There have always been readers of John Updike’s work who find his most impressive achievement to be his short fiction rather than his novels.
Excepting the four Rabbit Angstrom novels, this is a plausible judgment. About 10 years ago, Updike collected the stories he had written between 1953 and 1975; his death in 2009 left the remainder of them uncollected. So it is an event of some moment to see 186 stories (the ones about the Maple family and about Henry Bech have been saved for later publication) chronologically arranged and splendidly edited by Christopher Carduff for the Library of America.
Carduff has already brought out posthumous volumes of Updike’s prose and the uncollected essays and reviews of his art criticism. The editorial contribution here, a very large one, consists of pertinent notes to the stories, along with the date that they were submitted for publication, and when and where they were ultimately published. In addition to this well-executed labor, Carduff has provided a 40-page chronology of Updike’s life that constitutes a mini-biography, with all sorts of information previously unknown to readers, certainly to this one. To read through the stories in the order of their writing and publication is to experience the astonishing feat of personal and artistic creation that was Updike’s.
After the New Yorker accepted his story “Ace in the Hole,” about a Rabbit-like ex-basketball star, Updike signed, in 1954 at the age of 22, a lifetime agreement with the magazine that all his work—fiction, poetry, nonfiction prose—be first submitted to them before it was offered elsewhere. Updike managed an enviable relationship with his editors (Katharine White, and then William Maxwell and Roger Angell) and with the magazine until his death. If, as often happened, they rejected a story he sent in, he invariably placed it elsewhere. It is surprising to see, through Carduff’s editorial comment, how, for one reason or another, such a fine story as “Varieties of Religious Experience,” written after 9/11, was rejected. Indeed, the assumption that Updike had a free pass on anything he sent the New Yorker is contradicted by the fact that of his last 10 stories, written between 2008 and 2009, 5 were declined for one reason or another, even though one sees no decline in the quality of the writing.
In his foreword to Collected Early Stories (2003), Updike noted that happiness has never been the subject of fiction: Instead, “discontent, conflict, waste, sorrow, [and] fear” were its inevitable subjects. Yet, he added, we expect happiness as a reward for reading. “Art hopes to sidestep mortality with feats of attention, of harmony, of illuminating connection”—all in the effort to give, in the final sentence of his foreword, “the mundane its beautiful due.”
Updike never wavered from this working assumption. His early memoir, “The Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood,” spoke of “middleness” as the primary subject of his art: whether experienced as a boy growing up with his parents and grandparents in a sandstone farmhouse in Pennsylvania; or as a married, then divorced, man negotiating between wife, children, and wife-to-be; or as a man of seven decades looking back over the furniture of his life.
Since his death, my impression is that his reputation has slipped a bit, as if reading fiction about discontent, sorrow, and fear is not to play for high enough stakes. Here, the contrasting example is Philip Roth, whose novels from the last 20 years have qualified for those higher stakes: the obscene extremities of Sabbath’s Theater (1995); the desolating tale of disaster in American Pastoral (1997); the violent end of doomed lovers in The Human Stain (2000). No one dies at the end of an Updike story, nor is any character in one a plausible candidate for tragedy. The voice at the end is a composed one—chastened, rueful, ironic, but with some note of confirmation, of control.