I’m learning that John Updike was and is a polarizing writer. Most people seem to either love him or hate him. As with most things, I find myself squarely in the middle of those two extremes. He truly had a mastery of the English language that surpassed many other authors of his era. He was a true language artist. Some common critiques of Updike’s fiction are that his plots are too formulaic, his characters too flat, and his descriptions too flowery. Others claim that he was elitist: a white upper class male writing from the comforts of his Harvard office for his audience of upper middle class white New Yorker subscribers. Many think he was too “popular” and wrote mainly just to collect a check. Fair enough. I have found Updike’s short stories to be mostly enjoyable; they coalesce around his down-to-earth characters searching for truth while struggling with the spiritual malaise of modern times. Themes of love, family, place, and memory dominate. Updike’s autobiographical Olinger Stories were even more enjoyable for me because of his descriptions of the Reading, PA area, where we lived for a year and where I’ve worked for three years.
Here’s an excerpt from one of his short stories, “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car.” It is one of my favorites. This excerpt comes near the beginning, right as the character is completing a meditation on his love for the human propensity for wearing paths in dirt.
“This small modification, this modest work of human erosion, seemed precious to me not only because it recalled, in the slope and set of the dirt, a part of the path that long ago had led down from my parents’ back yard to the high-school softball field. It seemed precious because it had been achieved accidentally, and had about it that repose of grace which is beyond willing. We in America have from the beginning been cleaning and baring the earth, attacking, reforming the immensity of nature we were given. We have explored, on behalf of all mankind, this paradox: the more matter is outwardly mastered, the more it overwhelms us in our hearts. Evidence – gaping right-of-ways, acres mercilessly scraped, bleeding mountains of muddy fill – surrounds us of a war that is incapable of ceasing, and it is good to know that now there are enough of us to exert a counter-force. If craters were to appear in our landscape tomorrow, the next day there would be usable paths threading down the blasted sides. As our sense of God’s forested legacy to us dwindles, there grows, in these worn, rubbed, and patted patches, a sense of human legacy – like those feet of statues of saints which have lost their toes to centuries of kisses…
“There was a time when I wondered why more people did not go to church. Taken purely as a human recreation, what could be more delightful, more unexpected than to enter a venerable and lavishly scaled building kept warm and clean for use one or two hours a week and to sit and stand in unison and sing and recite creeds and petitions that are like paths worn smooth in the raw terrain of our hearts?”
-John Updike in “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car,” within Early Stories, 1953-1975 (Random House, 2004), p. 103; Originally published in The New Yorker, December 16, 1961, p. 59