Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Considering Updike*

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,
Criticism, and
something else.

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.


  1. I must confess that I'm not a big fan of 20th century lit and haven't read Updike. I haven't read Faulkner, but I disliked Hemingway. Actually, now that I think about it, I often disliked stories that were about "manly" things (war, etc.).

    I probably would've been too shy to call out my professor if he had said that word was liberating, but if I were in a class now I totally would've gone on a feminist rant. I totally think you were right to point out how that word is not some great thing. It's a shame that he held that against you.

  2. I had a similar experience with a grad school professor who assigned three Saul Bellow novels in a 20th-century novel course. Three! I swore I'd never read another word by Bellow, but I recently read Herzog again and found that it improves with age--my age, that is.

    I teach 20th century novel often (like right now!) and I have never assigned a novel by Bellow or Updike. If I had a roomful of bitter middle-aged men I might change my mind, but 18-year-olds just don't know what to make of these guys.

  3. Ok, I'm not an Updike scholar (I'm not really sure *anybody* is - I've never heard of him being taught in a course and I've only seen maybe one article on him published in a 20th c journal ever, but perhaps I just run in the wrong circles?) but I'd say that the problem with your professor's argument about how Updike is "liberating" language by using the word "cunt" is that D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce did that about half a century before he did, and people like Sade, Masoch, Cleland did it long before that. In other words, it ain't "liberation" if somebody already got to it first. (And then one could go even further and say that there's no such thing as liberation, ala Foucault.)

    But so anyway. My problem is less with "cunt" as sexist than it is with "cunt" as boring by the time Updike uses it. And while I can understand why you responded as you did in the context that you were in, I would suspect that your greater comfort level with the sexism in the texts you ended up studying does have something to do with historical distance that your field provides - and how that affects people who work on it. I work on 20th c. stuff, and the thing about working on it is that people are so much more *identified* with the author as an emblem of their own personhood. So if they teach Joyce they LOVE him and they are Irish and they are Catholic and he SPEAKS THEIR TRUTH. Or insert a feminist author like Woolf or H.D. and you'll see a similar thing. I've never met a person who works on Chaucer or Shakespeare or Alexander Pope or even Milton who identifies so personally with who and what they teach. And that personal identification can make a student feel really uncomfortable if that student is a woman who is being mentored by a person who is identifying with, say, Norman Mailer. (And this, for the record, is why I probably ended up working only with women and gay men in graduate school - it was the only way for me to do 20th century stuff without feeling totally objectified.)

  4. I have to tell you, I really loved Rabbit, Run (or whichever the first one was). I read it in high school, but I also have a copy on the shelf here, so I must have liked it enough to have bought a second copy here after years.

    I think I identified with the male protagonist - the feeling when you're young that life is going to be so adventurous and great, and then being stuck in some miserable suburban marriage and life. Sure, the wife wasn't a sympathetic character, but I'm not sure it was really gender issue stuff - she was just as miserable by those circumstances. And most of the girls in my high school were almost aspiring to be just like her.

    And I felt like Rabbit, wanted to get the fuck out of where I was, but the forces of culture and what everyone else expected pulling me back.

    And I really don't remember "cunt" being in there at all. It wasn't like I was less of a raging feminist then, either. I just remember it as a story about wanting so bad to get out into the world and ending up trapped right back where you started and suffocated.

    (And shit, "fresh and liberating?" Didn't the Wife of Bath talk about "Quente a plenty" or something?)

    And actually, after you wrote about where a lot of your kids come from, it's probably even a good read for them.

    That said, I fucking detest Hemingway and a bunch of the others mentioned.

    And I don't buy the argument about distance of time period keeping you from overidentifying with the authors. That's the thing about literature - to stay immortal, it has to have something in it that captures the heart and I think there ARE people who equally identify with various writers of other epochs (myself among them).

    As to the word cunt, that's a whole other post. I remember my mother HATING it, like it was the very worst word in English. But I use it in a reclaimed sort of way, sort of like 'queer' went from pretty awful to even academic. I think in my generation it will see a turnaround like that. To me, my cunt is mine, and being a cunt means I'm free and wild and not tied to whatever they say about me. I think I used it in an essay once to describe myself as "the witty, wild cunt who couldn't be tamed." Give it time...it will start to grow on you.

  5. Oh yeah, I think part of the REASON I can be able to like "cunt" and reclaim it is actually because of its long historical use in Chaucer and all of those. It isn't some bullshit macho insult only, it's a rich, old part of the English language. I can remember it's sort of historical and adventurous connotations rather than the sexist American ones.

  6. Shakespeare may have been sexist, and I never will come to like the closing speech of The Taming of the Shrew, but he gave us Rosalind and Olivia and Mariah and Violet and Juliet and Lady Macbeth and Opheliah... Sometimes I fantasize that he was really a woman, his female characters are so well-drawn.

    Surprisingly, I never read Updike.

  7. History Enthusiast, I'm not sure he even remembered me to hold it against me, to be honest.

    Bev, I think I'd enjoy your class a whole lot more!

    Dr. Crazy, Right! As if there's EVER anything liberating or shocking about men belittling women? Hasn't that been throughout lots of lit since the first person wrote the first whatever? That's really interesting what you say about identifying with one's scholarly object. I have a theory about early modernists: either they LOVE the idea of hierarchy, and choose Renaissance lit, or they love the idea of messing with hierarchy and choose early modern lit. Same lit, very different choices.

    MSILF, I think for me there's a difference between Chaucer and such using "queynte" to describe a body part, and modern writers using "cunt" to describe a woman. One is much harsher than the other. But I'm still not comfortable with "cunt" in my daily vocabulary.

    Peggy, Yeah, that Taming speech is really ... hard, fascinating, problematic, all those things. And I'm probably not the person to ask, but I think you can safely skip Updike!

  8. There was a time in the 70s when we were supposed to find being objectified liberating. I didn't get it then, and don't now. And I'm completely with you on not liking the word "cunt": I first encountered it as a hate word, and it's stuck there.

    Oh, and the end of Shrew? I am always curious as to how a production will handle it... Personally, I think you have to take it straight, but I know there are other takes on it.

    I'm glad that I'm not a lit person. So I read some Lawrence in college and got bored with him. Never took on Updike, and have only recently read some Roth. These were the guys who mattered to my father, and that wasn't a good sign to me.

    Oh, and my word? It's harem!

  9. Anonymous1:27 PM

    I actually interviewed John Updike for my college newspaper. During my freshman year, he gave a reading at our campus. All freshmen were required to read Rabbit, Run for our comp class, and as the only freshman on the newspaper staff (and the only one who'd read one of his books)I was assigned to interview him with other area journalists.

    In fact, he was a very kind man. I enjoyed chatting with him about the book and he revealed that he liked to go to Burger King. It was a great way for my 18-year-old self to see how writers are just people too.

  10. Hmm! Gossip! With that search committee story I wonder if I know the place in question!

    I have a theory about early modernists: either they LOVE the idea of hierarchy, and choose Renaissance lit, or they love the idea of messing with hierarchy and choose early modern lit. Same lit, very different choices.

    It can't be both at once? I guess the fact that I'm always completely paralyzed by my ambivalence and dualities gives away what I work on, eh...

  11. Oh my god, I was just talking about Run, Rabbit with a friend. I hated that protagonist. Even though I could identify with his feelings, I still really hated him. Made me swear off Updike forever. When I heard there was a series with this same protagonist, I actually felt like burning books for the first time in my life.

  12. Am loving this conversation. Wish I could add, but and way conflicted in time...Just gotta tell you that your earlier post, Why I'm Sappy, does not exist, according to blogspot...Maybe we can get that fixed?, 'cause I'd hate to miss a post. Truly.

  13. Susan, Thanks for your comment. I can definitely share your boredom about Lawrence. Seriously, had he ever even talked to a woman?

    Roaringgrrl, I'm glad to hear he was a kind man. Even if I don't like his works, the world needs more kind people!

    Sisyphus, Indeed, it can be both. I hate hierarchies when I'm at the bottom, but tend to find them much more tolerable when I'm nearer the top. I didn't mind at ALL that my dog thought I was the pack leader, for example.

    Fie, Wow, I wouldn't go quite so far as wanting to burn, but I did sell my class copy to the used book thing as quickly as I could.

    Mrs. C, Yeah, that post went away. It didn't work the way I wanted it to. Maybe I'll revise and resubmit. :)

  14. i know i read some updike at some point, but he didn't make much of an impression. having a dude professor tell me that "cunt" was "liberating" would have pissed me off; like you and others, the way i heard the word in everyday life was degrading. still is, to me. [i cannot bear to hear the N word, either.]

    i did a special project in high school, reading virtually all of hemingway's novels, and grew to hate the man. my teacher gushed about his "code," which was repellant enough in its awesome manly mansomeness, but my takeaway impression was that he wrote the same damned story in different settings, 48 million times. it was a surprise to discover later, when i read collections of his journalism, that he was at one time a hell of a writer.

    faulkner was amazing to me, also. one of my very favorite profs -- a man we adored for his enthusiasm, kindness, and the fact he went to prison as a CO during the VN war -- was devoted to faulkner. i did not go on with literature after college, but faulkner's "lens" has stayed with me.