Extra-Curricular Updike

Peter Wood

                John Updike has a new novel, The Widows of Eastwick, a sequel to his 1984 novel, The Witches of EastwickThe Widows have me wondering where, if anywhere, Updike belongs in the university curriculum. It isn’t an easy question.

                Updike is one of a handful of contemporary American writers whose work may be of lasting significance. Be that as it may, his novels and short stories certainly warrant thoughtful attention in the here and now.  They are—mostly—sunlit ruminations on American life over the last half-century.   That’s a period that includes the sexual revolution, and Updike is perhaps best known for combining a highbrow literary consciousness with scenes that feature a good deal of human anatomy.   The effect is as if Nathaniel Hawthorne had chosen to give us a snap-by-snap undressing of Hester Prynne by Arthur Dimmesdale and an account of their post-coital conversation.

                But for all the carnality in his pages, Updike isn’t a lubricious writer. Panic, guilt, and distraction cloud the sky over his trysting couples. Mosquitoes descend on the unclothed. Some of this is played for comedy, some for the sad bafflement of characters. Updike’s people suffer for their urgencies, one way or another. 

                My comparison to Hawthorne is by no means flippant. In three of his novels, Updike rehearses The Scarlet Letter. A Month of Sundays (1975) centers on a Dimmesdale-like cleric who seduces his parishioners. Roger’s Version (1986) gives us a modern version of a Roger Chillingworth character, as a cold academic. And S. (1988) offers a Hester Prynne who flies off to the desert to join a commune run by a randy guru. The literary playfulness evident in all this is topped only by Updike’s pre-quel to Hamlet, his 2000 novel, Gertrude and Claudius.  This twice-told tale approach doesn’t always work. In Brazil (1994), gives a contemporary undressed version Tristan and Isolde in a manner heavily indebted to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The pastiche doesn’t persuade.   (Updike’s one other novel set abroad, his 1978 depiction of an imaginary African country called Kush in The Coup, is more compelling.)

                Adultery isn’t exactly Updike’s central theme; it is more the weight and texture of his preferred canvas. The question in an Updike novel is not whether his characters will betray their marital trusts, but how the author will make use of the betrayals to illuminate something larger. In his best-known series, Rabbit, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest, we watch the progression of a former small town high school basketball star, Harry Angstrom, from linotype operator through successful Toyota dealer. The Rabbit books might be Updike’s depiction on the reflectiveness of an unreflective life. Rabbit doesn’t understand the larger contours of his time and place in Brewer, Pennsylvania, but he is filled with yearnings, vanities, and loss. Of course, the main incidents of this life are his amours with women other than his wife. 

                Updike’s novels generally repay the effort it takes to read them—although that effort can be considerable, and the rewards aren’t evenly distributed.  The plotting is usually thin; the characters well-drawn but seldom all that sympathetic; and the outlook dim. The rewards that bring readers back for more are in the deftness of the writing, full of quick illuminations of person and place. Here is a characteristic paragraph from Updike’s novel Villages (2004):

The Morrisseys entertained a lot, a sure sign of marital distress: they needed others to help them bear each other’s company. Ian Morrissey, a decade older than Alissa, was a magazine illustrator. As the world of middle-class magazines needing illustrations shrank, he had grown glum and sarcastic. The years had given him more gray hair than a man not much over forty should have, and trembling fingers stained by ink and nicotine, and a hollow-chested slump. He had acquired the idea that, while his own professional world, of dashingly glamorized women illustrating romantic short stories that always ended well, was yielding to sensational non-fiction and photographs airbrushed to within a few hairs of pornography, Owen and Ed were riding a technological wave steadily upward. He spoke of them derisively as ‘nerds.’ Owen tried to explain to him how volatile and chancy the rapidly changing computer world was, and he and Ed were facing ever younger and more innovative competition, but it had settled into Ian’s ego that he embodied a dying fine-arts tradition which was being crassly smothered under an onslaught of rock music, industrial robots, and psychopathic violence. He had grown a stubby goatee that made him look unshaven and sunk in the déshabille of failure. 

                This is not ostentatious writing. Updike isn’t asking the reader to step outside the story to admire his syntax. The paragraph finds its place in the novel as the protagonist, Owen, is seeking another woman with whom to have an affair. The task for Updike is to make Alissa Morrissey a plausible candidate for Owen’s attentions, and that means sketching Alissa’s husband as a fairly repellant figure.   Updike’s paragraph gets its essential work done—but quietly offers quite a bit more.   Ian, the hack illustrator whose trade has dried up, is nicely the opposite of the “dashingly glamorized women” he used to draw. The photographs “airbrushed to within a few hairs of pornography” contrast to Ian’s premature gray and his stubby goatee.  

                Later in Villages, Updike offers us a one-sentence portrait of several generations of a wealthy family attending church together:

The crammed two pews contain every life-stage from terminal disablement through alcoholic corpulence, deeplined sun damage, gym-hardened muscularity, spa-enhanced svelteness, teen-age bloom and sudden growth spurt, adolescent squirminess and giggliness, childish pudginess suffocatingly wrapped in boredom, toddler stupefaction and imminent tantrum, on down to the recently baptized infant sleeping in milky bliss on her young mother’s lap.

This inverts the order of Jacques’ “All the world’s a stage” account of the human career in As You Like It. The “infant/Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms” comes last in Updike’s version, and is in a much better mood. But then Jacques is meant to embody romantic melancholy, and Updike is neither. 

                Updike’s stance to the sorrows and comedies of our existence is ironic, but never harshly so. “The world tends to give us what we want,” he writes near the end of this novel, “but what we receive will partake of the world’s imperfection.”   For a writer who makes sex so central to his stage, his final word on this subject is likewise ambiguous: “Sex is a programmed delirium that rolls back death with death’s own substance; it is a black space between the stars given sweet substance in our veins and crevices.”

                Updike’s mischievous good humor, his sometimes somber eloquence, and his abiding intelligence make him a writer that civilized people should read—but when? It is a bit hard seeing how his novels might fit into the curriculum. And as far as I can tell, none of them has ever vied for a spot beside Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club—the staples of contemporary multi-cultural English 101. So is Updike, one of our best living writers, taught at all? 

                Yes! Quite often, it seems. One of Updike’s short stories, “A&P,” about a boy who quits his job as a clerk in the grocery store after the manager tells a group of girls that they shouldn’t have come into the store wearing only their swimwear, is in the widely used Norton Anthology, and it gets assigned frequently. Terrie Byrne used it in “Introduction to Literature” at Chicago’s Columbia College in Spring 2008, and Prof. Katheleen Skubikowski at Middlebury College assigned it to students in the First Year Seminar for International Students. Updike even makes it into high schools.   A story titled “Ex-basketball Player” is assigned to students in tenth-grade English for multi-cultural literature at Kecoughtan High School, in Hampton, Virginia.   At the other end of the scale, Felice Aull teaches an elective humanities course at the New York University School of Medicine for fourth year medical students which includes Updike’s story, “From the Journal of a Leper.” Kristiaan Versluys, a professor of American literature at Ghent University and a specialist in the literature of “trauma” taught a course at Columbia University titled “September 11 in Literature,” the syllabus of which includes Updike’s recent novel Terrorist. And Kimberlee Gillis-Bridges  at the University of Washington, Seattle Campus, taught a course in summer 2008 titled “Reading (and rereading) Hamlet,” which included Updike’s novel, Gertrude and Claudius.

                This no doubt just scratches the surface. Moreover, it doesn’t really seem to answer the question of how Updike’s main body of work could or should be taught—given that so much of his novelistic work is devoted to maneuvering characters in and out of graphically-described couplings (and occasional triplings, etc.) Perhaps in an age in which it is not so uncommon for colleges (such as Duke University) to invite “sex workers” to lecture and perform and some institutions have even granted academic credit for producing pornography (such as Wesleyan University), Updike’s angst-ridden eroticism would barely be noticed. (One site estimates that about 60 colleges and universities offer courses in pornography.) But I’m not sure that really settles the matter.    It is one thing for the faculty members who pit themselves as antagonists of Western civilization to revel in lewdness and pride themselves on assigning “transgressive” texts. Their basic view is that students need to be liberated from all internal restraint, and they offer a curriculum that aims, when all is said and done, at debasing those who take their courses. 

                That curriculum would seem to have a limited place for Updike who, far from being an antagonist of civilization, is among its stalwart defenders. This is evidenced not only in his subtle and cultivated literary style but in his abundant and deeply generous book reviews. Updike is no barbarian, even if he has found his muse among the bed sheets.   Somewhere, muffled behind his urbanity, there is a moralist in Updike struggling to get out.

                Updike thus presents a dilemma. It would be hard not to include him on a short list of America’s best writers, but few of his books are really suited to a serious undergraduate curriculum or perhaps any curriculum at all that upholds some sense of sexual decorum.   His novels themselves carry on an argument that ultimately favors such decorum, but only after the delirium of “death’s own substance” has worn itself out.  

                One of the hardest tasks of teaching today is to encourage a love of self-restraint among students who have grown up with little of that quality. I judge that Updike is not much of an ally in this task. His writing indeed exemplifies a genial form of self-restraint but always leading to the edge of moral abandon for his characters. 

                Perhaps the “Updike problem” is self-cancelling in that relatively few high school graduates have the degree of literacy needed to make it through an Updike novel. A handful of innocent short stories, such as “A&P” may be all of Updike that is actually in reach for the average college student. Maybe I’m wrong about this, and I’d like to hear from faculty members who have tried to teach any of Updike’s more demanding books. I’d also like to know how they handle his glum bawdiness. 

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