|01-03-2009 - Traces, n. 3
John Updike’s American Lives
Last January, the stalwart of post-War American letters passed away from lung cancer. He was known as a chronicler of middle class American lives, and of the tension between traditional, religious beliefs and modern prosperity
By Sharon Mollerus
John Updike, the famed American author of over 20 novels, several short story collections, light verse, and criticism, died recently at age 76. His best-known character was Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the subject of five novels, distributed at one per decade–two of which, Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, earned Pulitzer Prizes. Updike was most in his element when unearthing the mentality of “the American Protestant small-town middle class.” He once wrote, “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.” He also dubbed himself the “chronicler of suburban adultery.” His narration of the sexual appetite, more desperate than titillating, won the UK Literary Review magazine’s 2008 Bad Sex in Fiction Lifetime Achievement Award.
A “Leap of Unfaith”. Updike’s work is marked by theological concerns. His grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, and Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth also influenced his work. He once described his own faith in Pascalian terms: “I was crushed by the purely materialistic, atheistic account of the universe. I am very prone to accept all that the scientists tell us.... But I can’t quite make the leap of unfaith, as it were, and say, ‘This is it. Carpe diem (seize the day), and tough luck.’”
The fear of death and abdication of Christian belief, favorite Updike themes, are painfully examined in an early short story, “Pigeon Feathers.” David, the protagonist, is 14 and disoriented, as his family has just moved from town to his late grandfather’s farm. While arranging books, he comes across H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History and finds what for him is a shocking denial of Christ’s Resurrection: Jesus is made out to be a minor political figure who was revived after a crucifixion and then died some weeks later. David confronts the challenge to his childhood faith: “Survivals and misunderstandings more far-fetched were reported daily in the papers. But none of them caused churches to be built in every town.”
Deeply shaken, the boy next has a sudden and vivid intuition of death, of a burial where “no one will remember you, and you will never be called.” Further, he perceives the terror of a universal extinction: “And the earth tumbles on, and the sun expires, and unaltering darkness reigns where once there were stars.” David seeks to counter this unbearable scenario with any scrap of hope, a word or a sign, that he can salvage from his surroundings. He goes to Sunday School, expecting to find a confirmation of belief. Instead, he stirs up embarrassment with his questions about individual consciousness after death. The Reverend Dobson flatly denies such a possibility. “David, you might think of Heaven this way: as the way the goodness Abraham Lincoln did lives after him.” David immediately perceives the lie: “In the minister’s silence the shame that should have been his crept over David: the burden and fever of being a fraud was placed upon him, who was innocent...”
His parents are no help either. He realizes that they had not been “consolers of his troubles; from the beginning they had seemed to have more troubles than he. Their confusion had flattered him into an illusion of strength.” His father is hopelessly cynical, and his mother argues that to desire immortality is “so greedy,” given all the goods he is receiving in his life. She tries to reassure him: “When you get older, these things seem to matter a great deal less.” The boy’s abandonment is complete, but even in this desert he finds something to cling to: “The sight of clergymen cheered him; whatever they themselves thought, their collars were still a sign that somewhere, at sometime, someone had recognized that we cannot, cannot, submit to death.” Updike continues to uncover this destructive Christian apostasy in other stories, including his Rabbit series.
Eccles vs. Kruppenbach. Updike once defined America as “a vast conspiracy to make you happy.” Harry Angstrom is the everyman Updike chooses to follow across the decades, taking a microscope to the claim of the American dream. In the first of the series, Rabbit, Run, the protagonist is an ex-jock who, after his glory years, finds work a bore and marriage a trap. Within days of his second child’s birth, the kitchen gadget salesman has gone AWOL from home and taken up with a call girl whom he believes he is now in love with. “All vagrants think they’re on a quest. At least at first.” Updike explained that the name “Angstrom” was a reference to Kierkegaardian angst and that he wrote the novel as a response to Kerouac’s On the Road to show “what happens when a young American family man goes on the road–the people left behind get hurt.”
Jack Eccles, a young minister in Harry’s wife’s church, chases after his new pet project, trying to patch up the youthful marriage. The two have theological discussions over golf and, whenever he can, Harry flirts with the man’s wife. But the clergyman has no faith to offer, only the dictate that since “marriage is a sacrament,” Harry needs to stay with his unloved wife. For Harry, this isn’t compelling. Harry adds truth to the truism: “If you have the guts to be yourself, other people’ll pay your price.”
Jack, like Harry, is something of a runner, and his wife resents his exclusive attention toward everyone outside their family. On another of his rounds, the minister makes a courtesy call to Harry’s family’s Lutheran pastor, the famous Updike character Fritz Kruppenbach, whom Eccles considers an “unctuous old thundering Hun.” Eccles is cut off as he tries to explain his take on the Angstrom family problem. “Do you think this is your job, to meddle in these people’s lives? I know what they teach you at seminary now: this psychology and that. But I don’t agree with it. You think now your job is to be an unpaid doctor, to run around and plug up holes and make everything smooth. I don’t think that. I don’t think that’s your job…. I say you don’t know what your role is or you’d be home locked in prayer…. In running back and forth you run away from the duty given you by God, to make your faith powerful.... When on Sunday morning, then, when you go out before their faces, we must walk up not worn out with misery but full of Christ, hot with Christ, on fire: burn them with the force of our belief. …. Make no mistake. Now I’m serious. Make no mistake. There is nothing but Christ for us. All the rest, all this decency and busyness, is nothing. It is Devil’s work.”
As the story unfolds, a tragedy occurs as a result of a frustrated episode of lust and Harry’s inability to stay in his place. When the burden of death and culpability are crushing him, Harry asks the minister if it is enough to be faithful to his family to work off this sin, and Eccles lets him down. The minister admits that he doesn’t believe in the way Harry does and commits the ultimate Protestant heresy of relying on works for justification instead of the blood of Christ. He advises Harry, “We must work for forgiveness; we must earn the right to see that thing behind everything.” By the end, at the very moment that Harry has an intuition of divine mercy, the husband reneges on his part and instead of forgiving her, unloads responsibility on his wife. There is nothing left for him to do except to hit the ground running, again.
Desire Breaks Through. The author excused the shock of his writing with the urgency of the communication. “I’m willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else’s living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another’s brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves.”
When I taught the short story “Separating,” which concerns a divorce, for a literature course in an evening school, I found that the class, many of whom were divorced, had trouble catching the subtle moral slippage Updike uncovered in the destruction of a family. Updike’s Protestant Christian tradition was a prod to question many of the assumptions of our culture, particularly around the myth of self-fulfillment. While he delivers the voltage required to get our attention, careful reading is needed to appreciate the full critique. His body of work offers an encyclopedic documentation of our materialist, achievement-oriented culture, and his characters are enfleshed with that irrepressible human desire–expressed in lust and avarice, suffering and boredom–that keeps breaking through numbing pleasure and resignation toward death.