Michial Farmer is an assistant professor of English at Crown College and one-third of the Christian Humanist Podcast. His essays and poems have appeared in Literature and Theology, Studies in Popular Culture, and St. Katherine Review. He is the author of Imagination and Idealism in John Updike’s Fiction. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Victoria.
C. Derick Varn: You have written a book on Updike at a time when it seems his star has faded a bit since his death. What interested you in Updike’s work in particular?
Michael Farmer: Well, first of all, I’m not sure that his star has faded quite so much as one might think. People certainly say it has, both inside and outside of the community of Updike scholars—and in fact, in my initial pitch to Camden House, I think I said that I hoped this book would help rehabilitate his image. Sometimes I think that Updike scholars are a little like evangelicals, in that we’re convinced that we’re about to undergo a persecution that may never come about. But the truth is there’s been a steady stream of monographs about Updike since his death in 2009, and a number of edited collections, too. Adam Begley wrote a major biography of him a few years ago, and it was well-received and well-covered by the national press. Every election cycle (especially the most recent one), a few articles come out asking how Rabbit Angstrom would have voted. (Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016, if you ask me.) The John Updike Society is robust enough to produce a journal, and they have a biennial conference that is well-attended.
It’s true that the Dead White Males of Updike’s generation are slipping a bit in their cultural reputation. Sometimes that’s not such a bad thing—I can’t say that I mourn the relative disappearance of Norman Mailer from criticism—and sometimes, as in the case of Bernard Malamud, those authors are due for a rediscovery. But in terms of that group of writers, I think Updike has maintained a public profile after his death to a remarkable degree.
As far as my own interest in Updike, it started relatively early, and from a theological direction. Like a lot of people, my first encounter with his work was the short story “A&P,” which I read on the first day of my Freshman Composition class in college. But I wasn’t paying attention, really. At that time, I was a huge fan of this novelist and pop theologian, Frederick Buechner, and through him I became very interested in the neo-orthodox theology of Karl Barth. Somehow I learned that Barth was kind of Updike’s pet theologian, and so I started reading him. I think the first novel I read was Marry Me, a weird (and not particularly Barthian, as far as it goes) place to start.
I think I’m somewhat unusual among Updike’s readers in that I’ve always seen him as a novelist of ideas, more or less. Most people concentrate on his prose, which is, of course, full of fireworks and amazingly well-ordered, or else they think of the sex scenes, which are detailed to the point of nausea. (I’m pretty squeamish for an Updike scholar—I do think he has novels that move beyond literary depiction to mere pornography.) But I was always interested in what he was trying to say with those things. Years later, I discovered I was reading him the way he wanted to be read; he says in an acceptance speech that he used to consider his novels as “illustrations for texts from Kierkegaard and Barth.”
I wrote on Updike all throughout graduate school. My first paper in my master’s degree compared Rabbit, Run to Dorothy Parker’s short story “Such a Pretty Little Picture,” and I initially had a chapter on the Rabbit novels in my master’s thesis. (The chapter was ninety pages, and my committee told me to get rid of it.) I also had a chapter on Rabbit, Run and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood in my doctoral dissertation, and that chapter became my first real publication. So I’ve been writing about Updike basically my entire professional career.
The book itself came about for pretty venal reasons, I have to say. I saw a call for papers for a new series of books called “The Mind in American Literature.” I’d recently been reading Hawthorne’s short stories, and I’d noticed this tendency in his early work, whereby his narrators lived in their imaginations, only to be rudely snapped back into the real world. Hawthorne was very important to Updike—he rewrote The Scarlet Letter into three separate novels—and when I saw the call for papers, I started thinking about the ways that Updike’s fiction (especially Of the Farm) also used that structure. I wanted to write a book, and I thought, “I can do this,” and so I submitted a proposal. I didn’t expect it to be accepted, but here we are.
Of the mid-century modernists, Updike was not only a believer but a Protestant. Why do you so few Protestant voices are dominant in the period?
That’s a really good question, especially given the Protestant origins of the novel. Joseph Bottum has a very interesting essay in Books and Culture where he claims, in effect, that the novel is the great Protestant art form. And the 1950s, in particular, are a decade where mainline Protestantism is culturally ascendant in America in a way that it maybe never was before and will certainly never be again. Ross Douthat talks about that very convincingly in his book Bad Religion. And yet it’s very difficult to come up with major Protestant novelists from that period, and certainly from the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s much easier to think of the Jewish-American and Catholic Renaissances.
Even more confusingly, the great novelists of that era were often very interested in existentialism as a philosophical outlook. I’m thinking of Bellow’s Dangling Man, which clearly owes an awful lot to Nausea and Notes from Underground; or of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Richard Wright’s Native Son; or certainly of Walker Percy’s novels. Existentialism lends itself very easily to Protestantism. I have a friend who once said that Kierkegaard’s thought is the logical conclusion to Luther’s, and maybe we could say that Barth’s is the logical conclusion to Calvin’s. And existentialism also lends itself very easily to fiction, which is why most of the major existentialists were also novelists and playwrights. So where’s the Protestant existentialist novel, other than Updike’s work?
I’m tempted to say that the twentieth-century literary novel was a fundamentally counter-cultural art form, and that’s why so many Jewish-American and Catholic writers made that period what it was. But what would the conservative art form have been? You’d have to say movies, but most of the best mid-century directors are Catholic if they have a recognizable religious point of view (John Ford, Hitchcock, Breton, etc.). And besides, I’m not sure I believe the novel, even the literary novel, was counter-cultural at that stage.
Maybe the better question is whether or not American Protestants were all that involved in any creative cultural output during that period. I don’t know enough about visual art to talk about that field, but I know that Andy Warhol, for example, was a very idiosyncratic Catholic, and so was Salvador Dali. There were some important Protestant composers—I’m thinking mostly of Benjamin Britten, I guess—but none that I can think of in the United States. The same goes for poets; you’ve got W.H. Auden, who’s an Englishman living in America, and you’ve got T.S. Eliot, who’s an American living in England, but I think both of them would identify as British, not American. I’m sure I’m leaving something important out, but the only midcentury art form I can think of that was dominated by Protestant Americans is rock and roll, and even that dominance disappeared when the music moved out of the southeast.
Incidentally, Updike seemed to have enjoyed being an outlier in this way. His contemporaries viewed him with a vague suspicion because of his religious beliefs (and even more because of his churchgoing), and I think he liked to keep them guessing.
Do you think a lot of Updike’s continued relevance is related to the ways he explored the shifts of American family dynamics?
Sure, I think that’s part of it. His writing career lasted for five decades, from the late ‘50s to the late 2000s. I’m not an historian, but I think it’s a pretty good bet that life in the developed world changed more in those five decades than any five-decade period of modern history. Because Updike was always concerned with taking the life of the normal American and putting it onto paper—early on, he described his aesthetic project as “to transcribe middleness with all its grits, bumps, and anonymities, in its fullness of satisfaction and mystery”—and because his fiction is so concerned with material conditions as well as spiritual yearnings, you can track American technological and political changes by reading his fiction in chronological order.
The Rabbit novels are great examples of this. Updike apparently wrote the plot parts of the novels, saving the dozens of cultural references in each of them for last, so that they would be as authentic and up-to-date as they could be. Harry Angstrom begins by listening to a radio news report about the Dalai Lama’s disappearance, filled in by pop songs and local advertisements; by 1989, when he dies, he’s complaining about Sam Malone on Cheers and stressing out over the Lockerbie bombing. In the sequel novella Rabbit Remembered, his son, Nelson, uses the internet quite a bit. So the material and cultural conditions around these characters change drastically. I think they’re presented pretty accurately. I was born in 1982, so the only period in the four Rabbit novels I actually lived through is Rabbit at Rest, and I actually have trouble thinking of that novel as sad because the cultural indicators in it remind me of a rather idyllic time in my own life.
Most of Updike’s protagonists look something like Updike himself, which is to say that they’re middle-class (and later upper-middle-class) white guys with families to whom they have conflicted relationships. He was 36 years old during the Summer of Love, and, as is well-known, he participated in it enthusiastically. So you can see—again, reading through his fiction chronologically—marriage moving from a stable if rather stultifying institution in the late 1950s and early 1960s toward the great splintering (oral contraception, wife-swapping, etc.) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then back toward a strange conservatism in the 1980s.
Couples is the most infamous example. My impression of its reception when it was published in 1968 is that it was taken as a more or less sociological document of what Time called “The Adulterous Society.” And despite Updike’s very unconvincing statement in Time that he was a mere onlooker and not a participant, Adam Begley’s biography makes it quite clear that he was documenting his own life and the lives of his friends. So he both lived and wrote about the disintegration and cultural upheaval that was taking place.
Why do you think Updike has been spared some, but not all, the scorn aimed at writers like Norman Mailer?
Updike was a misogynist by 21st-century standards, especially early on. When the Begley biography was published, I remember a reviewer calling attention to the number of women who are called some variation of dumb in his fiction of the 1960s. And after that, he grew unpleasantly attached to the word cunt to refer both to women and their genitalia. Again, I’m squeamish—that’s hard for me to read.
I will confess that the only Mailer novel I have read is An American Dream, but I found it appealing on a sort of animal level but otherwise very difficult to read. It is deeply misogynist, even by the standards of 1965. So on a certain level, I think it’s easier to forgive Updike his misogyny because it’s the product of his time.
Additionally, Updike was very supportive of women writers and, I believe, had good (non-sexual, which you always have to specify with him) relationships with people like Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates. His books of reviews and essays devote hundreds of pages to praising literature by women. That hasn’t stopped every feminist reader from criticizing him, but I think it does make it hard to argue that he’s a misogynist, full stop.
And then I think that he legitimately tried to understand the interior lives of women, even early in his career. Rabbit, Run has these extraordinary passages where the camera enters the psyche of the two major women in Harry’s life, always in the context of his having committed some terrible cruelty to them. And about half of Marry Me is told from the perspective of the cheating husband’s wife, who is probably the best-drawn character in the whole novel, and certainly every bit as sympathetic as he is. Then there are the Witches of Eastwick books, and so forth. I’m not a woman, so I’m unqualified to say whether he understands women or not, but I think he makes a good-faith effort that I don’t see in Mailer.
What do you see as the most insightful of the story or novel cycles by Updike, particularly when trying to decide on his moral version?
I’d say that Rabbit, Run and The Centaur are quite important. Updike originally conceived of them as a double novella, showing the two sides of humanity, each of which has its joys and its sorrows. Rabbit seeks freedom as a spiritual ideal; Updike has admitted that the novel was inspired by On the Road. But unlike Kerouac, Updike shows what happens to the people who are left behind by the existentialist hero, and it’s not pretty.
On the other hand, George Caldwell, the central figure of The Centaur, is defined by responsibility—he has chosen to stay in a dissatisfying marriage in a town he doesn’t like in order to provide for his son, physically and emotionally. And yet Updike can’t help but wonder what doing so does to the poor man’s soul. (It’s worth noting that Caldwell is very clearly based on Updike’s father, Wesley.) All of this points to the dialectical ethics of Updike’s fiction—what he calls in a famous interview its “yes, but” quality. Yes, Rabbit seeks freedom; yes, Caldwell lays his life down for his son—but what price do they both pay?
That dialectic results in one of the more frustrating aspects of Updike’s fiction for some readers, which is that his characters do really atrocious things and he refuses to judge them. The novels are moral novels in the sense, that, as he once put it, they ask the reader, “What is goodness?”—but that’s just a matter of presenting the dialectic rather than settling on side or the other, and rather than coming to some sort of synthesis/conclusion. The question is always open: Rabbit is both a spiritual striver and a terrible person, and you can’t have one without the other.
Another aspect of his ethics involves domesticity. The domestic sphere is the realm of virtue for Updike, which I think is why the suburbs in his fiction are rarely the sites of quiet desperation they are for someone like Richard Yates. For Updike (as, I would argue, for John Cheever), the suburbs and the family home that exists within them are a place for moral formation and a place of security for the individual self.
But at the same time, that domestic sphere is really messy. I think you see this most clearly in his 1992 novel Memories of the Ford Administration. It is not a great novel, but it’s structured partially on the contrast between the protagonist’s orderly mistress (her house is always clean, her children are well-behaved) and his wife, whom he calls the Queen of Disorder. His temptation is toward the mistress, of course, but eventually he gives up and surrenders to the mess—because the mess is what makes us human.
Do you think the Henry Bech stories are actually mildly anti-semitic as they have sometimes been accused of? Or do you think there is something much more complicated but sympathetic going on?
I haven’t spent much time with the Bech stories, and when I have thought about them, it hasn’t really been in terms of Bech’s Jewishness. I think Bech is a less nasty stereotype than some of the ones you find in Philip Roth’s fiction—but then Roth probably has a right to play with those stereotypes in a way that Updike doesn’t.
Do you think some of the moral arguments of Updike in the domestic sphere will be harder to relate to as the US becomes more and more urban and less suburban?
That’s a good question. I’m interested to see what happens to the suburbs in this country. I don’t think the current drive toward the city is ultimately sustainable. Everyone my age—I’ll be 35 at the end of March—seems to want to live in urban areas, with the result that most of the cities in this country have priced out a lot of people. (And not just San Francisco and New York, either; one-bedroom apartments in the fun parts of Minneapolis run up to $2000.) I think more people are going to live in suburbs as a matter of necessity—they may even become the location of the next counterculture, hopefully a more grounded and communal one.
That being said, I think Updike’s treatment of the suburbs has its application to urban communities as well. What interests him in the suburbs is not just or primarily the semi-agrarian lifestyle; he’s interested, as I said, in them as the sites of virtue. That’s what makes Couples interesting. Tarbox is a community that ought to help develop the virtue of its members—the streets are even named after virtues, if I recall correctly—but it turns incestuous and lascivious and develops vice instead. That lesson is as applicable to small communities within large cities as it is to close-knit suburban communities. I suspect, however, that most of us, suburban or urban, don’t live in communities like that anymore. That’s a bigger problem than urbanity as such.
I also wonder how many people who have small communities in cities or suburbs imagine that their purpose is to develop the virtues of their members, and if they need to be intentional in that sense to fulfill (or fail to fulfill) that purpose.
What elements of Updike’s fiction do you see as most rooted in his religious faith?
The dialectic is key—he gets that from Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, and it’s absolutely essential to whatever theological project he has in his fiction. It’s not the dialectics of Hegel or Marx, which have a gradual progression toward some kind of ideal. There’s no synthesis; it’s forever shifting back and forth from pole A to pole B, and faith is somehow found within that oscillation. That keeps him from being too hopeful in the ability of human institutions, local or national or global, to make ideal societies. The dialectic is part of his belief in original sin, in that sense.
Besides that, a lot of his fiction, particularly the short stories, directly addresses issues of faith and doubt. That’s especially true early on. He’s got a story called “Dentistry and Doubt” in his very first collection, which is about a clergyman having a crisis of faith while getting his teeth cleaned, and to some extent that sets out the terms of Updike’s faith-doubt dialectic: He needed faith in order to survive the world, but the ugliness and violence of the world (particularly the natural world, and particularly the long prehistory ruled by natural selection) made it difficult for him to have faith. That dialectic, again, never really resolved, at least in his fiction; in some sense, I think the faith-doubt dialectic is for Updike the shape of faith itself. And I agree with him, if that’s what he’s saying.