Tuesday, March 28, 2006

John Updike and My Grub Street Blues.

John Updike, Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism by John Updike (New York: Vintage, 1984).
John Updike, Self-Consciousness (New York: Ballantine, 1989).
John Updike, "Lust," in Deadly Sins (New York: William Morrow, 1993), p. 40.
Gore Vidal, "Rabbit's Own Burrow," in The Last Empire: 1993-2000 (New York: Vintage, 2001), p. 81.
John Updike, "Incommesurability: A New Biography of Kierkegaard," The New Yorker, March 28, 2005, p. 71.

"Morning in America."

John Updike is one of the greatest living American writers. I never imagined that I would speak in such glowing terms of Updike, despite his literary talent. But then, I guess this essay is partly about learning to see myself as not all that distant from someone like Updike. This is not because I am deluded enough to consider myself his equal as a writer. It is only as a human being facing the same humbling challenges and ultimate dissolution that I presume to mention my faltering literary hopes in the same breath with his great achievements. My point is not to compare the sort of writing that he does with what I can do, but to suggest that people who feel a need to write, at whatever level they manage to do it, may have some important things in common and may be worthy of your attention for that reason alone. Maybe the same can be said of those who feel the need to read. We belong to a shrinking community.

Although I have never met him and I am not likely ever to do so, I hope that I am not being presumptuous in thinking of Updike as a friend. Of course, we have met in the pages of his books, establishing a more genuine and lasting connection through literature than is possible from a casual handshake with a stranger in a crowded room. You can't read someone's writings, return to them more than once out of sheer pleasure, continue to delight in them, and not like their author -- at least a little bit. To my astonishment, I like Updike quite a lot.

"Don't bother with Updike," I was told. He's a Republican. I was a college senior when this bit of wisdom -- which happens to be anything but -- was passed along to me. The subtext was clear enough: He's a rich, white guy, who writes for other rich white people and is probably offended by someone like me even reading books, let alone fantasizing about writing some of my own. For years I believed this nonsense and walked past the rows of his books on the shelves of the bookstores and libraries. He is the "official" writer of the establishment, I thought, he is not "for you." Well, I think that he is "for me." Whoever you are, he is for you too -- that is, if you care about good writing.

These days I hear similar things said by minority persons about mainstream or "white" writers in general. There seems to be a politicizing of literature (and everything else) at the moment by some critics, who apparently believe that we should have an ethnic or racial test for writers. As a result, writers who happen to be white and male, like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace -- whose work I have ignored in the past -- should be regarded as unworthy of our attention. I probably felt this way at some point, although I might not have said so. I now think that this is very wrong.

The political critics should bear in mind that such an attitude might equally well be applied to minority writers -- and it probably is by many readers -- so that among the authors who should be read for pleasure by young people in white suburbia, are writers like Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison and the great James Baldwin (try the first paragraph of Baldwin's Giovanni's Room), who will too often be ignored.

Saddest of all, the number of young men, especially in an urban setting, who know or care about books has diminished substantially. Young men, for the most part, are not reading anybody's books. Women read more than men in all ethnic, racial, religious and economic categories, after adjusting for educational level. It is mostly women -- and thank goodness for them! -- who buy books in America. In fact, it is rare today that a young minority person, male or female, knows or is concerned about any of these writers or even about literature.

If you are an African-American or a Latino person coming accross these names for the first time, then I hope that, by the end of this essay, I will have persuaded you to read Updike and the others that I will mention during the course of my discussion. Reading any book is better than reading none, but reading good books is best of all for you. Books will change you. Updike certainly has this power to transform the reader, so do Vidal and Mailer, Roth and Bellow, Erica Jong and William Styron, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison and Amiri Baraka, Carlos Fuentes and Jorge Luis Borges -- so that you can then go out and change what needs to be changed in the world, knowing that others have made way for you.

A young Latina sat next to me on the subway train the other day enthralled by a book with a glossy cover, which turned out to be The Great Gatsby. My guess is that she is already engaged in her own search for that light at the end of the pier.

Reading a book is like spending a few hours with someone that you will otherwise never meet, one of the most fascinating or funniest, most learned or charming people in the world. That voice on the page begins to sound in your head as you read and you alone are the beneficiary of all that wisdom and charm.

A book is never the same for any two readers. Good readers, especially, discover layers of new meanings and nuances in a favorite text with every reading, some of which may not have been fully appreciated even by the author. Literature is a kind of conversation, so that (as with any good conversation) the flow of energy is in two directions, reader and text alter each other in the process of absorption. This means that some part of Shakespeare and Plato, Jane Austen or Charles Dickens stays with you, after you read them. Some part of me, stays with you.

Updike began life in humble circumstances in Pennsylvania farm country, in a place called "Shillington," and was not a child of privilege. He describes himself in his memoir as a "Democrat," despite "not being a dove," and even as a "liberal." My mental image of him as attending fashionable Manhattan dinner parties with the glitterati from the publishing and film industries, tossing back Martinis and making substantial contributions to the Republican party may fit the "life-style" of the successful middle-aged novelist, though I doubt it, but certainly not of the young man who became that novelist. Besides, I can not imagine Updike as a contributor to the Republicans even now, when he enjoys a well-deserved and Trump-like wealth, at least by writerly standards.

Those who have a sense of being outsiders early in life, like Updike, tend to hang on to that sense forever. This is a blessing for a writer. Even if they are conservative in many ways, outsiders will always be deeply troubled by social justice issues that we in America, perhaps unfairly, do not associate with the Republican party.

I love that word "Martini," by the way, because it conjures thoughts of sophisticated Manhattanites in evening clothes at chi-chi parties during the fifties and early sixties, chatting about Freud and Picasso, and planning adulteries. I am not too sure of what a Martini is, except that olives enter into the experience at some point, perhaps the same might be said for creative forms of adultery. The things that I can imagine doing with an olive -- or a grape -- would astonish you.

Anyway, that mythical realm of carefree glamor among artists and "media" people is now gone, if it ever really existed -- and even if it did, I doubt that it would fit the mature Updike-style. The parties downtown still take place, of course, but (judging from the newspaper photos) the elegance is nowhere to be found. I wonder if people still call each other "darling"? Only if they've never met, I guess.

My rejection of Updike occurred at the dawn of Reagan era, the long pleasant summer of 1981, which was anything but "Morning in America" for me or the people in my neighborhood. My recollections of life as a "street-kid," who was secretly good in school but could not allow his friends to know it, are colored by the anger that I felt then, which is entirely different from the anger that I feel now.

My anger then was the young man's anger at a society that told him that "money meant success" and that if you didn't have it -- and I didn't -- then you simply didn't matter. My anger now (when I am not exactly "old," only not-so-young) is cooler, less dangerous, usually, more like the frustrations of the contender who almost made it, then realized that the game was fixed from the start and that he was never going to make it anyway, just before his final plunge into failure and utter destitution. The "nice" thing about hitting rock bottom, as the old street wisdom has it, is that there's nowhere to go but up. Also, what you learn when you lose everything, including nearly your life, is that "failure" and "success" are words that mean whatever you want them to mean, and that money may have very little to do with either of those concepts. Torture will either break or kill you, or it will make harder than steel.

You can be a "failure," in every important human sense of the word, with lots of money in your pocket. You can also be a "success" despite being poor. The man or woman who has nothing is more free, for one thing, than the owner of a successful business, not least in terms of self-image and identity.

I was intrigued by Updike's memoirs and many of his collected essays, which I found in a bookstore located (appropriately enough) in a shopping-mall, whose denizens are often to be found in Updike's writings as subjects of investigation. I admit that I am one such denizen myself, on occasion, since I have been known to "mall" (as my daughter might say), even scoping out the occasional bargain at K-Mart -- so as to accessorize my thrift store attire -- given the stylish sort of a chap that I am, before heading to the multiplex to see the latest installment of the "Batman" films, which are profound works of art.

Naturally, I do this strictly for purposes of philosophical research into the delusions of postmodern beings in contemporary America and plan to write about it all from a suitably cynical perspective in the near future. Meanwhile, pass me that popcorn.

I have now read lots of Updike's non-fiction, including his memoirs and many of the essays in this collection. There must be more of both, essays and memoirs, along with all the fiction "out there" since Updike is prolific, but I have read enough to form an opinion. I have stayed away from the novels, until now, because I was afraid of how much I might like them. I preferred to read Kafka or Borges, Henry James or Dickens, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow (whose Herzog is a close friend), but not the Great Gentile White Males of American literature (GGWM) -- I opted for the Rebels and Outsiders, like Vidal, Mailer and Styron (who falls into the "Southern Outsider Category").

I will always be closest to the rebels. Now I also plan to study those whom I have previously ignored. I realize that any great writer, no matter how central he or she may be to the culture, is a kind of rebel. I am embarking on my Updike season. I am planning to read several of his novels, starting with Roger's Version and Bech: A Book, and will report on them eventually.

There is a theory that Updike does not exist. John Updike is said to be only the invention of a well-known New York novelist named Henry Bech. I have found little evidence to support this theory, though there is a suspicious awareness of Manhattan life and Jewish lore in Updike's writings. In any case, as fiction or as fact, the name "Updike" has aquired a "connotation" and seems to refer to something real, like the names "Sherlock Holmes" or "Santa Claus," though Updike himself is much less plausible a character than either of those two, or than Henry Bech for that matter. This is something that he would probably admit.

We must try to understand one another, Updike and I. After all, neither Updike nor I have chosen the places where we find ourselves in America's social hierarchy on the basis of such "immutable characteristics" (to use the Supreme Court's language) as race or ethnicity, in addition to economic status. If I am not willing to be judged by such things, then why should I hold someone else responsible for his own slot in a classification scheme that is totally arbitrary and not of his choosing? No reason. Besides like all writers, Updike and I are members of a "discrete and insular minority." (Look up footnote 4 in the Carolene Products case in Constitutional Law.)

I have decided to put on my space suit and explore the strange territory of white, middle- and upper-middle class life in those pockets of affluent America known as "suburbia" and the comparable upscale neighborhoods of Manhattan. I plan to visit Updike country. Besides Updike, I expect to read some of his younger colleagues and some predecessors, maybe Frank O'hara or John Philip Marquand, or Henry Green -- Luis Auchincloss resides in "nosebleed" aristocratic territory, which I cannot enter -- but my contemporaries, Franzen and Wallace, are accessible to me. No doubt both think of themselves as "regular guys." Needless to say, they are far from it. Maybe I'm wrong about that. We'll see.

I will purchase Polo shirts and clothing at Brooks Brothers. I will be seen publicly in "sensible" shoes. My pale complexion and pleasant demeanor will allow me to enter these rarefied settings, undetected by the natives. I will eat white bread and mayonaise. I will refer to my daughter as "muffy" or "buffy," even, if absolutely necessary, "kitten." Upon my return to my own neighborhood, like Gulliver, I will seek to describe my adventures and discoveries.

Yes, I am stereotyping as a way of communicating how it feels when Latino women are described as, say, "spicy" or Latino culture is reduced to "Desi Arnaz" playing the conga drums and singing "Cuban Pete" (which I like!) by the mainstream media. I keep forgetting where I left my straw hat, but I always have my gonga drum handy and I am wearing my favorite shirt with the puffy sleeves.

For now, the subject is Updike. To begin with, he writes some of the most beautiful English prose that I have encountered in contemporary literature. I selected these examples because they are not exceptional nor extraordinarily good, but only routine evidence of Updike's Mozart-like ease with our glorious language. Similar paragraphs can be found by simply opening any of his books at random. From his essays:

"While in the spell of this most benignly paternal scholar of our hearts, we forget that his own enchanting presumption of life as a potentially successful adventure may itself be something of a fairy tale. Though as scholarly as he needs to be to establish his texts and their variants, he does not investigate the origins of Western fairy tales; are they not, for all the bits of pagan lore they contain, medieval in spirit as well as setting, and saturated in Christian cosmology? The themes of mock death and rebirth, of inner integrity, of repentance and the penitential ordeal, of appearance as illusion, of an anthropomorphic Nature -- are these not religious in essence? Is not the risen Christ the supreme Sleeping Beauty, and His redemption of the fallen world the immense transaction which the magical transactions of fairy tales mirror in miniature? Can, in short, fairy tale reassurances survive the supernatural ones?"

From his memoirs:

"To be alive is to be a killer; and though the Jains try to hide this by wearing gauze masks to avoid inhaling insects, and the antiabortionists by picketing hospitals, and peace activists by laying down in front of amunition trains, there really is no hiding what every meal we eat juicily demonstrates. Peace is not something that we are entitled to but an illusory respite [that] we earn."

From his review-essay in The New Yorker:

"To Paul's contemporaries and to Kierkegaard's, the scandal of Christian dogma (god incarnate crucified and risen from the dead) was something to be got around and built in, a stumbling block converted into the cornerstone of Christianity's humane, busy Church. After Kierkegaard, to thinking Christians, the scandal was of the essence -- a confrontation, for crisis theology, with the drastic otherness and unaccountability of God, on the far side of a leap of faith unaided by reason and propelled by human dread and despair."

Whatever you say about his politics, Updike can write like Domingo can sing. The pleasures and instruction to be found in Updike's books more than justifies their costs, financial and otherwise, placing readers forever in his debt.

Updike's Concerns.

Updike's primary concerns are his three passions, which also happen to be the three subjects I find most fascinating: eros and the love of women, or just the mysteries of women; the United States of America; as well as the status of Christianity and God's whereabouts in a post-religious age. My guess is that these will be the dominant concerns not only in his studies of literature, philosophy and theology, but also of his own fiction.

A way to get at these topics may be to examine one of the attacks launched on his work by an adversary, Gore Vidal (who is not, in my judgment, as much of an adversary as one might think). Vidal speaks somewhere of "an Updikean fondness for cunnilingus" with mild disdain, though hardly with shock. The author of Myra Breckingridge is bound to have heard of the practice before, perhaps in Hollywood.

All I can say on this subject is that I admit here and now to sharing in Updike's "passionate" interest in the "art of pleasuring a woman orally" (in the memorable words of Dr. John Gray), and I try to take full advantage of any opportunity that life offers me to practice and sharpen my "skills," as it were, so as to get better at it. In fact, I can't think of a more fun way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon than working on exactly those skills, while pausing occasionally to read something by Updike himself. Updike says of lust:

"How can sexual desire be a sin? ... Did not God instruct Adam and Eve to be fruitful, and to multiply? ... The singleness of flesh is itself a vivid metaphor for copulation."

You said it, John. So much for eros. But then, there is Updike's tendency -- which I share -- to defend (and sometimes to criticize) American governments and his respect for the institutions of the United States. Updike was one of the few writers to justify the involvement of the United States in Vietnam. Vidal warms to his attack on this issue:

"For a certain kind of quotidian novelist there is nothing wrong in leaving out history or politics. But there is something creepy about Updike's overreaction to those of us who tried to stop a war that was destroying (the dead to one side) a political and economic system that had done so well by so many [writers like Updike]. Updike is for the president, any president, right or wrong, because at such a time 'it is a plain man's duty to hold his breath and hope for the best.' For thirteen years?"

Updike strikes back at his critics in a tone dripping with contempt:

"Cambridge professors and Manhattan lawyers and their guitar strumming children thought they could run the country and the world better than this lugubrious bohunk from Texas (Johnson). These privileged members of a privileged nation ... full of aesthetic disdain for their own defenders [and for their country]."

For some reason these exchanges seem remarkably contemporary. Vidal and Updike both clearly love the United States. Despite Vidal's attacks on the current Administration, he writes of little else but of his country, which is mine too, of its history with tender concern and genuine affection. Vidal may sometimes disagree with Updike about what the country should be pursuing as an international policy, which version of the American experiment best represents the values found in the Constitution and what it really means to be an American in this post-cold war era. Readers can only benefit when their best writers disagree about such matters.

On the historical question, Vidal is right that the Vietnam conflict was a colossal tragedy; Updike is right, however, to insist that criticisms of the U.S. then and now, were and still are often idiotic, self-contradictory, hypocritical, overstated and irresponsible. Both would say that the United States should not be a military empire, should respect international law and be mindful of its responsibilities as the world's dominant military, economic and cultural force.

I describe Updike and Vidal, equally, as patriots -- although I think much more of their literary than of their political opinions, given that both can write with what I can only describe as genius. These political polemics and their opinions concerning, for instance, sewage treatment options are not my primary interest in their work. I am more fascinated by their literary magic than by political opinions that one can hear debated, though not so well, any Sunday morning on television or in the daily newspapers.

Beyond any political differences, there is a "feeling" in both writers' confident prose, as they joust and circle each other, warily, that they are among the very best living masters of the novel form and of English prose. I have been most influenced by Vidal, who is certainly America's finest essayist, but I recognize Updike's great gifts.

It is said that Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci could not stand each other, though history is silent on the subject of whether either artist expressed an intense interest in "cunninglingus." Given the revelations of contemporary scholarship concerning the private lives of both Renaissance men, it is highly unlikely that either would have "gone down," in a manner of speaking, for that sort of thing.

My Grub Street Blues.

"We need spirit, Bullworth, we don't need no ghost now ..."
Amiri Baraka in the film, Bullworth (1998).

Amiri Baraka, The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991), pp. 1-3. (William J.Harris and Amiri Baraka, eds.).

Updike and Vidal are the sort of exceptional talents who will stand out in any group of writers. They deserve their success. A lot of what is published today is second- or third-rate stuff, however. Much of it gets into print, seemingly, on the basis of whether the writer attended a big name school -- preferably Yale -- or went to some "Bread Loaf" conference in Iowa or Idaho, or some other place in the pleasant mid-west of the nation. Few of the people who get to do such things are minority group members.

Too much of what is published and reviewed in America is about nothing, except navel gazing, by gazers who lack Updike's genius for phenomenological observation and description (maybe this explains the lack of interest in literature by young minority men). Some published writers display very mediocre intellects, but enjoy the advantages of trust funds. Few writers who see the society "from the bottom up" get published. Even fewer who are really angry -- and with good cause -- about the forms of injustice and oppression that exist here and now, who are truly "unpleasant" writers, will get to see their books receive the support that they deserve from a major publishing house. This is especially true if the angry writer is a woman. And that's if they get published at all, regardless of how fine or alive and important their writing happens to be.

I am reading three very different women's books at the moment: 1) Virginia Woolf, whose elegance and understated emotion, allusiveness and images, overwhelms me with delight and admiration; 2) Penelope Fitzgerald, whose melliflous sentences and wit sparkle on the page. Nothing is wasted in her work, nothing is awkward or clumsy in her manner. Ms. Fitzgerald is there on the page, then disappears behind the life-like puppets on her stage; 3) Agnes Heller's controlled philosophical prose screams of intelligence and a desire to communicate, so that the massive amount of scholarship and intelligence underneath the writing never becomes obstrusive. All three are highly recommended.

By registering my protest here against "literary exclusiveness," I may well be condeming myself to self-publication and marginalization hereafter, but the rage that I feel at the bulk of the mediocre or barely adequate prose that I find in the major bookstores, often backed by big publishing houses and newspapers, when writers of the caliber of Amiri Baraka get ignored or receive an insulting indifference to a life's work that leads him -- after thirty years of brilliant, fiery prose and poetry -- to publish at his own expense, is unberable.

Thankfully, Mr. Baraka continues to write, despite insulting and unsurprisingly ignorant responses to his poetry (which, after all, is not intended as a position paper) by some people in New Jersey, where he was criticized as poet laureate for his response in verse to the 9/11 events. Whatever one may think of Mr. Baraka's politics -- much of which I reject, and some of which I accept! -- he deserves more of our best or most serious attention, as a people, and much more of the loyalty of a publishing industry that has a responsiblity to the culture as well as to the bottom line.

Mr. Baraka is an important American artist and a political critic -- and he is a patriot! -- one who deserves to be read and heard, whatever we may think of his opinions. Most of all, he deserves what he does not receive to a sufficient degree -- respect and attention, even from his critics, including academic critics at elite institutions and publications.

See us and listen to us, to those of us who must write or die, because we have no other way of demanding attention to our anger at the routine violations of our persons that go unnoticed, unpunished and legitimated by media silence and State indifference. Listen to our anger and disgust at the corruption in American institutions in some places and times -- institutions that are devoured by the cancers of organized crime and greed -- because we wish to continue to believe in America's promise. We care about contributing to the real national culture born in street corners and on the Internet, scrawled in graffitti on walls and sidewalks. Read the self-published books that are sold or given away by some of us on subway trains, because we refuse to be censored or discouraged by the system of rewards and prizes granted to those who write "elegantly" about the parties they went to last summer in the Hamptons, elegantly and yet much less well than we write about suffering insults and slights, or sometimes much worse, from the powerful political "bosses," pundits and trend-setters of the society, usually acting through political goons as "frontpersons." Right, Senator Bob?

Amiri Baraka has written some paragraphs that are every bit as fine as anything found in The New Yorker, though in an entirely different voice:

"I had the New York Times under my arm. I was in civilian clothes and I remember that I was reading The New Yorker. I'd stopped at a bench and sat down near a square. It was quiet and I could see a long way off toward the newer, more Americanized part of the city, the Condado Beach section, where I could only go if in uniform, so they would know I was an American and not a native. I had been reading one of the carefully put together exercises that The New Yorker publishes constantly as high poetic art, and gradually I could feel my eyes fill up with tears, and my cheeks were wet and I was crying, quietly softly but like it was the end of the world. I had been moved by the writer's words, but in another very personal way. A way that should have taught me even more than it did. Perhaps it would have saved me many more painful, scenes and conflicts. But I was crying because I realized that I could never write like that writer. Not that I had any real desire to, but I knew even if I had had the desire I could not do it. I realized that there was something in me so out, so unconnected with what this writer was and what that magazine was that what was in me that wanted to come out as poetry would never come out like that and be my poetry ..."

I felt my own tears rise as I read this passage, feeling the sadness and frustration of a man knowing that his glorious music was falling on deaf ears, like Miles Davis playing for an audience that ignored his "deliquescent" sounds in order to chat, smoke and eat noisily. I respect writers of the caliber of Vidal and Updike because both -- and I know this as surely as I know my own name -- would instantly recognize Baraka as a writer worthy of their attention and ours. If it is true (and I am not sure that it is) that The New Yorker today would happily publish Mr. Baraka's work, then his own efforts deserve much of the credit for changing our assumptions about what good writing is and can be.

Any father of a daughter should read Baraka's "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note and Poem for Kellie Jones, born 16, May 1959." If Amiri Baraka had written nothing else in his working life, then this achievement alone would justify all the years of striving and entitle him to be called: "a significant American poet." He is a significant American poet. He's a writer who matters to many people, in many places. I happen to be one of them.

What Vidal and Updike have in common with Baraka, besides a language and a tortured national history, is me, the devoted reader of good writing. In my moments of deep despair at the possibility that I will not be heard, that I will not be read, I am heartened by friends like Vidal and Mailer, by James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka, Susan Sontag and now Toni Morrison, a recent discovery, but I can also count on the cool and gentle voice of John Updike, as he whispers in my ear:

"Have faith. May you surround yourself with parents, editors, mates, and children as tolerant and supportive as mine have been. But the essential support and encouragement of course come from within, arising out of the mad notion that your society needs to know what only you can tell it. ... "

I have things to say and you should hear them.

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