- “Unyoung, Unpoor, Unblack”: John Updike and the Construction of Middle American Masculinity 1
My earliest sociological thought about myself had been that I was fortunate to be a boy and an American. Now the world was being told that American males—especially white, Protestant males who had done well under “the system”—were the root of evil. Law-abiding conformity had become the opposite of a refuge. The Vietnam era was no sunny picnic for me . . .—John Updike, Self-Consciousness: Memoirs
In a 1974 book entitled The Male Dilemma: How to Survive the Sexual Revolution, Anne Steinmann and David J. Fox describe the “pain of transition” suffered by ordinary Middle American white men attempting to come to terms with the radical changes wrought by the civil rights and sexual liberation movements. Steinmann and Fox draw attention to [End Page 331] the forced invisibility of these normative Americans who have been decentered in an era marked by the coming to visibility of others:
Whenever there is a major revolution or change in the power structure of some aspect of society, the outs, the insurgents, the underdogs always become the center of attention and receive the major share of publicity. Thus, in the United States, the activities of racial minorities and youthful rebels are given center stage, while their adversaries, the white, middle-class, middle-age establishment, sink into the shadows.
In the sexual revolution, the male has been cast as the adversary, the “enemy.”(9)
Throughout The Male Dilemma, Steinmann and Fox make liberal use of the figure of the “shadow” to describe the paradoxical condition in which white men find themselves vis-à-vis the revolutionary movements of their time: at once invisible behind the “underdogs” who have taken center stage, and newly visible as the “enemies” of change and liberation, middle-class white men become a shadowy presence-absence on the American scene. In the late sixties and early seventies, the felt social, cultural, and political marginalization of Middle American white men is articulated through the metaphor of the “silent majority,” as countless magazine articles, news programs, and books announce a crisis in American normativity. For Steinmann and Fox, that crisis stems from a massive realignment of gender positions, and it afflicts (white) men who, buried under the “avalanche of words by and about women,” have “become a symbol” spoken by others, but not themselves speaking (9). For Richard Lemon, whose The Troubled American (1969) anatomizes the alienation of white American men, the crisis is primarily racial: the “forgotten” Americans are white Americans who now lack “a voice” in national and local affairs. If contemporary studies of Middle American angst are any indication, however, these troubled Americans are remarkably vocal for those who claim to have been silenced. As the wife of John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom puts it in Rabbit Redux (1969), “‘He’s silent majority . . . but he keeps making noise’” (49).
In the first section of this essay, I analyze the emergence of the “Middle American” as white and male and argue that, paradoxically, this figure is created as the spokesperson for a normative American [End Page 332] identity unmarked by gender and race, and as a specific gendered and racialized identity. The class position of the Middle American is less clear, and the confusion between the working and middle classes evident in the discourse on his “discovery” ensures that white masculinity become a remarkably inclusive category whose internal differences are far less important than what holds it together. The category “Middle American” becomes increasingly visible following the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. It becomes visible not as a secure and self-evidently normative standard of American identity, but as a beleaguered and disenfranchised group whose rights have been trampled upon in the rush to embrace the gender, racial, and sexual “underdogs” whose demands have “silenced” the majority. Discussions of the silent majority paradoxically have the effect of making white men newly visible as a specific category of American identity, even as a wide range of commentators act to remedy the proclaimed invisibility of these “ordinary” Americans. But invisibility can be a privilege as well as a burden, and in the discourse on...