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Bill Maxwell

Updike brutally honest on race

Like most other literature majors familiar with John Updike, I read many of the pieces in the newspapers and online about the author and his oeuvre since his death last week. Most of the assessments — as to be expected for an icon of half a century — were upbeat, forgiving and some downright sentimental, primarily dealing with Updike's tableaus of ambivalence, disappointments, stunted religiosity and sexual mores in small-town, middle-class America.

But another aspect of Updike's work, rarely explored in the popular press and academic publications, deserves attention: his fictional treatment of race. As much as any other American writer, including the Southern giants such as William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, Updike knew that race is a major subtext of American life. I suspect that Updike agreed with Columbia University's Sig Gissler who said that race "is America's rawest nerve and most enduring dilemma. From birth to death, race is with us, defining, dividing, distorting."

Updike, 76 when he died, explored race most directly in Rabbit Redux, the second installment in the Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom tetralogy. "The character of Rabbit was for me a way into the America I found all around me," Updike said shortly after the novel's publication in 1971. "What I saw through Rabbit's eyes was often more worth telling than what I saw through my own, though the difference was slight."

Always nervous of "Negroes," beginning when we first meet him in Rabbit, Run in 1960, Rabbit is baptized by fire in Rabbit Redux, when he meets Hubert H. Farnsworth, aka "Skeeter," the black friend of his live-in girlfriend, Jill, an 18-year-old, rich, white runaway. A Vietnam veteran, Skeeter has jumped bail on a drug charge and needs a place to hide. Rabbit takes Skeeter in, convinced that if he does not, Jill will run off with him.

Thus begins Rabbit's education in race and Updike's boldest attempt to express his wholly American and tortured perspective on the subject. Influenced by both Skeeter and Jill, Rabbit, a political and religious conservative at the core, smokes pot every night and neglects his son, Nelson, the child of an estranged marriage. Skeeter, a sympathetic burlesque character, is profane, insulting and demanding. Each night, Skeeter forces Rabbit to read Frederick Douglass aloud. When Rabbit is away, Skeeter has sexual intercourse with Jill and gives her drugs and booze.

Rabbit never has encountered this kind of Negro, as he, along with Updike in real life, refers to blacks, although the term had long fallen out of favor. Updike's racial acuity surprised readers and critics who thought they had the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner pigeonholed.

"Skeeter is something new in black characters, including those in books by blacks," New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard wrote in 1971. "He goes beyond the familiar anger and rhetoric into the wild humor blacks no longer seem to allow themselves. He is an inspired preacher of the inchoate religiosity that seems to be midway between Black Mass and store-front revivalism. Skeeter is a compound of drug-induced delusions of grandeur, real indignation, homicidal rage and quirky genius. He has a talent for provoking, for getting to the absolute bottom, for traveling through delusions and coming out on the other side, where everything is exposed. He is a more potent bomb than any the black revolution has yet thrown."

Many blacks and some whites accused Updike of being a racist. If he was, his racism was the same as that of his American contemporaries. He was a garden-variety product of his time, influenced by his Lutheranism and the geography of Shillington, Pa., where he was reared.

"In the Shillington of his boyhood, there were few black faces, and the same could be said of Harvard in the early 1950s," writes the Guardian's James Campbell. "In 'On Not Being a Dove,' Updike declares himself a supporter of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and a contributor to the NAACP, though he goes on to remark that he 'once lent a black man we knew some money that he never repaid.' (Harry lends a black colleague money in Rabbit Redux, which he expects not to be repaid, and is surprised when it is.) There is scant encouragement to integration in Updike's fiction of the period, where black people put in mostly perfunctory appearances, as in old movies."

In response to one of Skeeter's race-baited tirades, Rabbit responds like the typical white suburbanite of the early 1970s: "Trouble with your line, it's pure self-pity. The real question is, Where do you go from here? We all got there on a bad boat. You talk as the whole purpose of this country since the start has been to frustrate Negroes. Hell, you're just ten per cent. The fact is most people don't give a damn what you do. This is the freest country around, make it if you can, if you can't, die gracefully. But Jesus, stop begging for a free ride."

Race is not resolved in Redux. And Updike is gone. I regret that he did not get to write his fictional version of race in the United States during the era of Obama. I am convinced that he would have been brutally honest — exactly what is needed whenever race is at issue.

Updike brutally honest on race 01/31/09 [Last modified: Sunday, February 1, 2009 2:53am]
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