27th 2009
Rabbit, ran out

Posted under: American history, art, book reviews, class, Gender

John Updike is dead, at age 76 of lung cancer.  (Terrible disease–that’s very sad.)  I was never a huge fan of his, since all of the male protagonists in his short stories were very clearly based on Updike:  they all seemed to be men who were from lower middle-class families in industrial Pennsylvania who managed to go to Harvard and live lives with bigger houses, better cars, and prettier wives and paramours than their fathers had.  That story got old, fast, as did the creepy obsession with comparing the girlfriend’s or second wife’s body with the first wife’s body, or sex with the girlfriend or second wife to sex with the first wife.  Women in Updike’s short stories, and in many of his novels, function like the cars and houses of the protagonists–they were merely reflections of the protagonist’s status.

I enjoyed two books of hisS. (1988) and Memories of the Ford Administration:  a novel (1992), both of which were (probably not coincidentally) novels based in American history and literature.  S. was a must-read for me, since it was an updated version of The Scarlet Letter.  It was okay, but I never understood why the Hester-character would have had an affair with the Dimmesdale-character, who seemed extremely joyless and unattractive.  (Upon reflection, I suppose the same criticism could be made of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s original Dimmesdale!  I guess my point is that there were lots of other options in the 1980s compared to the 1650s.) 

The Updike novel I enjoyed the most was Memories of the Ford Administration.  The main character is a junior college history professor who muses on his memories of the Gerald Ford administration–the Updikean world of upper middle-class 1970s suburbia and the protagonist’s extramarital affair at the time.  Interleaved with the story of the 1970s is the protagonist’s still-unfinished biography of President James Buchanan (yes–that’s right, readers:  Mr. Third-Worst!)  It’s rather strange, but it works.  If you liked The Ice Storm (either the novel or the movie), you’ll enjoy Memories of the Ford Administration, although Updike’s book is less grim.  (The Ice Storm was a little too over the top for me.)


27 Responses to “Rabbit, ran out”

  1. Knitting Clio on 27 Jan 2009 at 4:56 pm #

    That is very sad and a painful way to go. I liked Memories of the Ford Administration too.

  2. Robert Stanley Martin on 27 Jan 2009 at 5:10 pm #

    I think the Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy is probably the greatest thing by a U.S. novelist that’s been produced in my lifetime, but I understand why it leaves a lot of women cold. Like Henry Miller’s stuff, it is written from inside the perspective of a working-class heterosexual man. All straight men, at some point in their lives, treat (or are encouraged to treat) “scoring” with women as an achievement and a point of pride. A good many men put that aside as they grow older, but for those life frustrates at most turns (like not being able to find a decent-paying job or properly support a family), many fall back on treating women exploitively in order to feel better about themselves. That’s true of Harry Angstrom throughout the books, and Updike’s women characters aren’t vividly realized enough to offset it. Harry is very much a working-class man, by the way: no college education, and his main jobs are as a print-shop worker and a car salesman. I’m not familar enough with his short fiction to comment, but if that exploitive attitude occurs with Updike’s more upscale protagonists, it would be pretty offensive. A lot of that stuff appeared in Playboy over the years, and perhaps the worst aspects of that magazine rubbed off on him.

    I have an appreciation of Updike up on my blog. Click here to read.

  3. Robert Stanley Martin on 27 Jan 2009 at 5:29 pm #

    I should add that Updike brilliantly recreates the milieu of the early 1980s and ’90s in Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, respectively. The portraits he paints of those times are extraordinarily rich evocations of them, and the books jibe so completely with my memories of the atmosphere then that’s it’s scary. The first two books, Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux, seem just as evocative of 1960 and 1970, although I’m not old enough to judge how well Updike does or doesn’t nail the times. The books sure feel right, though. The tetralogy provides some great snapshots of contemporary history if nothing else.

  4. Indyanna on 27 Jan 2009 at 7:37 pm #

    Lord knows I’m no literary critic, but I think some distinction could probably be drawn between his early, adolescent shorter fiction, plus the _Rabbit_ series, set in early rust belt Pennsylvania, and the later more depraved if not even nihilist stuff set in upmarket Massachusetts suburbs. I liked _Rabbit Run_ because of the plain quality of the writing and the establishment of scenes and characters. His account of the black Vietnam vet who moves in with Harry and his kid, and christens them “Chuck” and “Baby-Chuck,” still cracks me up once in a while, decades after I read it. The later stuff from New England just seems sad and disillusioned, and a graphic account of a spouse-swapping party from I guess it was _Couples_ was pretty repulsive. I think in the _Olinger Stories_, which were adolescent and pretty much thinly-autobiographical, he took a less cynical look at relations between the sexes, but for all that, he was to be sure no New-Age guy. Maybe I’ve just forgotten it all.

  5. Michael Moore on 27 Jan 2009 at 9:23 pm #

    Historiann -

    Biographical, historical, and feminist modes of literary criticism can be useful, but surely Updike’s unparalleled gift for metaphor and description soars above them. To complain about repeated themes is like taking Mozart to the woodshed for always using the chromatic scale.

    What you refer to as a “creepy obsession” may just be a normal aspect of human sexuality that is unpleasant to consider and impolite to discuss. Indeed, this Stern-meets-Shakespeare aspect of Updike’s exquisite prose, in which the most mundane and vulgar aspects of life (eating a bag of corn chips, anal intercourse) are treated with first-class imagery, may be among its greatest charms.

    Updike always claimed that he was not out to write the fanciest sentences, but rather to describe the world as precisely as he could. In this regard, he has left behind a Dickensian ouevre that will prove invaluable for future generations who wish to understand our slice of Americana.

  6. Professor Zero on 27 Jan 2009 at 9:37 pm #

    Honor the dead and all, but Updike always creeped me out because of his apparent views on women. Good post.

  7. hysperia on 27 Jan 2009 at 11:32 pm #

    Hi Historiann -

    I was going to say something different but then I read Michael Moore’s comment. I just can’t get on board with he notion that Updike is “Stern-meets-Shakespeare” or that his treatment of his fictional women is simply a representation of life as it is and as everyone else is too polite to say.

    To be very polite, Updike’s women are far from well-imagined or fully realized no matter what the class position of the protagonist. That represents a lack in his writing even if only from the viewpoint of literary criticism. I have no difficulty with writers who don’t write “fancy” prose – writers whose views of the world are limited and who transpose those views into their work – well, I have a problem with that.

    I liked much of Updike’s earlier work which I read when I was in my early twenties. There was a sense there of a world being put onto the page in a way that granted full entry. I couldn’t finish reading “The Good Husband” and that was the end of my forays into Updike-land.

    He was an important figure in American literature and for that, I honour him. I’m also sorry he had lung cancer. I also think he had some crucial flaws. Also, check out how he eliminated women almost entirely from the corpus of important American visual artists when he drew up his “best of” list – not even Georgia O’Keefe for gawd sakes. So I think I should be forgiven for thinking that Updike had a problem with women.


  8. Historiann on 28 Jan 2009 at 9:15 am #

    It’s interesting that the gender divide in this thread is so stark. I take Indyanna’s and Robert’s point about the Rabbit books, and I like Indyanna’s designation of the “decadent” phase of Updike’s career (which seems to have been most of his career!) I’m just saying–as are all of the other women who have commented on this thread–that much of his oeuvre wasn’t for me because of his repetitive objectification of women which, aside from being politically objectionable to me (and to other women), also made for some damn boring writing and bad literature, IMHO.

    I like your defense of Updike, Michael, except that I would ask you to consider how what you call a “normal aspect of human sexuality that is unpleasant to consider and impolite to discuss” assumes that the male middle-class, mid-Century U.S. American is “normal,” and those of us who aren’t that and who don’t identify with his protagonists are somehow not “normal.” I agree that Updike clearly spoke to middle- and upper-middle class mid-Century U.S. American men, and that’s all well and good. It was a lucrative and advantageous segment of the population to write for. But, let’s not confuse this niche appeal with “normal” and “human.”

    And p.s. to hysperia: thanks for that reminder about Updike’s art criticism. I suppose women artists weren’t sufficiently “normal!”

  9. Indyanna on 28 Jan 2009 at 10:59 am #

    Points taken. To throw another bough on the fire, this icy day here in the east: Michiko Kakutani in her front page NYT “An Appraisal” today, calls him “Victorian in his industriousness, and *almost blogger-like* in his determination to turn every scrap of knowledge and experience into words.” Don’t know how that will fly in the ‘sphere. I actually haven’t gotten inside the _Times_ yet to see how the appraisal turns out.

    ** Asterisks added. Don’t know if MK blogs…

  10. scott on 28 Jan 2009 at 11:21 am #

    Related to the gender issue that H discusses, Updike’s continuing obsession with the sex lives of straight white guys has some literary consequences in terms of judging him properly. If a novelist’s brief as traditionally understood is (as MM states) to describe the world as precisely as possible and to show us life in its manifold and Dickensian aspects, isn’t it a bit of a blind spot in his work that the women are either sex objects or furniture for plot dvelopment involving the male characters? Last time I looked, the world had a lot of women in it, and not portraying them in a persuasive way indicts both the novelist’s ability to give us the world “precisely” and the narrowness of moral vision that finds only men interesting enough to describe plausibly. Just saying.

  11. Michael Moore on 28 Jan 2009 at 11:45 am #

    Indyanna -

    Calling Updike “almost blogger-like in his determination to turn every scrap of knowledge and experience into words” is like calling Richard Petty “almost commuter-like in his determination to find the most efficient way around the track.”

    I probably could have dismissed this comparison if it had not been in the first paragraph.

  12. Professor Zero on 28 Jan 2009 at 11:47 am #

    I’m with Scott. And I haven’t read the earlier Rabbit books, only some of the New England stuff; maybe I should go back. I always found him a competent, medium-good writer – not uninteresting, just not super interesting – speaking from and to a *narrow* swath of “Americana.” The country’s big, y’all and an upscale MA suburb isn’t necessarily representative of it.

  13. Historiann on 28 Jan 2009 at 12:14 pm #

    Scott makes a good point. Updike was no Flaubert. I’m not an Updike abolitionist–to each his own, I say. I was just saying that I didn’t like a lot of what Updike wrote.

    But I said that I liked two of his books! (Hasn’t anyone else here besides Knitting Clio read Memories of the Ford Administration?)

  14. hysperia on 28 Jan 2009 at 4:29 pm #

    I haven’t read the “Ford” book – afraid I gave up on Updike long before. Perhaps I’ll give it a read.

    I haven’t read it in a long time, but I quite liked Updike’s collection of short stories, “Pigeon Feathers” when I read it thirty years ago!

  15. Historiann on 28 Jan 2009 at 5:07 pm #

    I should warn you, hysperia–the Ford book contains everything I’m complaining about in terms of the sexual objectification of women. However, it was of interest to me as a historian, and the portrait of the CC professor’s life as I recall was humorously pathetic (and therefore true-to-life, in a Stern-meets-Kingsley Amis kind of way!)

  16. Jeremy Young on 29 Jan 2009 at 3:58 pm #

    As a side note, academia has got to be the only profession in which dancing on the graves of the recently deceased is considered a legitimate professional activity. “John Updike just died. Most of his books sucked, but one or two were okay.” You’re not the only person I’ve seen do this — far from it — but is it really appropriate? I tend to think the recently-deceased are entitled to a bit of reverence, unless they were, you know, Hitler.

  17. Historiann on 29 Jan 2009 at 4:03 pm #

    Well, Jeremy–I had those opinions about Updike before he died, but they weren’t terribly timely. I don’t understand your reverence for the dead. Are you really training to be a historian? Because reverence for the dead might really hinder your efforts to think critically.

  18. Jeremy Young on 29 Jan 2009 at 4:11 pm #

    That would be for the recently dead. There’s obviously a statute of limitations on these things. Julius Caesar? Sure, he sucked, but he wrote a couple of good books. Two days after a man’s death? To me, that’s like kicking a guy when he’s down.

  19. Historiann on 29 Jan 2009 at 4:16 pm #

    Jeremy, he’s about as down as he’ll ever get. But I hardly think he’s noticed.

    This is a feminist blog. Updike has been criticized by feminists for decades, and he gave as good as he got. I hardly think it’s something that I could ignore. Please look for hagiography of Updike elsewhere–I won’t apologize for not being the author of it myself.

  20. Satsuma on 30 Jan 2009 at 12:20 am #

    This is such excellent commentary on Updike. Someone above commented on a lack of respect for the dead, but as I recall, men wait for famous women to die, and then attack them with impunity, never daring to do this while they are alive. Margaret Mead comes to mind here.

    Feminists, being relentless want to be timely, and I love this refreshing take on Updike through feminist eyes. I never could understand what all the fuss was about with him anyway. The women characters were just oo badly drawn overall, and I lost interest in his writing. However, I will concede a historical interest, if nothing else to remember the really bad old days before women’s studies and feminist criticism really emerged to take these guys on.

  21. Satsuma on 30 Jan 2009 at 3:22 pm #

    Just an update…. I found a couple of YouTube interviews of Updike. In one with the New York Times, he appeared quite confused as to why feminists would object to his portrayal of women. He said he wrote “The Witches of Eastwick” as a response, making women central characters, along with “Widows of Eastwick.” What is so weird about men of this generation is their complete inability to ever get how sexist they truly are. “But hey, I love women,” they protest.

    He looked confused at the entire critique. but now that I think about it, I don’t know any man born in the 1930s who ever has a clue about women’s right to be represented as non-sex objects in literature.

  22. historydoll on 01 Feb 2009 at 4:25 pm #

    I was fascinated to read this entry and the comments, because I have never been able to read Updike precisely because of his attitude toward women, and yet one rarely sees that mentioned. The opinion of the commenter above who spoke of the inability of men of a certain generation to “get it” [my words, not hirs] are only confirmed by Charles McGrath’s appreciation in today’s NY TImes Week in Review:

    “…hundreds of years from now, if people still read, they will read the Rabbit books to learn what that perplexing age, the 20th century, was really like.”

    No visible acknowledgement at all of the narrow dimensions of Updike’s world.

  23. Satsuma on 01 Feb 2009 at 9:31 pm #

    Yes historydoll, exactly. If you look at all the oohhh and ahhing about “great American writers” – Updike, Hemingway, Mailer etc., it is almost never women who think they are great. (Well maybe Susan Sontag now and then :-) ) I’ve always really hated Mailer, who stabbed his first wife with a knife, among other things. Hemingway was a notorium mysogynist. Updike unreadable today because of how he writes about women.
    Probably more author examples out there by the bucketfull!

    The thing is, literary criticism of these “greats” is again men writing about men, and they don’t have the background to be able to critique the stereotyped representations of American women, because, they are men.

    Same thing with de Sade… men love him, women see him for the rapist, sex depraved woman hating menace that he really was. French I know, but this example popped into my head so I included it.

    There are two American literatures out there, and the good thing about feminist criticism is that after you read the fawning article about Updike in the NYTimes, you can come here and see what women think of the “great man.” So refreshing and liberating. What a goddess send this website and blog is!!! :-) :-) :-) In the past, before the Internet, we were stuck with the male literary giants pontificating in the New York Times and on Firing Line…. William F. Buckley, ahh the good old days!

  24. Historiann on 02 Feb 2009 at 6:08 am #

    Hi historydoll and Satsuma–thanks for your compliments. Apparently, some people think that the American public isn’t fawning enough in their eulogies for Updike. I came across this article at The Daily Beast last night “Writing Off Updike,” in which Lee Siegel complains that a few people dared to criticize Updike, when we should all bow down and recognize him as the Greatest Writer Evah. At least feminists don’t get the blame directly for this tragic underrating–it’s New York Jews, don’t’cha know.

    Updike was a fantastically successful author–but the way some of his defenders are carrying on, you’d think that he was an impoverished little-appreciated artist who only published university-press books of poetry. Man up, people–Updike was rich and famous, so people have opinions about his work. Deal.

  25. historydoll on 02 Feb 2009 at 8:51 am #

    Wow–the Lee Siegel article is truly amazing. And as a New York Jew myself, I can only say in relation to this, “Go, us!” :)

  26. Updike, Redux : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 11 Feb 2009 at 12:25 pm #

    [...] Michael, who objected to the thrust of my comments about John Updike’s oeuvre a few weeks ago, [...]

  27. Satsuma on 11 Feb 2009 at 8:58 pm #

    P.S. I used this Updike commentary as an example of all that’s great about blogs, as I was trying to explain blogs to my retired journalist father over the weekend.

    I really love reading about Updike from a feminist context, and seeing how far things have come since the Ford Administration.

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