).
Here the question of guilt arises…. For Updike's central characters are both in pursuit of and in flight from guilt, a process which involves a distortion of experience—particularly sexual and religious experience—and of whatever meaning they are seeking. Thus, Rabbit both wishes to take on himself guilt for what is wrong with everything and everybody, and, having taken on the responsibility, wants—as we have seen in his treatment of Ruth—to escape from it. One questions (as in the case of Faulkner's characters) how representative the feelings of a character so obsessed can really be, and indeed how far the author understands or can cope with an emotion in which he himself appear to be deeply involved. (pp. 102-03)
The writer who is conscious that he is using a symbol, or alternatively of what it is his symbols stand for, is in danger of losing some of his spontaneous force; his symbols become ideas, and his narrative either splits away from them or has to be mechanically twisted to accommodate them. Both of these particularly twentieth-century problems apply to Updike, and to a lesser extent to Faulkner. When the church burns down in Couples, many readers object not because it is a symbol but because Piet is too conscious of it as such. Watching it burn is not traumatic; it is simply watching an idea burn. Similarly, Updike's really spectacular skill as a narrator, his capacity to grip us by the sequence of events, becomes twisted by the need for the events to mean things; a symbolic significance which can only be found, never (except in an entirely stylised work) placed.
What interests me here with regard to the twentieth-century American novel in general and Updike in particular is the consequences to narrative. (pp. 105-06)
Updike shows great power and skill [in his development of narrative]. We are driven forward at a cracking pace, sometimes even against our will. Even in the pretentious The Centaur, which suffers from a severe prolapse of the poetic faculty, we still want to know what is going to happen next. Yet, as with Faulkner, there is something strange about the relationship between narrative and the novel as a whole. We can see how, for example, in Light in August, Faulkner tells a whole series of stories—begins with the story of one character, tells it at great length and with great skill, then abandons it to begin another and pick up the first much later. This relates, of course, to my point about Faulkner and his dislike of an ordered context. This applies also to Updike; in Couples or Rabbit Redux we have the stories of several characters and, at the same time, a pull between the story of the character and the meaning which the author wishes to convey in it.
Here we find one of the great problems of the twentieth-century novel in general and the American form in particular—namely, that the traditional tools of the novelist, character and narrative, which were in the nineteenth century naturally allied to meaning, now have to be forced either because they no longer have a meaning to convey or because they are no longer an adequate medium of communication. So we find the traditional artistic impulse to communicate, coupled with the fear that communication is either meaningless or impossible.
This has far-reaching consequences; it may account for the crisis of confidence often found in modern novels, and especially for the abrupt abandonment or unconvincing completion of books that are promisingly begun. It may also account for the way in which the twentieth-century American novel has for many writers become a search, as if in the use of traditional skills a new tradition may emerge, as if through the very process of writing about life, life may reveal the secret of why we write about it—the secret of its lost meaning. (p. 106)
Miles Donald, "The Fate of the Traditional Novel: William Faulkner, John Updike," in his The American Novel in the Twentieth Century (© Miles Donald 1978; by permission of Barnes & Noble Books, a Division of Littlefield, Adams & Co., Inc.), Barnes & Noble, 1978, pp. 73-108.∗
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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 comes.
One reason Rabbit has this power may be that he is not Updike, but the one who didn't leave Shillington, go to Harvard, become a dazzling novelist. Updike might see him on a real or imagined trip to Reading, at a reunion or a wedding: My God, he's still there. What's he doing? He must weight 225 at least…. For Updike not to care about him is not to be nostalgic and questing, which is to say not to be Updike.
"Rabbit Redux" seemed to me a poisoned book, Updike taking everything that soured and frightened him about the late 60's and piling it on top of poor Rabbit. Separation and divorce. Flower children. Messianic blacks. About the first of these Updike was only angry and confused, and about the other two he knew little more than what yellow journalism told him. So his obedience to the summons was small-minded. But Updike's response to Harry's summons [in "Rabbit Is Rich"] is now much more attentive and sympathic. Harry Angstrom can never be described as large-minded, but that does not prevent Updike from imagining him largely.
The money makes a difference, and Harry and Updike would be the last to deny it, but there's more. The news items that provided Updike material for little poison-pen essays in "Rabbit Redux" 10 years ago are now just the stuff of conversation for people who often find it hard to speak directly to each other. (pp. 1, 32)
Sex too has ceased to be a subject for anguished mulling and has become the stuff of lives. It is not for nothing that "Playboy" has serialized parts of this novel, for Updike has never written more, or more lavishly, about sex. The mystery remains, but the insistent brooding has diminished….
[The] lechery is more friendly than in most of Updike, but what makes the sex work is Janice, or Harry and Janice, worrying about their weight, he jogging, she playing tennis, having a marriage, realizing that they are finally friends. Updike cannot make Janice, or any woman, the focus of his nonsexual interest for more than a few sentences at a time, but he gives her all the wisest lines in the book, and if he does not know he is doing this, Harry does. The effect is magical, their times in bed are what makes Rabbit rich, and their lovemaking while talking about moving out of his mother-in-law's house and worrying about their son Nelson is the best moment in the book, maybe in all Updike…. (p. 32)
Someone once said that reading a John O'Hara novel is like reading the Sears catalogue. Updike can be like that too, since once he starts on the country club, or the crêperie, or the Murkett's medicine chest, or the way it was, he usually goes until exhausted. So the book is too long. In addition, the attempt to bring back Ruth, Harry's mistress in "Rabbit Run," seems forced—though Ruth herself is fine—and the flashbacks to the crucial moments of "Rabbit Redux" are only slightly less strained. The novel's centerpiece is a section contrasting a typical evening out for Harry and Janice with one for their son Nelson and his pregnant wife. It is too self-conscious, and Updike does not understand Nelson well enough to make him his central consciousness for 25 pages.
But these are mostly faults of excess, which are always preferable to those of skimpiness, and the sentence-by-sentence writing here is, at least by Updike's lush standards, not excessive at all. In Rabbit's desire and ability to be happy Updike finds the yeast he seeks more often than finds, and he kneads his dough well as always, and the novel rises. For me "Rabbit Is Rich" is the first book in which Updike has fulfilled the fabulous promise he offered with "Rabbit Run" and "The Centaur" 20 years ago. (p. 32)
Roger Sale, "Rabbit Returns," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 27, 1981, pp. 1, 32-4.
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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 still ruts as a rabbit will (his literally saving grace), but now he's most often called Harry, and jogs rather than runs. There's abrasiveness, too: Updike's mixed feelings, sense of challenge, volatile remnants of envy and anger, his flippancy. But in the main Rabbit Is Rich is an act of accommodation; it warms the rut we discover ourselves in together, and lubricates astonishment….
It's hard to imagine the effect on readers new to Rabbit. Of course, Rabbit Is Rich is technically discrete; in little bursts of efficiency it recapitulates what's gone before—e.g., Rabbit's desertion of his wife Janice and the pregnant Ruth, and the horrifying bathtub drowning of Rabbit and Janice's infant daughter in Rabbit, Run; Rabbit's guilt in his son Nelson's eyes for the death of the hippie Jill in the awful fire in Rabbit Redux ("undo, undo," pleads Rabbit's brain). And so on, the "essential" plot details. But the essence of Rabbit as he was cannot be synopsized: the degree of desperation (and release) at the end of Rabbit, Run, the angst in Angstrom, his love of basketball and yearning to remain a high school star ("the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up," he thinks on the very first page of Rabbit, Run), his not knowing where to put his hand when Ruth fellates him (it flutters, then he rests it on his shoulder), the crucially intimate physics of his reconciliation with Janice at the end of Rabbit Redux—all this is, though acknowledged and told about or hinted at, missing….
It's convenient, as Thomas R. Edwards suggests in The Atlantic [see excerpt below], to compartmentalize the books. Thus Run is religious in atmosphere, and Redux political (Rabbit too much distorted into Updike's mouthpiece), and Rich economic. But convenience elucidates only the nearest distance. Updike's great subject, in all his books but especially in the Rabbits, is grace—what it is, where and how it abides, how it manifests itself. It's Rabbit's grace—God's grace on him, which he perceives fleetingly but piercingly when the chips are down—that sustains Rabbit and our (and Updike's) interest in him. It's his grace that makes him acceptable now as "family"—why we are touched by him (and scared) and also want to touch, as if some of it might rub off. Disaster may follow Rabbit's every step and skittish feint; when it doesn't, we are surprised and laugh in relief (and Rabbit Is Rich has a lot of laughs). Yet he is a magnet. When people go away from him, it's with regret, and like Janice they return when they can. At the end of Rich, Rabbit comes face to face with Ruth—his hunt for Ruth and their illegitimate daughter is a running subplot—and she repells him with every vehemence at her command. The intensity of her rejection isn't because Rabbit's interest is merely narcissistic and sentimental (though it is that, with an overlay of "responsibility"), but because the magnetism of grace is so powerful. (If Rabbit is Bloom, he's also Prince Mishkin; also Joe Bffsstk.)
The manifestation of grace in Rabbit comes in several ways—most weakly, perhaps, in his sense of "mission," most blatantly in his pervasive sexuality. The mission is vague (though explored in theological terms in Rabbit, Run), but has to do with his role in the ongoingness of life and particular lives, and with his amazement and awe that he is what and who he is, not something else or some other consciousness; and with the constant and sometimes appalling haul-and-tug between these phenomena.
This sense of mission connects to, is intimate with and inseparable from, his sexuality. Rabbit ruts all the time, if not in bed, then in his mind. But this isn't mere horniness, much less mere ability; the compulsion has basically to do with resolving the conflict of separateness, giving and receiving solace, experiencing grace. It contains many sentimentalities, but, arrestingly, no power trip, no cruelty. In fact, Rabbit's lack of a sense of cruelty may be one way of defining his grace; his vulnerability is him, and whatever surface assurance he has springs from that. Rabbit erect is the stunning delicacy of life, and of a piece with Rabbit sleeping in a curve of motherly flesh and dreams. (p. 35)
Rabbit Is Rich is in a sense Harry Angstrom's payoff. He has grown, is more melded now; the golf-club grass beneath his feet may sing of death (and his spirit, his inner voice, records the lament), but he is more morally alive than ever….
There are flaws in Rabbit Is Rich. The early critics of Updike weren't entirely insensitive, and the jewellike prose at times promises a perfection that can be. The book is too long, and the time-capsule stuff, though not in the way, is less a tick than a tic. Rabbit's son Nelson is too much a nerd; he seems more programmed by Updike's loyalty to Rabbit than by Rabbit's genes or will.
But I almost love this book. Harry Rabbit Angstrom should never have returned. In Rabbit, Run he sighed for me; now he almost breathes for me. I am surprised, and a part of me will not forgive, but there is no choice but to wish Harry well. That there is no choice is Updike's triumph, and in 10 years' time he will no doubt pull off another, and tell us how Rabbit is to die. The prospect is grubby, scary, and appealing. (p. 55)
Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Rabbit Ruts" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1981), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVI, No. 40, September 30-October 6, 1981, pp. 35, 55.
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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. Though his "lower being," the part of him that ought to be more observant of what his wife, his lovers, his parents, his children, expect and need from him, does continually go to pieces, he sees at least dimly that "the tenderest parts of his personal life" participate in something more, outside him, and that he can at least hope to save himself. At moments of ordinary pleasure—playing basketball or golf, gardening, feeling intimacy with his children, and above all performing the acts of physical love—Harry's life is obscurely but deeply touched by intimations of continuity with some savingly larger presence or purpose, intimations that human time does not erase…. (pp. 94, 96)
Rabbit, Run is a tactfully religious novel whose spiritual implications are mostly proposed on the sly, by the not very authoritative Jack Eccles. One of the book's most terrifying moments is when Eccles's helpful, social-worker kind of ministry is challenged by a fire-breathing old Lutheran pastor: "'If Gott wants to end misery, He'll declare the Kingdom now.'" For the purposes of a religious novelist, that's much more like it, and Rabbit Redux shows that, a decade later, God has once again decided not to make that declaration just yet….
Though the religious questions raised by the earlier book continue as an undertone, Rabbit Redux is essentially a political novel of a particular historical moment. Its four sections bear epigraphs not from Pascal but from the subliminally bawdy technical talk of space exploration, and even in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania the abiding subjects are the moon shot, Vietnam, the morality of the rebellious young, and black revolution….
Rabbit Redux seems to me a flawed work, one of Updike's weaker novels, for several reasons. In it, the pressure of history, which Updike was of course not alone in feeling in those difficult times, threatens to overpower the individuality of his characters, who tend to become representative figures, spokesmen, rather than free dramatic agents. (p. 96)
Both Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux end with images of feeling small and safe within large spaces, an acceptance by the microcosmic self of the macrocosmic "more." In Rabbit, Run, Harry, in full flight from the entangling demands of domestic life, thinks "he doesn't know, what to do, where to go, what will happen, the thought that he doesn't know seems to make him infinitely small and impossible to capture. Its smallness fills him like a vastness," and in Rabbit Redux, in bed again with Janice like some Ulysses come home to Ithaca, "the space they are in, the motel room long and secret as a burrow, becomes all interior space," and he becomes, in effect, the "microscopic self" of his own penis. At the end of Rabbit Is Rich, the small object in a congenial space is not himself but the baby granddaughter in his arms; yet the new novel, however full of problems and anxieties, is governed by the mood of accepted security that its predecessors achieved only after long struggle.
If the first two Rabbit novels are religious and political, respectively, Rabbit Is Rich is clearly a story of the economic life. It leaps ahead another decade, to 1979, discovering an augmented Harry, both richer and fatter, in a depleted public reality. In a world that is running out of gas, he is cleaning up, managing his late father-in-law's Toyota agency and selling fuel-efficient cars like crazy. But death is present in this personal Arcadia, having taken not just Janice's father but both of Harry's parents and (he learns from a news clipping) the demonic Skeeter, and he senses its hand on his mother-inlaw…. Not too far away, Three Mile Island is behaving rather oddly.
Yet if disaster hovers around Harry and the nation generally, Rabbit Is Rich is a story of disasters averted. No one drowns or burns to death—no one, in fact, dies. Updike teases us into anticipating tragedies that never quite occur. (p. 100)
This novel's disruptive force is not Harry or Janice but their son. Nelson is now twenty-three, an intermittent student at Kent State,… but presently he shows up in Brewer with what seems to be quite a different girl, strangely determined to go into the automobile business with his father. Harry finds this an appalling prospect—he wants Nelson to finish college, he strongly doubts Nelson's business judgment…. But mostly he just doesn't want Nelson around, sensing (quite rightly) that the boy has both a specific hatred of his father for the deaths of Jill and his baby sister long ago and a more general and conventional desire, in effect, to destroy the father and take his place.
Though others keep assuring Harry that Nelson is much like him, the novel makes this seem true only in very limited ways. Nelson too is frightened by the demands of maturity and human obligation, and he too is a "runner," but both his behavior and Updike's occasional incursions into his consciousness reveal not Harry's hopeful interest in the terms of his own life but a cynical, surly, grasping, thoroughly stupid, and unimaginative self-concern that is not like Harry at all. When a second girl (the first was a cover) shows up pregnant, Nelson recapitulates Harry's earlier life, insisting on marrying her against his father's advice, treating her quite badly, and deserting her three days before their child is born. But the parallels are formal only, author's contrivances; Nelson seems to me the one failure in Rabbit Is Rich, an irate caricature of the "Me Generation" where there might better be a difficult, confused, vulnerable human presence.
But elsewhere Rabbit Is Rich is a strong, secure novel, one of Updike's wisest and funniest. It is as full of the cultural details of 1979 as Rabbit Redux was full of those of 1969, but now such details are absorbed into the personal, private texture of Harry's experience. (pp. 100-01)
Rabbit Is Rich is the quietest, mellowest—without derogation, the most middle-aged—of the Harry Angstrom novels. Updike's famous, rather dangerous powers of style remain under control, and small domestic details are trusted to generate and direct action that earlier depended upon larger and more theatrical devices….
Imagining a life like Harry Angstrom's brings into play, I think, Updike's strongest fictional gifts, the gifts that function intermittently in The Centaur and are radiantly clear in the Olinger stories and in Of The Farm. One of these gifts is an illusionless but tender understanding of how families work—how husbands and wives, parents and children, in the name of love and obligation, do unforgivable things to one another and yet may, in the mysteriousness of their felt bonds, achieve some measure or form of forgiveness. Another is a sense of the sanctity of memory, the mind's power to preserve and in a way redeem a life of errors and losses. Harry, in effect, remembers everything; "new" experience acquires its meaning by becoming, in his mind, a celebration of, or an elegy for, something past, a process of "recollection" in which nothing is ever truly lost.
And, I would suppose, Harry matters to Updike because in imagining his fictional character the novelist also honors the memory of his own origins…. Harry is perhaps a kind of Updikeian anti-self, derived from the envy, and pity, that bright and verbal kids feel for ones whose gifts are mainly physical, the adolescent trope of athleticism and sexuality that the mature imagination never quite outgrows. By now, the two men have little in common except a liking for golf and a vigorous sexual imagination, but in Harry, Updike continues to explore and ponder his own beginnings and where they might have led. Such material, with its sobering depth of feeling, is good for a writer whose seriousness is continually dogged by the shadow of his own marvelous facility.
It seems quite possible that we will get another Rabbit novel around 1990—Rabbit Is Ruined? Rabbit Raffiné? But as Dante shows, three is a useful number, and a Rabbit trilogy, if it should turn out to be that, would do nicely for a kind of Commedia of the ordinary life in our times. Whatever Updike decides, it is good to know that Harry Angstrom is alive and reasonably well in eastern Pennsylvania, and a pleasure to report that the third installment of his saga is a very fine novel indeed. (p. 101)
Thomas R. Edwards, "Updike's Rabbit Trilogy" (copyright © 1981, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission of the author), in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 248, No. 4, October, 1981, pp. 94, 96, 100-01.
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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 its sources in Rabbit Run. Harry Angstrom's weaknesses turn out to be his strengths, and Updike never quite allows us to feel superior to him or to them. His marriage, for example, proves to be remarkably stable. Here again money helps. (p. 624)
America's manufacturing industries are in ruins, a scar on the landscape of Brewer. But amid these ruins arises Rabbit's new country club, the Flying Eagle, and Rabbit's new class,… that did not mind the pre-fab clubhouse and sweep-it-yourself tennis courts…. Here, in this arriviste nobility Rabbit finds himself oddly at home, and Updike crystallizes a moment of our economic and moral history.
The Rabbit novels seem now to be a remarkable exercise of the imagination. Updike, formerly of Harvard's Lampoon and Hasty Pudding, has set himself the problem of imagining the growth of a man exactly his age and almost exactly his opposite, a man separated from him by a cultural chasm. This is all the more remarkable in a time when so many authors create heroes who seem their (sometimes Siamese) twins…. It seems to me, too, that Updike's imaginative bridge-building has gotten better. I had not the sense in Rabbit Is Rich that I had in the earlier novels that Updike's sensibility was obtrusively sharpening Rabbit's perceptions. Updike and Rabbit have come to know each other better and trust each other more over the years since 1960. They are closer now to seeing with the same eyes, and their collaboration gives us a wonderfully sharp vision of America at this moment, or just the day before yesterday. It makes me think of that other wonderfully sharp vision of Dublin that arose from the collaboration of James Joyce and Leopold Bloom. (pp. 624-25)
Daniel M. Murtaugh, "At Home with Obsolescence," in Commonweal (copyright © 1981 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CVIII, No. 20, November 6, 1981, pp. 624-25.
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[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 reasons both mimetic and technical. As a portrayal of American life, it was so heavy-handed and humorless as to take on the texture of propaganda. Updike gave the impression that he hadn't been among the working people in his home district in a long time. Image followed image of ugliness, sterility, decay, racial hostility and betrayal….
Now a novelist is entitled to whatever vision of the world he can make credible. If Updike had wanted to be an American Céline, a critic would have had to respect him for it, although not necessarily give him credence. But when it came to the couplings, Updike's "symbolic" squirmings made it clear that his was less a vision than simply a view down The New Yorker's tasteful nose…. [One] of the remarkable things about Rabbit is Rich is that in it the author seems to have abandoned what had become a characteristic and very dishonest approach to fictive meaning….
Through most of Rabbit Redux, Updike's use of language was realistic, i.e., he pretended what we all pretend about words every day: that they have concrete referents, and that the stories in which they appear are therefore, in some sense, true. One can object, as I have, that aspects of the world depicted are unrepresentative, but we must grant the writer his given. After all, we can argue with it. But in Rabbit Redux, as well as in The Coup, whenever certain characters and subjects intrude, Updike shifts gears and sticks in "symbols," which refer to a whole layer of meaning with an implied morality often at odds with the logic of the story. This meaning cannot be argued with because the narrator never acknowledges rhetorically that it exists. Christ figures and crucifixes lurk not only in the genitalia but in every metaphor. And by such symbolic dispensation, some characters are morally accountable for what they do and others are not. (p. 477)
[In Rabbit is Rich] Rabbit has rejoined his family and has inherited his father-in-law's Toyota dealership. He has also rejoined the real world, and by putting it that way I do not mean at all to slight the wonderfully nuanced and sociologically accurate rendition Updike gives of the very particular world his characters live in. What I mean to say is that Updike has gone from being a junior varsity Céline to a Balzac, from a superficially rendered version of the lower orders to a brilliantly detailed and sympathetic portrayal of an American city in all its banal and heart-rending beauty….
[The Angstroms and their friends] have some wonderful grabass conversations, familiar enough to make most of us wince now and again, about the causes of inflation, what's wrong with Jimmy Carter and why blacks are taking over professional sports. But there is no condescension here, none of that childish derisiveness so many American writers descend to when describing the commercial classes, as if everyone who is neither an artist nor a pedagogue must by definition be a callow, ignorant, amoral buffoon. Among other things, Updike has evidently spent enough time finding out what automobile dealers do from day to day to place Rabbit firmly and accurately within an ethical framework. As it turns out, he's pretty honest. In short, everything that was wrong with Rabbit Redux, and a lot of other novels like it, is not only right but triumphantly right in Rabbit is Rich. (p. 478)
Gene Lyons, "The Way We Are," in The Nation (copyright 1981 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 233, No. 15, November 7, 1981, pp. 477-79.
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[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 in his head than the ethos of the "achiever": you must "win." Beyond that, he is so cloudy in mind that he never really knows whether, morally speaking, he is lighting out or lighting back. Some critics have called him a monster, but he is far from that. Even in his tiresome sexual obsession he is excusable, having come to sex later than the young do today. He is really a deedy infant, and moderately decent: he'd like to learn. If he doesn't quite know how to love his wife, he is sentimentally protective; in the common love-hate between father and son, he is honest, though his methods are risky. (p. 201)
If we look first of all at Updike as a chronicler, we have to say that he was dead right in choosing the minor provincial city of Brewer, Pennsylvania, and putting Rabbit into the motor trade. That trade is the source of inner-city decay. This kind of ad-hoc city has become international; horrible world news pours in via "the boob tube," and adds new fantasies to what one has to call the "ongoing" private stream of domestic consciousness—one recalls that in Joyce, to whom Updike has a debt, that stream mainly flowed back. The next element is native American, even though it has spread: television's real contribution to the mind comes from the Things in the commercials, with their awful jollities. Updike has the extraordinary gift of making the paraphernalia of, say, the Sears, Roebuck catalogue sound like a chant from the Book of Psalms turned into vaudeville. (p. 202)
It has always seemed to me that in his preoccupation with the stillness of domestic objects Updike is a descendant, in writing, of the Dutch genre painters, to whom everything in a house, in nature, or in human posture had the gleam of usage on it without which a deeply domestic culture could not survive its own boredom. The stress on paraphernalia, even the label on the product, has put something vivid into American comic writers as well as the serious moralists. By extension, the clothes and underclothes of people, the parts of their bodies … [are minutely noted.] I don't mean that these things are catalogued by Updike; they simply give the ripple of balladlike vividness to the stream of consciousness. If downtown Brewer look as if it had been bombed by its loving inhabitants. Updike is as exact as a war artist who rises far above the documentary and the unfelt. Like Eliot, he is moved by the waste land. Where Sinclair Lewis's clutter of mind and matter pushed at us the brutilized pathos of accepted vulgarities, Updike is a poet. He loves words and images. If his sexual curiosity runs to the clinical, he relieves us with gnomic sentences; perhaps the closeups of sex, the private porn, are "a kind of penance at your root." (pp. 202-03)
In this volume, we realize that the women, even when they are victims, are stronger than Rabbit is, for a reason he somehow stumbles on. Men are solitaries and egotists; foolish or not, they see themselves as born to be alone. The women are not solitaries. Their strength lies in their capacity for assimilating personal relationships, in living for the primacy of family and accepting its hierarchies. Rabbit may earn the money, out of compulsion; the women control the capital, real or emotional. They live by arrangements among themselves and never forget a nourishing jealousy.
The two earlier novels had a tight, dramatic tension. In the present one, the tension is looser, because the elders are getting fat and middle-aged, but there is the new drama of the puzzled father and the son who too much resembles him. (pp. 204-05)
There is nothing in this volume as searing as the Skeeter episode in "Rabbit Redux," but that in fact enhances the conviction that these three books of Updike's are a monumental portrayal of provincial and domestic manners. He is both poet and historian, so various in observation and so truthful, so inventive and adept, that he leaves one brooding on his scene and remembering his epithets. (p. 206)
V. S. Pritchett, "Updike" (copyright © 1981 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Literistic, Ltd.), in The New Yorker, Vol. LVII, No. 38, November 9, 1981, pp. 201-06.
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[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 Lenox Avenue, Updike's own proud voice rings out with a new steeliness—and pronounced lamentation—about rich, wasteful, wholly selfish, and hard-talking American whose advantage to a writer is that it is always news. That these brilliant touches will remain news I am not sure. What is sure is that we busy, yammering hedonists have lost nothing but confidence….
Rabbit Is Rich is more inclusive of the middle-American mores in a middle-sized town ("Brewer" in 1979), and is wittier about the Middle America layer, than anything since 1922 and Babbit….
Sixty years after Sinclair Lewis's one living book, this is where we are now. Nothing, as they say, has escaped the notice of John Updike, a writer naturally lush in sensibility but as pitiless of eye as Mencken….
[The Angstroms'] busy marriage bed finally gets as romantic as the April issue of Consumer Reports as Rabbit responds to Janice's—new wantonness. The key sentence, though of course it is not really true, is, "Each day he is a little less afraid to die." Because what this "Rabbit" is really about is no longer running, running out of the social fix, but the decay that is never so much noticed as when you are looking, post coitum homo triste est, at the beloved's flabby buttocks. Not inflation, not the gas crunch of 1979, but the dying of the national dream in the emission indeed of Rabbit's own hope, reflexes, and confidence. A felt lack of continuity is the pervasive fact…. Rabbit yearns back to the world of tenderness and solidarity typified by his printer father, and his modest style of life, and by his dead mother's plainness of speech.
The ominous figures of speech in this book so rich with Updike figures are of the body….
Death and death and death dominate (in thought) a life outwardly rich and so emancipated that (this time parodying Frank Norris's McTeague) Rabbit and Janice make love surrounded by their newly acquired Krugerands. The wonderful wife-swapping episode turns so domestic that the lady (a neighbor) ends up usefully advising Rabbit about wife and son. Updike and Rabbit are the same age: on the threshold of fifty. Rabbit is running scared. America and Americans in this book are nervously, prematurely apprehensive. Things are out of "control." Everyone knows that society is "crazy," beyond the interpretation even of those who have no cause for complaint, no cause whatever. For they recognize that while they are being led by the nose, events are thrillingly nervous, dramatic, like the news every hour on the hour, like the gallows humor at the club, like the revelations on TV of the great—whose facial expressions are as exposed to us as another body in bed.
Does the fierceness of detail in Rabbit Is Rich argue a need to hold on in this horribly evanescent scene? Babbitt was about the difference between private illusion and social truth. No illusion is left in "Brewer."… Even Updike's most familiar figure of speech, "God," makes a less certain appearance in this book than He usually does. He is unmistakably ticked off as the author of death and, like the salt in the ocean, what gives life (and death?) its taste.
A brilliant book, this, and though a chastening one, what we deserve.
Alfred Kazin, "Easy Come, Easy Go," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 18, November 19, 1981, p. 3.
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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 instructions for a son, The Carpentered Hen begins with an epigraph from Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy:
When she [Philosophy] saw that the Muses of poetry were present by my couch giving words to my lamenting, she was stirred a while; her eyes flashed fiercely, and said she, "Who has suffered these seducing mummers to approach this sick man? Never do they support those in sorrow by any healing remedies, but rather do ever foster the sorrow by poisonous sweets. These are they who stifle the fruit-bearing harvest of reason with the barren briars of the passions: they free not the minds from disease, but accustom them thereto."
The dichotomy is clear. Poetry serves the imagination, but only Philosophy expresses reason. Updike, however, does not heed Philosophy's complaint. Many of his poems suggest his distrust of the assault of the rational upon the imagination. In The Carpentered Hen especially, he has more fun with the senses than with reason. The book is a delight to read. Yet the reader must look out for irony in the juxtaposition of Boethius and these witty poems, for to read Updike's poetry as merely light verse is to make a mistake. Always lurking beneath the gaudy surface of the puns and play is a deep respect for language. (pp. 3-4)
The prose writer's duty is to avoid rhymes and "verbal accidents" which might interfere with his response to impersonal reality, but the author of comic poetry has a different mission. As Updike defines light verse, it is, "an isolated acolyte" which "tends the thin flame of formal magic and tempers the inhuman darkness of reality with the comedy of human artifice. Light verse precisely lightens; it lessens the gravity of its subject." The technique of his poetry does not mean that he is a mere entertainer, although pleasure is a primary goal. His first volume of poetry is much closer to seventeenth-century lyrics with their delight in verbal facility and unexpected conceits than to the opaque density often associated with twentieth-century poets…. In Updike's light verse, playful surfaces often lead to consideration about language itself. We read, laugh, and conspire with the poet to deny the seriousness which would judge such humor as insignificant. (p. 5)
Updike's early poems thrive on the unexpected. Surprising rhyme joins regular pattern to challenge pretentiousness and to give joy. As countless readers have pointed out, his narrator in the short story "Dear Alexandros" (Pigeon Feathers) laments the joylessness of contemporary literature, and he even implies that both he, as a foster parent, and the Greek boy are identified by numbers as if the impersonality results from a national literature which communicates depression rather than delight…. The poems in The Carpentered Hen are not depressing to read. Celebrating little things and delighting in verbal patterns, they illustrate uncommon pleasure in common objects. (pp. 5-6)
[Elizabeth] Matson makes a good point when she dismisses the notion that Updike's comic verse is on a par with Ogden Nash's clever ditties. In the first place, many of Updike's poems are not comic or light, especially those published after The Carpentered Hen. Unperceptive readers have judged later collections by the first. More important, however, is the distinction between Nash and Updike. As Matson points out, Nash explains the joke. His light verse rarely invites the reader away from surface pleasantry toward more serious considerations, many of which in Updike reflect the conceits and puzzles common in seventeenth-century verse. In Updike's best poetry, there is a sense of distance, a detachment created by the intellectual approach which often results in subtle imagery and ambiguous tone. Comic surface masks serious intent, and the reader does a double-take after his initial grin as he determines the point of attack….
His poetry is clever, and it does give the impression of a confident young man showing off an enviable verbal facility. But most of the poems are not word exercises performed by a wise child who knows he is the best. Later collections show his distrust of reason, his wariness of science, his concern for the social age, his autobiographical roots, and his puzzlement over death. Word play is nevertheless nearly always part of the fun in the early poetry which all begins with The Carpentered Hen. (p. 7)
Rigorous analysis can threaten the texture of Updike's first book, but walking the line between ignoring and dissecting the poems, and mindful of Philosophy's pout in the epigraph, the reader may discern why the ditties and lyrics are a worthy beginning to Updike's canon. (p. 8)
Published before Rabbit, Run but after "Ace in the Hole" [the poem "Ex-Basketball Player"] reflects those two fictions as portraits of a life forever stalled for an adolescent unprepared to meet the humdrum dailiness of adulthood in a boring small town. Many of Updike's poems have similar connections to the fiction and thus should not be dismissed as merely light. Readers may look at "Ex-Basketball Player" and recall a line from Rabbit, Run: "They've not forgotten him; worse, they never heard of him." A similar fate awaits Flick. How does one live with only a scrapbook? The question affects not only athletes but also many of Updike's adolescents. William Young, for example, in "A Sense of Shelter" (Pigeon Feathers), does not want to leave the high school where he sees himself as a king even if denying the world means losing the girl. (p. 10)
Updike has always been interested in the challenge of athletics and the twilight of glory. In addition to "Ace in the Hole" and Rabbit, Run, one thinks of references to weekend pick-up games in the domestic tales of suburban Tarbox, "In Football Season" (Olinger Stories and The Music School), "The Slump" and "The Pro" (Museums and Women), and especially of the astonishing tribute to Ted Williams, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" (Assorted Prose). Knowledgeable about the sports because he has played them, Updike understands the difficulties of success and the poignancy of diminished prowess. When Flick Webb graduates with his forty-point games relegated to the paste of scrapbooks, Ace and Rabbit push through the locker room to take his place. The paste does not dry before the crowd roars to greet the new hero. The mutability of heroism is a theme of "Tao in the Yankee Stadium Bleachers," a better poem than "Ex-Basketball Player." (p. 11)
Updike uses the ephemeral glory of sports to illustrate the tenuousness of man's threescore and ten. Everyone flies out, and the swamp overtakes the stadium. "Ex-Basketball Player" and "Tao in the Yankee Stadium Bleachers" are not comic ditties relying upon verbal pyrotechnics and wit to earn their keep. Like many of his lyrical meditations in prose, these poems reflect Updike's observations of a social scene which is rapidly changing as he himself moves from young adult to middle age. The seeds of a poignant contrast between past and present which he cultivates so effectively in fiction to express a sense of diminishment and loss are present in these early poems. The short stories may be more effective in detailing the pain of memory, but this consistent theme in the Updike canon begins with The Carpentered Hen.
Yet the melancholy associated with athletes dying young or old is not the predominate tone of this book of poetry. Many of the poems are exercises of wit, lyrics which show the acrobatics of language and the delight of pun and rhyme. One point in these poems is celebration of language itself. A true author revitalizes his materials. As the epigraph suggests, Philosophy disdains to comfort when the pleasures of a light-hearted muse remain by the bedside. (p. 12)
["Tune, in American Type"] may be merely clever, but one admires the apparent ease with which he uses every name and nearly every word in the colophon to write a song in which even the typesetting itself calls attention to the craft. Similar verbal facility, more often in the service of meaning and content, sparkles in the short stories to the satisfaction of many readers and the frustration of some. The debate about the value of Updike's style should begin with The Carpentered Hen where he has so much fun with just language. (p. 14)
In "Superman" Updike shows how the language is in danger of degenerating to the point where exaggerations take the place of sane description. The threat is real, for the varieties of subtle shading are lost when everything is described and hawked in superlatives. Most items are not the brightest or the best or the quickest, but the colloquial language of today suggests otherwise…. (pp. 15-16)
The Carpentered Hen ends as it begins—with a comment on philosophy. Philosophy which denigrates poetry in the epigraph is in turn dismissed in the conclusion…. Much of Updike's work after The Carpentered Hen touches upon questions of faith and distrust of reason. Why, he implies, look for solace from philosophy when poetry is so near at hand? Boethius may seek what consolation he will, but art is eternal. The art in Updike's first book is not great. It will not spark esthetic movements, nor will it change the course of poetry. Yet it is much more than updated versions of Ogden Nash. Although his later books of poetry are progressively more somber in tone, he never abandons the delight in language and the fascination with little things first illustrated in The Carpentered Hen. (pp. 17-18)
Telephone Poles  is Updike's homage to the world in which small things are infinitely fine and the daily cycle is forever. The religious implications are clear: "I describe things not because their muteness mocks our subjectivity but because they seem to be masks for God."
Telephone Poles is thus a more "serious" collection than The Carpentered Hen. Although the theory of rhyme explained in "Rhyming Max" and especially appropriate to the first volume of poems applies to most of Updike's poetry, the sheer delight in puns and rhymes, the reveling in language, is not a primary feature in many of the lyrics of Telephone Poles. The second collection is not a mirror of the first…. [To] evaluate Telephone Poles by the achievement of, say, Robert Frost or T. S. Eliot is a disservice, for Updike aims for scrutiny rather than "rare depth." His poetry is the art of the miniaturist. (p. 20)
Even the lightest verse takes on with reflection the weight of religious query when Updike rejoices in the imperfect quality which all things share and which thus links all things. (p. 21)
Of the sixty poems in this collection, the title poem occupies the center. A lyric in praise of the mythology of man-made objects, "Telephone Poles" celebrates the ingenuity of man's ability to fulfill his needs by placing his mark on the natural world. Conscious contributions to the planet strengthen his position. While trees remind him of the annual cycle of death with the yearly sloughing off of leaves, telephone poles, for all of the paucity of their shade, remain constant and utilitarian…. The beauty of telephone poles, suggests Updike, is that they serve our desire for both myth and necessary construction. They have been on the street a long time, and they will outlast the elms which fall to disease. For a modern populace unable to believe in the giants of "mere mythology," the tops of telephone poles are "fearsome crowns," Gorgon heads which, if touched, can literally "stun us to stone." Lest the reader think that the poet is becoming too elaborate with his analogies, Updike concludes with a witty turn which illustrates man's need to counter mutability…. (pp. 21-2)
The stability of cracked sidewalks, telephone poles, lightning rods, and wash on the line is worthy of celebration. All illustrate Updike's ability to see significance in the unglamorous. The concreteness of things neutralizes the lure of appearances…. Snapshots are often inexact. Distance brings proportion. Perhaps the truth of appearances comes only in the realm of dreams. In "Fever," Updike writes of the "good" message gathered from the "land of 102°": "God Exists." But lest some readers think that such confidence is too easily won, he ends this short poem on the same note of doubt with which it begins…. Reason fails in the face of eternal questions, but revelations glimpsed from the world of appearances may not suffice either.
"Fever" suggests the contemporary man's dilemma of disbelieving reason and distrusting faith. Telephone poles are at least solid and useful, but they do not supply answers. In "Seven Stanzas at Easter," perhaps the best poem in the collection, Updike faces the mystery of revelation and its challenge by the mind…. The paradox is nicely stated…. The Church itself rests upon the foundation of the resurrection, but the resurrection is described in the scientific language of amino acids and molecules. The speaker calls for literal acceptance of this cornerstone of Christianity. Deploring efforts to account for miracles, he dismisses any effort to explain the resurrection by symbol or science…. Those who deny the rolled-back stone, "the vast rock of materiality," or who "seek to make it less monstrous" may one day awaken at the final call "embarrassed by the miracle." Yet those who read this poem as a testament of confident faith read too quickly. "Seven Stanzas at Easter" turns on the "if" in the first line. If Christ was resurrected, His literal body rose. Committed Christians must accept not a symbol but the actual fact. But Updike's poet figure is too much the contemporary man to acknowledge the resurrection without dissent. If Christ rose, it will not do to make a parable of the miracle. Metaphors mock God. But the poet figure is never sure. Wanting to walk through the door of faith, yet unsure of the way, he remains the uncertain modern man.
Clearly, Updike the poet is much more than the astonishing trickster he is reputed to be. Reading Telephone Poles, especially the serious lyrics in the second half, one understands his delight in the things of this world. The "nature of our construction" is always a better fit than the world of appearances. (pp. 23-5)
In Updike's celebration of constructed things, the spire to be revered is not only the steeple on the church but also the lightning rod on the house. The three crosses of the Crucifixion become the "sturdy curlicues of wrought/iron," and the magical rod, a kind of wand, is the crown of all…. (p. 25)
All of Updike's homage to the things of this world comes together in "Movie House." Knowing that "Monumentality" [pun intended] "wears one face in all ages," he honors the huge buildings in which we search for stars. As our movie stars are illusions, so are the myths about real stars created by past cultures. These beliefs are long discredited, but the edifices built to glorify the legends still stand. The other monuments of twentieth-century America—the bank, town hall, and supermarket—will be dwarfed by the movie house, "this temple of shades." Theaters may not equal in grandeur the creations of ancient civilizations, but in the twentieth century they tell man's story best. (p. 26)
[The title poem from his third collection, Midpoint (1969),] should not be taken too seriously; it is not an epic. But neither should it be considered too lightly; it is not a capricious joke. (p. 32)
[It] is the author's statement at the midpoint of not his career but his life. Implying the validity of the Biblical injunction that a lifespan measures three score and ten years, Updike traces his intellectual growth from childhood. He concludes "Midpoint" with a comic wink at Modernism and a thrust toward the future. Most readers have been taught to beware of the tendency to identify the author with his narrator or poet figure, but in "Midpoint" the connection is indisputable. Those who insist on defining the speaker as a mask for Updike should consult Canto Two which is a gallery of photographs depicting his parents as children, himself as baby and youth, and his first child. "Midpoint" is a portrait in both words and pictures of the artist as a young man.
The collection is divided into four parts: "Midpoint," "Poems," "Love Poems," and "Light Verse." Although the volume is more ambitious than The Carpentered Hen and Telephone Poles, the poems on the whole are not so distinguished. The light verse poems are a delight to read as usual, for they show to good effect Updike's skill with comic rhyme and occasional lyrics based on short quotations from newspapers and journals. The love poems are especially interesting primarily to those who have read the short stories, for they express in a different genre many of the concerns which form the core of his domestic tales: Adultery and guilt, sex, love, and divorce. But these two sections are placed at the end of the volume. By the time the reader reaches them, he has struggled with "Midpoint" and read "Poems," sections which many may believe do not reward the effort demanded. For all of the impressive erudition of the title poem, it is likely to appeal to those who are committed to the entire Updike canon and who wish to know not only more about the author but also how he sees himself. (pp. 32-3)
["The Dance of the Solids,"] Updike's comment on the mistaken notion of the indivisibility of the atom is an allegory for the false Romantic notion that the universe may be understood by contemplating the self as the poet does when a child. Since all things are connected in a dance of being, a "song of myself" is inadequate today. The meditation on atomic structure is also an allegory for the permanence of order in the face of apparent disorder. The dance may be "giddy," but it follows the formal design of a "taut Quadrille." Change is constant, but random motion is not possible. (p. 37)
For all of the ideas expressed in this short Canto, the reader admires primarily not the knowledge but the way Updike transforms the vocabulary of science into Spenserian stanzas without resorting to forced rhymes…. Microscopic matter contributing to the makeup of larger particles comprises the world. Updike at the midpoint of his life is one such imperfect solid state. (pp. 37-8)
[A persistant contrast throughout "The Play of Memory"] is that of youth and his "uncomfortable" maturity. Pictures of Updike as a child and references to playground games surround memories of sexual desire and consummation…. If "The Dance of the Solids" is a tour de force, "The Play of Memory" is an interior monologue. The hero turns out to be not the poet but his father. Mother criticizes his art as a waste, but Father is more direct…. Accepting the criticism, Updike pronounces his father a saint and explains that he lacks his father's fortitude and faith. This moving sonnet to his father is the high point of the poem. He salutes an unknown great man and wonders why, at midpoint, he cannot release the hidden spring that might propel his life toward resolution. (pp. 38-9)
The only conclusion he can foresee is described in the final Canto. Once again demonstrating his skill with poetic form and rhyme, he turns from the eclectic structure of the preceding Canto to write a conclusion in heroic couplets reminiscent of Alexander Pope's poetic technique and concern with the proper role of man in society. The last section of "Midpoint" catalogues Updike's heroes (Karl Barth, Kierkegaard, Henry Green among them), men who passed before to make up some of the atomic substance of the point now known as John Updike. The most important statement in Canto Five is the "intelligent hedonistic advice" which he gives himself and apparently, although reluctantly, accepts. The current plague of "easy Humanism" is not enough. Man cannot force his meaning upon the world, but he may work…. In the absence of final answers, and because of the unreliability of the solipsistic self, Updike advises acceptance of the moment in an effort to live for joy within the "giddy" dance of experience. (pp. 39-40)
"Midpoint" is a complex poem with homage to Dante, Spenser, Pope, Whitman, and Pound, but its portrait of the artist as a growing man supplies a greater interest than the technique. Reading it, one learns how a writer tries to step outside himself to examine where he has been. Although some of the poems in the rest of the book are more pleasurable to read, none carries the importance of this autobiographical investigation…. On the whole … the poems in part two of Midpoint are not as distinguished or even as clever as those in The Carpentered Hen and Telephone Poles. Three lyrics, "Pompeii," "Roman Portrait Busts," and "The Average Egyptian Faces Death," recall the references to museums in "Midpoint" and look forward to the importance of art galleries in the story "Museums and Women," but none of the poems has the quality of the later tale.
The last two sections titled "Love Poems" and "Light Verse" are another matter. Both are lively and a delight to read. (pp. 40-1)
The strengths of his greatest short stories are often those of his better poems: Lyricism, an acute awareness of passing time, an eye for detail, and a celebration of ordinariness. When he moves too far from the inspiration of memory and guilt and from the consciousness of longing and despair, he often loses the emotional impact which gives substance to his consistently brilliant uses of language. (p. 42)
Tossing and Turning (1977), Updike's fourth volume of poetry is his most impressive. The transition from Midpoint is made explicit on the jacket blurb which describes the contents as the "shades of bliss and variety of phenomena accessible to a man past the midpoint of his life, trying to pace himself as he heads toward Nandi." Once again one suspects that Updike had a hand in the jacket commentary, for his wit seems to sparkle in the description of this book which takes its title from a short poem about insomnia and which is "poetry with its eyes wide open, restlessly alert for the oddities of reality and the double entendres of imagination." (p. 45)
Tossing and Turning is by no means confessional poetry, but Updike's private experience is quietly revealed. Readers familiar with most of his achievement will find touchstones to earlier books: A few light verses of verbal fun and games, the landscapes of Shillington and Olinger, the love affair with sports, and the sexual candor which comments as much on contemporary standards of beauty as on adultery. But tone and perspective have changed from the other volumes of poetry. The author of Tossing and Turning is no longer the young adult from the farm made good but a man past midpoint graying toward middle age. The successes at Harvard are still a highlight of the escape from Shillington/Olinger, but Updike is further away than ever from the lives and landscapes that sparked so many of his earlier poems and short stories. As the successful, award-winning author now associated with New England, he returns to the high school, family, and farm not as a son but as a stranger. He remembers how it was in Olinger, but not how it is. Thus the sense of loss which informs the tone and perspective of his earlier work is now complicated by the effort to find his bearings amid success and advancing years. Many of the poems in Tossing and Turning suggest that his two decades of adulthood have absorbed most of the position once occupied by Shillington/Olinger as the source of his art.
This change is especially noticeable for the first time in Midpoint in which the title poem acts as a summation of the early half of Updike's life. In one sense, this long poem is a bow to his past, a musing on the elements which helped get him where he is. The point about Tossing and Turning is not that he abandons Olinger to embrace Tarbox but that the newer challenges of success, suburbia, and aging make different demands upon him. How does one have time to long for the moment "when everyone was pregnant" if he finds his current life slipping away? Updike himself may not experience all of the crises expressed in Tossing and Turning, but his poet-figure does. Crossing midpoint to head toward Nandi, he knows that he has changed. So has his art. (p. 46)
[The] most successful poems [in Tossing and Turning] are those which explore the proximity of sleeplessness and death, perhaps because Updike does not lapse into statement as he often does in his long poems. "You Who Swim," "The House Growing," and "Bath After Sailing" are among his more thoughtful lyrics. A tone of regret often combines with recognition of eternal loss to make many of the shorter poems more than nostalgic reveries about the past. (p. 51)
The darkness of the poems in Tossing and Turning is astonishing when compared with those in The Carpentered Hen. Mortality matters most when one passes midpoint. Loneliness looms ahead, beckoning him beyond Olinger and Tarbox toward the foreign land of Nandi. (p. 53)
The stark awareness of mortality which permeates many of the lyrics in Tossing and Turning should go a long way toward refuting the mistaken notion that Updike is merely a marvelous stylist who hovers between memories long past and domestic crises now present. The impact of advancing age hits like an onslaught. Even the religious aura which one senses in the earlier poems and tales takes on the trappings of loneliness approaching despair. (p. 54)
In "Night Flight" each isolated passenger seems to find his way the best he can. The final poem in Tossing and Turning, "Heading for Nandi," suggests that the destination is indeed finality. Alone, as the poet figure usually is in the poems in this collection, the traveler observes the passengers of various nationalities who make up the microcosm of the world as they join together for another night flight across yet another ocean. His isolation is particularly noticeable, for he is surrounded by couples and groups who laugh and love. Not only does he lack a woman to touch him, but he must ask the locale of his destination. Although he is informed that Nandi is in Fiji, we know that his journey may take him even farther west to death itself…. (p. 55)
The light verse and witty vocabulary which make Updike's other collections of poetry such fun to read are present in Tossing and Turning, but his arrangement of the humorous lyrics suggests his intention to downplay their importance. (p. 56)
The antic mood associated with The Carpentered Hen and the verbal facility which encourages comparisons with Ogden Nash and Phyllis McGinley are not abandoned, but neither dominates Tossing and Turning despite the public's misconception of Updike as a poet of light verse. Nor have the life rhythms of Olinger or the memories of early marriage been left entirely behind. Yet it seems fair to say of this collection that while John Updike takes an occasional glance over his shoulder, his primary motion is a firm step toward a future of unknown destination and advancing age. Departing the farm by way of Harvard and Tarbox, he crosses the ocean toward Nandi. Uncertainty is his companion. (p. 57)
Buchanan Dying (1974) is surely not among Updike's popular successes, yet it is the most unexpected volume in his canon to this date. A closet drama in three acts … [the book is described] as "a play meant to be read." Those who do read it will encounter Updike's version of the life and dying of James Buchanan, fifteenth President of the nation and, as the jacket reminds us, one of America's "lesser known, and least appreciated" leaders. Updike explains that his purpose "insofar as it is historical, is not to bury the immortal Lincoln, but to revive the forgotten Buchanan." He also claims that the play is "my favorite among my books." If Buchanan is unknown and unloved, he remains in some quarters denigrated and even despised. One question still raised by historians and those who care is how much should he be appreciated? Perhaps it is hardly necessary to explain that James Buchanan was President from 1857 to 1861 and thus has been blamed since then for failing to devise a policy to eliminate the causes of the Civil War. (p. 243)
Updike himself may describe Buchanan Dying as a "strangely shaped, radically imperfect book," but it is also creative because it reminds historians that the past is populated, not by stereotypes rendered lifeless by repetitious historical pronouncements, but by human beings. Facts may be rearranged, and professional judgments may not be altered, but the literary imagination applied to historical affairs of great magnitude can often persuade careful readers to make a fresh examination of the stereotype.
The stereotype of James Buchanan which Updike challenges is that of Old Public Functionary, the staid legalistic executive who froze into inaction when the moment demanded leadership because he saw the crises of the South out of one eye and the problems of the North out of the other. In Buchanan Dying, Updike exchanges the Old Public Functionary for a new tragic hero. The book may be historical revisionism, but it is also fascinating speculation…. (pp. 246-47)
Updike all but says that he is writing not history but fiction based upon history. Although he may be faithful to the facts of Buchanan's life …, he will also be loyal to the demands of his imagination as it suggests motives and thoughts not literally known. He describes himself, after all, not as a historian but as a "fictionist". What could be clearer: Buchanan Dying is a re-ordering of circumstances in light of the creative impulse. (p. 248)
In order to hint at the relationship between dream and reality, Updike creates a number of cross references, repetitions, and echoes. An event in present time will strike a chord in the dying President's memory and thus send him back to a moment in the past which is then acted out as a way of suggesting motive for or cause of his opinions and decisions. Every reader recognizes, for example, that the bells heard all through the play echo the bell Buchanan's mother hangs around his neck so that as a boy he will not become lost in the forest. If the forest represents the mysterious unknown and the lure to explore darkness and deepness, the bell may be the warning which calls one back to the safety of the clearing and the sanity of rationality. The reader may even go further and wonder if the mother is thus a primary cause of Buchanan's hesitancy to plunge into the tangles of catastrophic national crises and promising love affairs. This device is not innovative. Updike uses cross references and repetitions to bind reality and reverie in The Centaur and in many of his short stories. The question is not one of technique but of effect. The demands Updike places upon the metaphor of Anne Coleman's love and death may be too great. That a dying President, especially a President at the time of the Civil War, would experience hallucination and self-doubt is one thing, but it may be quite another to suggest that Miss Coleman's tragedy links nearly every event and feeling in Buchanan's life…. (pp. 250-51)
Looming always behind this troubled man at this catastrophic moment is the specter of Anne Coleman. Failure in love, failure in politics—little wonder that Updike looks at James Buchanan and sees Hamlet. (p. 252)
[The] Afterword offers some insight into Updike's attitude toward his play. Calling Buchanan Dying a "radically imperfect book," he nevertheless gives the impression of affection for it as if the drama were the naughty child of a steadily expanding brood. It may not be polished, proportioned, or graceful, but the effort to shape its existence is a labor of love. Guilt over the commercial success of Couples may indeed have been a motivating factor in the research which led to the composition of Buchanan Dying, but the nostalgia associated with the short stories is also present in Updike's accounts of how he came to write his "imperfect" play…. A point about Buchanan Dying is that he reaches beyond the imaginary Olinger to grasp Pennsylvania and a past moment in America itself. For all the penance involved in his effort to write a play, one also recognizes his affection for a lost President, a lost family, and a lost time. That he simultaneously accumulated research materials on Buchanan, turned forty, and buried his father suggests the extraordinary close affiliation Updike feels between his personal heritage and his native region. Buchanan Dying is a summation of and a farewell to a tone and subject matter which have directed his writing for fifteen years…. The connection between middle-of-the road James Buchanan and the middleness of Pennsylvania need hardly be emphasized. (pp. 252-53)
Buchanan Dying is a kind of substitute for an aborted fiction Updike never finished because he could not get into his subject's life. Leaving the problem of surfaces to set designers and the interpretation of psychology to the actors, he found that a play was possible wherein speech could be all. (p. 253)
Donald J. Greiner, in his The Other John Updike: Poems/Short Stories/Prose/Play (© copyright 1981 by Donald J. Greiner; reprinted by permission of Ohio University Press, Athens), Ohio University Press, 1981, 297 p.
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[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 control [in Rabbit Is Rich]. Updike is still not giving us Toyota economy, but like Detroit, he is trying. No more chromium encrustations and flying fins, at any rate. It is one of the reasons why the novel gives such a satisfying sense of integration.
But the main reason is that Harry Angstrom himself has achieved an accommodation with chaos. One had felt before—and particularly with Rabbit Redux—that Updike was putting him through the mill, that Harry was a demonstration model. Even his name was a set-up chosen for the Angst that was in it. By 1980 Updike and Harry together have got over this. What used to be confrontational in their pain, with flaring scenes and flaring buildings (another of Updike's fondnesses is for arson), has become constant, pervasive. In all this long book there is scarcely a scene you could call violent. Even when Harry's problem-child Nelson smashes one used car into another on the sales lot, this gesture of frustration is made to strike the reader, remarkably, as an understatement. It stands in lieu of worse things said. Harry understands this, and we are grateful for the understanding. (Our feeling of being at home with Harry is not just the familiarity of previous acquaintance: it is gratitude for his not being worse than he is. A gratitude, indeed, which Harry feels himself.)…
[The] drama this book enacts is the slipping away of life's initiatives, out of Rabbit's big hands. Even as a victim, he begins to live second-hand, through other people's crises. 'That's why we love disaster, Harry sees, it puts us back in touch with guilt and sends us crawling back to God.' In the very belatedness of this perception, Harry, for a paradoxical moment is young; elsewhere, one of the odder effects of the book is to make him seem older—even a decade older—than his 46 years. This is the penalty Updike now pays for having had his creation undergo such an extremely turbulent youth. Rabbit's middle age must consist, more than is usually the case, of consequences, aftermaths, hangovers: the returning evidence of old follies, and mushy hankerings after those in whose company he lived them out. (p. 21)
Russell Davies, "'Rabbit Knows He Is a Victim but He Fights On" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1982; reprinted by permission of A D Peters & Co Ltd as agents for Russell Davies), in The Listener, Vol. 107, No. 2743, January 14, 1982, pp. 21-2.
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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.∗
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592
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 comedy, as in the marriage preparations of Nelson, Rabbit's son and now his greatest trial. All this, even the dirty talk that grates plausibly on the ear, is so good, so alive, that one wishes Updike would stick with realism and forget about Rabbit and the meaning of life.
For Rabbit is again, as on earlier appearances, an equivocation at the heart of the novel: a holy fool, the most ordinary and average of men elevated into a state of grace. Now that he's older and richer he's still more ambiguous….
[Rabbit has an] equivocal role to play: for the worse things look in America the more gloriously Harry must stand out as the epitome of its common man. Compromised he is, and not only by wife-swapping but by making love to his wife (he is still with Janice) in a bed full of gold Krugerrands. But though 'he never reads a book, just the newspaper to have something to say to people', untutored wisdom spring to his lips…. Rabbit is not himself an interesting character. What he has is archetypal status, and the scenes he plays are archetypal ones, to do with the challenge now represented by his son; the Oedipal grudges on both sides are acted out pro forma, with all of Updike's local brilliance of timing and dialogue …; providing plenty to amuse or disgust but nothing that deeply disturbs.
Rabbit is a bit flat. The focus of a lot of sad truisms about fathers and sons, the horrors of aging, the lost innocence of America—but not a great catch as the hero of a novel. Yet here is Thelma, who has drawn him in the wife-swapping (the pleasure is mainly hers, he was hoping for Cindy), telling him in much detail that it's enough that he merely existed: 'Just existed. Just shed your light.' And we recognise a truth in this, and see that Rabbit himself recognises it. It makes him confide to Thelma 'his sense of miracle at being himself, himself instead of somebody else, and his old inkling, now fading in the energy crunch, that there was something that wanted him to find it, that he was here on earth on a kind of assignment.'…
Rabbit is now 46, and reflects that 'if a meaning of life was to show up you'd think it would have by now.' But 'at moments it seems it has,' in this novel—and it doesn't have polka dots, but looks more like a beer can: 'it is not something you dig for but sits on the top of the table like an unopened dewy beer can.' (p. 19)
Robert Taubman, "Nobody Is God" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, February 4 to February 18, 1982, pp. 19-20.∗
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