John Updike's colossal ambition.
If the Guinness Book of World Records ever adds an all-time worst judgment category to its lists, a strong contender will be the poet Archibald MacLeish. When he was teaching at Harvard in the 1950s he passed over John Updike for his "top-level" writing class— twice. It was just as well, for Updike and for American letters. After a semester or two under MacLeish's watchful gaze, he might have given us "Uprising at the A & P" or "Museums and the Leisure Class."
Instead, nurturing his gift unassisted by the author of J.B., Updike invented a very different sort of protest literature—one that quietly declared war on MacLeish and other "giants" of the day, literary New Dealers like James Jones and Herman Wouk, and wooden moralists like John P. Marquand and James Gould Cozzens.
The conventional wisdom being widely dispensed now with the publication of the 800-plus-page anthology Early Stories is that Updike found his voice as a junior member of the inward-looking cohort—Vladimir Nabokov, John Cheever, and J. D. Salinger—who created the New Yorker'shighstyle in the '50s. There's no question he learned much from all three. But temperamentally Updike was a very different creature. Beneath the veneer of WASP gentility lurked a farm hick who grew up poor and felt driven to make it big on the raw terms embraced by his true confederates, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth—striving provincials at work collectively transforming postwar literature into a pariah's paradise even as they singly lunged for the title "No. 1 American Writer." It was a contest, no mistake about it. "He loved work; it was all he knew how to do. His type saw competition as the spine of the universe." So, the workaholic Updike writes of a character plainly modeled on himself, down to his psoriasis, in the early story "Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow?"
Written in the mid-'50s (maddeningly, Early Stories doesn't specify exact years of publication), this small gem distills Updike's colossal ambition in a few exquisitely turned pages. On the surface it seems a familiarly poignant study in social opposites: Two Harvard friends awkwardly reunite three years after graduation. Fred Platt is a well-born Fifth Avenue wastrel back from several years abroad and desperate now to avoid being slotted into the family's venerable investment firm on Wall Street, the only prospect open to him after long hours spent idling in cafes on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. He phones the ridiculously named Clayton Thomas Clayton, an eager-beaver scholarship bumpkin who showed up for tryouts at the campus humor magazine, The Quaff, gauchely laden with "an armful of framed sports cartoons." Clayton has since become an up-and-coming "power" in advertising, a budding edition of the organization man smugly dispensing entry-level jobs to the "tin gods" who used to snub him in Harvard Yard.
The two meet for lunch and their worlds-apartness is laid out with surgical precision. As Fred places himself at the mercy of his ungainly classmate, with his tasteless brown suit, his blotched skin, his fondness for cheap beer, the message is obvious: The crass go-getter Clayton is on the rise, while Fred, for all his worldly style and polished wit, is already outside the game.
The bare narrative might have been written by another of Updike's models, his fellow Pennsylvanian John O'Hara. But the true drama unfolds on Updike's own plane of richly woven metaphor. There is the lovingly precise description of the Platts' apartment, with its antique furniture and its view of Central Park, "spread out with the falcon's-eye perspective of a medieval map." There is the observation that Clayton's Harvard "career had been all success, all adaptation and productivity, so that in his senior year Clayton was president, and everybody said he alone was keeping silly old Quaff alive, when in fact the club, with its fragile ethic of ironic worthlessness, had withered under him."
As is always the case with Updike's most charged prose, these phrases deliver a muted epiphany. Here it's the revelation that the dreary Marxist-inflected idiom of class consciousness—which Archibald MacLeish and company embraced in the '30s and never outgrew—sentimentally evades a darker, colder dialectic. What places Fred and Clayton at odds goes deeper than social distinctions. The same teleological Darwinism that since the beginning of time has made "yellow roses yellow" has also locked both young men into parts they can't wriggle free of. Fred, "tightly dressed in darkest gray," is trapped in the fading world, clubby but also courtly, with its "fragile ethic" that Clayton is designed, as if by blueprint, to destroy. Even his infirmities are really assets. While Fred had been drafted during the Korean War, "Clayton hadn't had to go into the Army. Troubled knees, or something. That was the thing about poor children: they acquired disabilities which give them edge in later life. It's cruel, to expect a man without a handicap to go far."
The twentysomething Updike, seeing far around corners, has wholly anticipated the victim-fetish of a later day, the weird spectacle of the privileged playing the role of aggrieved witnesses while the losers steadily advance—losers like Clayton-Updike, with his stammer and bad skin, his tireless "productivity and adaptability." The message had been clear at Harvard—not to Archie MacLeish and other elders, perhaps, but certainly to Updike's peers, who noted he was extruding issues of the Lampoon "nearly single-handedly," as one classmate, the writer Edward Hoagland, remembered. Meanwhile his Fred Platt-like colleagues, "bluebloods headed for careers in investment banking or the CIA," lounged around like members of a social club.
Much is being written at the moment about the "shadow biography" disclosed in Updike's Early Stories,the glimpses offered of the author's private life through characters similar to himself —the young Manhattan aesthete examining faces on the bus, the well-heeled suburbanite lusting after available women. But Clayton is something more intriguing, the not-quite or what-if Updike, the Updike who, had he been merely a drudge less confident in his genius, would have submitted to the verdict of Archie MacLeish—or worse, doggedly wormed his way into his course. That Updike might well have landed on Madison Avenue and been heard to grumble, in Clayton's Young Republican tones, that "People are always slamming advertising, but I've found out it's a pretty damn essential thing in our economy."
Instead Updike proudly wore the badge of exclusion and joined the jostling competition to write his age's Great American Novel, peopled with outsiders. He lays plausible claim to having done it in the five installments of his epic about that ultra what-if-Updike, Rabbit Angstrom, the semieducated, TV-addled, sex-addicted, golf-playing, broken-down high-school basketball king who never made it out of Pennsylvania, much less to Harvard, and who is, among other virtues, the most heroically realized everyman this side of Joyce's Leopold Bloom.
Archie MacLeish had it right, after all. Updike didn't belong in the top writing class at Harvard. He was in another league altogether.
Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of the New York Times Book Review and the author of The Death of Conservatism.
Photograph of John Updike on the Slate home page by Bettmann/Corbis.