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Go to Peg Wherry's response (1/9/99)

Note: A few months ago, after making some brief, interesting comments about Howells and Updike in a private e-mail exchange, Terry Oggel offered to develop those ideas in a public posting for the HOWELLS-L list. He recently sent me the piece attached below, adding his hope that it would stimulate comments from listmembers.    --D. Campbell

"Is John Updike our Howells?"

I've been struck for some time now about the similarity between William Dean Howells and John Updike.  For one thing, their relationship to the reading public seems similar--Updike in his fiction and his non-fiction seems to assume the same role: in his fiction, as chronicler of white middle-class life in the last half of the 20th century in America, and in his non-fiction as spokesman for that kind of writer-public relationship in his non-fiction, born of the same kind of moral responsibility which the writer has to show what life is, presumably for society's eventual improvement.

Of course there are many differences--the angst of Rabbit and the general much less "smiling well-to-do-actualities" of his vision; and of course the sex.  But these are differences in degree, not of kind, the differences within the Updike America, not differences in his view of fiction or of the role of fiction-writer.

He is as strongly moral as WDH in his fiction and in his non-fiction--that's a huge part of the similarity.  He, too, has a "theory of the novel," which he admires WDH for having and which he says is not common among writers, and his is like Howells', and consciously so.  In genres, I think the only difference is that he hasn't written plays--but
maybe he has?  His volumes of long and short fiction, unequalled in our time except by Joyce Carol Oates in sheer amount I'd say and that would include Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow, matches WDH's.  His non-fiction, also unequalled by any other contemporary writer I think, is likewise similar to WDH's: reviews of his contemporaries in the U.S. and internationally; something like a literary editorship in the New Yorker off and on for lengthy periods of time, and most important of all, lengthy
essays on earlier American writers which show how remarkably anchored he is in an American literary tradition and which show how much he sees himself as being in that tradition--specifically, the "realist" strain in it.  He is a student of his connection with his past, and in his lengthy 1987 New Yorker essay on WDH, one of two extended pieces of writing on WDH that I know of, he shows how serious and determined he is about fulfilling this role.  (The other lengthy retrospective American-writer essay I know of by Updike is on Hawthorne, whom he admires, in no small part, for his moral vision but whom, as I recall, he sees himself as not being like--Hawthorne is chosen because he represents an earlier mode, not one that meets the needs and tastes of a modern world.)  (The other lengthy piece of writing is an introduction to Indian Summer in a 1990 Library of America edition [currently out of print, alas].)

Furthermore, in and around the edges of writing on other topics, I've noticed, Updike tucks in a connection with WDH--always positive as regards WDH.  For example, just to take a very recent case, in his review of Richard Powers' Gain, while placing the writer within the context of his 20th c. contemporaries (Joyce, Pynchon, Gladdis, Vollmann, Wallace) Updike connects this novel unexpectedly, almost oddly, with Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham (New Yorker [July 27, 1998] 76).

Others (besides Updike himself) seem also to have noticed this similarity between WDH and JU:  James Atlas, for one, in a 1998 retrospective review of Nobel-Prize-for-Lit.-winner (1975) Saul Bellow, goes out of his way to invoke Updike's praise of Bellow who, Updike said, had sat atop American letters longer than anyone since Howells (New Yorker [24 & 31 1998] 97; Atlas, it seems to me, in invoking Updike in this way implies that the same Nobel honor could legitmately go to Updike--he lauds Bellow for Updike-like excellencies).

The clearest voice on this WDH-JU connection comes from Updike himself--in his trenchant, highly respectful final three sentences in his July 13, 1987 New Yorker retrospective on Howells (subtitled "Howells as anti-novelist"):

In 1903, I know not why, Charles Eliot Norton showed Howells some letters that Henry James had written him, likening Howells, with his fine style, to "a poor man holding a diamond and wondering how he can use it."  Howells' response was patience, brave, and defiant: he wrote Norton, "I am not sorry for having wrought in common, crude material so much; that is the right American stuff ... [ellipsis in original].  I was always, as I still am, trying to fashion a piece of literature out of the life next at hand."  It is hard to see, more than eight decades later, what else can be done. (88)

What do others on the Howells list think about this, I wonder?  I'd be
interested to hear.

Terry Oggel

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