books monthly february 2017

This month's Jerry Dowlen column looks at John Updike

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John Updike and the Rabbit novels: Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, then and now?


John Updike (1932 – 2009) was one of America’s best known and widely read novelists of the twentieth century. His works found favour with British readers too. A native of Pennsylvania and a Harvard graduate, Updike spent a year in England studying at Oxford in 1969.


In four of Updike’s twenty-one published novels the leading character is the fictional Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom. The novels were published at ten year intervals. In the first book Rabbit, Run readers were introduced to Rabbit at age 26: he was encountered again at ages 36, 46 and 56 enduring a turbulent family life (deserting his heavy-drinking wife; tragically losing an infant child; his house burnt to a cinder).   


The Great American Dream … Would Rabbit have voted for Donald Trump?


‘Donald Trump received greatest support from white male voters … he took his message to former industrial strongholds that have witnessed economic devastation and population decline … targeting those areas appears to have paid off … he triumphed in the Wyoming valley of Pennsylvania.’


From that small slice of post- USA election analysis in November 2016 can we identify Rabbit as a Trump voter, if Rabbit had lived his life in modern time? Rabbit’s life in the fictional town of Brewer, Pa was imagined by John Updike during the period from 1959 to 1989. But it was clear that even then, Rabbit was disillusioned, frustrated and unfulfilled by the dull jobs (storeman; printer; car salesman) that were all that he could find in his decaying home town. Indeed, he tried in Rabbit, Run literally to carry out the instruction of the book’s title: to leave Brewer and seek a better life.


‘We will renew the Great American Dream.’ That was part of Donald Trump’s election rhetoric and it no doubt struck a chord with many American voters in 2016. But a re-acquaintance with the 1,500+ pages of the Rabbit quartet will show that in the last third of the twentieth century the Dream was already faded and abandoned for the likes of Rabbit and countless other ordinary middle income, blue collar workers and white collar employees.


The Great American Novel


John Updike made no claim of being a latter-day Charles Dickens or H.G. Wells:  he felt that as a writer he had little reformist tendency or zeal for social criticism. He must have been pleased that two of the Rabbit books earned the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; they also received the high praise of fellow writers John Banville and Julian Barnes who both hailed ‘The Great American Novel’.


John Updike’s achievements as a novelist might be considered all the more worthy if we accept his hypothesis that in the USA, the difference between the fantastic and the drab is formidably narrow ground for a fiction-writer to explore.


Rabbit, Run (1960)


Trapped in a second-rate existence, Rabbit leaves his wife and son, and runs away - but is destined to learn the truth in the Harry Chapin song W.O.L.D. that you can travel many miles but still stay where you are. John Updike confessed, incidentally, that when penning this book in 1959 he was unaware of the British music hall song Run Rabbit Run, popularised by Flanagan & Allen.

Updike was forced by his American and English publishers to remove some of the sexual content in his first draft of Rabbit, Run. But within two years of publication in 1960 he was back at his desk re-inserting some of the forbidden text. This was occasioned by the relaxation of censorship following the obscenity trials of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer. Six years later, in 1986, Updike caused outrage when his new novel Couples normalised the occurrence of everyday sexual promiscuity in middle class suburban America.


Rabbit Redux (1971)


With a historical biography of President James Buchanan reluctantly abandoned, and his publisher impatiently expecting a new book, Updike reverted to Rabbit and rushed out a sequel. He enjoyed reviving the word redux, derived from the Latin verb reducere (‘to bring back’). He knew that Dryden and Trollope had used the word in book titles of theirs.


In a role reversal, Rabbit is left behind when his wife runs away. As undercurrent to the story we are gently prompted to take measure of the USA at the close of that 1960s decade of great technological expansion but, on a social level, civil unrest and racial strife. Was the USA a nation with its glass half full, or half empty? America had put a man on the moon, but it was losing the war in Vietnam.


Rabbit is Rich (1981); Rabbit at Rest (1990)


Feeling obliged to alliterate episodes three and four with the letter ‘R’ the author depicted Rabbit as comfortably rich within the confines of modest middle class salary scales, but nevertheless confronted by continuing practical and emotional  problems as he and his family grew older. At the close of episode four readers were left to mourn that a Rabbit wearied by his loss-making business and his disintegrating dysfunctional family had reached his final resting place in only late middle age.


Historians seeking an understanding of American socio-economic middle class urban life would be treated to exquisite prose when voyaging through Updike’s depiction of a forty-year era whose final decade began with with President Reagan (in office from 1980 to 1989) emerging as the Great White Hope of despairing rust-belt mid-town America.


When running for the White House in 1980, the ex-movie actor Reagan had been shunned by the establishment and dismissed by the political pundits:  a lightweight; a joke; naïve on foreign affairs; a windfall for resurgent white supremacists; a disaster for non-whites and minorities. Oh … does that remind us of anyone?


Jerry Dowlen

December 2016


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train

H G Wells

In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn

Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986

Shakespeare's 400th Centenary

Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film

The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

A Tribute to Margaret Forster

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...


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