November 22nd, 2010

Updike on the Kennedy assassination

[NOTE: This is a partial repeat of a previous post.]

Here are some of writer John Updike’s reflection on the JFK assassination, originally published at the time in the “Notes and Comments” segment of The New Yorker, and featured again in this New Yorker tribute to Updike published shortly after the author’s death. I think it is one of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of the emotional atmosphere of the event for those of us who lived through it:

It was as if we slept from Friday to Monday and dreamed an oppressive, unsearchably significant dream, which, we discovered on awaking, millions of others had dreamed also. Furniture, family, the streets, and the sky dissolved, only the dream on television was real. The faces of the world’s great mingled with the faces of landladies who happened to house an unhappy ex-Marine; cathedrals alternated with warehouses; temples of government with suburban garages; anonymous men tugged at a casket in a glaring airport; a murder was committed before our eyes; a Dallas strip-tease artist drawled amiably of her employer’s quick temper; the heads of state of the Western world strode down a sunlit street like a grim village rabble; and Jacqueline Kennedy became Persephone, the Queen of Hades and the beautiful bride of grief. All human possibilities, of magnificence and courage, of meanness and confusion, seemed to find an image in this long montage, and a stack of cardboard boxes in Dallas, a tawdry movie house, a tiny rented room where some shaving cream still clung to the underside of a washbasin, a row of parking meters that had witnessed a panicked flight all acquired the opaque and dreadful importance that innocent objects acquire in nightmares.

And here’s Jacqueline Kennedy as Persephone, the Queen of Hades and the beautiful bride of grief:


16 Responses to “Updike on the Kennedy assassination”

  1. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    How that calls up my memories of that day — most of all, the sick sense of dislocation that seemed to haunt everything. I was in elementary school, and what I remember most clearly is the entirely unprecedented behavior of adults: the nuns at school, weeping right in front of us (nuns could cry?); the school bus driver, previously faceless and silent, who unexpectedly pulled the bus over on the way home and stomped down the aisle in a fury to shake into silence a boy who — too young, I’m sure, to know the import of what he was saying — shouted out that he was glad JFK was dead; and then at home my father back early from his job in D.C., my stunned and silent mother, the flickering black and white television we stared at all that weekend, where even the newscasters — those grave, all-powerful, deep-voiced men who knew all there was to know about the world — were plainly shocked into uncertainty.

    It was the first time it occurred to me that, just possibly, all those grownups who ran the world might not know exactly what they were doing — that perhaps nobody, anywhere, was really wise and certain and in control.

  2. Art Says:

    Just imagine if it had been a Republican that had given us the Bay of Pigs, and then subsequently came a hare’s breath from starting WWIII….think he would have been remembered a little differently?

  3. Richard Aubrey Says:

    How about a communist operative with considerable time in Havana and Moscow?

  4. Mr Xyz Says:

    Here’s a clip of Judy Garland singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic shortly after.

    It gives me a bit of deja vu or do I really remember?

  5. Gringo Says:

    Here is Connie Francis singing In the Summer of His Years, a song embedded in the memory of many who were young when JFK was killed.

  6. Beverly Says:

    I was in the first grade. I remember two things; my parents (Goldwater Republicans, idealists) sat us three down and told us, “You children know that we didn’t vote for President Kennedy. But he WAS our president. And we want you to know that it is never, NEVER right for anyone to shoot the President.” We were enormously impressed with how utterly serious they were. It was the first time I remember them talking to us about any Grownup Things.

    The other thing I remember was the enormously impressive solemnity of the funeral procession (we watched it all, along with the rest of the nation; of course the networks carried it wall to wall); and the relentless cadence of the muffled drums. The riderless horse with the boots turned backwards. The caisson itself with the coffin.

    I read many decades later that Jackie orchestrated the whole thing, with a masterful sense of theater. Including rehearsing John-John in his little boy’s salute. (That’s not a knock, btw.)

  7. Paul Says:

    I remember being in high school chemistry doing an experiment when some one came into the room and announced the assassination but not much else for the rest of the day. I do remember very well watching the Texas Rangers escorting Oswald out a tunnel and Jack Ruby murdering him on live TV. What a shock that was. The rest is a blur, except for the glorification of Saint Johnny and the knights of Camelot who could do no wrong.

    After all these years and after reading about the period I’ve concluded that JFK was in his own way as out of his depth and a mediocrity as Obama. He did lower taxes but beyond that he left nothing behind but a festering mess in Viet Nam that would have blown up even if he had lived.

    His first foreign policy crisis was the Berlin Wall. The Soviets put up a barbed wire fence which should and could have been knocked down, but Kennedy stood by passively and did nothing leading to the construction of the real wall. This eventually led to the Cuban Missile crisis because Khrushchev saw him as weak, and later, Viet Nam which Kennedy felt would show his toughness.

    Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, who between them ran the Congress, looked down on Kennedy as a lazy rich boy who seldom showed up to actually be a US Senator. Eisenhower called him “Little Boy Blue” and had nothing but contempt for him. He was shocked at the amateurishness of the Bay of Pigs, which he probably would never have authorized in the first place. Both Eisenhower and MacArthur told JFK to stay out of Viet Nam, “never engage in a land war in Asia”, but the residents of Camelot were richer and more handsome, and because they had gone to the best schools were smarter too, so they didn’t have to listen.

  8. Gringo Says:


    Eisenhower…was shocked at the amateurishness of the Bay of Pigs, which he probably would never have authorized in the first place.

    Planning for the Bay of Pigs began during the Eisenhower administration, which implies that Ike supported the operation. Eisenhower would not have withdrawn air cover for the operation, as JFK did. No point in doing something half-assed. If you are going to withdraw air support, no point in doing it at all. Would Eisenhower have authorized it with air support? Can’t be sure, but my guess is yes.

  9. colagirl Says:

    What a somber, solemn image of Jacqueline Kennedy. I wasn’t born at the time the shooting occurred, but I can only imagine it must have been like 9/11–something so absolutely shocking that the world seems forever changed afterward.

  10. rickl Says:

    I was five years old at the time. About the only thing I remember is my dad coming in from the garage saying that Oswald had been shot. He had a small portable black & white TV in the garage, so he must have seen it live.

    You’re right. At the time it must have certainly been comparable to 9/11.

  11. NeoConScum Says:

    47-Years…Another planet; another lifetime, it seems. I was 19 and a freshman in college. I had seen the president, up close, less than 2-months before at a convocation of our school and our cross town rivals in Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, September 27, 1963. A perfect technicolor memory.

  12. Tom Says:

    On hearing the news, I said “Now he’ll be a martyr.” Didn’t think he amounted to much then, still don’t. A lot better than what we’re saddled with now, though.

  13. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    Just about everybody remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

    I was in the cockpit of an A-1 getting ready to fly out to the Bon Homme Richard for some carrier landings. My plane captain crawled up on the wing and told me the President had been shot. I was not a big admirer of Kennedy, but I was stunned. I had no details and hoped that maybe he was only wounded.

    Such a profound event, but we had our orders to carry out. We flew out to the carrier that was about 50 miles off San Diego, did some landings, and flew back to North Island. That evening we were glued to the TV in the BOQ soaking up the details.

  14. Nolanimrod Says:

    Good grief she looks like the goofy daughter in Beetle Juice!

  15. Roy Says:

    I was 9 years old and in 4th grade at St. Benedict parochial school when it happened.

    I remember one of the upper class-men came into the classroom and spoke briefly to our teacher, a nun, who then announced to the class that president Kennedy had been shot. About a half hour or so later, that same upper class-man came in again, and our teacher announced that president Kennedy had died. We were dismissed for the day shortly thereafter.

    When I arrived home, my mother and grandmother were glued to the television. My parents and grandparents were all true blue Democrats, and JFK being not only a Democrat, but the first Catholic president, was special to them. The atmosphere remained somber for a very long time afterwords, but most adult discussions of events that weekend did not filter down to us kids. At only nine years old, I was not politically aware, so the political significance (vs the emotional significance) did not occur to me until much later in life.

    One event that stood out for me at the time, one that I remember distinctly but have not seen since, is that when the bugler played taps at the Arlington interment, he hit a sour note.

    As far as conspiracy theories… Well, I believe that the Warren Commission got it mostly right and Oswald was the lone shooter. And I have stood in the sixth floor, one window over from the snipers nest, and I have stood on the “grassy knoll”, and as an avid marksman, I can attest that neither shot is impossible. But the one from the sixth floor is much, much easier.

  16. Jewel Says:

    Nolanimrod brings the missing touch of crass on this thread.

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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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