September 12th, 2009

Updike on war and the intelligentsia

[NOTE: Today, when framing a comment, I came across this previous post of mine. I think it's so important---and so relevant to another heated discussion we had recently on this blog, that I decided to repost it.]

I first read John Updike’s Vietnam War essay “On Not Being a Dove” in 1989. That’s when his memoir Self-Consciousness, the book in which it was included, was first published.

At the time the essay seemed to me to be a curiosity, a slight work of little import. After all, so many years had passed since the turmoil of the 60s and early 70s, with their fevered and nearly endless arguments about the rightness or wrongness of the Vietnam War. Updike was a reluctant hawk—or, rather, a non-dove—back then, and he explained why in the essay. But it had no particular resonance for me then, so many years after the fact.

My, the times they have a-changed. On reading the essay now, newly republished in Commentary, I find sentence after sentence to be not only extraordinarily insightful about what was going on back then, but remarkably relevant to what this country has just been through regarding Iraq. Not only that, but Updike’s description of his discomfiture in attempting to explain his more conservative stance on Vietnam to his liberal literati friends contains echoes of my own experiences with political discussions in the last few years.

In looking back from the vantage point of 1989, Updike quotes a letter he wrote in 1967 in response to a NY Times book review:

Anyone not a rigorous pacifist must at least consider the argument that this war, evil as it is, is the lesser of available evils, intended to forestall worse wars. I am not sure that this is true, but I assume that this is the reasoning of those who prosecute it, rather than the maintenance of business prosperity or the President’s crazed stubbornness. I feel in the dove arguments as presented to me too much aesthetic distaste for the President…

Updike is writing about the dislike for Johnson. I cannot help but notice that the dislike for another, more recent, Texan president is also at least partly aesthetic in nature (in fact, I compared Bush and Johnson in this respect in an earlier post).

Here is Updike in 1989:

The protest, from my perspective, was in large part a snobbish dismissal of Johnson by the Eastern establishment; Cambridge professors and Manhattan lawyers and their guitar-strumming children thought they could run the country and the world better than this lugubrious bohunk from Texas. These privileged members of a privileged nation believed that their pleasant position could be maintained without anything visibly ugly happening in the world.

There is more; much more. Updike considered himself a liberal Democrat. But his basic intelligence and drive to be honest, both with himself and others, compelled him towards quite different conclusions than most of the people with whom he hobnobbed. And to speak up about it:

I would rather live under Diem (or Ky, or Thieu) than under Ho Chi Minh and his enforcers, and assumed that most South Vietnamese would. Those who would not, let them move North. But the foot traffic, one could not help noticing in these Communist/non-Communist partitions, was South, or West, away from Communism. Why was that? And so on.

I wanted to keep quiet, but could not. Something about it all made me very sore. I spoke up, blushing and hating my disruption of a post-liberal socioeconomic-cultural harmony I was pleased to be a part of.

Updike’s fame was gained primarily as a writer of fiction; he was neither a politician, historian, nor statesman. In his essay, he asserts that writers’ views on the subject of the Vietnam War have no special authority. That is true. But his depth of thought, and the clarity with which it is expressed, creates its own authority:

My thoughts ran as follows. Peace depends upon the threat of violence. The threat cannot always be idle… It was all very well for civilized little countries like Sweden and Canada to tut-tut in the shade of our nuclear umbrella and welcome our deserters and draft evaders, but the United States had nobody to hide behind. Credibility must be maintained. Power is a dirty business, but who ever said it wasn’t?…

The Vietnam war—or any war—is “wrong,” but in the sense that existence itself is wrong. To be alive is to be a killer; and though the Jains try to hide this by wearing gauze masks to avoid inhaling insects, and the antiabortionists by picketing hospitals, and peace activists by lying down in front of ammunition trains, there is really no hiding what every meal we eat juicily demonstrates. Peace is not something we are entitled to but an illusory respite we earn. On both the personal and national level, islands of truce created by balances of terror and potential violence are the best we can hope for.

Updike loved this country and the comfortable and pleasant life he had carved out for himself within it. He never sought to become a pariah within the literary establishment; he wrote that “it pained and embarrassed me to be out of step with my magazine and literary colleagues.” But he could not embrace a position which he believed to be wrong—even if it was wildly unpopular—merely for the sake of convenience.

So, what did Updike think about the Iraq War? After all, he only died a few days ago; he was alive and kicking for most of it. After a quick Googling I was unable to find anything he wrote on the subject, but I think that this is very revealing. It’s a report by a blogger on a talk Updike gave back in 2006, in which he was asked his opinion of the war in Iraq. The questioner made a specific reference to Updike’s earlier views on Vietnam (the interviewer was Jeffrey Goldberg of the New Yorker):

Goldberg points out that John Updike had been one of the few literary figures of the 1960′s to express support for the Vietnam War, and asks him to talk about George Bush and the war in Iraq. Updike accepts the comparison and acknowledges that, as in the 1960′s, his current feelings are mixed: the war is going badly, but the Bush administration faced hard choices and deserves some sympathy for the frustrating position it’s in.

Updike is clearly a principled moderate, and it’s brave of him to insist on ignoring the popular delineations between red-state and blue-state dogmatism…

Yes, indeed. Not that it got him much praise, then or now. Last night, for example, as I was watching a Charlie Rose tribute to John Updike that featured a panel composed of Updike’s editor Judith Jones, former New Yorker editor David Remnick, and New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, the latter casually mentioned, amidst the praise and reminiscence, that “of course, Updike was on the wrong side about the Vietnam War.”

Of course. Anybody who’s anybody knows that.

40 Responses to “Updike on war and the intelligentsia”

  1. dane Says:

    Good post and look back, Neo. I see a lot of similarities with Jon Voight. Not in their overall viewpoints, but in the need to speak their minds in what they see as times of turmoil. And in making the decision to do so – going against most of those who move in their circles. Wouldn’t it have been refreshing if Tanenhaus, instead, said, “I didn’t agree with him on his stance on the War in Vietnam, but I admired his willingness to speak his mind.”

  2. Oblio Says:

    Richard Fernandez says we should pray that we don’t get to the point where the first question we ask is, “Which Side Are on You?”

  3. F Says:

    Good post, Neo. Good observation about Voigt, Dane. I agree. I spent a week with Updike many years ago: he came to an American embassy as part of an exchange program and I was his escort for the stay.

    Vietnam at the time was a divisive issue so I usually didn’t bring it up. As it now turns out, Updike and I shared a similar view on the war — I wish I had asked him about it.

    During the time we had together we talked. A lot. And I came away thinking his was a very disciplined and magnanimous mind — different from other intellectuals I worked with over the course of my career; different because I thought he was remarkably honest and thoughtful.

    Now that I’ve read Neo’s report on the earlier essay I am even more persuaded of his honesty. Having just read something about Jane Fonda this morning I can’t help but juxtapose the two minds: Updike’s and Fonda’s. Clearly, the two could not be more different.
    F

  4. huxley Says:

    So if you want to read some Updike, where do you start?

    Some years back I received Updike’s Toward the End of Time as a Christmas present. I thought it was one of the worst reading experiences of my life. Genuinely terrible and nasty.

    The only comparable piece by a big literary name was Salinger’s Hapworth 16, 1924. I couldn’t believe how bad that was either.

    They are both incredible literary train wrecks.

  5. Cappy Says:

    Updike was a member of the intellegentsia. Others, such as Thomas Friedman, are members of the stupidegentsia.

  6. Jim Says:

    While trying to track down the link “another heated discussion”, a haiku came to mind:

    Error 404 – not found
    like cherry blossom petals
    scattered in the wind
    the site has gone away.

    Perhaps it can be repaired?

  7. Don Says:

    Good post, neo.

    Paglia has an intersting new article up. She might be in the process of switching over . . .

  8. 11B40 Says:

    Greetings:

    I would just like to add a bit to your mention of Canada’s conduct during the Viet Nam war. While the government and probably most politicians in the True North were against or had misgiving about the war, many young Canadians came south, enlisted in the American military, and served honorably. I had one in my infantry squad, and except for his being a hockey-playing fool and the way he pronounced “about” as “aboot”, he was a True North brother-in-arms.

    I realize that this bit of history doesn’t fit well with the “progressive” narrative, but, if I had to, I would bet that more good men came south than failed men went north, and that’s a trade that I would make each and every day.

  9. david foster Says:

    “juxtapose the two minds: Updike’s and Fonda’s”…I wonder if Fonda considers herself an intellectual. Strange as it may seem, I bet the answer is “yes.”

  10. Tim P Says:

    Neo,
    I’m glad you revisited Updike. He showed a rare courage to speak his mind when it would have been so much easier to acquiesce in the popular view of his peers at the time. A lesson for us all.

    I also think Dane poses a good question when he asks, “Wouldn’t it have been refreshing if Tanenhaus, instead, said, “I didn’t agree with him on his stance on the War in Vietnam, but I admired his willingness to speak his mind.”
    However, that would have required honest reflection and true insight. Both are quantities that require real honesty and true character to exist and courage to be publicly voiced, especially when unpopular amongst one’s own.

    Increasingly these days, I see a lack of insight, honesty and courage among the so-called intelligentsia. No, now days we are subjected to the likes of Thomas Friedman telling us about how China’s government, or any enlightened despot would be preferable to messy democracy. In his unguarded comments, Friedman echo’s what many so-called intellectuals really think about society.
    That simply put, we are a bunch of unsophisticated rubes who haven’t the sense God gave geese and we need to be ‘managed’ by our betters, i.e. the intelligentsia. It’s an old and worn song.
    It’s an idea we can trace back throughout history. Ask the legions of dead who perished under the heel of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Iraq, Sudan, the Taliban, ad nauseum.

    It also has a rich tradition in American culture. In the 20th century it was most clearly enunciated by Walter Lippman. Lippman argued that the world had become too complex for democracy.
    From Wikipedia,

    “To his mind, democratic ideals had deteriorated, voters were largely ignorant about issues and policies, they lacked the competence to participate in public life and cared little for participating in the political process. In Public Opinion (1922), Lippmann noted that the stability the government achieved during the patronage era of the 1800s was threatened by modern realities. He wrote that a “governing class” must rise to face the new challenges. He saw the public as Plato did, a great beast or a bewildered herd – floundering in the “chaos of local opinions.”"

    Lippman’s solution (Wiki again)?

    The ‘herd’ of citizens must be governed by “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality.” This class is composed of experts, specialists and bureaucrats. The experts, who often are referred to as “elites,” were to be a machinery of knowledge that circumvents the primary defect of democracy…”

    Sound familar?

    I wonder what Updike’s reaction would have been to the popular resistance against the Obamacide being perpetrated against our nation today?

  11. F Says:

    Cappy:

    “Stupidegentsia.” YESSSSS! Thank you. F

  12. Thomass Says:

    11B40 Says:

    “in the True North were against or had misgiving about the war, many young Canadians came south”

    I think it made it in some of the histories as I’ve read about it before.

  13. Gray Says:

    The only comparable piece by a big literary name was Salinger’s Hapworth 16, 1924. I couldn’t believe how bad that was either.

    Yeah? Try to read “Vineland” by Pynchon.

    Late 20th century American Literature is utter shit.

    Pynchon, Updike, Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Sam Shepard, Mamet, John Irving, Margaret Atwood…. Compleat shit. Unreadable.

    No one actually likes this shit. The only reason people read this shit is because we want to be like the people who claim read this shit, but nobody actually reads this shit…. ‘Cuz it is unreadable shit.

  14. huxley Says:

    Gray: I’ve not read Vineland beyond browsing. The word of mouth from friends wasn’t good. I liked Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49, but I avoided Vineland.

    Vineland didn’t get good reviews but Hapworth and Towards the End of Time were practically reviled.

    Anyway, I have read and heard interviews with Updike, and whatever else he was a remarkable mind.

    Is there a good place to start with Updike’s fiction? I have heard that the first couple Rabbit books are good.

    BTW — You might want to give Mamet a second chance. He has had a political conversion: Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’.

  15. Kurt Says:

    I find this interesting about Updike. I’ve never read any of his novels–mainly because I think I read a short story here or there and I never had any interest in reading any more.

    I also agree with Gray about most late 20th century American literature. I haven’t read a contemporary novel in years. In fact, I’ve pretty much given up on contemporary novels, and now read mostly non-fiction. The final straw with me as far as supposedly “serious” and “literary” contemporary novels are concerned was Cold Mountain which was praised up and down and sideways by most of my literary friends and which I found to be almost unreadable. (I finished it, but barely. And then I decided that I didn’t want to waste my time reading any crap like that again.)

  16. Tim P Says:

    Gray,
    I have to agree with you about a lot of modern literature. However I would recommend Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities or Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
    Both very readable and very good.
    I have to confess not having read any of Updike’s writing, but I plan to change that. Echoing Huxley, does anyone have any recommendations regarding where to start?

  17. huxley Says:

    I’ll second the recommendation for good ol’ Tom Wolfe! His last two novels, A Man in Full and I am Charlotte Summers are great reads, if not great literature. Plus all, all his non-fiction.

    Then there’s Joan Didion, whom I’ve been rereading. Her Slouching Towards Bethlehem explains much of where we are today.

    Otherwise though, literature of the past few decades strikes me as mostly dreadful. It seems that every time I get ambitious to read something recent, I feel like I’ve bitten into a bitter mushy fruit. Calvino (If On a Winter’s Night), Coetzee (Elizabeth Costello) and Saramago (The Cave) are all celebrated but their books were deeply annoying and I had to force myself to finish them.

    So I find myself working my way through the Fitzgerald, Faulkner, etc. I “should” have read when I was younger.

    The new editions of the Modern Library and Everyman’s Library hardbacks have a fine look and feel and are reasonably priced through Amazon.

  18. waltj Says:

    I used to like fiction, but I’ve pretty well given up on the entire genre, except for the occasional David Eddings fantasy.

    The “serious” novelists, it seems to me, have forgotten how to write in order to hold peoples’ attention. And no, it isn’t me. My background is in accounting and finance, so I’m used to reading complex, and dry, publications from cover to cover. Contemporary novels are usually worse than accounting textbooks for entertainment value.

  19. Mr. Frank Says:

    The underlying problem the left has with war is their unstated view that nothing is worth dying for and war involves lots of dying. One of my bosses in the Sixties when I was in the Air Force was a former WWII bomber pilot from the European campaign. He had seen terrible losses of young men in raids over Germany. One of his favorite expressions was “you have to expect losses in a big operation.”

  20. waltj Says:

    “…He had seen terrible losses of young men in raids over Germany…”

    In parts of late 1943, 8th Air Force bomber crew casualty rates were worse than those for U.S. infantry units (then fighting in Sicily), so your former boss knew what he was talking about.

    I’d modify what what you say about the left, in that they think there’s nothing they would personally die for, so they extrapolate that to everyone else. Part of it is simple cowardice in being afraid to confront someone who actually intends to hurt you (that’s one reason they had no problem saying really awful things about W, who was far more polite about the verbal abuse than I ever would have been, but go easy on extremist Muslims). Another part is not believing in anything greater than themselves, whether in the form of a deity or a higher ideal, that’s worth sacrificing themselves for. “Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” does not resonate with them at all.

  21. Sgt. Mom Says:

    Heck, if you’re looking for offbeat and independent books, and feel that the mainstream literary-industrial complex is so not what you want to be reading, check out the member’s page at the Independent Authors Guild. (www.independentauthorsguild.com) It’s a consortium of indy authors, published by boutique houses, and POD publishers, so a word of warning – some of them are as every bit as awful as their reputation would have it – but some of them are really, really, really good; Lloyd’s Lofthouse’s “My Splendid Concubine” is terrific, so is Frances Hunter’s Lewis & Clark adventure, and Jack Shakley has a Civil War novel, set in Indian territory, called “The Confederate War Bonnet.” … anyway, if you have liked indie music, and movies, give indie authors a look-over. Just about all of us had given traditional publishing a try – and when our books were turned down as being too quirky, or not easily categorized, we went indie.

  22. benning Says:

    How blithely the Left can dismiss those who disagree with them. Updike had guts.

    Great post, Toots!

  23. br549 Says:

    I listen to a narrow band of composers of classical music, various jazz artists and newer bluegrass type instrumentals because the words in songs always get in the way of the music. Too bad that can’t be done with books. Some poets have pulled it off nicely, though.

  24. Gringo Says:

    The protest, from my perspective, was in large part a snobbish dismissal of Johnson by the Eastern establishment; Cambridge professors and Manhattan lawyers and their guitar-strumming children thought they could run the country and the world better than this lugubrious bohunk from Texas.

    My NE high school years paralleled the Johnson years. I recall from an AP class my senior year, a fellow student imitating LBJ’s “Mah fellow Americans” line- clearly mocking him. BTW, this student became a journalist- his interest years before Watergate- and 40 years later, is one of the few journalists with an independent perspective.

    And was there some “in-crowd” aspect to the Vietnam War protests? In the high school locker room, a peer informed us how his father had signed a petition against the Vietnam War that got published in the NYT: “He signed it along with a bunch of Ivy league professors.” In crowd, yes indeed, at least according to this anecdote.

  25. huxley Says:

    … this lugubrious bohunk from Texas.

    That has such a perfect sound! Updike is sumkinda writer.

    It did get me curious to do a lookup:


    bohunk
    * Etymology: Bohemian + Hunk person of central European descent, by shortening & alteration from Hungarian
    * Date: circa 1903
    usually disparaging : a person of central European descent or birth

  26. dane Says:

    I often find when I go looking for “great” literature it’s like ending up at some well-reviewed restaurant where they charge you $42 for a 2 baby carrots three baby snow peas 1 scallop and 3 dots of truffle oil. It might look pretty, heck it might even be tasty, but it usually leaves you unsatisfied.

    I like good stories and storytellers. Sometimes the latter is more important. I have learned more about life and the human mind and condition from reading John D. McDonald than from the (il)literati. For that reason I can agree that Updike’s first couple of “Rabbit” books are worth reading.

  27. neo-neocon Says:

    For those wishing to read more Updike, my suggestions are here. For me, his short fiction and some of his essays are best.

    Also, please see this passage Updike wrote in response to the JFK assassination.

  28. neo-neocon Says:

    I’ve fixed the link to the words “another heated discussion” in the first sentence of this post. It should work now.

  29. neo-neocon Says:

    Gray: have to disagree with you about Updike and Atwood. This post discusses what I like and don’t like in Updike’s work, but I think you’ll see I think a great deal of it has a lot of worth. As for Atwood, I very much like some of her short stories, and thought The Robber Bride a good read and very entertaining and cleverly-plotted. More of a book for women than men, though. Whereas Updike is the opposite—in general, he appeals more to men.

  30. Oblio Says:

    And Atwood is Canadian. If Canadians are allowed, then take a look at Robertson Davies. Fifth Business ends in a striking and memorable closing line that runs something like, “And that, Headmaster, is all I have to tell you.” If that’s not quite right, you must forgive me: I read it 30 years ago.

  31. Gray Says:

    Tim P.: However I would recommend Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities or Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

    Truth be told, I left them off of my diatribe for a reason: they’re good. There’s some precious metal in the dross….

  32. Gray Says:

    Gray: have to disagree with you about Updike and Atwood. This post discusses what I like and don’t like in Updike’s work, but I think you’ll see I think a great deal of it has a lot of worth.

    I’ll give it a look again. “The Handmaiden’s Tale” was just awful. What a cartoonish polemic.

    Oddly enough, I’ve been reading a bunch of Jack London recently “The Road” and such…. The social and economic stew of early 1900′s kinda resonates with where we are now.

  33. Gray Says:

    Oblio: If Canadians are allowed, then take a look at Robertson Davies. Fifth Business ends in a striking and memorable closing line

    Fifth Business is one of my favorite books. It’s a real adventure, in a low-key way, with memorable characters and some timeless lessons.

    I like a book that doesn’t beat me over the head with some notion or idea. That rules out a lot of recent “Important” fiction. (It rules out Ayn Rand too: Great ideas, good story, lousy characters and pretty much unreadable….)

  34. Richard Aubrey Says:

    The Handmaid’s Tale was interesting in the sense of how bad can a book actually be? Continuity, timing, supposed history.
    The interesting thing is that it was written when the real thing was widely available, the treatment of women in Muslim tribal societies.
    However, as a Brit cartoonist said of his anti-Semitic cartoons, Jews don’t issue fatwas.
    So the author makes up an unbelievable situation to get her anti-fundy creds and leaves the real thing alone.
    Was she published by Yale University Press?

  35. E Says:

    My favorites are Robertson Davies’ Salterton Trilogy: Tempest Tost, Leaven of Malice, and A Mixture of Frailties. Effervescent wit, closely observed characters, and wonderful plot turns throughout. Davies mixes the sublime and the ridiculous better than any other modern author.

  36. Tom Grey Says:

    “of course, Updike was on the wrong side about the Vietnam War.”

    Updike was right on Vietnam. The US was fighting communism, the Evil Empire, and was against commie victory, commie re-education camps, commie caused boat people, commie murdering and commie genocide/ Killing Fields.

    The anti-capitalist anti-war folk won’t admit to being in favor of commie victory. They lie to themselves.

    War? or acceptance of commie victory? That was the US choice.

    I do wish it was easier to know the dates and the votes in 1973-75, after the Paris Peace Accords, on when the Democrat controlled Congress voted to NOT enforce the Peace, and to reduce funding for our S. Viet allies. So many of whom were then murdered as we allowed commie victory.

    We hadn’t quite learned how to do nation building then; we haven’t done a good job of nation building in Iraq (great war against Saddam, lousy post victory) nor in Afghanistan — because we support too much Central Government Power, not enough enforcement of contracts and protection against local criminals.

  37. ajt Says:

    huxley,

    Start with the early stuff. Try “Pigeon Feathers” (1962: short stories) or “The Centaur” (1963: novel). Updike’s short story “The Happiest I’ve Been” (from the 1959 collection “The Same Door”) was one of Nabokov’s favorites, which ought to count for something. “Assorted Prose” (1965: essays) is also very good, and contains the classic “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”, a wonderful tribute to Ted Williams. My rough rule of thumb: anything Updike wrote before “Couples” (1968) is worth reading. I think his work after that is pretty uneven, although I liked “Museums and Women” (1972: short stories again) and some of the later essay collections. The Rabbit novels are considered to be the centerpiece of his achievement, but they never really did it for me. That’s a minority opinion, so you probably want to give them a try. Maybe you’ll like them better than I did. Anyway, happy reading.

  38. Gray Says:

    Hahahaha! I was going to post on this thread. I read the comments and discovered I had already posted was I was going to post! I stand by my previous posts….

  39. Gray Says:

    Oh, and regarding “looking at Updike again”: if every character in the story is detestable and you want them to die on the next page, there is really no dramatic tension when they merely get screwed, screwed-over, screwed-up, or screwed-around.

  40. neo-neocon Says:

    Gary: this is about Updike’s personal essays, not his fiction. I don’t like his novels.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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