Commentary Magazine

The Early Stories, 1953-1975 by John Updike

The Early Stories, 1953-1975
by John Updike
Knopf. 838 pp. $35.00

“There we all are and there we’ll all be forever,” sighs a mother overlooking a small Pennsylvania town in the mid-1940’s. Pausing, she adds: “Except you, Allen. You’re going to fly.”

This is how John Updike (born 1932) opens his 1959 story, “Flight”—with a by no means singular indication that the lad from Shillington, PA (always named Olinger in his early fiction) had an ambitious mother as well as a supportive father; that he would go on scholarship to Harvard, where he would graduate summa cum laude in English; and that he would soar to still greater things—a year studying draftsmanship at the Ruskin School at Oxford, another year and a half working on staff at the New Yorker, and then, still in his mid-twenties, writing stories for that magazine from his new home in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

So many stories, and in so many New Yorkers: “a heedless broad Mississippi of print” that, Updike observes here, “serviced a readership, a certain demographic episode, now passed into history—all those birch-shaded Connecticut mailboxes receiving, week after week, [the editor] William Shawn’s notion of entertainment and instruction.” That original exurban readership may indeed have passed into history, but Updike himself clearly has not. In this massive new book, the latest in an oeuvre that includes no fewer than twenty novels, eleven collections of short fiction, seven big volumes of essays, and six shorter ones of poems, he has now gathered his early tales.



Updike’s is a literary career on the scale of such 19th-century American greats as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James. The question is, has it been as valuable? Not quite. And the reason is largely that Updike has never written a novel as masterly, as central to our sense of ourselves as Americans, as Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or James’s The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, or The Ambassadors. He is capable of sketching a Jamesian sort of architecture in, say, Couples (1968) or Toward the End of Time (1997), but, to use visual terms, he cannot fill in the opposing values, or paint with the broad palette, that make James’s plots and characters both socially emblematic and morally profound. Not even the tetralogy of novels centered on the character of “Rabbit” Angstrom, for which he is best known, rises to that level.

In the short-story mode, however, Updike does rival Hawthorne and James. He also consistently equals, and often surpasses, his immediate American precursors—Ernest Hemingway, J. D. Salinger, John O’Hara, John Cheever—all of whom he praises in the foreword to this new book for their spare but revealing dialogue and their restrained placing of unadorned nouns and verbs.

Updike emulated that spare dialogue in his very first story, “Ace in the Hole” (1953), and he has stuck with it ever since. But when it came to nouns and verbs, he showed an early partiality for the elaborate adornments of Hawthorne and James. His best critic, William H. Pritchard, is right that Updike’s primary form has remained the sentence, and especially the complex sentence—clauses embedded in clauses, phrases strung along in sequence, the whole piled-up pagoda held together by the tensile strength of precisely placed subject and predicate.

The mind orchestrating these sentences is supremely rational in its ability to see connections between unlike things. Here is a characteristic example, from the opening of “Twin Beds in Rome” (1963), describing how a married couple, on the verge of separating, postpone the inevitable while

their lovemaking, like a perversely healthy child whose growth defies every deficiency of nutrition, continued; when their tongues at last fell silent, their bodies collapsed together as two mute armies might gratefully mingle, released from the absurd hostilities decreed by two mad kings.

These comparisons—the “perversely healthy” child on a poor diet, the “grateful” mingling of two hostile armies—may strike some readers as metaphysical, in the disparaging sense conveyed by Dr. Johnson’s description of 17th-century poets whose “heterogeneous ideas [were] yoked by violence together.” To me, however, they are as arresting as John Donne’s conceit of lovers’ souls as the legs of a compass—terms not roughly yoked but adroitly reconciled. Part of the delight in reading Updike comes from following extended comparisons like these.

But who is this couple, Richard and Joan Maples by name? They are stand-ins, surely, for Updike and his first wife, a Radcliffe fine-arts major named Mary Pennington whom he married while a junior at Harvard in 1953 and with whom he had four children in five years. They—the Maples—are the subject of the seventeen stories and fragments previously gathered in a mass-market paperback (Too Far to Go, 1979), all but four of which are included here. Whereas the “Olin-ger Stories,” which take up the first 125 pages of the new collection, evoke the anxiety, the comedy, the family romance, and above all the promise of the author’s adolescence—for a sample, try “The Happiest I’ve Been” (1958)—the Maples stories evoke the conundrums of maturity.

Updike has introduced the set dispassionately:

Though the Maples stories trace the decline and fall of a marriage, they also illumine a history in many ways happy, of growing children and a million mundane moments shared. That a marriage ends is less than ideal; but all things end under heaven, and if temporality is held to be invalidating, then nothing real succeeds. The moral of these stories is that all blessings are mixed.

Well, all right. But the stories also remind us that, in the 60’s and 70’s, traditional ideals suffered a massive countercultural assault. Not the least of those ideals was that married people ought to cleave to one another until death, that sable sergeant of what Updike calls “temporality,” should sunder them. These days, as I can testify from classroom experience, the most anthologized of the Maples stories, “Separating” (1974), is harrowing for students because it reminds probably a good half of them of the trauma inflicted on them by their parents, and of the psychobabble those parents have used to justify their split. “For some years now,” Richard tells his elder son in the jargon of the day, he and Joan “haven’t been doing enough for each other, making each other as happy as we should be.”

In “Here Come the Maples” (1976, not included here), the couple finally go through divorce proceedings. The chitchatting judge and lawyers are preoccupied with “speculations about the future of no-fault, reminiscences of the old days of Alabama quickies,” while Joan and Richard stand ignored, “uncertain of how to turn, until Richard at last remembered what to do; he kissed her.” How sweet, and how pathetic. I am reminded of “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car” (1961), in which the narrator bids an awkward, possibly final goodbye to his dying father. It is an affecting moment, and yet perilously reminiscent of the way the father himself traded in his used cars: “the old was gone, gone, utterly dissolved back into the mineral world from which it was conjured, dismissed without a blessing, a kiss, a testament, or any ceremony of farewell. We in America need ceremonies.”



How about religious ceremonies? The fathers in the Olinger stories, presumably based on Updike’s own, are consistently churchgoing men. But when the father in “Packed Dirt” loses his faith near the end of his life, it does not seem to matter. (“He never was much one for faith,” the mother says. “He was strictly a works man.”) The son is much more fretful about such matters, largely because he knows that he too is going to die and would like some “separable” part of himself, his soul, to live forever. Only, he cannot expel the “rubber legs” terror that death means extinction, or the indignant conviction that “the God who permitted me this fear was unworthy of existence.”

This sort of existential dread and rebellion, the familiars of youth, becomes muted as Updike’s characters move into adulthood, and their mental energies become engaged by earning a dollar, changing a diaper, or chasing a lover. But the dread and rebellion never lurk far below the surface. The sermonic meditations of the divinity student in “Lifeguard” (1960) display a never-ending quest in Updike not so much for certitude—that was past hoping for since he had read H. G. Wells as a teenager—as for metaphors that might bring “our most obvious possession,” our flesh, together with the God Who presumably created it.

In these early stories, however, most of the characters have little to show in either faith or works. National movements, like the one for civil rights during the 60’s, are a backdrop to their lives, but—as in “Marching through Boston” (1965)—Updike’s people make no more than fleeting commitments to the theater of protest and none at all to the educational efforts that might enable the economically backward to help themselves. Like Rabbit Angstrom, Updike’s other alter ego down in southeastern Pennsylvania, Joan, Richard, and the rest are preoccupied with their private domestic lives—their looks, their erotic restlessness, their children, their mortality, their infidelities, the unsustainability of their joys.

How different are such lives from those of other generations? In one way, not at all; people, as Freud said, are normally unhappy, and Updike directly adds: “Discontent, conflict, waste, sorrow, fear—these are the worthy, inevitable subjects.” But in another way Updike’s characters are indeed different, laboring under conditions peculiarly their own.

He defines those conditions fairly:

Born in the early Depression . . . [his generation] acquired in hard times a habit of work and came to adulthood in times when work paid off; we experienced when young the patriotic cohesion of World War II without having to fight the war. We were repressed enough to be pleased by the relaxation of the old sexual morality, without suffering much of the surfeit, anomie, and venereal disease of younger generations. We were simple and hopeful enough to launch into idealistic careers and early marriages, and pragmatic enough to adjust, with an American shrug, to the ebb of old certainties.

Updike the short-story writer, like Hawthorne and James, has made his mythic mark on American literature by portraying this “considerable fraction of [the] white majority” whose adult lives began around the time of the Korean war and hit their stride during the Vietnam war. That fraction has been central to the past half-century of our history, which is precisely why apologists for one or another American minority (or, in the case of women, majority) have often dubbed Updike irrelevant, limited, dull, or offensive. But even lucky majorities deserve their chroniclers in art, and not least when together they have lived in the interstices between historical watersheds—“too young to be warriors” against the Axis powers, “too old to be rebels” against the liberal democratic culture of their own victorious country.

What can honestly be said of Updike’s generation is that they did not waste their opportunities, and if they often made a hash of their marriages, they still worked hard, and were rewarded. None has worked harder than Updike himself, and few have been as justly or as richly rewarded. I would say I am eager to have “the later stories” collected as handsomely as these early ones have been, except that his publisher no doubt wants to wait until he is finished. Which, we should all hope, will not be for some years yet.


About the Author

Thomas L. Jeffers is the editor of The Norman Podhoretz Reader, to be published by the Free Press this month.

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