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John Updike - a Character Study

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He tries to stand, but the table edge confines him to a crouch. The booth tilts and he rocks slightly, as if he is already in the slowly turning cold house he is heading toward. Jill stands up with him, obedient as a mirror.
– From Rabbit Redux

Having once been famously described as 'just a penis with a thesaurus', John Updike is known, even to his detractors, as one of the finest prose stylists that America has ever produced. Updike devoted himself as an essayist, poet and critic, but is best known for his novels and short stories. With a prodigious vocabulary and a swift pen, Updike's numerous pieces of fictional prose chronicle the sex life, death, self-absorption and simple, small town existence of the ordinary American. His writing continually delights in the tedium of existence. He does not tend to portray adventures or heroes, but rather flawed, contradictory characters. This Entry looks into the question of whether these throw a light on Updike's own character.

Like many great writers, Updike's works can be read as autobiographical. In Midpoint, his 1970 book of poetry, he takes a distinctly Whitman-esque turn, writing, Of nothing but me I sing, lacking another song. Indeed, the song of Updike's works has often seemed to readers more as variations on the same tune. He grew up in Pennsylvania and lived in New England for most of his life, and so most of his characters inhabit either Pennsylvania or New England1.

Updike was a middle class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, and so most of his central characters are as well. An example of Updike's autobiographical tendencies can be seen in his best known character, Harry Angstrom. The life of Angstrom, a former high school basketball star known by his nickname 'Rabbit', is chronicled in the Rabbit book series. Angstrom first appeared in print in the 1960 novel Rabbit, Run, as a 26-year-old middle class, Protestant male; when the book was published, Updike himself was a 28-year-old middle class, Protestant male. Updike wrote three more Rabbit books, each spaced about a decade apart in publication and in the story's chronology. When Rabbit Redux sequelled in 1971, Harry Angstrom had aged to match Updike. The Pulitzer-prize winner Rabbit is Rich was published in 1982, with both character and author nearing their half-century. The final installment of the series, Rabbit at Rest was published in 1990 (also winning the Pulitzer Prize that year), placing Angstrom in retirement. However, Angstrom's death at the end of that novel predated Updike's own by about two decades, as it would turn out. Updike's characters did tend to become more obsessed with their own mortality as he aged. In an interview, Updike said that, I had been having heart pangs, and when I gave him [Angstrom] the heart ailments, they lifted off of me... He was a brother to me, and a good friend.

If we are to view the standard Updike character as a representation of the author himself, then a sad picture emerges. Death-obsessed, narcissistic, chauvinistic and deeply unhappy, the Updike character is no manifestation of an author's self-confidence. Updike's characters struggle both internally and externally, and it is tempting to suggest that they reflect the pains of their author. However, Updike's own life was marked with many of the external signs of American success. He was Harvard-educated, intelligent, comfortably wealthy and even had quite a few grandchildren by the end of his life. That a man who rose to fame from the middle class could write so sadly of men attempting to follow his path perhaps best speaks of Updike's conception of the hollowness of the American dream. 1990s literati hero David Foster Wallace took another view, labelling him as the chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.

'I expect you're a primitive father. I think Freud is like God; you make it true.'

Rabbit smiles, supposing that Freud has some connection with the silver wallpaper and the watercolor of a palace and a canal above her head.

-From Rabbit, Run

Updike's preoccupation with everything sexual is well-established. He was a writer able to conjure up practically endless euphemisms for the male genitalia and to write page after page describing the curves of a naked woman's legs. Updike's careful, florid sentences dissect the sexual acts and urges of the American middle class in a way that could be called refreshingly frank... until one realizes that even the standard, stereotypically sex-obsessed modern American male is not up for the level of sexual obsession and perversion pervading the psyches of Updike's central characters. Adultery, prostitution, masturbation and other traditionally untreated subjects were prominent in Updike's works, and received the same precise, lyrical descriptions Updike would afford to a neighbour's flora or the flight of a well-struck golf ball.

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
'Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise - depths unplumbable!'

– The beginning of a poem entitled Requiem, published posthumously in 2009

John Updike died on 27 January, 2009. His characters breathed, changed and lived with him, but did not follow him into the grave. Works such as the Rabbit series, the Eastwick Books, the Bech books and his many stories continue to entertain, amuse and arouse, to this day.

1The Pennsylvania of his birth especially influenced the environments of the Rabbit books and the Olinger stores, based around a fictitious small town in Pennsylvania.

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