Magazine | June 24, 2019, Issue


John Updike (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

Updike the Conservative

I am looking at a postcard I once received from John Updike as I contemplate Peter Tonguette’s “Updike’s Steady Vision” (May 20). (By the way, will anyone ever again receive a missive signed on paper by an author?)

Mr. Tonguette capably examines the Library of America’s volume containing Updike’s first four novels and rightly questions some of the quirks of his early writing. But the review leaves the reader with an unbalanced and somewhat unfair impression of Mr. Updike, focusing on the growing pains of his early career (“written in a windy, pretentious style”) and including such statements as “He thought of himself as a man of the Left.”

I can’t answer for how John Updike thought of himself, but I can say, after reading and teaching his novels for several decades, that he was without question one of our country’s most conservative writers of fiction, and its best. He questions the views and the avatars of the Left and admires conservative ideas, in novel after novel, and it is likely that he was denied the Nobel Prize because of this (as he guessed), while lesser but more progressive talents received it.

As the reviewer observes, Updike took “the measure of the world as it really was.” Himself a painter, he once observed that the most important painter of the 20th century was Norman Rockwell, because he followed the tradition of the masters in representing life as it was lived in his own time. How unwoke is that? And it would seem that Updike meant to do the same thing in his writing.

Mr. Tonguette’s focus was constrained by the material he reviewed, but I hope that someday National Review will publish a thoughtful look at Updike’s worthy accomplishments and his contributions to the conservative habit of mind.

America has had relatively few conservative writers — T. S. Eliot comes to mind — and we should celebrate the great ones we have had, such as John Updike.

Dean Bevan
Professor Emeritus of English
Baker University
Baldwin City, Kan.

Peter Tonguette responds: I agree with Mr. Bevan’s characterization of John Updike as one of the great contemporary conservative writers. That is why I roamed beyond the books contained in the Library of America’s collection and referenced Updike’s defense of the nation’s leaders during the Vietnam War and his comments on the mortgage crisis, neither of which renders him a bleeding-heart liberal. And I focused on Updike’s representation of “the world as it really was” for the same reason: I agree that looking at the world realistically is a conservative impulse.

Yet I could not overlook Updike’s own comments on his liberal heritage. In his essay “On Not Being a Dove,” he sketches his long history as a voter for Democratic presidential candidates, including Stevenson, Kennedy, and Johnson. And, in an essay in the New York Times Book Review in 2012, Sam Tanenhaus recalls a conversation with Updike about the 2008 presidential contest: “I’m so for Obama,” Updike told Tanenhaus, “that I can’t imagine creating a character who wouldn’t vote for him.”

I was bound by fairness at least to allude to Updike’s persistent attachment to the Left, despite the conservative tendencies Mr. Bevan and I both perceive in his work.

NR Editors includes members of the editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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