Making the case for Updike, 'America's Man of Letters'


John Updike started writing as an undergraduate on the Harvard Lampoon. His early comic writing -- he drew cartoons, too -- gained him attention and satisfaction. He was hired by the New Yorker and published 16 short stories there between 1954 and 1959.They came out as a volume called "The Same Door" in 1959, a year after "The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures," a collection of poems that was his first book.

Updike's first great smash was "Rabbit, Run," which he wrote in 1959 in considerably less than a year, with no intention that it was going to have sequels.

For many readers, that book both defined the 1950s and served as a critical epitaph for the era. It launched Updike into the awareness of readers and also began -- beyond its original intent -- to open the rolling canvas on which Updike was then to write serially of the last four decades of 20th century American life.

Since then, Updike's output has seemed infinite. He is remarkably versatile, producing first-rank poetry, essays, short stories, drama and novels -- at minimal count, 46 separate volumes. Approaching 70, he is still writing at a rate that would burn out the bearings of many an Olympic-fit 28-year-old. Though I found his most recent novel, "Gertrude and Claudius," rather trivial, I don't doubt his capacity to rise from that minor pile of ashes. He has delighted and outraged, entertained and offended -- but seldom has been ignored. Much of the academic literary world detests and dismisses him for what they perceive as political incorrectness, for being insufficiently propagandistic.

So what does it all mean?

William H. Pritchard, a distinguished critic of academic -- if unorthodoxly academic -- bent has undertaken an answer with "Updike: America's Man of Letters" (Steerforth, 351 pages, $27). Since 1958, Pritchard has taught at Amherst, where he is a chaired professor of English. His several books of criticism and interpretation include important ones about Robert Frost (who also taught at Amherst, 1917-1920), Emily Dickinson (who lived there much of her life) and Randall Jarrell.

This book, Pritchard declares forthrightly, is not a biography nor attempt to be. It is, rather, a book about Updike's writing.

Along with Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow, Updike dominates the generation of still-living senior American novelists. Despite lapses -- and some ground for debate about Mailer's political polemics -- there is a common quality: They are classically self-referential, writers who write in an encompassing moral and cultural way about their own private lives. Much of Updike's work grows out of the earlier tradition of American literature that was much more rural than citified.

Provocatively, Pritchard casts Updike's influence and importance as a writer with those of Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Dean Howells and Edmund Wilson -- though only Hawthorne was principally a novelist. Putting aside critics who dismiss Updike's work as too concerned with himself, Pritchard insists that contrary to "those who talk about narcissism, the unfolding of that self has also been the unfolding of society and of a nation-- the United States in the second half of our century."

In many instances, I dislike academic assessments of art. Too often, they resemble dissecting a frog: The critic can snip the work into pieces, poke and ponder its organs and appendages -- but in the end leaves little or nothing more than an accumulation of lifeless, useless, slippery stuff.

There are obvious exceptions. Pritchard, in this book anyway, is a brilliant one. From the outset, he writes well -- crisply, simply, often eloquently. He explores and analyzes Updike's work chronologically, often in the context of other writers. He is powerfully respectful in tracing the immense influence of Vladimir Nabokov on Updike. He writes well within the tradition of English literature, but free of modernist culture-theory obscurities or ideology.

Pritchard does a marvelous job of weaving his explorations of Updike's more important poetry into his narrative of the novels and short stories. It is the examination of self, and the intensely realistic depiction of rural Pennsylvania upbringing, that consistently gives substance to Pritchard's appreciation -- and his effective argument -- that Updike is an extraordinary writer, one whose work will live on long after Updike himself.

Is it possible to be informed or entertained by such material if you have not read the

originals? I believe so, strongly.

I can't now remember with certain sureness how much of Updike I have read. Much of that was a long time ago. But reading Pritchard seemed to me to bring alive very vividly a voice and a quest and an artistic and philosophical set of purposes. I was left feeling in a few cases that I wanted strongly to go back and read or reread the Updike in question. But more often I felt a sense of "Ah, ha!" -- revelatory familiarity.

One of the great strengths of Pritchard's book is that it is an absolutely wondrous lesson in how to read. This book has great values. It is in no way to diminish them to say that to take a single major Updike book and to go to a chapter of Pritchard simply to trace it through would be, in my observation, worth years of "book group" evenings.

For those who have never read Updike and feel urged to begin, Pritchard suggests "On the Farm," a novella published in 1965, which introduces the central concerns of the best of his work and is "a beautiful and satisfying ... work of art." But if you are serious, you could do a great deal worse than starting off with this extraordinarily nourishing, insightful and readable book by Pritchard -- a shining example of common-sense criticism and of the importance of enduringly serious writing.

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