Memorialist of Suburbia


John Updike, the bard of the suburbs, died this week. He was one of the first great American writers to revel in the opportunity, beauty and convenience that the suburbs have long reflected. His voice, first found in the sixties, acted as a reasonable anchor in the tempest of radicalism that swept through the country. He empathized with the American dream rising in the raw suburbs being carved from agricultural land.

Where ancestors once had wrestled a living from the soil, Updike’s generation found comfort, convenience and a dream. They found plenty where a generation previous only found enough to keep them alive. At a time when academics, avant-garde filmmakers and urban intellectuals scoffed at suburbia, Updike explained it. He understood the obvious reasons – “practical attractions: free parking for my car, public education for my children, a beach to tan my skin on, a church to attend without seeming too strange”. That is still what draws people to the edge of town.

Updike viewed the miles of identical houses the middle class aspired to as the pinnacle of civilization. He was never condescending. He genuinely loved what the suburbs represented and what they offered the masses moving from the cramped quarters of the ghettos and slums of the pre-war cities. He himself knew firsthand the other source of suburban migrants – the hardscrabble rural environs where life was often both difficult and limited.

Updike wanted nothing more than the convenience and steady food and work that he could find in the suburbs of Boston. The cold, bleak, boring hell of rural life was not for him. He saw nature as something that his religious sensibilities told him it was: a chaotic force to be tamed for the benefit of man.

His novels described the lives of characters in the sixties and seventies, caught up in the whirlwind of suppressed and released human desires which challenged these suburban dreamers. His sex scenes were more biological than erotic. They showed the new morality that was being formed in the suburbs, the breaking down of the old structures of the village and the urban neighborhood, which in many essentials were the same thing.

In Seek My Face he talks of Manhattan by saying that each block represented a village in the old country. That was fine for the first generation, which needed that fabric of support and familiarity but that was not enough of a dream for the next generation. The Dream was the cheap Cape Cods that were being erected by the thousands over the Nassau County line by the Levitt brothers.

Updike presented the suburbs for what they were to his generation: an escape from the villages and suffocating urban neighborhoods that trapped the previous generation. The freedom they gained was that of the nuclear family structure – the end to the rule of elders, cousins and priests. He celebrated suburbia as it rarely has been – as a peculiarly American miracle. It did not need to be demeaned, but seen as the perfection of thousands of years of evolution, the home to thousands of hoping, dreaming members of the middle class. His description of the car is no less lyrical. It was the convenience but it was more than that. In one short story he describes the purchase of a new car. The rush of excitement associated with the purchase and the affection that forms between a family and a car. He then described the neglect that crept in as the car aged until it lies abandoned in the front yard waiting to be turned in for a newer car.

The mobility it represented is tempered with the ever present hope for the future that defines so much of what America is. The car is mobility; he describes the manner by which it frees passengers from the landscape just as it frees them from the tyranny of public transit. The car is the cocoon that is an extension of the owner’s personality, a part of who he is. It is a symbol of power and prosperity. It is an object of love.

Then there was the chance to go to church without feeling like a freak. The multicultural downtowns are filled with houses of worship catering to all classes of people. There are numerous minority churches in Manhattan catering to different races and other houses of worship for the other sundry religions in the immigrant communities, but the middle class churches are being taken over, bought out and torn down in the center. The mainline churches and megachurches that most white middle class Americans call home are on the edge of town. Updike was a master at describing the religious experience of the suburbs. In A Month of Sundays Updike describes the breakdown of a Presbyterian pastor into a nymphomaniac. It is also filled with suburbs, sex and theology. Critics stated that the narrator’s sermons are some of the most eloquent since John Donne and are a wonderful representation of the dichotomy in an America that separates church and state but can never quite get over the fact that the Pilgrim Fathers set up a Theocracy on the banks of the Charles River. The combination of the profane and the divine is apparent on the outskirts of any American city where Wal-Marts abut megachurches; some megachurches were even built in the massive husks of abandoned big box stores.

He was born in the depth of the depression to parents who dreamed of him being more and he described the quotidian with a lyricism that was an epiphany. The suburbs were a thing of beauty. He was a man who loved America for living in the future tense but constantly looking to the past for guidance. America lost one of its greatest voices in him.

Kirk Rogers lives in Germany where he teaches languages and American culture at the Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. He has been an avid reader of Updike since his early teens.

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