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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
The Great American Dream … Would Rabbit have voted for
‘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.
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.
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?
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
Erle Stanley Gardner
Antony Sher: The History Man
Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author
Computer Chess: The Imitation Game
P G Wodehouse
John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green
Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution
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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