Fighting Words

Farewell to a Much-Misunderstood Man

John Updike preferred to be wrong on account of the right reservations than right because of the wrong ones.

John Updike

Most of the celebrations and elegies for the great John Updike were abysmally bland, praising him as the bard and chronicler of the great American middle (middle-class, middle-minded, and so forth). One obituarist got it more nearly right, saying that Updike seemed like a paragon of the bourgeoisie to some while appearing as a worrying outrider of sexual liberation and subversion to others. A lot depends on how you first come upon an author—at my English boys boarding school in the 1960s, a copy of one of the early Rabbit works (Rabbit, Run) was passed around the dormitory with its covers ripped off as a “hot stuff” illicit text. To this day, I hardly dare go and look it up, but at one point “she” was apparently acting as if she wanted to turn herself inside out, while “he” could feel something like the inside of a “velvet slipper.” Oh, sweet Jesus, what was all this? I burned and yearned to know, just as Alexander Portnoy might have done, and was amazed later to discover that both Updike and Philip Roth were considered to be literature in the United States.

Another apparent obstacle in the way of a full appreciation of Updike was his unabashedly WASP-like stance and character. This was never more awkwardly on show than in his much-neglected essay “On Not Being a Dove,” which at first glance makes him the least ‘60s person on record, even while trying—always the worst combination—slightly too hard to be hip:

I went to meetings and contributed to the NAACP and even lent a black man we slightly knew some money that he never repaid—I was all for people getting a break, if the expense to me wasn’t inordinate.

This wasn’t the way that most people chose to remember that decade, and Updike had landed himself, in addition, with the almost one-man commitment among the literati of being a supporter of the Johnson administration in Vietnam. The essay bears rereading today because, even if it doesn’t contain any reasoned defense of the war itself, it does in a mild but brave and ultimately irreducible way insist that the United States is superior to its enemies, both foreign and domestic, and can therefore still be right even when it is in the wrong. (Asked how a “writer” should take a side on the war, Updike at first wished to say that the opinions of writers were of no more value than any other, yet ended by saying that “in my own case at least I feel my professional need for freedom of speech and expression prejudices me toward a government whose constitution guarantees it.” So, either don’t try to conscript writers, or don’t mess with writers who can use understatement to such effect.

On the sole occasion that he and I met properly and had an interview and a conversation, I was mainly interested in the “race” question. Updike had just published Brazil, his first step outside the boundaries of the United States since The Coup in 1978. Both novels dwelt upon exoticism and miscegenation, and the former had seemed to me when I first read it to contain a hint of prescience about the burgeoning Islamist loathing for America. (Read, if you will, the windy and scary diatribes of Updike’s Hakim Ellellou, theocratic and military dictator of the land of Kush. They seem to raise the curtain on future screeds.)

Well, said Updike, with his usual and indeed as far as we know utterly unfailing geniality. His opinions on all such matters had undergone a bit of an update since 1978, and indeed since 1968. Of course he wasn’t really a WASP to begin with—there can’t be a more essentially Dutch name than Updike—but he added with typical diffidence that two of his children had married Africans and that he now had some genuinely “African-American” grandchildren. He appeared highly diverted and pleased by this thought, and I notice that the first edition of his memoir Self-Consciousness, containing that original anti-’60s essay, is dedicated “To my grandsons John Abloff Cobblah and Michael Kwame Ntiri Cobblah.” These names, which I would guess to be Ashanti/Ghanaian, make one wonder if President Barack Obama missed an opportunity, and we all missed an experience, in not inviting the whole Updike clan to be present while one of the country’s finest writers could still give us an “invocation.”

Perhaps Updike was too ill by then. And something seemed to have gone wrong with his confidence toward the end. His 2006 novel, Terrorist,was a failure of nerve as well as a failure of style, making an absolute hash of the profile of a supposedly “home-grown” suicide-murderer in New Jersey. And his all-important “Talk of the Town” piece for TheNew Yorkerabout Sept. 11, 2001 (not reprinted by the magazine, I noticed, in its memorial salad of his best contributions this week), came as close as making no difference to saying that this assault on our civil society was not an event that was really worth fighting over. How incongruous of him, after maintaining for so long that Vietnam was a just war, to be so wavering and so neutral when a true crisis came along. And yet perhaps not so incongruous for a man of wry and reserved delicacy and elegance who would prefer very slightly to be wrong on account of the right reservations than right because of the wrong ones.