Sixties’ reviewer compares Rabbit to Holden Caulfield

Reading early reviews of now-acclaimed novels is always a fun pastime, and Literary Hub tickled readers with reprinted excerpts from David Boroff’s Nov. 6, 1960 New York Times review of Rabbit, Run, along with a cheerily tawdry cover of a reprint edition of the novel:

“At the beginning of this moving and often brilliant novel, ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom quietly watches a group of boys playing basketball. Then, shedding his coat, he joins them at play, demonstrating superbly the virtuosity that eight years earlier had made him the star of his high school team. This opening defines the mood of nostalgia and unquiet adulthood that characterizes John Updike’s Rabbit, Run.

“Rabbit is an older and less articulate Holden Caulfield. An urban cipher, he is trapped by wife, baby, an uncongenial job as demonstrator for a new kitchen utensil.

“‘You get the feeling,’ he says, ‘you’re in your coffin before they’ve taken your blood.’ Like his younger prototype, he is an uneasy picaresque hero who discovers you can run but cannot really flee. And in back of all the restlessness there is an unslaked thirst for spiritual truth.”

“This is the stuff of shabby domestic tragedy—and Mr. Updike spares the reader none of the spiritual poverty of the milieu. The old people are listless and defeated, the young noisily empty. The novel, nevertheless, is a notable triumph of intelligence and compassion; it has none of the glib condescension that spoils so many books of this type. The characters have an imposing complexity.”

“The author’s style is particularly impressive: artful and supple, its brilliance is belied by its relaxed rhythms. Mr. Updike has a knack of tilting his observations just a little, so that even a commonplace phrase catches the light. The prose is that rarest of achievements: a perfectly pitched voice for the subject.

“The treatment of sex commands our attention. For Rabbit, its expression is the final measure of the quality of experience. The author is utterly explicit in his portrayal of Rabbit’s divagations—but the description is as seemly as it is candid, for Mr. Updike is primarily interested in the psychic underside of sexuality. Nevertheless, there are some not easily-ignored footnotes about the erotic sophistication of the post-war generation that will shock the prudish.

Rabbit, Run is a tender and discerning study of the desperate and the hungering in our midst. A modest work, it points to a talent of large dimensions—already proved in the author’s New Yorker stories, and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair. John Updike, still only 28 years old, is a man to watch.”

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NY Times book critics put 2021 in the rear view mirror

It has come to our attention that an end-of-year article, “Times Critics Discuss 2021 in Books, From Breakout Stars to Cover Blurbs,” managed to invoke John Updike in the process. Dwight Garner, Alexandra Jacobs, Jennifer Szalai, and Molly Young were asked questions about the book scene. Here’s one exchange:

“Molly and Alexandra, you both started as book critics for The Times in September. Any all-time favorite books of criticism that you would recommend people delve into over the holidays?

“JACOBS: John Updike’s Hugging the Shore and Odd Jobs are the bookends of my Updike Shelf (about which, another time). Here was someone who didn’t have to review or consider his contemporaries or predecessors, and yet industriously, prolifically did. What generosity.

“YOUNG: Martin Amis’s collection The War Against Cliché. His flow is insane.

“JACOBS: Wait, I meant to say that! Well, Amis has written about Updike and Updike about Martin’s father, Kingsley, so maybe this is a male literary turkucken . . . . “

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Reader’s Digest picks Updike commentary as a most memorable

One hundred years ago, in 1922, Reader’s Digest began publishing a general-interest family magazine that balanced original content with reprints of some of the best stories from other publications. Known for a popular feature on readers’ “most memorable characters” in their lives, the magazine put a spin on that and recently published a list of “32 of the Most Memorable Reader’s Digest Stories Ever; A look at the significant, memorable, and prescient articles and authors from 100 years of Reader’s Digest Updike made the cut.

Reader’s Digest‘s Caroline Fanning writes, “The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner frequently graced our pages. In February 1997, we republished ‘Paranoid Packaging’ from the New Yorker, sharing Updike’s commentary on one of America’s most vexing issues: how increasingly hard it is to open things. ‘All this time, childproof pill bottles had been imperceptibly toughening and complicating, to the point where only children had the patience and eyesight to open them.’”

Happy 100th!

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Stutterer’s story invokes Updike’s

Amy Reardon wrote a personal essay about her stuttering that can help illuminate the world of other stutterers—including one she invokes: John Updike.

In an essay called “Stuck” written for’s “The Believer Logger,” Reardon begins by describing a moment of verbal paralysis that strikes her in a business setting at the age of 29.

Reardon continues, “John Updike attributed his stuttering to a ‘deep doubt’ in the ‘dead center of one’s being.’ In his memoir Self-Consciousness, he elaborated, ‘It happens when I feel myself in a false position.’ Updike listed all the situations that made him stutter. When he felt ‘in the wrong.’ When he was with ‘people of evident refinement or distinction.’ In the presence of law enforcement. In the company of men. And last, total heartbreak, what happened to his ability to speak to his children when he divorced their mother and moved away. He’d always been fluent with them before, he wrote, but now, ‘their cheerful unblaming voices over the phone… summoned into my presence now by appointment and invitation, put a stopper in my throat.’”

Reardon talks about two types of stutterers—”baby” stutterers who are repeaters, and those who are “so pained by our struggle that we swallow the repetition and fight silently. When I’m blocked, my lips are sealed, trembling from the pressure inside. This creates long, awkward silences.”

Later, Reardon returns to Updike in describing an interview opportunity with a legendary comedian: “I prepared my questions, pulled my best reporter buddy into the one office at the paper with a phone and dialed. My old enemy loomed. I started bravely because I never know if the words will pass, and often they do. But feeling unworthy in the face of celebrity (remember Updike’s false position) my throat seized wildly. By question three, I could not squeeze out a word. I handed the phone to my friend and pointed to my notebook. She read the questions into the phone, and together we listened, one ear each at the receiver while I took notes. After it was over, we giggled. We both got to interview Bob Hope, and he never noticed. Yay.”

Read the whole essay.

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An Alberta professor on Circling Around and With Rabbit, Run

We have stumbled across a new critical essay (emphasis on the critical)—“Nights of the Lepus: Circling around and with Rabbit, Run by John Updike”—by Alberta University of the Arts professor Christopher Willard. It begins,

“In an early review of Rabbit, Run David Boroff of The New York Times  wrote, “The author’s style is particularly impressive; artful and supple, its brilliance is belied by its relaxed rhythms. Mr. Updike has a knack of tilting his observations just a little, so that even a commonplace phrase catches the light. The prose is that rarest of achievements—perfectly pitched voice for the subject” (Boroff, 1960). But Updike’s noticing and skewing of details is by far less than the  whole of his novel, although this   is the aspect upon which many critics dwell. Updike can recognizably follow Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell it slant” but just as frequently his relaxed rhythms and details are neither here—furthering the story along with necessary thoughts by Rabbit, nor there—lapsing into a full stream of consciousness carried by linguistic brilliance as found for example in Durrell’s  Alexandria Quartet.

“The tension inherent in allowing passages to hover in a middle space without commitment to one or the other intent is at times frustrating but that said, Updike deserves praise for a masterwork in free indirect discourse of which in my view we can never have enough examples. Then again, flip side, at his blandest, Updike comes off like the Alex Katz of writing, the darling of those who prefer style like warm Cheez Whiz so it oozes down their throats without too much conscious swallowing.”

Clearly not a fan, Willard, who was born in Maine and has written several works of fiction himself, concludes,

“Elevating the mundane is an art, Robbe-Grillet comes to mind or Céline, and then a whole host of stream of consciousness novels flow into this river. Updike never went to these places in  Rabbit, Run. When his writing tends toward a stream of consciousness, he engages the damper.  When the writing starts getting too internal he brings it back to the detail. He never wants, it seems, to let the writing take him where it might or must take him, instead he continually forces it back to the method, and it’s a strong method, although his reliance on it could earn him the nickname ‘The Stephen King of a Great Literary Modernism.’ I think too of the band Boston,  with a groundbreaking first album and a remainder of an oeuvre comprised of pastiche, or of Jackson Pollock who ended up doing parodies of Pollocks where the flame of unadulterated engagement between one’s soul and the world seems cast off for method and form.”

A few examples to back up the claims would have been nice.

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Ten years ago: Guardian names 10 best museum writing

Here’s an interesting anniversary. Ten years (plus three days) later, this reader’s list surfaced in an Updike search: “John Mullan’s 10 of the best: museums.”

John Keats is here: “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles for the First Time” at the British Museum.

So is Henry James’ short story “Julia Bride,” which opens on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum.

Thomas Hardy’s poem “In the British Museum” also makes the cut, as does J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (Holden Caufield visits the Natural History Museum in New York City). P.D. James’ The Murder Room (set in a small, family-owned museum on the edge of Hampstead Heath), Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife (with its visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford), Anthony Horowitz’s Scorpia Rising (again at the British Museum), A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (which opens at the South Kensington Museum), China Miéville’s Kraken (and the squid at the British Museum of Natural History), AND . . .

John Updike’s “Museums and Women,” the title story from Museums and Women and Other Stories (1972): “Updike’s story features a man who has always associated museum visits with his attachment to women – from his mother, to the girl with whom he shared school trips, to his wife, whom he met in a university museum. When he has an affair, it is with a woman who works in a museum, and they visit the Frick and the Guggenheim together.”

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What author cracks up Jerry Seinfeld? Would you believe John Updike?

An interview with comedian Jerry Seinfeld that originally appeared as a New York Times “By the Book” interview turned up on a number of sites, including a blog by Jack Limpert, editor of The Washingtonian for more than 40 years. Here are some of the exchanges:

Asked if he reads much fiction, Seinfeld said, “When I used to read more, I really loved John Updike and John Irving. Updike, to me, was insane. I love microscopic acuity and I thought he was untouchable in that: the fineness, and the smallness of things that he would describe so well.

What was the last book that made him laugh?

“I don’t really laugh reading books,” Seinfeld said. “It’s pretty hard to laugh when you’re reading—the written word is tough. I mean, the Updike stuff is funny to me. You know, describing the circles of water under someone’s toes when they get out of the pool. That makes me laugh more than anything, that he would zero in on that.”

Which three writers, dead or alive, would he invite to a literary dinner party?

“Well, Updike I mentioned. I think David Halberstam would be a great dinner guest. And I’m into this Marx Brothers thing now, so I would like to sit with this guy [Robert] Bader for dinner. And Lincoln! I consider him to be a great writer.”

What does he plan to read next?

“I’m out of stuff, but along the same lines as John Updike I might give Nicholson Baker a shot.”

Read the whole interview.

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Happy Magazine includes Updike on its list of best erotic novels

Some of the titles on this list by Ria Pandey are actually short story collections, but no matter: here are 34 of the most titillating erotic works of fiction, according to the author. Updike’s Couples made the cut, but many Updike fans might be thinking Rabbit Is Rich worthy of the list as well.

Some of Updike’s plain-brown-wrapper company:

Lady Chatterley’s Lover—D.H. Lawrence
The Tropic of Cancer—Henry Miller
Story of O—Anne Desclos/Pauline Réage
Emmanuelle—Emmanuelle Arsan
Portnoy’s Complaint—Philip Roth
Delta of Venus—Anaïs Nin
The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty—Anne Rice
Lust and Other Stories—Susan Minot
Vox—Nicholson Baker
The Thorn Birds—Colleen McCullough
The Sexual Life of Catherine M.—Catherine Millet

Of Couples, Pandey writes, “Couples details the lives of ten married couples living in a New England community who create a sex cult. While it sounds simple on the surface level, Couples embarks on an intense emotional and psychological meditation on the nature of love, sex, and commitment. A review by Time describes the events of the novel as such: “Trapped in their cozy catacombs, the couples have made sex by turns their toy, their glue, their trauma, their therapy, their hope, their frustration, their revenge, their narcotic, their main line of communication and their sole and pitiable shield against the awareness of death.”

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Plowville spotlighted in Reading Eagle history feature

“Plowville” to an Updike fan calls to mind the image of 13-year-old John in the back of the family Buick looking out of the rear window at his beloved dogwood tree and house at 117 Philadelphia Avenue receding into the distance, both spatially and temporally.

Plowville is big part of the Updike story, and readers might want to check out the historical feature on Plowville that Susan Miers Smith wrote for the Reading Eagle in January 2022: “Berks Place: Plowville a slice of Americana in Robeson Township; The village grew up around a well-known hotel on Route 10.”

Smith writes, “The cemetery is also the final resting spot of Linda Grace Hoyer Updike and Wesley Russell Updike, the parents of author John Updike. Linda Updike was born in and died in a Plowville farmhouse nearby.” That farmhouse was prominently featured in Updike’s early novel Of the Farm, in which a writer returns to visit his parents and introduce to them his second wife—with tensions between wife and mother creating much of the drama.

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When it comes to fatherhood, writer says Rabbit is no model

With another Father’s Day in the rear-view mirror, if anyone contemplated what makes a good dad, chances are Harry Angstrom didn’t come up in conversation as an exemplar. He certainly didn’t in Oliver Munday’s personal essay on “The Book That Captures My Life as a Dad,” which appeared in The Atlantic, June 17, 2022. That honor was reserved for Abbott, the professor-dad hero of Chris Bachelder’s novel Abbott Awaits. Abbott, the father of a two year old, husband of a pregnant insomniac, and “confused owner of a terrified dog,” doesn’t run. He somehow “endures the beauty and hopelessness of each moment, often while contemplating evolutionary history, altruism, or the passage of time.”

Munday writes, “Many dad books are presented as guides, memoirs, or clever manuals; and though most have useful advice, they rarely succeed in rising above their function. Early fatherhood, when portrayed in literature, is often similarly practical: serving to color the characters, plot, and themes, but rarely warranting a sustained look. Take John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, which charts the struggle of a restless young father who abandons his family. By the time Rabbit returns home, later in the novel, the chances of him proving himself as a father are tragically lost. All of which is to say: Fathering, as depicted in these books, is usually not artful, subtle, or consoling. Abbott Awaits is the antidote.”

Yes, but how’s his golf game?

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