In 1969, John Updike published his third collection of poetry, naming the volume after the centerpiece, a long poem entitled “Midpoint.” The opening lines reveal the central interest of the poem:
Of nothing but me, me, All wrong, all wrong
as I cringe in the face of glory I sing, lacking another song.
For more than forty pages, in a collage of photographs and verse, patterned after such diverse masters as Walt Whitman and Dante, Updike pours forth his autobiographical observations about his progress as a writer. Twenty years later, this time in a series of essays, he does so again: Self-Consciousness: Memoirs traces, in the unique fashion only Updike could get away with, the life and times of John Updike—originating in the thoughts and observations of a sensitive boy growing up in Shillington, Pennsylvania, through such experiences as becoming a writer, mastering the trials of fatherhood, surviving a failed marriage, living with oneself during the turbulent years of middle age, and developing the reflective stance that comes with the approach of senescence.
As one who has read much of Updike’s earlier work might expect, however, Updike does not make things as simple as such a summary suggests. The six essays that constitute this volume are far from a straightforward account of the author’s life in Pennsylvania and New England; nor does Updike make any attempt to adhere to a strict chronology. Further, four of the six essays were published wholly or in part in The New Yorker or other periodicals. One imagines that the grouping gives individual pieces greater thematic significance, since there are several references in later essays that make sense only if one has read the earlier pieces.
In fact, rather than autobiography, this work is more a “reminiscence” in the fashion of nineteenth century sage Thomas Carlyle (whose work by that title contains as much fabrication as truth) or an apologia, after the fashion of Cardinal John Henry Newman—an attempt by Updike to explain who he is and why he believes what he does. Updike himself suggests that his models, in one fashion or another, are Marcel Proust, G. K. Chesterton, Miguel de Unamuno, Henry Green, and Franz Kafka. Prompted, Updike tells readers in his foreword, by the “repulsive” notion that someone other than he would soon be writing his biography. Self-Consciousness appears to resemble most closely an intellectual or philosophical self-examination in which external events provide occasion to examine the ways in which character and beliefs have been formed.
With Updike himself serving, then, as both subject and commentator, the reader is taken on a wide-ranging journey across the American intellectual, cultural, and ethical landscape. A Soft Spring Night in Shillington,” in which Updike in his mid- fifties wanders the town in which he grew up, paints a captivating portrait of small-town America in the Depression years. People with little material wealth are seen to have made a good life for themselves, and to have passed on what are now often disparaged as old-fashioned values. Updike, certainly not one to duck issues of sexuality or materialism in either his writing or his life, seems to side with those who held such doctrines; these, he said, are the legacy that he brought with him to New England, and which sustained him in the very different climate (both meteorological and moral) that he found there. The poignant commentary of “At War with My Skin” details the lifelong agonies—physical and emotional—which Updike has suffered since becoming afflicted with psoriasis as a youngster. The account is sometimes clinical (one reads whole paragraphs describing the medical diagnosis and treatment of the disease), but most often highly personal. Updike wins the reader’s sympathy both for himself and for others who bear the scars of physical ailments; there is more than a hint that Updike means the reader to see this physical blight as emblematic of the psychological...
(The entire section is 1,763 words.)