John Updike, Five Years Later
—an editor's note by Ada Fetters

John Updike died five years ago as of 1/27/14. The man not only captured a succession of decades in his Rabbit series, but he did so surprisingly soon after the fact. Usually people are well into the next decade before they get enough perspective to satirize the one that came before. Updike did so almost immediately.  

Updike was also a chauvinist. I knew little about him as a man and at first I thought he had only shown yet another dimension of his talent by portraying the chauvinist Rabbit Angstrom character. Then, enamored, I read everything by Updike I could get my hands on. I was trying to figure out how he made writing Pulitzer-winning novels look so easy; how he made them seem like something a person could dash off in his spare time. I failed to work that one out, but did find that the reason he had effortlessly captured a particular version of the male ego on its own self-erected pedestal was that he had written it from there himself.

“She is stupid!” Joey cries in Of the Farm, in triumphant epiphany regarding his wife Peggy.

Another husband, in Roger‘s Version, nobly puts up with his wife’s silliness. He realizes that “God put too much in their round little bellies.” Updike was fond of that line. He used it in at least two of his books. These are just a few examples plucked from myriads.

Yet I am not annoyed with those as I am one of his relatively recent novels, Gertrude and Claudius. This was written from the perspective of Hamlet’s mother, the Queen Gertrude. In this book she is an intelligent, good woman. All of Updike’s other women… all the ones I’ve read anyway… are either good but very stupid (e.g. Peggy in Of the Farm), or just smart enough to make a mess of their lives (e.g. Rabbit‘s wife Janice), or bright in a shallow, selfish way (Essie from In the Beauty of the Lilies).

Updike himself once said that before you criticize a writer, make sure you yourself are not the problem. Firstly, do you even know what he is trying to do? In other words, is the problem the writer’s failure or is it a failure on your own part to understand? Secondly, is he doing it poorly, or do you just not like it? Is it a question of talent or of subjectivity? His advice stands, especially regarding his own work.

It is funny and a little sad to me that such a great man would be so insecure with the opposite sex that he’d have to dominate them even through the medium of his art, during which he has complete control. And he is one of the all-time greats, make no mistake. The man was beyond gifted. If I were reviewing most of his books I would have to mention the sexism but it would be a footnote to the masterful prose and incisive look at American life.

No, what irritates me is Gertrude and Claudius, written in 2000. That book reads like an apology, and not a particularly good one. In this book he makes much of the way women are imprisoned, used, and kept in their place by men. Updike shows his readers a hunting hawk with its eyes sewn shut. This bit of symbolism is uncharacteristically obvious. Female hawks are the potent ones but men sew their eyes shut in order to train them and make them useful. There are several other digressions along the same line. Brave men from that era ask to be executed in the Bloody Eagle style, but women give a Bloody Eagle birth and live through it. He writes of time passing, but tries in a rather obvious, groan-inducing way to imbue it with a female point of view. When time passes, there are cloudy days and summer days and menstrual days.

Yep, women menstruate.

Updike could make a tense weekend at the in-laws’ cottage into a riveting novel, but he could not write this kind of woman. Not convincingly, anyway. Updike’s sexism does not irritate me as much as seeing a hero writing a book he is so patently ill-suited for.

I am heartbroken that we lost a genius five years ago, but glad that there will be no more along the lines of Gertrude and Claudius. There would have had to be: America has changed since the 1950s. The balance of power has shifted and this is not merely an illusion in the pretty little heads (or the round little bellies) of females. In order to keep portraying his country accurately, Updike would have had to change his very style, his very view from the male pedestal he spent a lifetime erecting. In order to get to the heart of American life he would have had to write from a viewpoint that was not his own, and in doing so lose the genuineness that breathed life into his characters.

That would have been a tragedy.