Something John Updike said during a 1987 visit to Ada has put me in a bit of a writer's funk.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist died Tuesday in Massachusetts at age 76 after a bout with lung cancer.
Updike "captured a generation's confusion over the civil rights and women's movements, and opposition to the Vietnam War," wrote Hillel Italie of The Associated Press.
As a constituent of that generation, I can relate to the confusion he wrote about so eloquently. I was a college sophomore in 1981 when introduced to Updike's "Rabbit" series, a trilogy of novels - he later wrote a fourth - chronicling the struggles of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a former star high school athlete turned car salesman, "and his restless adjustment into adulthood and the constraints of work and family," as AP's Italie wrote it.
Rabbit's generation endured an erosion of national and individual self-assuredness. The '60s giddiness of technical accomplishment (man on the moon) and newfound personal freedoms (Woodstock, equal rights, civil rights and the sexual revolution) gave way to the '70s and '80s hangover-like consequences and new conflicts - Roe v. Wade, "Kramer vs. Kramer," and to a more subtle extent, Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs or Archie Bunker vs. Meathead.
Updike's Rabbit captured the angst and turbulence as these new battle lines emerged. His writings explored man's struggles with his sense of duty, his free will, fleeting youth, sexuality and religion. Beyond exhilarating new horizons awaited unknown snares and fences: Rabbit was named appropriately.
"There is a conscious morality in my work," Updike told The Lima News during an October 1987 visit to Ohio Northern University. "You can tell the good people from the bad. There is an unpleasant flaw in the human. To be alive is in some sense to kill. We take up a space that could be occupied by someone else."
Possessed of a fertile mind - some might say feral or even fetid - Updike in his personal life embodied the very opposite of his star character. Updike will be remembered as mild-mannered, law-abiding, a virtuous churchgoer. Rabbit Angstrom existed only in Updike's head - and in his books, which spoke to "that unpleasant flaw," the inner Rabbit dwelling in all of us.
Which leads me to what he said during his visit to Ada that's been feeding my blue mood.
"I might be out of short stories," the then-55-year-old author said, responding to a question from an ONU student. "It's becoming riskier and riskier to write outside my own generation. If the heroine of my story is 42, in 1986 I can related because she might be like the women I've known. She probably marched and revolted in the '60s and smoked lots of dope. But do I know about the music listened to by a generation behind me? I hate to think that's important, but it is. I grew up in a period when there were vacant lots and now there are none. I grew up in a time when there wasn't a lot of television watching."
What's that say for an aging novelist-to-be like me? Time's a-wasting. No wonder I'm in a funk.
Updike uttered this pronouncement in 1987, before the advent of the Internet. How times have changed since then.
The first FBI computer forensics lab opened in 1999 to fight a new foe known as cyber crime; that same year, Updike predicted the end of American literature. He did so during a visit to the Milwaukee public library.
"Does fiction, artistic writing, have much of a future? I must say it's on the way out," he said, quoted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; in the electronic age, it seems everybody is too distracted to be excited by Steinbeck or Faulkner, he said.
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