John Updike and the Cold War: Drawing the Iron Curtain

John Updike and the Cold War: Drawing the Iron Curtain

John Updike and the Cold War: Drawing the Iron Curtain

John Updike and the Cold War: Drawing the Iron Curtain


One of the most enduring and prolific American authors of the latter half of the twentieth century, John Updike has long been recognized by critics for his importance as a social commentator. Yet, John Updike and the Cold War is the first work to examine how Updike's views grew out of the defining element of American society in his time -- the Cold War. D. Quentin Miller argues that because Updike's career began as the Cold War was taking shape in the mid-1950s, the world he creates in his entire literary oeuvre -- fiction, poetry, and nonfiction prose -- reflects the optimism and the anxiety of that decade.

Miller asserts that Updike's frequent use of Cold War tension as a metaphor for domestic life and as a cultural reality that affects the psychological security of his characters reveals the inherent conflict of his own world. Consequently, this conflict helps explain some of the problematic relationships and aimless behavior of Updike's characters, as well as their struggles to attain spiritual meaning.

By examining Updike's entire career in light of the historical events that coincide with it, Miller shows how important the early Cold War mind-set was to Updike's thinking and to the development of his fiction. The changes in Updike's writing after the 1950s confirm the early Cold War era's influence on his ideology and his celebrated style. By the Cold War's end in the late 1980s, Updike's characters look back fondly to the Eisenhower years, when their national identity seemed so easy to define in contrast to the Soviet Union. This nostalgia begins as early as his writings in the 1960s, when the breakdown of an American consensus disillusions Updike's characters and leaves themyearning for the less divisive 1950s.

While underscoring how essential history is to the study of literature, Miller demonstrates that Updike's writing relies considerably on the growth of the global conflict that defined


I'm a product of the nearly forty years of Cold War. So naturally I've written about domestic, rather peaceable matters, while trying always to elicit the violence and tension that does exist beneath the surface of even the most peaceful-seeming life.

ÑJohn Updike, ÒAn Interview with John Updike, Ó 1988

During the first week of August 1955, the month that John Updike launched his career as a writer for the New Yorker, a record-breaking heat wave gripped New York City. Temperatures shot up so high that even the Times carried front-page stories about sweltering New Yorkers trying to protect themselves from the heat. As we look back at the lead stories that week in the Times, we realize that the temperature of the Cold War was a far more prominent concern than the hot weather; the tense headlines about strained U.S.-Soviet relationships, usually hinging upon the issue of the nuclear threat, are striking from a post-Cold War perspective. the heat wave was news because it was different, but the Cold War was news because it had to be: America's edgy relationship with the Soviet Union was the very basis for national identity for nearly half a century, from the end of World War II until the toppling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. the acclaimed author, who described himself as “a helplessly 50's guy” in 1990, became a writer in the heart of this tense time in American history, and now that it is possible to see the Cold War as a whole, it is also possible to see how it affected the trajectory of Updike's writing. Updike was fourteen when the Cold War began, and his prolific writing career largely overlaps with America's anti-Soviet identity quest. By studying Updike's . . .

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