John Updike's Literary Via Negativa

Article excerpt

Over four decades, novelist John Updike has chronicled life in middle-class America, and more often than not his literary light has shone into hearts empty of spiritual life. Like Harry Angstrom, the leading character in his 1960 novel Rabbit, Run who seeks religious meaning through sport and sex, Updike protagonists symbolize a spiritual poverty in contemporary American society.

But the novelist declared a message of hope recently when he read two of his short stories to a national television audience of Episcopalians. The theme of spiritual emptiness, he said, should not be read as the triumph of despair. "It's true that I don't go out of my way to show lives that are edifying," Updike told a full sanctuary at historic Trinity Church on Wall Street. But, he explained, "You can write a depressing story that nevertheless ... has a redemptive quality. You can't write about the light without knowing the dark."

Updike's comments were beamed live via satellite to dozens of downlink sites around the country. He was one of several prominent speakers featured at the church's 1995 Trinity Institute conference, whose subject was "The Biblical Language for Relationships." Updike is an active Episcopalian brought up in a Lutheran family, which he once said examined everything for "God's fingerprints."

His aim as a writer, he said, is "to get us to look at the truth," and that inevitably leads to writing about people who are "at the mercy of our appetites and illusions" in a society whose Christian underpinnings have practically vanished. Even without a redemptive element, Updike suggested, sonre of his stories might have positive effects by leading readers to go about their lives "with a greater sense of clarity and a greater sense of what not to do," with emphasis on the not.

Updike studied drawing and writing at Harvard and Oxford and was heavily influenced by Swiss theologian Karl Barth. …


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