Better Read Than Never: John Updike’s SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS

(10-minute read)
(If 10 minutes is disheartening, I just took a shorter look at a particular section of Self-Consciousness, the one addressed to his biracial grandchildren, in my He Said/She Said compendium of pithy quotations. It’s about growing up Black in America, by a loving White granddaddy.)

I haven’t been a huge John Updike fan, but he’s growing on me. Naturally, I read Rabbit Run,

My local library's edition.

My local library’s edition.

the first of what became the “Rabbit” tetralogy following the life course of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. For me, it was pretty much required reading, since the protagonist had been a high school hoops star and basketball profoundly colours his youthful experience. I liked it, though I wasn’t crazy about Harry. Despite periodic and ephemeral resolutions, I never did get to the subsequent novels. I will. The closer in age that I get to Rabbit at Rest, the final chapter, the more Mr. Angstrom seems like a character I should know better.

The second Updike novel I read, The Centaur, really was required reading: to keep my brain alive during a period of professional drudgery, I took some Lit courses at the University of Ottawa. Unsurprisingly, Updike appeared on the American Novel course, though the choice of The Centaur was less obvious. Perhaps because I read and re-read and wrote about it¹, I love and know that novel better than the one about the basketball hero-turned-typically-jaded-American. My affection and enduring memory of the thing might have had to do, too, with the father-son tension and the high school cum mythological dream-park setting; sonsRUs, certainly, and I still haven’t finally left the halls of eternal adolescence. I coach high school hoops still, after all.

¹ It’s academic stuff, but not terribly unreadable. However, I have placed electronic drones around the text in case some undergraduate thinks to plagiarize. You will be shocked, assimilated, and outed to the Weenyverse, if you do. Reading the essay won’t hurt, though. Reading the NOVEL would be downright healthy.

But recently, not long after seeing the great and gracious radio voice of the superb literary interviewer, Eleanor Wachtel, embodied on an Ottawa stage, I heard her 1996 interview with the famously media-shy Updike. (He died in 2009, at 76.) Wachtel interviews are always extended, thoughtful, generous expositions of the minds and hearts of many of the greatest writers we’ve had. John Updike was no exception, though I was mildly surprised to find what a humble, gracious and thoroughly engaging voice his was.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Perhaps I’d been swayed by some of the backlash against the privilege of the white male Authorial Voice of the mid-20th century. One of the nastiest was the dismissal of Updike as merely “a penis with a thesaurus”, but a pervasive view is that, though a big-seller among literary fiction-writers, he was over-rated simply because the voices of women – especially women of colour – had been suppressed. Time will tell, I suppose, but this cuts two ways. As unpopular as it may be to say it, there must be certain much-praised contemporary writers who benefit from the opposite current: the explosion of interest in and production by the previously under-published and under-privileged, those other voices from other cultural rooms that we now (wonderfully) get to hear more from. Some of these, I suspect, will have their ecstatic reviews and audience responses tempered by the sifting hands of critical hindsight. There’s nothing wrong with that.

To return to Updike, his was a voice that I was moved and inspired to hear, and hear more. He didn’t do many interviews, certainly not such revealing, appealing and lengthy ones as he had with Ms. Wachtel. I was moved particularly by a thread of their conversation in which he shyly but eloquently offered that he had always been interested in unnoticed little corners of life: odd bits of geography, obscure perspectives, his childhood view from under the kitchen table. (The ego-mad writer in me, inevitably I suppose, thought Hey, I got me some corners. But then, who doesn’t?) It was a gentle, humble, profound, a personally revelatory reverie, and I also felt that it was part of Wachtel’s genius that got him to speaking about it. I thought I heard a little wonder in his voice, that he’d been nudged to notice a slightly new perception of his own work.

That could’ve been sheer imagination, but it was one of several minor heart-quakes that urged me to read more Updike, especially his 1989 Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. It goes to odd corners. It is no standard autobiography, rather more of a stitched-together series of essays in which “a mode of impersonal egoism was my aim: an attempt to touch honestly upon the central veins” of his life. He began the project in response to the apparently alarming hearsay that someone planned to write his biography, and his diffidence about it didn’t slow down this famously productive writer. It is self-deprecating, but not in the technicolour comedic tone that we tend to enjoy. Updike is earnest, a quietly but insistently yearning spirit who wants to take us along, to help us see what he has seen from under the wicker chairs on his childhood porch. I benefited from that view, and I loved most of it.

“A Soft Spring Night in Shillington”, his opening essay, starts by recounting an airline mishap that accidentally resulted in Updike spending “an evening walking the sidewalks of Shillington, Pennsylvania, searching for the meaning of my existence as once I had scanned those same sidewalks for lost pennies”. The three decades that had passed since leaving his home town have him seeing the place in stereo, noting the changes but always returning to the way it was, the way we all go back to our own little corners of the world in dreams or unplanned reveries prompted by a poignant smell. I was there, too, hearing the echoes of my reading of The Centaur, much of which was highly autobiographical. What’s more, I also came from a similar small town a little later in the same century, though it took me much longer to get away and my homecoming strolls have been more regular – full of fondness, sentimentality, aimless rumination and a mild though chronic dismay. I know what he means: “There had been much self-conscious about my walk this night, a deliberate indulgence of…nostalgia….Yet my pleasure was innocent and my hope was primitive. I had expected to be told who I was, and why, and had not been entirely disappointed.” Overall, this was my favourite essay, though parts of his other memoirs spoke to me loudly or quietly instructed.

Others were less comfortable, and not unintentionally. Updike centres each of the next three autobiographical musings on one of his own slices of existential awkwardness: his psoriatic skin, his lifelong tendency to stutter (not at all evident, praised be Eleanor and advancing age, in the Wachtel interview), and his sometime political incorrectness. “At War With My Skin” sees him offering painfully honest episodes of a life in which, from childhood humiliation to obsessive middle-aged sunbathing, he endured and finally mainly cured his condition. “Psoriasis keeps you thinking. Strategies of concealment ramify, and self-examination is endless. You are forced to the mirror, again and again; psoriasis compels narcissism, if we can suppose a Narcissus who did not like what he saw.” Ouch. His skin becomes the itchy touchstone of his life, from the toxic shyness of disfigured adolescence through decades where his more affluent adulthood allowed him to pursue, year-round, the healing powers of the sun. Not quite incidentally, winter Caribbean travels allow him his first substantial contact – and how could this be, though my small towns had the same monochrome ethnicity as his – with Black people. And later in the collection, he dives more deeply into the issue of race, as required by love, and proves the concluding reflection on the war with his skin. “The psoriatic struggles for philosophy, for thoughts that are more than skin deep.” Well, he did.

“Getting the Words Out” does a similar trick, substituting for skin eruptions with his nearly lifelong stuttering and bouts of asthma. He never mentions the irony of how little difficulty he seems to have ever had in producing text, lots of it, and stylish and widely appreciated prose to boot. He doesn’t need to, but does in this essay write engagingly, interestingly, about the genesis and development of his compulsion to write. He meets

…the criticism that I wrote all too well but had nothing to say: I, who seemed to myself full of things to say…[about] Shillington and Pennsylvania and the whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled America….What I doubted was not the grandeur and plenitude of my topic but my ability to find the words to express it….My own style seemed to me a groping and elemental attempt to approximate the complexity of envisioned phenomena…

On the other hand, Updike frames his reluctance to venture into the public sphere, and his abandonment of a blameless first wife and innocent children, by invoking panicky stammering and a feeling of being unable to breathe. The fourth essay, “On Not Being a Dove”, carries on the theme of existential discomfort in the context of the Vietnam War. “It pained and embarrassed me to be out of step with my editorial and literary colleagues,” as he in most ways was a liberal, and did enjoy the stylistic and sexual freedoms that the Sixties promoted while antiwar sentiment built. Though his public confession that he was not completely antagonistic to American ends and means in Vietnam was a relatively brief episode, it was a powerful one. Updike muses at length about the philosophical, familial, political and even marital circumstances that might have led to such an itchy shame. After all, he had come of age during “the last good war” where everyone remained sure that opposition to foreign tyranny was good, true and obligatory. “And yet…wasn’t there simply something of the high school show-off, the impish contrarian…?” he wonders, not only in his refusal to accept his circle’s undiluted hostility about Vietnam but also its rejection of religion. He, in his marriages, was the non-conformist who stubbornly continued to attend church. “I distrusted orthodoxies, especially orthodoxies of dissent, and preferred to elude classification….Truth had to have more nooks and crannies, more ins and outs than that.” This finally leads him to wonder “had I suffered enough?” Acknowledging his sociological good luck, he concludes that he hasn’t, though he holds out the hope that he would have been as brave as those elders who stormed the beaches of Normandy. And then in an odd dental digression, he concludes the chapter with a detailed history of another area of life in which he has, doubtless, suffered: “Suffering and I have had a basically glancing, flirtatious relationship. Except for my teeth…”

Even the nine-page rehearsal of “these many decades of dental endurance” is not the most painful stretch of these memoirs. The next, “A Letter to My Grandsons”, begins promisingly: “Dear Anoff and Kwame: We are all of mixed blood.” He details for these youngsters, too young yet to read it, the northern European ancestry of their mother, Updike’s daughter, and the West African genesis of their father. “Your two parents are about as black and white as people can be, and that helps make them a beautiful couple.” Earlier references to race, by this landmark white American writer of the 20th century, had been among the most interesting tidbits of the book, and I looked forward to this chapter, as they would surely make clear what the earlier hints had foreshadowed. Instead, most of the essay was startlingly tedious. Updike spends the next thirty pages on a detailed ancestry of his side of the family, with plodding histories and character descriptions of the generations of Hoyers and especially Updikes that preceded him. He eventually goes all the way back to the early 17th-century arrival of Gysbert op den Dyck in New Amsterdam (modern New York). It is hard to imagine a 21st-century youth being much interested in such a series of “begats”, even when narrated by an eloquent and notable granddad; one would certainly have to be a much more highly motivated reader than I was to find it anything other than saltine dry. (In keeping, though, with Updike’s invocation of his own suffering, and with my own stubbornness, I ploughed my weary way through it.)

And then, speaking of the “easy assimilation” of his Dutch ancestors into an ever-more English United States of America, Updike suddenly veers into relevance, at least for me and, I suspect, for his grandsons, too. After the birth of the first, Updike fretted about their acceptance: “he would do better if his parents settled in Ghana; that is, I trusted an African country to treat a half-white person better than my own country would treat a half-black.” Two pages of thoughtful, honest and surely hard-won analysis follow, a description for his grandsons of the society into which they would likely have a less easy integration than Updike’s ancestors had. (I focussed on this theme, introducing a longer quotation from the Grandsons letter in my He Said/She Said section.) In 2016, as a famously biracial American counts down the days of his two-term Presidency, this 1989 description remains compelling:

…professional sports and television commercials constantly offer images of multiracial camaraderie. An ideal colorblind society flickers at the forward edge of the sluggishly evolving one….America is slowly becoming yours, I want to think, as much as it is anyone’s…[yet] [w]hile integration has overtaken the media image of ourselves, the reality lags behind….As blacks, you will shoulder here a load of history and mythology that may hide you from yourselves and cut into your freedom to pursue happiness…

Frustratingly, the letter returns to the subject of what it means to be “a New Jersey Updike”. As a summary that focuses on the man that I picked up Self-Consciousness to read about, and on the dear grandfather that Anoff and Kwame have no doubt read by now, it is much more interesting than the overlong genealogical survey that precedes it. Still, obsessed as I often am about the sociology and psychology of race in North America, I wanted more of that cultural reflection, even as I enjoyed the return to a particular attention to John Updike after too many pages about folks I’ll never think of again.


A genial elder, perhaps not long after the time of Self-Consciousness, bemused that he had once been a smoker.

A genial elder, perhaps not long after the time of Self-Consciousness, bemused that he had once been a smoker.

Dentistry and ancestor worship play no part in Updike’s concluding memoir, “On Being a Self Forever”, in which he moves engagingly between the tiny curiosities of his life – the hitch in his autograph, floating specks in his vision, a habit of drawing in the air – to thoughts of soul and eternity. And while we’re on the subject of self-consciousness, he might’ve said, “isn’t it terribly, well, selfish, and grotesquely egocentric, to hope for more than our animal walk in the sun…?” (Putting aside my boredom with genealogy, I haven’t said enough about the pleasures of Updike’s word-slinging, lest we forget that in a different era he might be or have been celebrated more as a poet than as a novelist. “Our animal walk in the sun”: gorgeous. The man can turn a phrase.) Like his qualified support for the Vietnam War, Updike’s Christianity was unfashionable among his liberal and highly educated set. He recounts the reasons for it, how “modern materialism” and our “medically clever era” have made the physical body seem the essence of life while thoughts of spirit everlasting spirit are seen as merely superstition, as wishful, frightened thinking. However, in part because the idea of God for him contains the clearest expression of “non-self”, the ultimate opposite of ego, Updike argues for the ever-advancing transformation of the human “from strength to strength”, as the Book of Common Prayer has it. Religion is more than “the world’s barbaric and even atrocious religious orthodoxies”. It is, for Updike,

…any private system…that submerges in a transcendent concern the grimly finite facts of our individual human case….Falling in love…is an invented religion, and religious also is our persistence, against all the powerful post-Copernican, post-Darwinian evidence that we are insignificant accidents within a vast uncaused churning, in feeling that our life is a story, with a pattern and a moral and an inevitability….That our subjectivity, in other words, dominates, through secret channels, outer reality, and the universe has a personal structure…

Work, or Elvis-worship, or even writing, Updike’s “last vice”, can supply this need. But as a Shillington lad, although he had seen the feebleness of the Christian belief of others, Updike “decided I nevertheless would believe…What I felt, in that basement Sunday school…in Shillington, was a clumsy attempt to extend a Yes, a blessing…” and his “poor little art” would become the most obvious and enduring attempt to honour that blessing. He acknowledges that fiction has its dark facets, too, “so my art, like my religion, has a shabby side,” in which he includes these memoirs, and especially his doomed attempt to write about his own spiritual leanings, since religion at its best inclines toward selflessness while his book proclaims Self-Consciousness. One of the most admirable things I found in it, though, is exactly this willingness to face inadequacy, to confront paradox, and to honestly – at times with blazing frankness – account for the changes and chances of his life.

As he completed his memoir, Updike was back in Shillington in 1989 with his stubbornly alive mother, reflecting anew on his origins and his destinations. He had “the persistent sensation, in…life and art, that I am just beginning” yet knew that, like most artists and other achievers, his best and most definitive work might be behind him. (He was in his late fifties. With the Pulitzer-winning Rabbit at Rest yet to come, he may have proved it wasn’t.) He turns finally, after chapters featuring his various ailments, imperfections and anxieties, to consider the question of happiness. On a December day, walking up the driveway back to his house, he feels as happy as he ever has. He does an inventory: there have been family visits, the grandchildren are soon to come by, a better-than-he’d-though writing project is finished, his memoirs await a leisurely final edit and, lest we forget his unapologetic maleness, there has been another not-to-be-disparaged bout of blissful marital consummation. Orange juice awaits, and the Sunday edition of the Boston Globe is in his hands. He draws in the air between himself and his readers this profound yet offhanded conclusion to a book-long attempt to explain himself:

We feel safe, huddled within human institutions – churches, banks, madrigal groups – but these concoctions melt away at the basic moments. The self’s responsibility, then, is to achieve rapport if not rapture with the giant, cosmic other: to appreciate, let’s say, the walk back from the mailbox.

Or the mind of John Updike. I’ll be back for another tour.

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