Updike’s take on Jong’s Fear of Flying

As part of their feminist classics series which looks at influential books, The Conversation featured an article on “Sex, zips and feminism: Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying has a joyful abandon rarely found in today’s sad girl novels” in which John Updike was quoted.

“Interestingly though, another male writer, John Updike, helped Jong’s rise up the bestseller list. Even so, his compliments can read as backhanded as Goodlove’s:

It has class and sass, brightness and bite. Containing all the cracked eggs of the feminist litany, her soufflé rises with a poet’s afflatus. She sprinkles on the four-letter words as if women had invented them; her cheerful sexual frankness brings a new flavor to female prose.

“Updike favourably links Jong with great male writers J.D. Salinger and Philip Roth, while carefully distinguishing her from the more disagreeable women’s liberationists:

Fear of Flying not only stands as a notably luxuriant and glowing bloom in the sometimes thistly garden of ‘raised’ feminine consciousness but belongs to, and hilariously extends, the tradition of Catcher in the Rye and Portnoy’s Complaint.

“Pull quotes from Updike’s review featured on the novel’s second edition (the one I have been reading), along with a new cover: a luscious 70s serif typeface in black and orange on a yellow background that blatantly copies the 1969 cover of Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.”

New Yorker Cartoonists note Updike-Roth connection

Ink Spill: New Yorker Cartoonists News, History, and Events posted an October 14, 2023 item about the “Roth Art on Updike’s Desk”:

“When I interviewed Arnold Roth in 2016, we spoke about the cover art he provided for John Updike’s Bech series. Last night I cam across this 1983 Time Magazine ad and was pleased to spot a stack of Arnie’s Bech Is Back art on Updike’s desk.

“On the top of the pile is what looks to be a proof, and just below it, looks very much like original art (Updike had all three Roth Bech cover originals in his collection).”

See photos and read more.

Imaginative Conservative writer contemplates ‘wokeness’ and Updike

In “John Updike’s ‘In the Beauty of the Lilies’: The Children” (The Imaginative Conservative, Aug. 19, 2023), Daniel J. Sundahl began with two quotes from Updike:

“As to critics, it seems to be my fate to disappoint my theological friends by not being Christian enough, while I’m too Christian for Harold Bloom’s blessing. So be it,” and “The mature and well-balanced man, standing firmly with both feet on the earth, who has never been blamed and broken and half-blinded by the scandal of life, is such the existentially godless man.”

Mid-way through his essay, Sundahl remarked, “Of course there’s religion and then there’s religion and there are books and there are dirty books. . . which raises the question: Can one write about life, even life’s carnality and concupiscence, while maintaining Christian aspects?” He also, of course, attempted to answer his own question in a classical, meandering way, prompted by the last words (“the children”) of Updike’s novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies.

“I became fond over the years of the many contradictions regarding parents’ expectations about religion and literature, which included a smallish broo ha ha with a fundamentalist father when he learned his daughter would be reading a John Updike novel in an upper division American Literature course devoted to American Contemporary Fiction—the father arguing that although he had never read Updike he believed him scandalous and a writer of titillating, stylized pornography. Those are my words not his . . . which was singular: ‘dirty.’

“And he has a point and a good one, and I am not without empathy. As with many writers whose personal life and writings own a certain kind of ‘smudginess,’ greasy fingers on the pages, Updike is no exception. His embrace of realism as an artistic criterion (often concerning the breakdown of a marriage) is often passé these days and with gray humor. One question that emerges is whether a narrative Updike presents to his readers is a full and authentic report of human experience, which includes the particulars of the times and places of the narrative’s action, which would argue that Updike is a formal realist. Like his characters, he also put himself through many personal hardships. He had faults, and they were ‘smudgy’ and blurred.”

Read the whole essay.

Keillor on leaving home, mementos, and Updike

Keillor at the 2016 Updike conference with society president James Plath

The New Hampshire Union Leader recently published “Garrison Keillor: The art of leaving home.” Keillor, who was the keynote speaker at the 4th Biennial John Updike Society Conference in Columbia, S.C., wrote, “The pleasure of moving is the excavation of the past. I open a box and here’s a photo of my fifth-grade class, the eager neatly-combed-and-dressed boy with glassing sitting behind John Poate is me. I am still that eager boy, heavier but anxious to do well.”

Keillor wrote that he kept “artifacts of a long life. . . . I kept all these and other souvenirs. I never listened to the show [A Prairie Home Companion] myself and I have no memorabilia from it. It would only give me remorse that the show wasn’t better than it was. John Updike told me once that he rather enjoyed reading his early work but then he was a naturally cheerful man, rare for an author. Critics resented him for that and gave him grudging reviews; they preferred writers who had suffered, been imprisoned, exiled, or at least had abusive fathers. John was too American. There wasn’t much Russian or Spanish about him. He wrote because he was good at it and he knew it.

“And now in my old age I’ve found useful work as a stand-up cheerleader for adult cheerfulness, the basic goodness of life, a counter-voice to the diversity cops and agony aunts who’ve taken over publishing, journalism, public radio and TV, and much of academia. DeSantis’s anti-woke campaign is stupidity on toast; the real problem with MacWoke is its penchant for dismal pessimism, its humorlessness. I grew up with fundamentalists who looked forward to the end of the world and now progressives do too.”

In a March 13, 2024 column for the New Hampshire Union Leader, “Mature man available for speaking, easy terms,” Keillor cited Updike again:  “And my hero John Updike, back in the days of White Male Authorship, got me into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, one of only three humorists in the club, which looks darned good on my résumé. People from my hometown of Anoka, Minnesota, look at that and think, ‘Him? He didn’t even make National Honor Society in high school. He got a B minus in English and even that was generous.'”

Updike’s phrase ‘post-pill paradise’ still resonates

The average writer isn’t typically mentioned in an article about pharmaceuticals, but of course Updike isn’t typical. Neither was Couples, his 1968 novel that explored the social and sexual consequences of the birth control pill—a free-love era medical advancement that nonetheless required a doctor’s prescription.

Now a birth control pill is being marketed as an over-the-counter drug, and a Flagler Live article about it uses Updike’s novel as an illustration, along with this caption:

Welcome, she said, to the post-pill paradise, a light-hearted blasphemy that immensely relieved him,” Piet Hanema, the central character in John Updike’s Couples narrates as he is about to begin his affair with Georgene early in the 1968 novel that made Updike, and the pill, household items. (The italics are in the original text.) Updike loved the post-pill paradise phrase so much, he used it twice more and referred to it in subsequent interviews. But the true paradise may only be beginning.”

That this quote and the cover of Couples is employed in an article that’s not about the socio-sexual ramifications, but rather “the move toward over-the-counter birth control as an important step toward accessible and equitable reproductive health care for all Americans,” illustrates how that well-turned phrase—”post-pill paradise”—still captures the imagination.

Read the whole article.

How do you describe Wes Anderson’s characters? By invoking John Updike

In “The Definitive Ranking of Every Single Wes Anderson Character,” superfans Mark Asch, Charles Bramesco and Jesse Hassenberger took on the gargantuan job of considering how “Anderson collects things and people” and trying to assess the “many traits that make a Wes Anderson character memorable or quintessential to the filmmaker’s project—intellectual curiosity, reckless rambunctiousness, melancholy that clings like a fog, lovable selfishness, epigrammatic wit, sartorial fastidiousness, facial symmetry—” and rank the characters.

“One recurring theme of these blurbs will prove to be family; another will prove to be the lure of the past for Anderson and his characters. Meanwhile, a recurring theme of all the horrible A.I. art generated from a ‘[X] directed by Wes Anderson’ prompt that you may have seen chumming your Twitter feed recently is visual symmetry. In ‘The Guardians,’ a 2001 short story by John Updike, the protagonist, raised by two parents and two grandparents, ‘felt the four adults as sides of a perfect square, with a diagonal from each corner to a central point. He was that point, protected on all sides, loved from every direction.’ We meet many of Anderson’s characters already in mourning, sensing love’s enveloping geometry thrown out of balance, and seeking a return to the symmetry of their once-intact families. Everything is in its right place in every one of Anderson’s shots, but these ghosts [The Dead: Chas’s wife in The Royal Tenenbaums, Auggie’s wife in Asteroid City, Max’s mom in Rushmore, the Whitman patriarch in The Darjeeling Limited; Esteban in The Life Aquatic, everyone, eventually] remind us that this, too, is a temporary state.”

Updike on Pulitzer Prize-winner Colson Whitehead

Photo: Colsonwhitehead.com

Ninety-three American writers have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction since the award was first given in 1918 to Ernest Poole for the novel His Family. Only four writers have won the prize more than once: Booth Tarkington (The Magnificent Ambersons, Alice Adams), William Faulkner (A Fable, The Reivers), John Updike (Rabbit Is Rich, Rabbit at Rest), and Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys).

Erin McCarthy’s reasons for writing about “7 Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novelists” for Mental Floss aren’t divulged—only “here are a few other authors whose books have nabbed the prestigious prize”—but she reminds us of Updike’s response to Whitehead, who was nominated for his first Pulitzer in 2002 and won in 2017 and 2020, after Updike had died.

Updike said that Whitehead’s writing “does what writing should do. It refreshes our sense of the world.” Years later, the Pulitzer jury would echo that in calling The Underground Railroad “a smart melding of realism and allegory that combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America.”

Of Updike, McCarthy wrote, “John Updike, the author of more than 25 novels, won Pulitzers for two books in his series that follows ex-athlete Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom: Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), the latter of which ends with Rabbit’s death. In 1997, Updike described ending the series as ‘kind of a relief. … It wasn’t as sad for me as perhaps for some of my readers. Writers are cruel. Authors are cruel. We make, and we destroy.’ The character of Rabbit, Updike said, ‘opened me up. As a writer, I could see things through him that I couldn’t see by any other means.'”

Sexting origin can be traced to 1828, and of course Updike noticed

What kind of person texts photos of their sexual body parts? Don’t pass judgment. The origin of “sexting” goes back at least to 1828 and the story of a “trailblazing miniature portrait artist named Sarah Goodridge and a lawyer named Daniel Webster.” The devil you say?

Goodridge was “smitten with Webster,” wrote Tom Taylor of Far Out Magazine, and “a passion blossomed between and her new favourite subject” as he posed for his portrait. But the artist painted something a little extra and she would “offer the world the first sultry private nude. Obviously, her breasts were far from the first to be cast in watercolour, but they were the first to be painted in a self-portrait fashion and sent off secretly to an admirer—in essence, the exact same as a modern ‘nude’.

“She daubed her bare chest—cast very skillfully in the 3D fashion of optics—and proud pink nipples on a 2.5 x 3.1-inch block of ivory. She then sent this off in a carefully concealed package to Webster who is said to have somehow lifted his desk without the use of his hands when he opened up according to his deputy sitting opposite who was subsequently chaperoned out of the room.”

The piece, now known as Beauty Revealed, is “renowned not only for its place in sultry history but also for its skill and forward-thinking liberation. While the effort may not have won Webster’s hand in marriage, as she may have intended, the pair remained devoted in some way” and the “legacy of her work lives on, as John Updike puts it in the essay ‘The Revealed and the Concealed’: ‘Come to us and we will comfort you, the breasts of her self-portrait seem to say. We are yours for the taking, in all our ivory loveliness, with our tenderly stippled nipples.’ But from less of a male gaze perspective, maybe she was just feeling horny, playful, and frankly, very creative.”

Read the whole article and see the painting.

Updike’s essay “The Revealed and the Concealed” was not included in any of his three collected writings on art—Just Looking (1989), Still Looking (2005), or the posthumously published Always Looking (2012).

Updike on the Beer Can

In spring 2023, Jay Brooks of the Brookston Beer Bulletin celebrated “John Updike’s Paean To The Beer Can” and included Updike’s often-anthologized Talk of the Town mini-essay on the Great American Container.

“He grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town that I did—Shillington—and we both escaped to a life of writing,” Brooks wrote. “Though I think you’ll agree he did rather better than I did with the writing thing, not that I’m complaining. I once wrote to him about a harebrained idea I had about writing updated Olinger stories from the perspective of the next generation (his Olinger Stories were a series of short tales set in Olinger, which was essentially his fictional name for Shillington). He wrote me back a nice note of encouragement on a hand-typed postcard that he signed, which today hangs in my office as a reminder and for inspiration.”

Brooks then shared Updike’s very short musings on the “Beer Can” and noted that “essentially, he’s lamenting the death of the old style beer can which most people considered a pain to open and downright impossible should you be without the necessary church key opener. He is correct, however, that the newfangled suckers were sharp and did cut fingers and lips on occasion, even snapping off without opening from time to time. But you still have to laugh at the unwillingness to embrace change (and possibly progress) even though he was only 32 at the time; hardly a normally curmudgeonly age.”

In Updike’s defense, he did end his mini-essay by saying, “What we need is Progress with an escape hatch.”

Voice of Protestant denominations recommends Updike novel

According to their website, “Day 1 with host Peter Wallace is the voice of the historic Protestant denominations. Through sermons, blogs, and video & audio resources, Day 1 proclaims God’s hope for a hurting and divided world. Formerly ‘The Protestant Hour.'”

The lesson for June 13, 2023 was “Science for the Church: Summer 2023 Reading Favorites,” with one of the staff—Greg Cootsona—focusing on John Updike’s novel In the Beauty of the Lilies.

“Though I highlighted it previously in Christianity Today, the book is so good, my recommendation bears repeating,” Cootsona wrote. “Updike’s novel explores how certain technologies—particularly films—have affected American perceptions of what is real and what is transcendent. In the first of four sections, (each follows a different generation of the same family), the early 20th century Presbyterian pastor Clarence Wilmot “felt the last particles of faith leave him. The sensation was distinct—a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward.” This happens at the very moment that the silent film actress, the 17-year-old Mary Pickford faints while filming at local landmark Lambert Castle.

“Clarence finds he can no longer serve as a Minister of Gospel and literally cannot speak when he’s called to deliver sermons. Instead, he seeks transcendence in watching the technological marvel of the silver screen. So, if you’re ready for a bit of Updike’s normal palette of sexual and other transgressions, I think you’ll find that this initial episode begins an eloquent and challenging narrative of American life as the novel’s characters seek to live out faith—or perhaps lose it—in an increasingly technological 20th century.”