The Other John Updike: Poems/Short Stories/Prose/Play by Donald J. Greiner, and: John Updike and the Three Great Secret Things: Sex, Religion, and Art by George Hunt (review)
- Studies in American Fiction
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 11, Number 2, Autumn 1983
- pp. 268-269
- View Citation
- Additional Information
268Reviews Greiner, Donald J. The Other John Updike: Poems/Short Stories/Prose/ Play. Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1981. 297 pp. Cloth: $18.95. Hunt, George. John Updike and the Three Great Secret Things: Sex, Religion, and Art. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980. 232 pp. Cloth: $13.95. Two recently published books about John Updike contribute variously to our understanding of this significant contemporary American author. Donald Greiner's modest but laudable purpose in The Other John Updike is not to convince readers that the writer's volumes of poetry, short fiction, miscellaneous prose, and one closet drama (Buchanan Dying) are superior to his novels but that they are at least worthy of consideration. In an attempt to achieve this purpose, Greiner devotes a fairly short chapter ofwhat is essentially "appreciation" to each Updike volume, in the process touching upon most examples of the "other" Updike. Excluded from Greiner's study, however, are the novelistic Bech: A Book, Problems and Other Stories, and Too Far to Go (which, despite their 1979 publications, must have appeared after Greiner's manuscript was written). Also missing, for reasons not explained, are any references to Updike's adaptations of classics for children (The Tin Flute, Bottom's Dream). The volume contains a checklist ofthe dates and places of first publication of the collected "other Updike." It lacks a bibliography of secondary material, although Greiner refers to critical commentary in his footnotes and his typical strategy throughout his book is to begin chapters by summarizing comments made by book reviewers, which he then attempts either to expand upon or to challenge. The dust jacket of The Other John Updike calls the book "a major contribution" to Updike scholarship. Unfortunately, the publicist is wrong. Too much of Greiner's discussion , particularly of the short fiction—the subject of the study's weakest chapters—is unpersuasively impressionistic: "He [Updike] may be our master of the fiction of domestic crisis because he knows the way the kitchen looks and what the family says"; "Despite the gentle portraits of the betrayed women who continue to inspire love, Updike's many short stories ofAmerican marriage are effective primarily because of his empathy with the male's point of view." Moreover, in his many attempts to defend Updike from the critics who accuse him of having "nothing to say," Greiner's observations are frequently commonplace ("Updike is our chronicler ofsuburban tension") or, on some occasions, totally unconvincing, even for admirers of the writer: "Updike's insights about the fallacies of Americans abroad are telling. . . . Everyone wants to love us, but all we offer in return is money and an energetic, relatively benign presence"; "Most of all, the stories about the Maples are valuable because of the insight Updike brings to them. He shows that he has been there, that he understands the elemental constituents' of marriage: Woman, man, house." In trying to convince readers of Updike's importance, Greiner also refers several times to the authors contributions to the development of the "American short story." Unfortunately, since the book contains no theoretical or historical discussion of the genre, such statements remain irritatingly vague and general. Sections of Greiner's study are worthwhile, particularly his comments on Updike s poems (which have "the serious purpose of reminding us how versatile the English language can be"), but in general The Other John Updike is a disappointing book. On the other hand, George Hunt's John Updike and the Three Great Secret Things is, despite an unsurprising thesis and an occasionally convoluted prose style, a provocative, stimulating study. Taking his title from the autobiographical "The Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood ," Hunt argues that the subjects of sex (in the early fiction), religion (with The Music School in 1966), art (with A Month of Sundays in 1975), and their interrelationships dominate Updike's writings. Beginning with his analysis of The Poorhouse Fair, Hunt Studies in American Fiction269 includes substantial discussions of all the novels (and the short story cycle, Bech: A Book) up to and including The Coup, as well as briefer commentary about the "other" Updike (two short stories, "The Astronomer" and "Leaves," are studied in depth). Some of the most useful analyses in Hunt...