John Updike: On Race and Being American

(3-minute read)
Grampa Up.

Grampa Up.

Today, we look back at the insights and perspective of one thoughtful White American on his society’s racial culture, and his worried-grandad prospectus for two young Blacks that he loves like family, because they are.

In Updike’s Self-Consciousness: Memoirs (I reviewed it here), he knits together six themed reflections on the life that he lived. In nearly all of them, the world being what it is and the United States playing the role within it that it does, he refers to the question of race, even if only obliquely. One of his essays, though, addresses it straight on: “A Letter to My Grandsons”, second-last of the six, speaks directly circa 1989 to the two young boys born from the union of Updike’s eldest daughter and her West African-born husband, who “are about as black and white as people can be”. The boys’ names are Anoff and Kwame, and who knows who and where and what they are today? I wonder what they make, as grown men, of the 48-page public rumination that their deceased and famous literary grandfather bequeathed to them, to say nothing of the country left behind by his and subsequent generations.

For my taste, too much of the letter was preoccupied with obscure and distant Updike-side genealogy. It made for dull reading. However, other parts were electric, for me, and these are the places where the writer frankly assesses the American racial culture and bares his fears and hopes for his beloved young grandsons’ place within it. Updike was an honest, perceptive and profoundly eloquent writer, in 1989 and before, and until his death in a subsequent century. Here is a small chunk of what he left behind for his dark wee darlings to read when they came of a suitable age;

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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,

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ODY: Weeks 22-23. Stricken (Streakened?). Travellin

Week 22 of Guitar for Dummy started off sweetly. Once upon a mall wander, when I should have been doing my consumptive business and getting the hell home, I hit the pseudo-intellectual indulgences store, where they sell cigarettes, chocolate bars, and more mags about more things than I could imagine. (Hold the cigs.)

Stores like this — does anyone call them “smoke shops” anymore? — with their racks upon racks of magazines always hypnotize me if I allow myself to walk in. Mercifully, I can usually pass by the sections for women, knitters, video game junkies and home repairmen. Normally, the music section is also beyond me, unless the cover features an artist I know. I’ve always loved music, but I felt outside it. Now, however, that I was a Certified Guitar Butcher, it seemed unjust that I had never bought a music mag, so it was a breakout day: would it be Guitar? Guitar One? Acoustic Guitar? Fingerstyle Guitar? Vintage Guitar? Guitar World? Old Fart Guitar Diletantte Galaxy? (I made up one of these.) I settled, for a reason I can’t remember, on Guitar Player magazine. 

It was a bit of a Looking Glass experience. It had English text, photos of (mainly) familiar things – faces, guitars, curvy women reminding me that I was an ol’ babe in BoyLand – and ubiquitous advertising, but it was a strange land where I could see and read and still not find much sense. (John Mayer (?) plays Regular Slinky and Power Slinky…okay, sure…Fasel infused classic wah cutting high gain distortion searing double-edge tone…I think that was a good thing, but it took me awhile to figure out where the verbs were…) It went on. I noticed spank-guitar shred lessons and alnico classica humbuckers. I certainly didn’t understand the local customs or dialect in this new world. (Toto, I don’t think we’re in Sports Illustrated anymore…)

I thought Guitar Player might teach me something, and that it might be good airport reading, because we were off on a family trip. We’d decided on Guadeloupe: it would be an immersion in French, and we knew two couples who had lived and worked there. Okay, and palm trees and sun. Just days ahead of our flight, I’d found that friends of these friends could lend me a guitar for the two weeks we’d be there. I stopped hunting for a titanium guitar case for baggage handlers to play catch with. Gordie would stay home and safe. 

4:30 am taxi, 6 am hop from Ottawa to Montreal, 9:30 Air Canada flight to Point à Pitre, during which we removed the many layers of clothing we’d needed for -25 degrees C. and got ready for the tropics. We arrived, met by other new friends. (So good to belong to the Bahá’í community, with friends and fellows everywhere we go.) Got settled in our gite, joined our new friends for an evening, returned weary and grateful for a clean bed at about 11 pm, and only then realized, with a foggy head but emotional air raid sirens, that my guitar connection hadn’t been at the meeting. ARGH!

I was up against it: The Streak was in jeopardy. The goal I’d set for myself had been 365 straight days at the altar of the guitar muse. The day before we left, I had played for the one hundred and fiftieth consecutive day, and looked forward to playing in the warmth of a Caribbean evening. But now it was late, in a guest house in rural Guadeloupe. (The nearest neighbours were cows and roosters.) I made a desperate stab-in-the-dark request. Good news: Yes, the proprietor said, my grandson has a guitar you could borrow! Profoundly helpless and regretful news: But he doesn’t live here. Maybe you could have it by tomorrow.

I was buried by it: The Streak was over! Hard to take, but there was no way around it. I had made a promise that in the end – well, in the middle, actually – I couldn’t keep. Shoulda brought my own guitar. Damn! Did we go to the wrong meeting, maybe? Where was Christine?… But there you go, and there I went. It was a lovely night for sleeping, and I was crispy with fatigue et un peu de chagrin. But it wasn’t the disappointment that kept waking me up – it was the damned roosters. 

Rose-Hélène was true to her word, and the grandson’s small guitar was in my hands for our first full day on the island. It took a long while to tune – at least I’d had the foresight to bring my electronic tuner, or I’d have been cooked trying to coax music out of that thing. After about six or seven minutes, it made some recognizable noises, though it had ridiculously high action, rather like the ol’ broken-necked Degas that I started with. It was a comfort to be back on the musical trail. I didn’t even try to go all heroic and somehow redeem the sins of the previous day. Jes’ played, and it felt good to not be too desperate or anal about the whole thing. Life goes on. The Streak was at One.

After two days with the baby guitar, I was back to full-size after finally meeting my connection. (Some people go to the Caribbean in search of illicit chemicals. I scored six strings.) It was a full-sized classical acoustic, dusty and out of tune but a good machine. There were little coloured circles all over the fretboard, but I didn’t really try to figure out the chord calculus. I just did my dusty old things in a bright new place: the windows of our gite were always open, so I tried to do my late-night strumming softly, thumbly. (I ended up not using a pick the whole time there.) After all, the other guests were, well, heck, some of ‘em were considerably older than ME, and dawn comes early in Gwada. (And according to several neurotic cocks, it comes over and over again, the all-night rooster version of the movie Groundhog Day…). So no psycho percussion, no windmills, no blues hollers or howls of frustration.

All was well, and then a few days later, it happened again! ANOTHER MISSED DAY. Was it the water? (Or the lack of it?) Was it bad sleeps, or hot days after Canadian ones? I’m not sure, but after a day as the loyal chauffeur and pack mule for the princess, and then some beach time and too much sun and a miserable drive home, I couldn’t friggin’ get around to the guitar because I had my head in a toilet for much of the evening. I finally was able to tumble into an exhausted sleep, and I didn’t even consider playing. Sigh. And so a new challenge came: would I still get that daily practice in without the absurd but effective spur of a long run of commitment?

My favourite practice of the trip happened a couple of days later. I sat on a rock, down near Atlantic’s edge in a town called Le Moule. For an inland lad like me, the swell and the roar of the waves is intoxicating, and I liked it well. The surf pounded relentlessly, and I sweated profusely. I turned my ballcap backwards to keep my neck from reddening and, but of course, to present the image of an arty young vagabond, sitting on a rock, discovering himself and chronicling his generation in song by the sea. (Too bad there were no other rampant sentimentalists there. If a narcissist plays by the ocean / Does anybody see?) So, yes, I was a bit self-conscious – still! – about playing “in public”, even though there was almost nobody around. Still, I had a blast: beautiful scene, beautiful sun, one idea in mind and time on my hands. It felt like a vacation. Sweet!

Our first week in Guadeloupe was a delight. (Except for that toilet episode.) I was quite proud of myself that the end of The Streak didn’t sabotage my commitment, or hasn’t seemed to. It was the only bit of dark cloud we had. So now the count stands, for those of you scoring at home, at 159 out of 161 days – not what I’d been planning, but a fair percentage. The Streak is now at 5. Whoop-de-do…