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.
In one of his most beautiful late stories, “A Sandstone Farmhouse,” a son revisits his mother’s house after her death. The story provides much information about how such houses were built in the 19th century, and Updike commented that it was “about things—how they mutely witness our flitting lives, and remain when the lives are over, still mute, still witnessing, still resolutely themselves and nothing else.” Bearing witness is one of the metaphors he uses to describe his writerly task: the celebration of things that cannot speak for themselves. In “Plumbing,” an old plumber explains why a pipe has to be replaced, telling his customer that, replaced, “It’ll outlast your time here.” The last paragraph gives us the plumber’s wide-open eyes, “in the unspeaking presence of corrosion and flow.” Its final sentence is its moral: “All around us we are outlasted.”
"Plumbing” is one of the many stories Updike wrote that aren’t exactly “stories”; that is, they don’t have characters or much, if any, plot, but they unfold themselves as meditative, speculative improvisations, fueled by the elegant power of a writer’s sentences. Updike himself referred to this mode as “abstract personal,” adding that it was not a favorite of his critics. It first surfaces in a very early story, “Toward Evening,” where nothing happens except in the thoughts of a young married father who, after supper, looks out from his small apartment across the Hudson toward the Palisades, and remarks the nightly lighting of a Spry sign advertising vegetable shortening. At the story’s end, the Spry sign has provoked thoughts about the small cities surrounding it and the black river with its “uncreated if illegible stars.”
The story would be predictive of much future Updike, right down to his final tales. He made particular use of this abstract personal mode in stories he wrote in the early 1960s, featuring a man, his wife, and the “other woman” for whom he considers leaving his wife. “Leaves,” “The Stare,” “The Music School,” and “Harv is Plowing Now” are strong examples of this mode.
Updike once said that the book of his he liked best was Olinger Stories (1964), the collection of pieces about a young boy growing up (“Pigeon Feathers,” “Flight”), going away to college, coming home to visit (“The Happiest I’ve Been”), and becoming a married man living in Massachusetts who is called home by his father’s illness. Two portmanteau stories made up of incidents held together through poetic linkage—“The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother’s Thimble, and Fanning Island” and “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car”—are among the finest expressions of the “Pennsylvania thing” he had within him. These endlessly rereadable stories are told through a voice that is, by turns, generous, troubled, daring, guilty, and almost always humorous—humor being a quality that Updike plentifully exhibited in his fiction but that has not been enough remarked on or appreciated by his critics.
One of the challenges of short fiction is ending a story without making it too obviously a wink at the reader or a clever turn of phrase that fails to do justice to what has preceded it. Two of Updike’s later stories stand out as ones in which he has triumphantly solved this problem: The first is titled “Journey to the Dead,” and is about a woman, dying of a stroke, whom the male protagonist visits in the hospital. Fredericks, the man, had been a classics major in college and thinks about visitations to the dead in The Odyssey and Aeneid. Bidding the woman goodbye, he says, awkwardly and inadequately, “I’m afraid I have to, as they say, split.” She unsmilingly stares back at him, as he “promises insincerely to come again, and, like heroes before him, fled.” If it’s not heroic, neither is it to be mocked.
The second ending is from the above-mentioned “Sandstone Farmhouse,” where the son, having disposed of his mother’s farm, feels “guilty, anxious, displaced. He had always wanted to be where the action was, and what action there was, it turned out, had been back there.” This formulation could serve as epigraph for all of Updike’s revisitations to the Pennsylvania thing.
Reading chronologically through the later stories makes us more aware of a man growing old, concerned, as the title of one of his stories suggests, with “personal archaeology”—the range of memory playing over the terrain traversed. In Updike’s final story, “The Full Glass,” a man brushes and flosses his teeth dutifully, prepares his daily batch of pills, and puts in some eye drops; as he does this, he likes to have a full glass of water ready to provide a “healthy swig” to wash the pills down.
The man, in every sense a stand-in for the author, proceeds to recall and review a number of “full glass” moments from his past. As the story ends, the man with his “life-prolonging pills” cupped in his left hand, there is one final reflection: “If I can read this strange old guy’s mind aright, he’s drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned.” I can’t imagine a fictional endpoint more poignant, and also more bemused, than this strange old guy celebrating the visible world that Updike made so fully visible to us in his lifetime of writing.
William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.