Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom


Rabbit Run (1959); Rabbit Redux (1971); Rabbit Is Rich (1981); Rabbit At Rest (1990); Rabbit Remembered (2000), by John Updike

I reread them over the past month, February, 2009; some 1,849 pages dramatizing the life and times of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, one-time high school basketball star in small-town Pennsylvania and twenty-six when we first meet him during the Eisenhower years; and from there, through the rest of his life from the 60s/LBJ, the 70s/Carter, the 80s/Reagan, and the 90s/George H.W. Bush when Rabbit passes at fifty-six; he’s remembered by his family and friends in 2000 just after the Clinton presidency.

The late Updike is, I think, among a handful of American literary masters: Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson, Twain, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Ellison, Bellow and Didion.

It is important to recall that Updike greatly admired Queen Gertrude’s fundamental observation to Prince Hamlet: “All things that live must pass through nature to eternity.”

He invented in the Rabbit books an irresistible, entrancing way of dramatizing the American Experience of passing through nature as undergone by the (Un)Common Man: present tense; Rabbit’s shallow as well as deep impressionism moment-to-moment; intense, poetic realism in that impressionism (not a “contradiction” but the highest art); and sensing the world with a demonstrable profundity through the semi-educated middle class hero who is, finally, an entrapped American whose limited purview nevertheless and miraculously becomes an Open Road. It’s as though Rabbit, stuck in one place, were simultaneously on a train and as he sees the foreground sliding quickly past, is aware of the American background of his day parading more slowly. Yes, the artistic wonder is, Rabbit is largely a provincial who mainly stays home in his little corner of Pennsylvania. Yet we sense at once and throughout his odyssey that he is an adventurer.

Updike, standing on the shoulders of Old World masters Joyce, Proust and Nabokov whom he soon ignores after their invaluable teachings, knew that Copland’s (let alone Norman Rockwell’s) Common Man is Uncommon. Updike, the storytelling genius, and Rabbit, the over-the-hill basketball star, are, of course, somewhat one and the same. In their kinship, Updike can in mere words render entirely believably, and wondrously, Rabbit’s impressions and emotions.

Here’s Rabbit seeing the Pennsylvania countryside in autumn:

“…a straight stretch between valleys of red earth and pale corn stubble. The country is beautiful. Fall has lifted that heavy Pennsylvania green, the sky is cleared of the suspended summer milk, the hills edge into shades of amber and flaming orange that in another month will become the locust-husk tint that crackles underfoot in hunting season.”

Rabbit’s experiences, such as that one of a Pennsylvania autumn, are told in the third person/present tense. Updike said that thereby he purified and lent immediacy to the narrative yet did not burden it with much explicit erudition: the approach could enrich the drama with Updike’s erudition and acuity but bring it indirectly to Rabbit and discipline Updike the novelist.

Updike’s great realism and immediacy in rendering Rabbit, while Updike remains invisible as the almost baroque literary magician behind Rabbit–the hidden “third person” here–creates a highly reliable epistemology that shows rather than lecture and philosophize about, much of what “America” means in an individual and in a cultural sense. Updike imparts much trustworthy, believable understanding and explanation about us and brings all the great joys of high art.

Updike’s going deeply into the “conscious” and “subconscious” experience of Rabbit isn’t Freudian, Christian or Zen or any other theoretical approach in the way he does it, but splendidly “primitivist.” He’s a little like Emily Dickinson who sought to “unname” the male-dominated poetic tradition by discarding it bluntly and wanting to begin anew with new forms.

This “primitivism” with its focus on living in the Present is very much New World literature. In Joyce and Dante and many other Old World dramas, you can’t get away from the Past; which is to say, you adapt such forms as allegories, e.g., Ulysses operates on several temporal levels at the same time, i.e., the action occurs over one day in modern Dublin but parallels ancient mythic traditions, most notably parallels to Homer, and Old World legend and lore: Stephen is Stephen but at nearly every step and episode he is older heroes and dramas. Dante certainly brings such allegorical writing to The Divine Comedy. And we have Shakespeare scavenging old, classic history books for stories. (There is one Updike novel, the wonderful The Centaur, which reminds of this Old World approach, and we may be sure that Updike was acutely aware of classical sources.)

The Rabbit novels allude to Peter Rabbit here and there, and there are other allusions, but nothing like the massive allusions of  literary masters staggering around in Old(er) Worlds under the weight of thousands of years of established tradition, and having to find allegorical ways to get that huge, hovering Past into the present drama, in order to make sense of their current day.

Updike is of the New World.

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