Amherst Magazine

Amherst Authors

Books Reviewed:

What They Are Reading
Books from Susan Snively's course, "Writers and the Writing Life"

Amherst College Books
Quick takes on books by Amherst faculty and alumni


Books Reviewed

Updike: America's Man of Letters
By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD '53, Henry Clay Folger Professor of English. South Royalston, Vt.: Steerforth Press, 2000. 351 pp. $27 hardcover.

A writer in search of a critical biographer could scarcely do better than William H. Pritchard. As readers of his earlier books on Frost and Randall Jarrell know, Pritchard is both a shrewd and a generous critic, an unshowy writer who doesn't build walls around books but instead opens new passageways into them. Perhaps most important, he seems to have survived 40 years in a spiritually hazardous trade with his love of literature intact.

In John Updike, Pritchard has found a subject perfectly matched to his sensibilities. Too perfectly matched? It is a question Pritchard acknowledges himself, pointing out that, along with being an exact contemporary of the author, he shares all sorts of biographical peculiarities that may contribute to what he says has been an "affinity, deep, not quite explicable, with a writer whose vision of things seemed immensely attractive to me. . . ." This is (and he will make no further apology for it) a book whose essential agenda is measured, judicious, but emphatic praise.

Pritchard's first claim for Updike is contained in the subtitle and reinforced at once: "he is our pre-eminent man of letters." With an astonishing 50 books published, working successfully in three genres (fiction, poetry, and criticism), and a winner at one time or another of all the major national literary awards, Updike is an odds-on favorite for that title on the stats alone, and it's not one his detractors are likely to quibble about. (Nor are they likely to object to Pritchard's comparing him to Willliam Dean Howells—if you don't like Updike you probably don't like Howells much either.)

Updike, despite his honors, does have his detractors, and on the whole that's good news for this book. The real energy of Pritchard's enterprise goes toward arguing that Updike deserves our highest regard as an artist, and toward defending him against his critics. The current of feeling against Updike runs from exasperation ("Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?") to little less than moral condemnation for his "radical self-absorption." (Both of these phrases from David Foster Wallace.) At the heart of the case stands the charge that the fecundity of his prose hides hollowness at the core, that he is all style and no substance.

That Updike's "self" has been an inadequate instrument of understanding is an argument that Pritchard refuses to accept, and he contends in fact that the "unfolding of that self has been also the unfolding of a society and a nation—America in the second half of our century." He reminds us that for a solipsist Updike has lavished a great deal of attention, and indeed admiration, on the observable world, on speech and gesture and furniture and landscape. Indeed it might be said of Updike what John O'Hara wanted said of himself: "Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time . . . ." That truth in no small part being the elemental reality of the ways things looked and smelled and sounded. Moreover, as Pritchard demonstrates, this is a more various body of work in subject matter than it might seem. Updike has given us a couple of thoroughly realized micro-worlds—the rural Pennsylvania of his youth, the suburban enclave of his adult years—but he has taken us also to other continents (The Coup and Brazil), has taken us to the past (In the Beauty of the Lilies) and to the future (Toward the End of Time) and on at least one occasion into a feminine consciousness (the hilarious S). In addition to assorted plainly autobiographical surrogates, he has produced two other distinctive and recurrent heroes—Rabbit Angstrom of the tetrology that started with Rabbit, Run, and the Jewish writer Bech, hero of various titles bearing his name. (One could argue, to be sure, that they too are alternative Updikes—Rabbit an id and Bech an ego.)

The essential body of evidence for Updike's scope—for his ability to write about (and to) the culture beyond his North Shore gentility—must be found largely in the Rabbit books. Some readers have found Rabbit (far less than an "id") to be merely a vessel for Updike's thoughts, high and low. The criticism is two-pronged and paradoxical. On the one hand some of Rabbit's interior perceptions seem to some readers too "poetic" to be plausible. On the other hand, much of his speech is so raw and politically incorrect that it is taken to reveal various unseeemly prejudices within the author. Pritchard couldn't be more cogent in rebuttal to this simplistic way of reading. He defends, for instance, one of those passages of throw-away eloquence that litter Updike's pages, a scene in which the Rabbit of the final novel is looking out his window on a summer evening and remembers the screens on the windows of his first apartment: "Tragedy lay in a certain filtered summer breath they admitted, the glint of sun along segments of the mesh. . . ." Pritchard nicely explicates this scene in which the little image takes us back through years and the tragedy turns out not to be overstated at all, but to be implicit in human life. To dispute the author's power to infuse such wordless moments with understanding would be to deny consciousness to a number of great characters in literature; moreover it would deny us our own experience of unarticulated feeling.

And yet is there not something disquieting about Rabbit as a fictional character? The difficulty, I think, lies with the sense that he has been conceived and nurtured by his creator not in love or curiosity but in a kind of chilly dispassion. As Pritchard
observes, Rabbit has his origins in a rather slight early story called "Ace in the Hole," a portrait of a former high school basketball hero who already, his adulthood scarcely begun, has discovered that his life has passed its peak. It is quite easy to imagine this character as taken from life—whose public high school did not include such a figure? The story, in any case, is written with what feels like schadenfreude, and I'm not sure that that sentiment is ever really absent from the Rabbit saga. Of course, one has to say at once that some 1,500 pages have followed that little story, and the extraordinary invention, the wit, the vividness of place, and, yes, the delicious vulgarity that has gone into these books have provided abundant entertainment. But Rabbit himself never quite escapes one image his name evokes—that of the laboratory animal. That quality seems to me what stands—all that stands—between these books and the "genius" that Pritchard wants to claim for them.

Proceeding more or less chronologically through the work, Updike gathers force, like the career itself. Perversely, Pritchard makes us eager to read the book he explicitly disavows any interest in writing—i.e, a full-blown biography, and the pity is that one knows that the life of Updike when it finally is written will have little hope of being done by someone of Pritchard's literary sophistication. Taking the book on its own terms, it is probably not unfair to wish that Pritchard had given us more head-and-shoulders shots and fewer extreme close-ups, that he stepped back from the text more often than he does to construct the mind of author. Every such moment that he has provided proves illuminating and valuable and one only wishes there were more of them. But Updike is as lucid, thoroughgoing, and persuasive a celebration of John Updike's achievement as the writer is likely to receive in his lifetime. And it is a fine addition to Pritchard's own growing shelf—a body of work that reaffirms the power of the reasoning heart as a tool of literary criticism.

—Richard Todd '62
The reviewer, a writer and editor, lives in Ashfield, Mass.

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Early Modern Visual Culture: Representation, Race, Empire in Renaissance England
Edited by PETER ERICKSON '67 and Clark Hulse. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. 368 pp. Cloth $62.50, paper $27.50.

If you've been wondering what the arguments concerning current literary criticism are all about, this volume of collected essays might be a good place to find out. Both of the editors, who were graduated from Amherst and Williams respectively in the late '60s, are respected scholars who have spent most of their professional lives in English departments. So are most of the eight other contributors to the volume; several are art historians. These disciplinary distinctions, however, have become elided in recent years, as the ancient boundaries between fields of knowledge are blurred, if not obliterated, by the marching feet of critics in search of new territories on which to impose the stern rule of their new theories and methodologies.

Thirty years or so have passed since the study of literature in America's colleges and universities began to change radically. Previously, the goal of most scholarship and teaching had been to explicate texts to get at some sense of what a contemporary reader might have understood them to mean, whether on their own terms or in relation to broader literary or historical contexts. After the so-called "linguistic turn" in the late '60s, such traditional concerns began to yield to new approaches. A younger generation of teachers, heavily influenced both by current French and German thinking in philosophy, linguistics, and psychoanalytic theory—and by the countercultural values emerging from the anti-war and civil rights move-ments and the sexual revolution—sought to turn the study and teaching of literature on its head. English departments, which had legitimately been regarded as among the most conservative guardians of traditional scholarly and cultural values, quickly emerged as the vanguard of an academic cultural revolution. A new sense of relativism helped to justify this altered approach to the past. Thus, a "New Historicism" built massive interpretive structures on what might earlier have been regarded as a minor, if perhaps modestly revealing, anecdote. Feminist scholars sought out the work of unjustly neglected women writers, also applying modern feminist (sometimes called gender) theory to discussions of women in early modern Europe. "Post-colonial" theorists—specialists in gay and lesbian issues, matters of otherness ("alterity" is the fashionable term) like ethnicity, religion and race—and Marxists (who morphed into "cultural materialists" and have now re-invented themselves as experts in "cultural studies") have recently carried the day.

Historians, musicologists, art historians, and certain other specialists have generally been reluctant to embrace the theoretical and methodological transformations roiling the world of English and romance languages. In those fields, and in such related fields as archaeology, classics, and the histories of philosophy and religion, change has tended to remain at the margins. In these fields, archival research, analysis of the available evidence, and conclusions carefully grounded on the evidence remain crucial to the enterprise. These fields have also maintained a relative freedom from the sometimes impenetrable jargon that tends to repel the general reader's attention from much recent literary criticism.

It is a sad but well-founded paradox that of all academic humanists, some English professors nowadays tend to write the least accessible English. Nevertheless, while the titles of papers presented at the MLA continue to provoke parodies and satirical stories in The New York Times, some of the most interesting and challenging voices in the academy emanate from English departments. Lately, literary scholars have begun to focus attention on works of art, bringing to the various media of non-verbal expression the techniques of analysis, which have by now been applied to all but the most trivial literary texts. In this volume, paintings and sculptures come in for discussion, but so do textiles, maps, drawing, prints, and book illustrations. In the current world of early modern studies, at least in the United States, there is a hierarchy of interests according to which race trumps ethnicity, ethnicity trumps gender, and gender issues trump other forms of social control and/or exploitation. But all of these issues are present here, as the authors seek to show—naturally with varying degrees of success—how the visual arts contribute to the early modern complex of "representations of the body, of race, of nation, and of empire."

The present volume was written by scholars for scholars. Predictably, some of the articles presuppose technical or substantive background that most readers of Amherst don't have. Happily, however, there are several lively and engaging essays that any educated reader would find illuminating. The most intellectually exciting piece, oddly enough, has practically nothing to do with England. Harry Berger Jr.'s "Second-World Prosthetics: Supplying Deficiencies of Nature in Renaissance Italy" is, if you can get past the trendy title, a deft meditation on representations of the body in Italian art theory, anatomical illustration, and related areas. Similarly, Stephen Orgel's "Idols of the Gallery: Becoming a Connoisseur in Renaissance England" is a brilliant slide-lecture, transferred to print, explaining the collecting practice of the Earl of Arundel, England's first non-royal collector of continental art.

The 10 other essays included here will also be important to specialists, and will reward the interested reader who is willing to spend some time decoding the intricacies of post-structuralist academic prose. But forewarned is forearmed—even elementary grammar occasionally ends up on the sacrificial altar of theory. Thus (p.362), "In some fourteenth-century images of Sheba, she and her servants' skins are painted dark blue." Somewhere along the line, an English professor or two should've caught that. But that's all right. As Professor Joseph Koerner of Harvard says (with calculated ambiguity?) on the jacket blurb: "As a picture of what might be most profitably studied in the visual culture of early modern England and of how to conduct scholarship in the field, the volume is exemplary."

—Werner Gundersheimer '59
Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library

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