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Reply to "Is John Updike our Howells?"
I too have been struck by the Howells-Updike connection, most powerfully when I read James Schiff's "Updike Ignored: "The Contemporary Independent Critic" (American Literature, September, 1995, 531-552). I realized that at many points in the article the name Updike could be replaced withCritic" (American Literature, September, 1995, 531-552). I realized that at many points in the article the name Updike could be replaced with Howells and make perfect sense. (I'll quote a couple below.) So strong, in fact, was this sense of connection that when I got to the first sentence of Schiff's conclusion--"As a critic Updike most resembles Henry James"--I marked out James and wrote "WDH !" in the margin of my copy.Return to Howells Society Main Page (frames) (no frames)
Now for some of those sentences in which the names are interchangeable:
" . . . by writing so much criticism in such respected periodicals, Updike acquires for himself such powerful presence in the reviewing world that novelists and writers assigned to review his books may be less likely to attack him." (537--shades of Thomas Wentworth Higginson on WDH)
"More important in evaluating Updike as a critic is his role in redrawing the global literary map by introducing foreign writers to American readers and contextualizing them within the international literary scene." (540) readers and contextualizing them within the international literary scene." (540)
"In serving American readers, Updike has also served foreign and American writers, providing them, through his stature as a novelist and his affiliation with the New Yorker, a high degree of visibility. An appreciative review by Updike can significantly enhance a writer's reputation . . . " (542)
"Though a number of American writers are exploring the territory to which Updike refers, he seems to be suggesting that America's wealth and security have limited the scope of its fiction. This criticism applies to no one more than to Updike himself, who has often been criticized for focusing too much on moral anxiety in upper-middle-class suburbia." (544)
"In addition to his familiarity with foreign literature, Updike has a number of other qualities that make him a particularly strong critic: intimate knowledge of the novelist's craft; the ability to write in what Harold Bloom refers to as 'a major style'; tremendous intelligence and erudition; and an understanding of and need to comment upon a writer's entire oeuvre. . . . As for Updike's style, even his harshest critics find much to admire. . . . The key to understanding Updike's style is his use of metaphor . . .." (546; I have begun keeping a list of Howells' metaphors for reading and writing literature, starting with the comparison to stage-coach travel with which he begins his review of Miss Ravenel's Conversion; they are many and delicious)
And so on. Schiff's only direct comparison of Howells and Updike is based on (and bring up the "Twilight Zone" theme to underscore the eerie comparison) the exact same quote with which Terry Oggel ended his piece on the WDH-JU connection. After quoting Updike's remark "It is hard to see, more than eight decades later, what else can be done" Schiff asserts "Yet Updike's taste for 'accuracy' and 'lifelikeness' need not suggest that he is a devotee of Howells's kind of realism, which avoids both sexuality and despair," precisely the point Terry answers. Finally, what most interests me is the purpose Schiff identifies for his project: "If Updike is, then, one of the most visible, prolific, successful, and (for some) brilliant critics in contemporary American literature, why are there no studies of his work in this area? . . . My objective in these pages is to present the first sustained treatment of Updike's critical prose and to define Updike as a critic." (532, 535) Setting aside the words "contemporary" and "first," I suggest that Schiff's paper on Updike is a good reminder of how much more there is to discover about Howells as a critic. Thank goodness we now have those three fat Indiana edition volumes of selected Howells criticism to work with. And thanks to Terry Oggel for a provocative posting!
Weber State University