Poster by T.A.
Have we fallen out of love
with John Updike?
Three years after John Updike's death, his reputation appears to be on the wane. But who else can match his deftness and grace?
Tuesday 15 May 2012 17.02 BST
Happy news from across the water. 117 Philadelphia Ave, Shillington, childhood home of John Updike, has been bought by the Updike Society for what seems, to one humbled by the London property market, a snip at $200000. Their plan is to run the house as an "historic site" - restored, presumably, to something like the condition it would have been in when Updike was in residence, and open by appointment to visiting "writers and scholars".
All well and good - and unquestionably the Updike Society has done a fine thing in saving the home of Pennsylvania's most famous son for the nation, particularly given the traces this early environment would leave on his work down the line (Shillington is a suburb of Reading, PA, the city which Updike makes over into Brewer, PA; its landmarks are also scattered through his early novels and his short fiction). But reading about the plans in the wake of a roadtrip round New England's college towns and their bookshops, during which we were lucky to come across the odd copy of Rabbit, Run or Couples tucked between the serried ranks of Bellow, Vonnegut and Morrison, I find myself wondering whether, in fact, it's enough.
This is hopelessly subjective, of course, but for me, Updike is THE American novelist of the late 20th century, picking up where Hemingway, Fitzgerald andSteinbeck left off. Through his Rabbit novels alone, which follow the fluctuating fortunes of high school basketball ace Harry Angstrom from 1960-2001, Updike furnished us with a roadmap of his country's postwar progress, from 50s smalltown conservatism through the upheaval of Vietnam and race relations to complacent and bloated late capitalism, all inked in prose whose airy loveliness consistently astonishes. When his death was announced in early 2009, panegyricspiled rapidly upon encomia - but in the years since, his reputation appears to have suffered a gradual but definite slump. Writing on Salon at the beginning of this year, Katie Roiphe picked up on this "subtle fall from fashion" and talked engagingly about what she views as "the bizarre and misguided critical assault on [his] reputation". As well as addressing the oft-repeated criticism of his "misogynist" characters ("even if this is true, and it's arguably not the full and nuanced truth ... novels portraying the minds of totally fair minded, upstanding, liberal people with very few conflicts about conventional life, who treat everyone around them extremely nicely, seem destined or at least highly likely to be sort of blah"), she also wonders whether, in fact, in a post-Sarah Palin world, "the idea is that we should somehow distrust Updike because he is too good a writer. The word stylish in this way of thinking becomes a slur, as does the word beautiful."
As if in response to this vague miasma of disapprobation, James Plath, president of the Updike Society (membership stands at a scant 250), adopted a faintly apologetic tone when speaking to local paper the Reading Eagle about their acquisition of the house. He concentrated primarily on emphasising the lack of disruption that the change of ownership would cause to local residents, saying "we believe there will be far less traffic than in the current (commercial) use of the building," and explaning that "out of respect for the residential neighborhood ... he expects the historic site to be open only by appointment and not list regular hours." Really, one has to wonder, how much trouble would it be to have a trickle of tourists passing through the doors? Granted the Eagle is a local paper, much concerned with traffic and zoning laws, but if the residents of Shillington aren't hollering to have Updike's house made over into a permanent museum, then perhaps his standing has slipped further than I realised. Which seems to me to be a crying shame. I've yet to come across the novelist currently writing who simultaneously celebrates and skewers America with the Updike's deftness and grace. Until s/he comes along, let's continue to pay him our respects.