Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A note on the reactions to the death of John Updike (R.I.P.)

This isn't really about John Updike, may he rest in peace, but about the descriptions of John Updike on the radio.

I found myself yelling at the radio this morning. Yes, me, yelling at my blessed NPR shows in the car on the short drive to work.

Updike was a great writer, no doubt about it, and an art critic and thinker and many other things. So this isn't a dissing of Updike.

What is getting to me is how everyone is speaking of him as a writer about (the United States of) America, American post-war life, the American middle.

Excuse me?!

Updike wrote about white American post-war life.

Of course, he wrote about other things too. I have had his novel about a fictional African country, The Coup, on my shelf for years and have been meaning to read it, and I will read it in memory of him. Updike was, as one critic said, kaleidoscopic.

But Rabbit is not (the U.S. of) America.

Is Rabbit a part of it? Of course. A significant part of it? Of course. The whole story? No. "Representative" (of the whole story)? No.

We are so (as the kids would say) not out of the era of white privilege.

If we're going to name the fact that people are chroniclers of Jewish life or Black life in these United States, then let's name the fact that people are chroniclers of White or White Protestant life in the United States. (Or, for that matter, of the U.S. white middle class, or of middle-class Northern men.)

Either that or I want the obits for Toni Morrison (long may she live and continue to write) to say as much as the obits for Updike that she wrote the Great American Novel.

'Cause if you think that slavery and its aftermath or love and work in Harlem or the U.S. South have not been as American as apple pie and as the life of suburban white businessmen, you are still thinking of white America as normative --as the rule, the standard, the "normal"-- and the rest of these United States as the exception or the other.

White privilege is not just present in what we do or in what happens to us, but in how we think and how we speak. *

Think about it.

*See, for instance, re: the American novel, item 7 in the list on the document at the "white privilege" link above.


Ken said...

Part of this is that there IS no American Novel, great or otherwise. The country is too polyanything for anyone to make a claim that John Updike spoke for anyone but rich white guys. In that sense, I too have the dreaded White Privilege but I sure as hell never had the Rich part. Which sets me apart, and which makes me rant myself about how this issue is at least as much about class as about race.

Maybe I was a WASP wannabe. Or a rich wannabe. Oh well. The best laid plans....

John Cheever also was one of the great documentors of Rich White Guys, though some of his early stories are evocations of barrenness and--oh well--sexism. Cheever, as we know, had a few "issues."

Jewish novel. Black novel. WASP novel. The country is too damn big to be one thing or t'other. If critics are stupid enough (as I'm sure they are) to call Updike a spokesman for anything it should be for what happens in Greenwich, Connecticut.

What I find strange is that I remember with great love the first thing by Updike I ever read, a story called "The Happiest I've Been." It had nothing to do with me, white Jewboy growing up shit-broke in the Bronx. The story was not for me about "classpiration," if I may coin a phrase--it was really about a quality of tenderness and beauty that had nothing to do with the demographics of the people in the story. I don't remember being aware of the class or color of the people involved; I just remember how damned beautifully the man wrote.

Plug: the most balanced portrait of mid-century America that I've ever read is an altogether gross and vulgar novel by the late Hubert Selby, Jr. It's called Last Exit To Brooklyn. It is really a novel about life among the working poor, and far from idealizing or celebrating them, it grieves, celebrates, and repulses all at once, and no race or ethnic group gets out "alive." But Selby was not genteel. He wrote about people who behaved like animals, and he did not judge by pointing and saying "See what capitalism brings!" He didn't have to. You get the idea PDQ.

As for Updike...he was wonderful but nobody is the whole story. Even Selby.

pj said...

Thing is, the American lit-crit establishment is still full of old white guys. They haven't caught up to the rest of us yet, and Updike is their boy. (Just wait until f*ckin' Philp Roth dies. Ugh.)

I slogged through the Rabbit books a few years back, for which I would like to be commended, because while the first book was merely miserable, the last one was suicide-inducing. No hope, no redemption in sight for any of those characters. (Although I do remember Rabbit's sister describing the color of her hair as Protestant-Rat, which is pretty cute. This was shortly before she became -- for no apparent reason -- a prostitute.)

Even so, he wrote beautifully. What are you gonna do.

pj said...

Also, as Ken wisely points out, there is no One Great American Novel. Anyone can write a Great American Novel, if they're American and if they get off-line long enough to do some work. ;)

Jane R said...

Amen to both of you. Thanks for the good comments.

I have to go work on course website stuff. At least it's online ;-).

Grandmère Mimi said...

Jane, it's a wonderful rant. You left out the Northeastern coast in your description of Updike. The elite-East-Coast-is-America meme is so worn out that it is worthy only of ridicule. If writers are from the South, their works are labeled the great southern novel, not the great American novel.

I read more of Updike in the New Yorker than anywhere else. His stories were better than all but a few of his novels, IMHO, and his contributions to the "Talk of the Town" were quite good.

Jane R said...

There was a little thing on Northern men in parentheses, Mimi, though I added it about two minutes after first posting the rant. Wasn't quite Northeastern, and I really should have said Northeastern rather than Northern, but we're thinking along the same lines. You're exactly right: how would a Southern novel be less representative than a New England one? (I've now lived in both regions, so I don't just know them in literature.)

He was a fine writer. As I said, this isn't about him as much as about his interpreters, and that includes not just the high lit crit folks but anyone who describes him.

It is suddenly pouring in Greensboro. We had a little drizzle the first half of the day and now whomp! Maybe this is a piece of the big weather system that has been whooshing around the North.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Jane, I missed that. My apology, but Northeast would have been better. ;o)

Jack said...

The New Yorker had a great piece about Updike on the radio, literally -- a scene from an early novel where a character was driving along listening to music and commercials. One of hte things that struck me, and I thought about it again reading your post, was how many of the artists were African-American.

Jane R said...

Thanks, Jack. The scene didn't do much for me, but I appreciate knowing about the piece, and I will look for more remembrances and excerpts at that site when I have time.

Ken said...

Another thought. Someone mentioned Philip Roth. Besides being a local boy (Weequahic HS, Newark, NJ, 1950), he has gone through a visible and skeletal-visible series of style changes since 1959 when he published Goodbye, Columbus. It's impossible to keep up with him. My last exposure to Roth has been The Dying Animal, about an aging professorial wolf surrounded by ever-young female students; and American Pastoral, really a myth about suburbia as it's literally exploded by disability and the radicalism of the late 1960s.

The body of work is prodigious. It's also uneven. The Breast was awful. At his best, however, he is magnificent. I have been waiting for him to win the Nobel. I get the feeling I'm going to be waiting a long time. America is long out of favor with the ever-politicized Nobel Academy, and I frankly am not sure what part Roth's Jewishness plays in decisions to include or exclude him. For me, however, he is indispensable.

So it goes, as Vonnegut said.

Padre Mickey said...

I don't read that many estadoünidense writers with any regularity. I did read Roth's The Plot Against America a couple of weeks ago and I enjoyed it.

I think the best writers in the English language at present are from India, especially Rushdie. I love the way he plays with English and Hindi and Urdu and Latin and other indo-european languages.