Listen to article
MYTH AND GOSPEL IN THE FICTION OF JOHN UPDIKE
CASCADE BOOKS, 2016
Readers looking for the latest cutting-edge scholarship on John Updike (1932-2009) might be disappointed in John McTavish’s Myth and Gospel in the Fiction of John Updike. McTavish, an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada, offers us instead a kind of bricolage: revisions and expansions of essays and reviews McTavish published since the 1970s in such venues as Theology Today, the United Church Observer, and the Huntsville Forester; reprints of articles by Alice and Kenneth Hamilton from the Christian Century and Radix; an interview with Updike appearing originally in the magazine Episcopal Life; previously collected memorial tributes by the poet J. D. McClatchy and Updike’s son David; and a selection of reminiscences solicited from various readers of Updike (you can find mine on pp. 148-49) about how they first encountered the author and why he attracted them.
Still, it seems to me that such an anomalous makeup makes this a publication of interest. Looked at on its own terms, McTavish’s book bears witness to half a century of authentic engagement with a writer he calls “one of the few literary links with the historic Christian faith” – and thus provides a diachronic record of Updike’s reception not so much within the academic community as outside it, among literate Christians exhilarated by a gifted artist who, as Michael Novak wrote in 1963, was “beginning to make religion intelligible in America.” McTavish tells us that he himself read Updike’s second novel, Rabbit, Run (1960) and then “pounced on Couples when it appeared in 1968” – but found his eyes opened “to the astonishing depths of Updike’s allegorically driven fiction” when he discovered The Elements of John Updike (Eerdmans, 1970) by the Hamiltons, the first full-length critical study of Updike. The Hamiltons were fellow Canadians, both employed at the University of Winnipeg, and Kenneth Hamilton was also a UC minister; their grateful letter following McTavish’s enthusiastic review of their book initiated a lifelong friendship. The couple planned a second study, McTavish tells us, to be titled The Myths of John Updike, but did not live to see it to fruition; his intention, therefore, was “to follow their lead.” This suggests another dimension of McTavish’s book that I rather like: the recognition that acts of reading, however solitary, occur inevitably in community, partake of shared values and perspectives and serve as well to nourish human bonds.
UPDIKE THE ALLEGORIST
McTavish’s thesis, set out in his foreword, is that “myth plays a critical role in Updike’s fiction, giving his stories much greater moral and theological gravitas than may first meet the eye”; critics have “tended to overlook the allegorical nature of Updike’s work,” he observes, “perhaps because Updike’s allegories frequently nudge the reader in the direction of the Bible and the Ch ristian gospel.” Succeeding chapters apply this principle to Rabbit, Run, The Centaur, Of the Farm, Marry Me, The Witches of Eastwick and a number of Updike’s stories and poems. McTavish is on very solid ground here: Updike himself acknowledged his “sensation that the people we meet are guises, do conceal something mythic, perhaps prototypes or longings in our minds.” And indeed, as McTavish acknowledged in 1995, Updike was “one of the very few contemporary literary figures with a worldwide reputation” who wrote “out of a distinctively Christian conviction”; he was a lifelong church member (Lutheran first, then Congregational and Episcopalian), he endorsed the Apostles’ Creed, and his familiarity with theologians such as Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth is famous.
I admit that I am no longer in complete accord with what many Christian critics have found in Updike’s fiction. The literary analyst Frederick Crews charged, already in 1986, that admirers of Updike, “in their zeal to keep him within the pietistic fold … have generally failed to see that as his career has progressed, he has radically divorced his notion of Christian theology from that of Christian ethics,” and with the appearance in 2014 of Adam Begley’s biography there can no longer be any doubt that the resolute investigation of sexuality in Updike’s novels derived at least in part from the string of adulteries that interlaced the author’s first marriage. Nor am I quite comfortable with the way Updike focused so often on the Christian promise of personal immortality, the perpetuation after death of “the self as window on the world that we can’t bear to think of shutting.” Nevertheless, McTavish’s insights – perceptive, theologically informed and expressed in a prose style so good that even Updike would have approved – provide us with a sustained and honest contemplation of an author who, perhaps more effectively than any other of his generation, asserted the continued relevance of the gospel for an immitigably fallen modern world.
Kathleen Verduin teaches English at Hope College, Holland, Michigan. Her scholarly interests include medievalism, Dante and John Updike.