Late in the spring of 1976, the writer John Cheever was roused by a phone call telling him that his friend John Updike, twenty years younger and far more prolific, was dead. Cheever began to cry. Trying to distill his thoughts in print before first light, he mourned the passing of a “prince”—a colleague “peerless as a writer of his generation.” Updike was at that point 44, with some twenty books of fiction, poetry, and criticism to his name. Only one had received a major prize. Eight years before, Time’s cover had framed his likeness with the slug “The Adulterous Society,” lauding Updike’s artful portrayal of “the pampered, wayward millions of today.” Cheever, in other words, was not being sloppy when he chose his prepositions. Updike’s legacy in 1976 was not so much about his rank in the generation. What stood out then was how he’d written of it.
That phone call was, of course, a hoax (a drunken literary rival), and although recent news of Updike’s death felt no less startling—wasn’t he on Charlie Rose just a few months ago?—everybody seems to have something ready to say this time, and none of it has much to do with his role as a “writer of his generation.” In later years, Updike became our archetypal man of letters, and his touchstones seemed to stand resilient through the changing winds of culture: frank sex, mainline religion, Pennsylvania, New England, the middle class. Since his death, he’s been remembered as a deft stylist, a reliable magazine writer, a virtuoso of the galley revision, a cheery and energetic colleague, a reader of Kierkegaard, a lover of sport, and a polymath of mind-boggling productivity. We’ve seen photos of him with his long and lissome fingers perched on his chin, and on his cheek, and in his hair, which always looks as if a gale-force wind has just debauched it from behind. For many writers, Updike’s literary standing is the steepest definition of success.
Still, this is not the artist we should be remembering. The Updike who deserves attention isn’t the snowy belletrist who ginned up thought experiments like Gertrude and Claudius and inflicted the 928-page nonfiction omnibus More Matter on already cowed bookshelves. It is, instead, the Cheever-era “writer of his generation.” Updike is a product of the Sixties. The cultural and moral pressures of that decade were his proving ground as an author, the source of the goals that carried him through the rest of his life. It was only in the Sixties that the name “Updike” began to work as cultural shorthand. What it stood for was the seam between two liberal generations: the turf where institutional trust brushed up against suspicion, where gratitude toward middle-class mores met with disdain of all things tried and true. Updike was a Fifties man meeting the Sixties, and his reports from the front caught a sea change in postwar America.
Updike grew up with a French-garden notion of American society: Planning and architecture—government, education—existed to facilitate protection, opportunity, and beauty. His father was an early casualty of the Depression, and when he found a job that could support his family in small-town Pennsylvania, they had Roosevelt to thank. “I had been reared in the static, defensive world of the Depression,” Updike wrote, “to which the World War added a coloring of embattlement and patriotic pride.” As the Korean War began, he escaped to Harvard and immersed himself in “Eliotic shades of irony and fastidious ennui.” A friend remembers the collegiate Updike saying of his planned vocation, “I’m going to be a great American novelist.” As it happened, he was published within months of graduation, writing virtuosic but basically trifling material—short, slice-of-life stories; light verse; and, after moving to Manhattan in 1955, a stream of “Talk of the Town” pieces, classics of the genre but hardly evidence of fictional genius. He tried to be a great American novelist. He failed. Scrapping a lengthy novel whose sails never quite caught the wind, he abandoned New York in 1957 and moved back to the site of his honeymoon, a small beach town an hour or so north of Boston. “It was there I felt the real news was,” he said.
What news? Updike’s first book of stories, The Same Door, dealt mainly with small-town Pennsylvania and New York private life; it was accompanied by The Poorhouse Fair, a short, thickly garnished novel that centers on old folks in poverty. Updike described the latter as “a book about America changing.” This is a wishful reading, but it gives a window onto his ambitions at the time. By then, the first frissons of change were in the culture. Howl had appeared during Updike’s tenure in New York, and On the Road came out around the time he left. Updike immediately “resented” Kerouac’s book, which seemed to prophesy a world in which the structures of reliance and community would be upended. His next novel would attempt a riposte to this new, freewheeling spirit, “a kind of an anti-On the Road” (his phrase) whose hero flees a dour life only to wreak havoc and, ultimately, get drawn back.
The result, Rabbit, Run, is today regarded as a postwar Realist classic. At the time, it was Cassandra’s nightmare of the ’60s. Rabbit is an erstwhile high school basketball star living with an alcoholic, pregnant wife and a toddler. Seized by the desire for what Updike has called “freedom, more freedom, utter freedom,” he skips town mid-errand without a word to his family. He gets lost within hours. Turning back, he flees erotically instead, taking up with a prostitute mistress who—this is the sort of plot point that gets Updike and Roth lumped together—gives him a blow job for the first time as his wife goes into labor. A daughter is born; Rabbit returns to domestic life; his wife fails to match his mistress sexually; he leaves once more. His wife gets drunk and accidentally drowns their newborn. His mistress, pregnant, exhorts him to divorce. Rabbit’s “fears condense”; the book ends as he runs again, alone.
It’s a novel with a strong reactionary strain (a fairly misogynist one, too), but the book is also neurotically ambivalent about which trail to take: the broken Eisenhower-era family or the wayward, libertine, on-the-road life. We empathize with Rabbit, or are meant to, as much as we empathize with his pinioned wife. The book is of a piece with Updike’s native beliefs, the idea, as he put it in an interview, “that we are all a party, in one way or another, to a social contract, and when one unit in the social web takes off, there are tugs and breaks he leaves behind him.” But Rabbit’s quandary—and it’s part of the character’s tragic nature that he sees the larger meaning of his predicament—is symptomatic of a larger fracture in the culture. The road ahead looks rocky no matter where he runs. These frightening cultural fault lines gave Rabbit, Run resonance and edge—in short, its “news.”
Today, the book is often used to cast Updike as a chronicler of the American middle. To describe him that way, though, is to look through the wrong end of the telescope. Updike wrote about people like Updike; and as the ’60s unfolded, people like Updike—old enough to have a settled vision of the world, young enough to change, suburban enough to care about the Sunday congregation more than, say, hipster ontology—became not just a middle ground but a sort of national thermometer. The Beats’ marginal subversions had by then grown into something with broader influence. Enovid was marketed for contraception in the summer of 1961. In 1962, SDS composed its Port Huron statement, a document that, among other things, added institutional distrust to the definition of good liberalism. (“Some regard these national doldrums as a sign of healthy approval of the established order—but is it approval by consent or manipulated acquiescence?”) When Kennedy died a year later, the distrust went nationwide.
It all trickled out to Updike’s coastal Massachusetts life. More and more, his social scene was hybridized: on one side of his suburban plot lay a large nuclear family with a station wagon and a golden retriever, cocktail parties in ultra-preppy garb (“yellow slacks, a boat-neck jersey, and blue topsiders”), and ski trips with a doctor friend. On the other: “I seem to remember, on one endless drive back home in the dark down Route 93, while my wife sat in the front seat and her hair was rhythmically irradiated with light from opposing headlights, patiently masturbating my back-seat neighbor through her ski pants…[W]e smoked pot, wore dashikis and love beads, and frugged ourselves into a lather while the Beatles and Janis Joplin sang away on the hi-fi set.” Simply by writing what was closest to him, Updike began reporting from a great tectonic fault, the American “middle” that might reveal the way the changing culture fit together. It was a writer’s dream: framed correctly in this environment, a theory of self—introspection—could become a theory of America. And that project’s summa was Couples, the book that turned Updike from a successful novelist into a famous one.
Couples began as a 1963 short story rejected by the New Yorker. By the time it appeared as a novel in 1968, it was trying to account for the late-Sixties circus retrospectively—to finger (as it were) the point of no return. The action takes place in 1963 in a Massachusetts town based more or less on Updike’s, and although the plot is thin, the narrative comes thick with the noise of that time and place. (“Bald Freddy Thorne with a glinting moist smirk put on the record. Chubby. Huoff: cummown naioh evvribuddi less Twist!”) The novel introduces us to some ten young couples in constant contact—dinner parties, cocktails, township errands—who, outside this friendly zone, busy themselves with middle-class jobs, kids, and a hearty flux of extramarital affairs. The Saltzes and the Constantines have effectively spouse-swapped, becoming the Saltines in local parlance. Ditto the Applebys and Smiths. Piet Hanema, the closest thing to a protagonist, variously beds Mrs. Constantine and three other friends, not including his wife. The Kennedy assassination comes and goes, a pointed nonevent marked with a party and a bathroom tryst. An abortion is arranged for one wife in exchange for a night with another. The local church burns down in “icy rain.” The novel’s sober endpoint arrives with a set of final reconfigurations: divorce, death, remarriage, moving away.
Couples sold more than 3 million copies in its first year alone, making it Updike’s greatest commercial success and the only of his sixty or so books to top the best-seller list. The promiscuous sex made a splash, of course, but Couples is a libertine novel only at the sentence level. Its characters rest uncomfortably in their “post-Pill paradise”; their headlong rush into this new life comes at the price of stability and—maybe Updike’s greatest horror—loss of shared history. The screwing brings the town together briefly before blasting it apart. The nation as a whole, we’re meant to think, could end up similarly atomized. (Couples and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, another tour de force of 1968, are cut from matching cloths.)
“I wrote Couples, basically, trying to describe a generation for which the various faiths, patriotic and religious, had faded,” Updike has said. To stave off the void, the couples make a cult of one another. The void remains. This sense of being betrayed by oneself and suckered by a changing world runs thick through Updike’s work—and shows up in his own life, too. In a plangent, slightly addled section of his memoirs, Updike tells how he ran afoul of his wife and friends by supporting the Vietnam War. His tone, even some twenty years after the war, seems shrill:
I wanted to keep quiet, but could not. Something about it all made me very sore. I spoke up, blushing and hating my disruption of a post-liberal socio-economic-cultural harmony I was pleased to be a part of. I recall, on Martha’s Vineyard, the puzzled expressions on the faces of Bernard Taper and Philip Roth as I argued on, defending poor Johnson and his pitiful ineffective war machine. In my mind I was beset, defending an underdog, my back to the wall in a world of rabid anti-establishment militants. At one point Roth, in the calm and courteous tone of one who had been through many psychiatric sessions, pointed out to me that I was the most aggressive person in the room.
Updike offers a lot of explanations for his role as a Johnson apologist, some of which are ranty (against bleeding-heart elites and their “guitar-strumming children”), some of which reek of the shrink’s couch (Johnson had been a schoolteacher like his dad), and some of which make no sense (the peace movement was a bastion of androgyny!). The late-’60s seem to have unglued him slightly. Once upon a time, his personal ambivalence had tied him directly into the nervous system of the country; now it left him disconnected. By 1969, after all, the “counterculture” had set roots in mainstream life, shaping new public (and commercial) values. “Give Peace a Chance” was in the Top 20; Updike’s “rarified and chaste” alma mater was in open rebellion; the clouds of the culture wars were gathering. It was time to pick a side.
Not long after Couples came out, Updike fled to England for nine months. When he returned and began writing Rabbit Redux (1971), his effort to curate the crazy later years of the decade, American culture was already starting to renormalize. (The premise of that book: Rabbit, separated from his wife, ends up in a shaggy ménage that includes his 12-year-old son, an 18-year-old runaway—Rabbit’s latest conquest—and a drug dealer who makes them read Black Power tracts.) There’s a consensus that Redux is the least graceful of the Rabbit books, and this is not entirely surprising. Updike was, by then, pitching his tent in hostile territory, trying to bring to life a world that had grown wild and overblown compared with the upheaval he’d uncovered close to home in Couples.
He never quite got back to that special place. As the ’70s wore on, Updike seemed to lose track of some of the checks and balances that had kept his early work so vigorous. His early stories were written in a trim, Salingeresque tone, but after the publication of his first few novels, reviewers began referring to “the famous style,” and generally this was not intended as a term of endearment. (Norman Mailer notoriously said that Updike’s writing put him in mind of stale garlic.) In a novel like Couples, any overwriting seemed forgivable. The urgency and artistic freshness were there, and readers (3 million of them) didn’t mind hacking through a few overgrown set pieces to get to the next cocktail party. In a book without the newsy edge and focus, though, the prose could be distracting—especially because Updike seemed more and more inclined to use “the famous style” to make up for the lack of a resonant topic. By the Nineties, it was a jungle in there:
She led him to a spiral staircase, of metal painted a dusty pink, that led to the second floor. Her body as it twistingly ascended above him was broken into many foreshortened slices, triangles of flesh flickering half-eclipsed among the triangles of the spiral stairs. Trailing a finger experimentally along the railing, as if along the surface of water, Isabel moved down the corridor suspended here at the height of the snaky-armed chandelier, and thence to a room that was hers, still full of girlhood’s stuffed animals, with posters on the wall of long-haired singers from England. The pressure on Tristão’s lungs here seemed less thunderous, as if between these childish walls the wind of money did not blow so fiercely. The little pale pieces of Isabel’s bathing suit came off with a shrug and a squirm, a casual accustomed dance of her slender body, done with a half-defiant, half-questioning smirk on her brave monkey face.
This, from the 1994 novel Brazil, bears all the signatures of Updike’s worst late style—the details and descriptors crammed everywhere they can fit, the baffling inversions (“Her body as it twistingly ascended”), the musty diction (“thence”), the Mad Libs figurative language (“the wind of money”), and the obfuscation of an everyday sight (a girl climbing stairs). Updike may be trying to do with a woman on a staircase something like what Marcel Duchamp attempted with paint, and yet the overall effect seems backward in every sense, more affected than revelatory. (A sneak peek at the couple’s second-floor adventures: Tristão’s “cashew” becomes “a banana, and then a rippled yam,” and he admires her “seesawing buttocks”; she, for her part, is much taken with his “glans, like a violet heart ripped from a creature the size of a rabbit.”) Only in the Rabbit novels, with their colloquial present tense, could Updike escape “the famous style”; and it’s surely no coincidence that they are some of the most vivid and best-written volumes of his career.
Starting in the ’70s, Updike’s fiction began ranging wildly afield, scouring the globe for the cultural relevance that had carried him from Rabbit, Run to Couples. Brazil is set in a country he visited only briefly. His 1978 novel The Coup stakes out similarly far-flung territory, a fictional African republic, and attempts to hammer one more nail into the coffin of late-’60s politics through a sendup of ideological zeal and institutional failure. Updike’s short fiction started claiming new ground even in the ’60s; the ’70s brought stories set in Ethiopia and Roman Carthage.
Meanwhile, he kept writing sequels to his own early successes and remakes of literary classics—here was Updike in conservative mode, trying to draw more goodness from what was known to be good. Sometimes it worked. Rabbit served as the protagonist of four brilliant novels and an odd novella; Updike’s Jewish alter ego Henry Bech yielded three farcical and often excellent story collections. Updike reimagined The Scarlet Letter three separate times in A Month of Sundays, S., and Roger’s Version, a thematic trilogy that reached from the Seventies into the Eighties. Brazil is a spinoff of Tristan and Isolde. In recent years, he worked up Gertrude and Claudius from Hamlet and conjured Seek My Face by turning Abstract Expressionist society à clef. Last year, he tapped his 1984 book The Witches of Eastwick for a sequel. The imaginative stamina here is impressive, and some of these follow-ups exceeded their originals. Yet there is something almost desperate about a creative artist systematically doubling back over his favorite books, squeezing out a few last drops of juice.
His later reports from the front have a spottier record. The sui generis, native-ground books often make their author seem like a sad Miss Havisham, setting the table in the old way in the hope the splendid ghosts will come again. They rarely do. From Marry Me in the mid-Seventies to the surreal navel-gazing of Toward the End of Time in the nineties, Updike persisted in writing about “his generation” and its lustful exploits in beachy New England. The storm had moved on, though. Those books were miles from the zeitgeist when they appeared, and already they are buried near the bottom of the Updike pile.
In terms of reputation, the size of that pile may be Updike’s asset and his curse. The number of high notes he hit over the past half-century is nearly unrivaled. Even the late work offers gems, and perhaps he needed to work through piles of dross to find them. But why put the dross on display? Why turn out a book a year even after generating more than any bookstore can hold and any normal human wants to read from a single author? He liked to stay in print, he said. By the end of his life, he was making sure every scrap of prose that ran under his byline, down to single paragraphs for supermarket magazines, was subsequently collected in hardcover. It’s as if he was trying to claim his place in the canon by closing out his posthumous, exhaustive editions while still alive.
Or was he striving for the opposite effect? There’s something baldly hacklike about the book-a-year commitment—something disinterested and transparent, too, in making all your work available to readers, as if the Updike introduction to a set of Magnum photos might, somehow, become an informative artifact. These aren’t the behaviors of a belletrist. They’re the accountability of a reporter—someone who thinks there’s value in getting the thing down, mailing it off on schedule, and putting it in the permanent record. Many of Updike’s reviews drift eagerly into the first person, as if stories from the author’s life could be illuminating rather than just anecdotal. There was still “news” there, Updike seemed to think (or hope), worth getting down while he still could.
There seldom was, in the cultural sense. But occasionally better things appeared. Updike found something of a second wind in the late ’70s and early ’80s, around the time he divorced, and although this fiction lacks the cultural resonance of the ’60s work, the stories of this era are the sharpest and most candid he ever wrote. In the 1974 “Gesturing,” which Updike selected for his own Best American Short Stories of the Century, Richard Maple, newly separated and living alone in Boston (as Updike was at the time), shifts awkwardly between his wife and his new lover, confiding worries about each woman to the other. His new mistress enthralls him, he tells his wife over dinner, yet “she’s not real to me, the way—you are.” That realness boils down to common history. “[T]hese lovers, however we love them, are not us, are not sacred as reality is sacred,” Richard’s wife thinks. “We are reality. We have made children. We gave each other our young bodies.”
The stakes here are familiar. The “sacred” history; the mistress, alluring yet not entirely satisfying; Richard’s ambivalence: this is the cultural anxiety of Updike’s best Sixties work, shrunken down to the dimensions of a single private life. Stories like this one, “Separating,” and “Problems” are tales of a man trying to navigate a new, suddenly freer existence. There’s no cultural “news” here; and yet watching Richard Maple break his kids’ hearts across the dinner table is, somehow, no less urgent or powerfully incisive. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. A writer’s keenest subjects, whether national or private, are the terrors he knows best.