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John Updike and the Cold War:
Drawing the Iron Curtain
D. Quentin Miller. John Updike and the Cold War: Drawing the Iron Curtain. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2001. xi + 192 pp.
Though recent critical voices—David Foster Wallace, Gore Vidal, James Wood—have sought to dismiss John Updike for being "narcissistic," "reactionary," and "complacent," the author's continually expanding oeuvre is eliciting more attention than ever. Nine new critical studies have appeared since 1998, pushing the current total to more than thirty-five volumes devoted exclusively to the Updike canon. While still contested by some, Updike's place as one of the dominant American writers of the last half century is becoming increasingly indisputable.
Miller's John Updike and the Cold War is the second Updike offering from the University of Missouri Press in the last six months, and it follows Marshall Boswell's engaging theological study, John Updike's Rabbit Tetralogy. While thematic studies of a body of work as large and diverse as Updike's can be problematic, Miller leads us into new territory, extending the historical/cultural approach initiated by Dilvo Ristoff. Much of Updike criticism has focused on aesthetic and religious matters, yet Updike's employment of a vast network of sociological references and historical allusions demands that other critical approaches be taken as well.
For Miller, "America's edgy relationship with the Soviet Union was the very basis for national identity for nearly half a century," and it also served as a dominant factor in shaping Updike's oeuvre. Miller's thesis is that Updike's writings "reflect [. . .] the torturous growth of a wide-eyed, optimistic, self-assured, relatively unified nation in the 1950s into a jaded, cynical, self-doubting, fragmented, but mature nation in the 1990s."
Though the Cold War is mostly avoided as an explicit subject in Updike's early work, the turning point, according to Miller, is Vietnam, which "signified the advent of the new Cold War" and marked a schism between Updike and his fellow writers. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Updike publicly favored military intervention in southeast Asia, writing in his essay "On Not Being a Dove": "It pained and embarrassed me to be out of step with my editorial and literary colleagues."
It's no secret that in the mid-1960s historical and cultural events began to play a more prominent role in Updike's writings, for instance, [End Page 508] Couples (1968) and Rabbit Redux (1971). History, politics, and the Vietnam War were making their way into the American home, and Updike, whose milieu has always been the domestic, was picking up on this trend. Miller views Updike's work during these years as undergoing turmoil and change, to the degree that his career is "bifurcated by the Vietnam War; before the war, 'we-they' competition provided the backdrop for his writings. After the war, his writing takes a nostalgic turn; his characters long for earlier times when their lives were simpler."
Much of Miller's attention is devoted to the Rabbit novels. He reminds us that Updike kills off his greatest creation, Harry Angstrom, just as the Cold War ends, as if Harry's identity is so intimately linked to the Cold War that he cannot survive its aftermath. In addition, Miller discusses the Bech books, The Coup, The Witches of Eastwick, In the Beauty of the Lilies, and Toward the End of Time. Henry Bech, he observes, "grew directly out of Updike's impressions of the Soviet Union." Demonstrating how Updike's depiction of Russia is associated with the feminine and America with the masculine, he suggests that "the distance between the superpowers is somehow related to the distance between the sexes." Elsewhere he points out that the Soviet Union, not Africa, as most assume, is crucial to our understanding of The Coup.
I'm dubious, however, of whether the Cold War offers the most "lasting and pervasive context" for considering Updike's work. As is true of many thematic...