The Stories of Updike Critical Essays

John Updike

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

John Updike is a prodigiously talented writer; he is a poet, parodist, critic, novelist, and short-story writer who achieved distinction and a very considerable reputation in the first half of the 1960’s. His career is remarkable, indeed virtually unique among the serious writers of his generation. Perhaps equally remarkable—for there are limits to the most finely tuned imagination, and even though people tend to forget it they must inevitably judge others by their own experience—he gives evidence of enough self-transcendence to be aware of the surprising good fortune which has attended all his efforts. From the first, he has been a character in that rare thing: a genuine, American, real-life success story. It is the kind of thing that has not happened and does not happen to most serious American writers. One need only recall the story Robert Frost used to tell groups of eager young student writers, how a relative had offered him a living for a year, without worry or burden, to determine if he really were a poet. “Give me twenty,” was Frost’s reply to the astounded relative; it took twenty years of hard and lonely labor before Frost was able to convince a publisher to publish his poems. Equally familiar and typical is the example of William Faulkner, who wrote professionally for twenty-five years before anyone began to give him or his work any attention or to consider his work worthy of prizes and awards. Contemporary literary history would indicate that Faulkner’s career and Frost’s are typical, except, perhaps, for the happy endings.

Not only did Updike become a “writer” without prolonged struggle or delay, but, with the single exception of his first book of poems, The Carpentered Hen, he has remained with one publisher, and almost all of his work has been published in one magazine, The New Yorker. Both of these facts are extremely unusual for the times. Most serious writers, and especially the younger ones, move from publisher to publisher, not willingly perhaps, but compelled to by the complexities of the modern publishing business, which simply cannot allow a writer to grow and develop, acquiring an audience as he goes along, over any considerable period of time without demonstrable “success.”

In a sense, Updike has been patronized by two strong and distinguished literary powers and, thus, given an opportunity to develop his talent under apparently almost ideal circumstances, saved from the simple, mundane, and frequently discouraging conditions which plague almost all other writers. Moreover, his critical reception has been uniformly good. Surely he is one of the most encouraged writers of his time. It remains to be noted that he has made every effort to justify this extraordinary interest. He is obviously a prodigious worker. He has not wasted time, nor has he failed to make the most of his advantages. There is no doubt that he is a hard-working, highly gifted, and imaginative writer.

There are built-in dangers and disadvantages to this kind of success story. Talent, to be recognized easily and early, must inevitably be based upon precedent, upon a set of existing and accepted standards. For any establishment to offer rewards at the outset, the work of the neophyte must be acceptable to and, indeed, be complimentary to the establishment. Looking back in time, readers should have no cause to wonder why, for example, Lizette Reese was for so long considered a much better poet than Robert Frost, why Glenway Wescott was recognized as a literary artist while William Faulkner was not. In this era of intense self-consciousness, of continual agonizing reappraisal, it is highly unlikely that a decently educated and successful young writer would not be haunted by the specters of a recent literary past, troubled by the vague prospect that history may well be repeating itself in his case. The thought might well be inhibiting. Then there are the inhibitions that can so easily come from writing for particular patrons and an already existing audience. If these patrons are essentially conservative in literary matters, one would be disinclined to offend, to bite the hand that feeds. The mechanics of human rationalization are such that, in order to continue to create at all, a writer would have to believe in his patrons. To question would be crippling. To rebel might be disastrous.

It is, therefore, a tribute to the skill of Updike to report that in spite of all these factors and in spite of the fact that he has shown little interest in pioneering and innovation in any form, his work has continued to grow in stature and, so far, without the least sign of self-doubt or diminishing integrity.

It is by his short stories that Updike is best known, and it should be observed that chunks and sections of...

(The entire section is 1954 words.)