Updike Redux

"Every human being who is more than a moron is in the arena of certain violent tensions.... locked out of the animal paradise of unthinking natural reflex...born into one political contract or another...It's a kind of agony really--the agony vents itself in ulcers internally, rage externally."

JOHN H. UPDIKE '54 hopped back to Cambridge one cold day in December from his Ipswich home! With long legs and arms that flopped around with nonchalant grace, he scaled the Crimson steps looking like a suburban squire should, work-booted, wearing nondescript dungarees and a good sweater gone bad. With eyes looking out from a face somewhere between a hawk's and a gnome's, he glanced at the fading pictures of fading editors on our tack-marked cork bulletin board, and asked the photographer. "How did you get those black borders on them?" Mechanical details and competence in mastering them impressed him--part of the reason he wrote Rabbit Redux was his vision of Rabbit as a linotyper.

It was one month after we'd met at an Allegheny terminal in Philadelphia, when, taken by surprise, he had agreed to come to Cambridge to talk about Rabbit Redux, and whatever else struck him to speak of. It was one week after he'd been hailed by The Times as one of the great contemporary American authors...right up there with Roth. Bellow, Malamud and Mailer. (No longer would he be the fall goy for all of New York's literary establishment.)

Neither the fortuitous accident which brought him in touch with his Crimson reviewer, nor his recent entrance into the literary pantheon, seemed to discomfit him much. After remarking that the Lampoon headquarters where he had once held sway were much plusher than the Crimson's game rooms, he spoke freely of future plans, in a light-timbred voice which unexpectedly erupted into husky laughter.

His next book will, hopefully, be the historical novel which was to have taken the place of Redux as his main output for 69-70. Based on the life of James Buchanan--interestingly enough, the only president to have been born and raised in Pennsylvania--the novel is meant to explore the tensions of a man of personal integrity thrust into a position of national power at a time when his actual strength was limited--and threatened by the cataclysms of pre-Civil War America. Buchanan had successfully risen above personal traumas in his love-life and in a tawdry Pennsylvania political arena: he got caught in the mire of an unfinished capital and unsophisticated state system once he got to the White House.


The tape recorder came, and Updike related why that novel has not yet been written:

THE TROUBLE IS, once you get down into the stream you begin to read around and you realize how little you know. The problem becomes how to keep it from becoming just an historical novel. Once, I thought if I forgot a lot, then I could really begin it. But I've talked enough about it, it's been in my mind long enough, that I must really do it in a carefree and rapid way and get it out of my system.

I'm glad in a way, that I did write Redux instead of pulling ahead with it. This, again, was a bit of a leap of the imagination--I haven't lived in Pennsylvania for a long time now and this Brewer is a rather different Brewer from the one in Rabbit Run--which was based on scenes in my childhood where I knew every wrinkle in the pavement. I still felt on solid ground in this book in a way...the next book will have to be a jump in the dark.

Q: The book has been hailed for its portrait of 'Middle America. 'Did the necessity to get that close to a man who is inarticulate and guided by mass culture to as great a degree as Rabbit require a similar leap?

A: Intellectually, I'm not essentially advanced over Harry Angstrom. I went to Harvard, it's true, and wasn't much good at basketball...other than that we're rather similar. I quite understand both his anger and passivity, and feeling of the whole Vietnam involvement as a puzzle, that something strange has gone wrong...but it's no great leap of the imagination to do that

1. after all, have moved from one small town in my childhood to another in my adulthood. There may be something also in the novelist's trade which shades you towards conservatism (I am a registered Democrat. I should say, on the town committee). Your sense of things exists because they evolved to that condition, they cannot be lightly or easily altered. It is my general sense of human institutions that they are outcroppings of human nature, that human nature is slow to change, that in general when you destroy one set of institutions you get...something worse. That's a silly thing to say. I'm joking of course.

Q: At one point in Redux, Rabbit looks over the books that Skeeter, the black radical carries--Marx, Fanon--and they disgust him, remind him of plumbing. Is that more or less your feeling also?

A: Well, I think to some degree yes, not just me but a lot of people have gone along under a number of assumptions based in part on the movies of the 30's, and all these investigations of our origins and terrible flaws, the built-in problems of the way things work in America is a little like scouring the plumbing in your own home...It's hard for some of us to get down in the cellar. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. That's a very real thing, the way that book sort of smells, it's the plumbing under the homes. I remember, this stink arising from under the house itself. Throughout the book he smells bad things.

Q You've written that "an easy humanism pervades the lands writing. Given the fact that you deal on a very personal basis with human stress how do you distinguish your...

A: Difficult humanism? I feel that, as a writer, I put into practice a set of democratic assumptions. Just as in a democracy anybody can be president, so anyone can be a character in a novel, at least in one by me. Every human being who is more than a moron is in the arena of certain violent tensions that are involved in being human...In fact there is an easy humanism that insists that man is an animal which feeds and sleeps and defecates and makes love and isn't that nice and natural and let's all have more of that.