John Updike is, according to the news reports, dead. One of my colleagues sent out an email to everyone in the department to update us about the news today, as soon as s/he'd heard.
It was a good thing I was alone, because I confess to some mumbled cussing, probably inappropriate for news of anyone's death. My cussing really had little to do with Updike as a person; for all I know, he was the best and kindest human that ever trampled the earth. Given his work, I'd have a hard time believing it, but it's possible.
No, my cussing had to do with Updike's works. Admittedly, I don't read much Updike. I don't think we read anything by him in my high school, maybe "A&P," but I don't remember. I'm 400 years behind, and haven't focused much attention on Updike. I will readily confess this, so if there's an Updike scholar out there who'd like to explain what I'm missing, go for it.
My first encounter with Updike's work came when I returned to school and started in on a program at the local public, regional university; the deal was that I'd basically do a year of English classes only at the upper undergraduate level, and succeed enough to be qualified for and get accepted to the school's MA program. It was my first term back as a budding 20th century novels student. I loved novels! I read novels up the wazoo. Prose, yay! I'd never read a poem with anything but misery, and had failed pretty much every Shakespeare quiz in high school. But novels, I read nothing but novels in those days.
I enrolled in the following courses:
20th century American Novel,
20th century British Novel,
The something else I don't remember because I was informed that I REALLY needed to take Chaucer right then, or there was no way I'd be qualifed for the MA program in a year. So I changed my schedule the first week of classes, and don't remember what I switched out of. You can probably guess which classes really provoked my engagement with a quick glance at the sidebar. (I was also taking 2 classes at the community college, one in art history, and one in history.)
In the 20th century American Novel course, we started with Faulkner, and Hemingway, and so forth. Faulkner was a revelation, and really, just an amazing prose writer. Hemingway was Hemingway, and after the 5th time he told me it rained on the first two pages of the novel, well, he was still Hemingway, and I was never to be a Hemingway scholar. Eventually we got to Updike and read one of the Rabbit novels. The professor waxed nearly ecstatic. "Look," he implored us, "See and appreciate the liberation of Updike's language! Cunt! It's a liberating thing to be able to use "cunt" in a book. Updike speaks the truth! This is human experience at it's most literarily wonderful."
I was in my mid-twenties, and had been called "cunt" and far worse on more than one occasion, and, hard as you may find it to believe, I didn't find "cunt" the least bit liberating.
Unfortunately, I had the poor judgment to tell the professor as much, in class, even. More on that in a moment.
Here's the thing: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the really dead folks I love to teach are incredibly sexist. Chaucer, for example, was apparently accused of rape. And yet, I can love Chaucer's and Shakespeare's works, love to teach them and read them with endless fascination.
I've studied earlier lit with some pretty overtly sexist instructors, too, but even then, none has turned me off one iota as much as the sexist instructors in those novels classes. Heck, the Chaucer instructor there was pretty much a good old boy who identified with Panderus more than Troilus OR Cressida, and basically taught the poem as if it were really Panderus's story.
Is it because these writers are so very dead that I can deal with them?
Is it because no one I've studied with really celebrates the sexism as a wonderfully liberating aspect of their works? Everyone pretty much analyzes and tries to understand how the sexism works if they talk about it.
So, my lovely experience with Updike's novel. I've also read his "A&P" more than once in classes, but it doesn't work well for me. I think I have a fundamental problem in that the title is just supposed to tell you so much, to give you an immediate feel for the place it's happening because (to paraphrase a common teaching attitude) "everyone knows the A&P and has been there a million times and this is a quintessential American experience." Except, I've never been to or seen an A&P, and if it weren't for someone telling me that it's some sort of early chain store, I wouldn't even know that much. So, it speaks to me of an upper class-ish, north-eastern masculinist attitude that thinks it's the center of the world, and I just can't be bothered to care beyond a blog post.
Now, I mentioned that I had the poor judgment to tell the prof that I didn't find "cunt" liberating and wonderful. Here's the story. I did well enough at that school that some earlier lit folks encouraged me to go on for a PhD without bothering to finish my MA there, and I enrolled at an R1, and eventually finished my PhD.
And when I was finishing or had finished, there on the job list was a listing for my beloved regional public university, for a Shakespeare job! I applied of course. And they gave me an MLA interview, which was probably more an act of kindness than anything else. The interview committee was headed not by one of the other Shakespeare or early lit folks, but by Professor 20th Century American Novel himself.
In reality, they hired someone from a quite ritzy and upscale private R1 (and generally acknowledged through book acknowledgments and such to be the lover of one of the good old boys there), so I'm sure I wasn't ever really in the competition. But I can't think that having mouthed off my feminist position to Professor 20th Century American Novel could possibly have helped my candidacy.
Still, it's hard not to wonder how different things might have been. I could be in a land of perfect weather and unimaginably expensive housing instead of a land of unimaginably cold weather and fairly reasonably housing. I'm sure I would have found the same departmental and budget frustrations there as anywhere, but I fantasize that the overall community would be better. And a really cold winter day might get into the 40s! (I promise you right now that if we hit the 40s on a school day, my students will be wearing shorts, and if we hit the 40s on a weekend, I will be wearing shorts.)
*I almost titled this "Cuntsidering Updike." I couldn't quite do it, though. I'm really not happy or comfortable with the word, and it doesn't come into my mouth with anything but unease.