Reader responds to National Review appraisal of Updike’s first four novels

In the May 20, 2019 National Review, Peter Tonguette wrote a review of the Library of America release of John Updike’s first four novels that wasn’t terribly positive. Dean Bevan, Professor Emeritus of English at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., responded with a letter to the editor (excerpted here):

“Mr. Tonguette capably examines the Library of America’s volume containing Updike’s first four novels and rightly questions some of the quirks in his early writing. But the review leaves the reader with an unbalanced and somewhat unfair impression of Mr. Updike, focusing on the growing pains of his early career (‘written in a windy, pretentious style’) and including such statements as ‘He thought of himself as a man of the Left.’

“I can’t answer for how John Updike thought of himself, but I can say, after reading and teaching his novels for several decades, that he was without question one of our country’s most conservative writers of fiction, and its best. He questions the views and the avatars of the Left and admires conservative ideas, in novel after novel, and it is likely that he was denied the Nobel Prize because of this (as he guessed), while lesser but more progressive talents received it.

“As the reviewer observes, Updike took ‘the measure of the world as it really was.’ Himself a painter, he once observed that the most important painter of the 20th century was Norman Rockwell, because he followed the tradition of the masters in representing life as it was lived in his own time. How unwoke is that? And it would seem that Updike meant to do the same thing in his writing. . . . America has had relatively few conservative writers—T.S. Eliot comes to mind—and we should celebrate the great ones we have had, such as John Updike.”

Included with the letter’s publication is a response from Tonguette, who says “I agree with Mr. Bevan’s characterization of John Updike as one of the great contemporary conservative writers.”

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