John Updike was that, a man who loved and appreciated the suburbs understanding what they represented for so many in the post-war period, and this New Geography memorial written soon after he died, is exquisite.
John Updike, the bard of the suburbs, died this week. He was one of the first great American writers to revel in the opportunity, beauty and convenience that the suburbs have long reflected. His voice, first found in the sixties, acted as a reasonable anchor in the tempest of radicalism that swept through the country. He empathized with the American dream rising in the raw suburbs being carved from agricultural land.
Where ancestors once had wrestled a living from the soil, Updike’s generation found comfort, convenience and a dream. They found plenty where a generation previous only found enough to keep them alive. At a time when academics, avant-garde filmmakers and urban intellectuals scoffed at suburbia, Updike explained it. He understood the obvious reasons – “practical attractions: free parking for my car, public education for my children, a beach to tan my skin on, a church to attend without seeming too strange”. That is still what draws people to the edge of town.
Updike viewed the miles of identical houses the middle class aspired to as the pinnacle of civilization. He was never condescending. He genuinely loved what the suburbs represented and what they offered the masses moving from the cramped quarters of the ghettos and slums of the pre-war cities. He himself knew firsthand the other source of suburban migrants – the hardscrabble rural environs where life was often both difficult and limited.
Updike wanted nothing more than the convenience and steady food and work that he could find in the suburbs of Boston. The cold, bleak, boring hell of rural life was not for him. He saw nature as something that his religious sensibilities told him it was: a chaotic force to be tamed for the benefit of man.
His novels described the lives of characters in the sixties and seventies, caught up in the whirlwind of suppressed and released human desires which challenged these suburban dreamers. His sex scenes were more biological than erotic. They showed the new morality that was being formed in the suburbs, the breaking down of the old structures of the village and the urban neighborhood, which in many essentials were the same thing.
In Seek My Face he talks of Manhattan by saying that each block represented a village in the old country. That was fine for the first generation, which needed that fabric of support and familiarity but that was not enough of a dream for the next generation. The Dream was the cheap Cape Cods that were being erected by the thousands over the Nassau County line by the Levitt brothers.