John Updike 

Jefferson Lecture

2008

John Updike

His pen rarely at rest, John Updike has been publishing fiction, essays, and poetry since the mid-fifties, when he was a staff writer at the New Yorker, contributing material for the “Talk of the Town” sections. “Of all modern American writers,” writes Adam Gopnik in Humanities magazine, “Updike comes closest to meeting Virginia Woolf’s demand that a writer’s only job is to get himself, or herself, expressed without impediments."

Self-Consciousness: Memoirs, published in 1989, paints the landscape of his boyhood in Shillington, on the outskirts of Reading, southwest of the formerly solid mill town and extending into Pennsylvania Dutch farm country. But Updike’s interests pulled him north and east—first, toward the Reading Museum, within walking distance of his hometown (the fictional Olinger, which is the setting for many early short stories), and then, with a full scholarship in hand, to Harvard University, where, as an English major, he did a thesis on seventeenth-century English poet Robert Herrick, and graduated summa cum laude in 1954.

He has had a sustained and sustaining interest in art, beginning in childhood when he had his first drawing lessons and, as a devotee of comic strips, wrote a perspicacious fan letter to the creator of “Little Orphan Annie,” Harold Gray. Much later, at the Harvard Lampoon, of which he was president in his senior year, he was still at it. In one of his Lampoon cartoons, two apparent seekers of universal awareness sit cross-legged and side by side, both clad in loose, open garb most appropriate for meditation, and one says to the other, “Don’t look now, but I think my navel is contemplating me.” During that senior year, Lampoon staff recall, he wrote about two-thirds of every issue. At Harvard he took art classes with Hyman Bloom, a painter who was associated with a style known as Boston Expressionism. Then a Knox Fellowship gave Updike the wherewithal to study for a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing & Fine Art in Oxford, England. Painting had taught him, he once said, “how difficult it is to see things exactly as they are, and that the painting is ‘there’ as a book is not.”

In Just Looking, 1989, and Still Looking, 2005, Updike gathered the impressions he’s been making over a lifetime of observing painting and sculpture. In an essay in the former he captures in limpid prose Vermeer’s achievement in paint in View of Delft: “an instant of flux forever held.” And in the latter, in a chapter on Jackson Pollock, Updike glimpses, and so we do, too, the essence of what Pollock’s drip-painting could accomplish—“an image, in dots and lines and little curdled clouds of dull color, of the cosmos.” His interest in art has also shown in his fiction. One of his later novels, Seek My Face, 2002, follows the lines of the life of an aging painter who often lived in the shadows of her more famous husband, also a painter. In The Witches of Eastwick, 1984, the novel’s hero, the devil, in the form of one Darryl Van Horne, is an ecstatic collector of Pop art. “I suppose,” Updike has said, “since I was an aspiring cartoonist once, I could ‘relate’ . . . to the Pop art imagery. Witches takes place in a post-Pop art time, so in a sense dust has gathered on the movement, which was fairly short-lived.” Harold Bloom has called The Witches of Eastwick one of Updike’s most remarkable books, as all of his “themes and images coalesce in a rich, resonant swirl.” Of Witches Updike himself remarked that “the touch of magical realism gave it a kind of spriteliness for me.”

About his fiction in general he has said, “My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me—to give the mundane its beautiful due.” When considering the entire scope of his work, readers of American fiction are most often put in mind of Harry Angstrom, the character from the Rabbit saga with whom Updike seemed for many years to be on closest, if often contentious, terms. American novelist Joyce Carol Oates has written that Updike is “a master, like Flaubert, of mesmerizing us with his narrative voice even as he might repel us with the vanities of human desire his scalpel exposes.” British novelist Martin Amis has seen the hand of a master in Rabbit at Rest, 1990, marveling, “This novel is enduringly eloquent about weariness, age and disgust, in a prose that is always fresh, nubile, and unwitherable.”

Avid readers and admirers also point to many other works in his eclectic oeuvre as masterpieces, including The Centaur, 1963, set, as are the Rabbit novels, in Pennsylvania and winner of France’s prize for best foreign book; Couples, 1968, set in the fictional Tarbox, modeled after Ipswich, Massachusetts, where Updike and his first wife and family moved from Manhattan in 1957; and Roger’s Version, 1986, which magisterially sets a middle-aged divinity professor and a computer whiz kid bent on proving the existence of God on a metaphysical collision course.

He is known to many first as an author of short stories, with dozens having graced the pages of the New Yorker before being published in collections. Many other readers know his shorter fiction either through the O. Henry Prize Stories or anthologies of American literature, where they would have entered into the at times sad, at times triumphant thoughts of, say, a certain check-out clerk at the local grocery store; “A & P” serving as a model of dramatic irony for at least two generations of English literature teachers.

Updike is, of course, also an accomplished literary critic, whose reviews and essays are as much distinguished by their breadth of understanding as by their charitable disposition. Examples of his critical acumen frequently appear in The New York Review of Books, and he received his second National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983 for Hugging the Shore, including such gems as the micro-essay “A Mild ‘Complaint,’” which skewers the misuses and ‘misusers’ of ‘scare quotes.’

He has also applied his habile wit to poetry, composing early on a collection called The Carpentered Hen in 1954. Three more tomes of verse followed. Collected Poems, 1953-1993, comprises what he calls his “beloved waifs.”

After having met Katharine White, fiction editor at the New Yorker during his year of study at the Ruskin School, he began submitting stories regularly to the magazine and then settled in an apartment in Manhattan for his two-year stint there.

Migrating from Gotham to Ipswich, he thrived amid salubrious sea breezes and continued to publish at the rate he set for himself early in his career, about a book a year. It was during this time, roughly 1957 to 1970 that he published The Poorhouse Fair, Rabbit Run, Pigeon Feathers, The Centaur, and Bech: A Book, introducing readers to his irreverent alter ego, Henry Bech.

If minute attention to craftsmanship has always been a hallmark of Updike’s work, so have inventiveness and creative unpredictability. After moving to Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, with his second wife, Martha, in 1982, he brought forth work that differed widely in subject matter and setting: In the Beauty of the Lilies, 1996, a multigenerational, twentieth century-spanning family saga summing up increasingly secular, movie-mad America; Toward the End of Time, 1997, set in a near-future, post-nuclear war New England with menacing undercurrents; Gertrude and Claudius, 2000, concerned with the earlier life of Hamlet’s mother, Claudius, and Old Hamlet; and Terrorist, 2006, featuring the radicalized Islamist teenage son of an absent Arab father and an Irish-American mother.

In the half century he has been writing he has garnered many literary prizes, awards, and honors, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, twice each; the Pen Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Rea Award for the Short Story; and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is among a select few to have received both the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts. Albright College in Reading (the fictional Brewer readers first encountered in Rabbit Run) bestowed upon him an honorary Litt.D. degree in 1982.

Along with his finely tuned regard for painting, which has often provided the visual element for his fiction, there has been a deep and abiding appreciation of the reading life in general and a love of the book in particular. He has alluded to an imagined reader of his, ideal or otherwise, as being a teenage boy who happens upon one of his books on the dusty shelves of some library one afternoon looking for literary adventure. In a speech two years ago at the American Booksellers Association convention, he encouraged beleaguered booksellers to “defend [their] lonely forts. . . . For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity.”

In fall 2007 Updike came out with a collection of essays, Due Considerations. A new novel, The Widows of Eastwick, is due out in fall 2008. After so many words, is America’s leading man of letters even marginally at rest? No, he is still looking and still writing.

-Steve Moyer

Appreciation

It was a commonplace even back a few decades ago to insist that American writers, at their best, were beautiful and damned, to borrow a title from one of the most beautiful and damned of all. They either drank themselves to death too soon, or wrote themselves out too rapidly, became self-made cartoons like Hemingway or Life magazine pundits like Steinbeck, retreated into silence like Salinger or embarrassed us with noise like Mailer. The great American novels were one-offs—The Red Badge of Courage, The Great Gatsby—preceding either a sad long decline, or else a final stellar explosion.

This was so much part of the myth of American writing that it had, in a reverse twist, almost become a kind of deferred virtue of American writing. We might not have the longest arcs but we lit the brightest lights; the intensity of the radiance rose from the brevity of the explosion. So quick bright things come to confusion. (The few apparent exceptions to the rule of early bloom and sudden destruction, or else long late wither, were either writers excused as monastic recluses in the Deep South or the deeps of England—monks, like Henry James and William Faulkner—or else, as with William Dean Howells or Edith Wharton, those who kept a note of self-announced minority about themselves, even when, as with Howells and Wharton, there was nothing really minor in them at all.)

What then are we to do about John Updike? A bright light and a very long arc, youthful blossoming—the cover of Time at thirty-six—followed by a rich middle-aged variety topped by a late harvest of what the reviewers call “arresting departures.” So quick bright things become slower, older, ever brighter things. Of all modern American writers, Updike comes closest to meeting Virginia Woolf's demand that a writer’s only job is to get himself, or herself, expressed without impediments. Short stories and essays, book reviews and poetry, art criticism and even the occasional bit of commentary and reporting, all this wrapped like ivy around the red brick wall of those—what is it? Twenty-eight(!) novels. No part of the possibilities of writing seems to have eluded him. Waiting nervously in a dentist’s office one bumps one’s shins against Updike on dinosaurs in National Geographic; apprehensively turning the pages of the New York Review of Books in fear of being beaten up by a brutish British critic, one finds five perfect columns on Renoir or Chuck Close—and always the same shining serene sentences, the same puckish note of bemused praise, which he learned from E. B. White and the old New Yorker, and never disposed of (let's come back to that), the spirit of purposeful, slightly schoolboyish intensity: the feeling that this subject, whatever it may be today, is to be taken seriously, not slightingly, much less sneeringly, but still lightly, for reader’s pleasure, not instructional pain. The willingness to write, to say “Yes” not merely to editors but to the writer's encompassing job of registering experience of all kinds, has something so inspiring in it to younger writers that it can seem like an achievement in itself. His rival and companion over the past fifty years, Philip Roth—and the “intertextual” comparison of those two grizzled vets, novel by novel and sex act by sex act, will make for several good, fat unreadable Ph.D. theses in the near future—has accomplished something similar, for sheer dint and grit. But Roth has over the decades withdrawn from all the littler labors of writing to become one more of those diligent American monks, a man at his hassock in his studio in Connecticut, a novelist tout court and a novelist alone, where Updike continues to amaze us as a man of letters, a pitchman for writing, up on the balls of his feet wherever readers may be found.

This has been so much the case that, I suspect, it is a source of exasperation to Updike; certainly one senses in his response to worshipful younger writers like Nicholson Baker in Baker’s wonderful fan letter, U and I, a note of frustrated bewilderment: stop admiring the inscriptions and read the damn books. For—and this is what makes Updike unique—the micro-gift for prose is matched by a macro-gift for scale, with getting it all in. Updike wrote once that he admired Kerouac, and though this seems absurd—the perfect sentence-maker against the non-sentence non-writer—it is true, surely, in their twin desires to pay attention to American reality as it really is. The wires of poet and reporter cross in Updike as they do not even in his God, Nabokov: the language-loving, witty, inventive meta-fictioneer who delights us postmodernly in The Coup or Gertrude and Claudius is the same writer as the attentive, news-minding chronicler who gives us Terrorist and the Rabbit novels.

Updike remains both conjurer and chronicler, each gift serving the other. Updike began his pro writing career back in the fifties reporting for the “The Talk Of The Town” the jump-off section of short pieces that still begins the New Yorker, and there is something of the willing journalist in him still. His readiness, not to mention ability, to write a novel like Terrorist reminds us always of the roots of the novel in news, and of Updike’s seismographic ear for the tremors of his time—just as Skeeter, the black militant in Rabbit Redux sprang credibly, as they say, right out of the headlines of his dark Nixonian era into Updike’s pages. Each of his early novels, and many of the later ones, have been, as Updike has allowed, shaped to a presidential period—Truman's in The Centaur, Eisenhower's in Rabbit, Run, Kennedy's in Couples, to which one could add the discomforts and anxieties of the Carter era in Rabbit Is Rich and the bewilderments of Reagan in Rabbit at Rest (not to mention the more obvious Memories of the Ford Administration). The same will to get it down as it was happening that made Howells move to New York to write about unions and violence and brought Trollope out of the cathedral close to write about Disraeli and parliaments and politicians inspires Updike too.

But if the persistent journalist in him is one of the things that has kept his novels alive, it is the satirist and humorist in him that have kept his sentences aloft. Despite the “lyrical” surface of his prose, he is a realist, never even marginally a romantic. He is genuinely unfazed by, unseduced by, all of the myths of American romanticism—gorgeous Daisys and vast sinister Western landscapes are equally absent from his books. His girls and women are real with scratchy pubic hair and vaginas (albeit shaped like ballet slippers) and his American landscape of car dealerships and fast-food retreats, has no place for doomed, exciting, existential gunmen. Salinger and Fitzgerald anticipated Updike’s kind of tenderness, the ability to summon a world in a phrase, the bouncing love of the surface of existence—yet Updike has written tartly of Salinger’s self-enclosure, his need to make a world and a family more beautiful than can be hoped for in the real world; and I sense in his criticism of Fitzgerald, too, once more an unconvinced disdain for all those improbably beautiful girls whom, he remarks sensibly, the writer loves too much to give the reader any space to love them for himself. He is, for all those perfect shining sentences, a realist; the sentences sing, but they don't ennoble.

And though it has been too long since his parodies and casuals have graced the pages of the New Yorker, still, the urge to amuse (and mock) remains strong in him. Updike the humorist is probably the least known, or recognizable, Updike of them all, but something of the White-cum-Thurber sound of the old “Talk”—that bemused, high-spirited, ironically smiling but resolutely well-wishing, not merely un- but anti-malicious comic tone—still lingers in his work. There is at least the material of comedy implicit in almost every sentence he writes: the dancing recognition of the likeness of the unlike, the will to treat the organic mechanically—his sexual congresses are blissful but funny, never “transcendent,” because they are so entirely acts of organic machinery, wise souls made into copulating machines. The simple common sense which regularly inflects his judgments of big writers and dubious ideas has its origins in a humorous tradition too; in his criticism he catches the notes of Wolcott Gibbs and Brendan Gill as much as of Edmund Wilson.

And he is a moralist, too, of a surprisingly old-fashioned kind. Throughout all that varied work, one theme has risen and been repeated over and over. Updike’s great subject is the American attempt to fill the gap left by faith with the materials produced by mass culture. His subject is how the death of a credible religious belief has been offset by sex and adultery and movies and sports and Toyotas and family love and family obligation. For Updike, this effort is blessed—and very nearly successful, almost close enough to grace to count—and yet in the long run doomed, since the fact and shadow of death hangs over it all. Unlike his European contemporaries, who see the same space and the attempted filling as mere aridity and deprivation, Updike is close enough to, and fond enough of, the source of postwar material abundance to love it fully, and for itself. (And he knew enough of the decade of deprivation that preceded the big blossoming never to be jaundiced about plenty.) He views the material culture of American life with a benign appreciative ironic eye—like Wayne Thiebaud viewing his cakes. But he has no illusions about it either, for its ability to cover the failure or wish away mortality. His recent novel In the Beauty of the Lilies, which this reader suspects will emerge as his Golden Bowl or Our Mutual Friend, the late masterpiece overlooked or praised by rote in its day, only to be rediscovered by another generation, makes this almost schematically apparent: The death of American religion is matched by the rise of the American movies. The longing for the transcendent and numinous, wherever it appears —in cult camps in Oregon or in a computer lab in Cambridge—is to be respected, caressed, but not to be deceived about.

It is in the longing for the numinous, and the awareness that it can only be remade in our time from the normal, that, I suspect, his wonderful writing on art, placed in two fine volumes already and still being written, is far from a workingman's diversion. Updike recognizes in the struggle of the modern artist to make art at all the same spiritual struggle that fills his characters’ lives, carried on in the thinner air of avant-garde experiment and with consequences that are blessedly semipermanent, very nearly death-defying feats. In the attempts of modern artists to wrest meaning from the flotsam and detritus of the world—in Cubist collage or Schwitter’s Merz, or even in the less referential attempts of a Cézanne to register the apple as the apple appears to him, not in smooth certitudes of chiaroscuro, but in stabbing, apprehensive touches of direct color—Updike sees a trace, perhaps even a chart, of the common search to find religious meaning in experience previously deemed marginal or merely material. As much as Rabbit fleeing Reading, Cézanne or Picasso flees the regularities of perspective and illusion in search of something larger. In his essay (collected with the unfortunately too-jocose title of “What MoMa Done Tole Me”) on his early experience of the then still spectator-sized Museum of Modern Art, he makes this likeness explicit:

A religion reassembled from the fragments of our daily life, in an atmosphere of gaiety and diligence: this was what I found in the Museum of Modern Art, where others might have found completely different—darker and wilder—things. Gaiety, diligence, and freedom, a freedom from old constraints of perspective and subject matter, a freedom to embrace and memorialize the world anew, a fearless freedom drenched in light: this was what I took away, each time, from my visits of an hour or so, usually in the afternoons, my day’s journalism done, before heading south to my wife and apartment and daughter on West Thirteenth Street. I took away, in sufficient-sized packets, courage to be an artist. . .

In this way, his writing on art, far from being a minor chapel in the church of Updike, actually occupies, I suspect, a central place. More, I suspect, than among the countless writers he has sung and (mildly but unmistakably) chided, it is among the painters whom he has praised that he finds a pursuit that chimes with his own deepest ambitions for his art: to save something shining from the great garbage disposal of time. Certainly, a note of almost religious happiness rises from his art writing. However much it may be frowned on by the pros for being insufficiently “serious” or “critical,” i.e., contextual or historical, it has always seemed to this ex-pro truthful in its unashamed enthusiasms, the desire to match the artist evocation for evocation, representational trick for trick. (In the decade when I wrote about art for the New Yorker, supplying context and history up the reader’s wazoo and beyond, Updike would emerge a couple of weeks later in the New York Review of Books with a few diffident and amateurish-seeming pages which always seemed, frustratingly, closer to the true mark, more infused with the artist’s own ambitions and resonating with the real feel of the thing.)

With all the other, dutiful things said, it is this note of happiness, there in unalloyed form in his art writing, that rings throughout Updike’s prose, and that draws us to it, makes us happy when we read it. It is not a fatuous happiness, or a happiness made unaware of death—it is his preoccupation with death and dying that is most steady in his work, if anything is—but neither does it cede too much to mere mortality. One has a sense of someone who—as much as, though with more wit than, Andy Warhol—has spent a good deal of his life liking things. Women’s clothes, their hair, American voices, the hybridization of American accents, the way girls smell in football season; the way that the hyper-cold of the airline baggage compartment can be felt like a secret in the bag as you unpack—all of these images and moments, recalled at random from his work, are not just reported but quietly rhapsodized, registered with love.

Since this happiness is, in a certain sense, banished by some of what I take to be his tougher-minded religious beliefs, which are hard and Protestant, not to say Pennsylvanian, I am inclined to believe that the act of writing, like the act of art-making, is such a source of quiet glee to him that it holds off death for a while at arm’s length. And I wonder, too, if he does not still find in the act of sentence-making—not “construction,” or “plotting,” but getting one sentence down right about one specific thing—something of the serenity that illustrators still find in the act of confronting a sketch pad with a pencil. Surely some touch of his original ambition to be a cartoonist or illustrator lingers still for him in at least the act of writing. Certainly in the few times that we have shared a stage or a table—most often with the avid, nerve-rattled, high-voiced junior introducing the elegant silver-haired senior partner—I have been impressed by this slightly monarchical inwardness, a cordial but still remote, dancing-eyed detachment, as though at any moment he might disappear into the corner, cross-eyed, to register on paper, as sketch or note, some small improbability unnoted by everyone else in the room. (And, as I hope that sentence shows, the mere thought of this proximity is enough to set off pastiche, if not parody, in the junior writer’s sentences.)

Having said all that, one thing I am sure of is that, while his triumphs have been mostly in prose, his emotional proximity to painters and poets has been one of the things that has kept his prose the thing it is. Updike's affinity for painting and poetry—the still felt desire to have been a painter or poet—is perhaps the secret fuel that keeps the prose shining and still in motion. One would want, therefore, in the end to triangulate him, as he once did T. S. Eliot, above all, among the poets, some near and some far: with Richard Wilbur, for a stubborn graceful adherence to craft and finish in a time of improvisation and amnesia; with Wallace Stevens, for the intimation of the numinous in the ordinary Sunday mornings of the mid-Atlantic states; and with Shakespeare himself for the ability to get himself expressed fully, unimpeded, and for the desire, even in the face of time, to set down, for readers still unborn, all the sweetness of our common life.

Appreciation

It was a commonplace even back a few decades ago to insist that American writers, at their best, were beautiful and damned, to borrow a title from one of the most beautiful and damned of all. They either drank themselves to death too soon, or wrote themselves out too rapidly, became self-made cartoons like Hemingway or Life magazine pundits like Steinbeck, retreated into silence like Salinger or embarrassed us with noise like Mailer. The great American novels were one-offs—The Red Badge of Courage, The Great Gatsby—preceding either a sad long decline, or else a final stellar explosion.

This was so much part of the myth of American writing that it had, in a reverse twist, almost become a kind of deferred virtue of American writing. We might not have the longest arcs but we lit the brightest lights; the intensity of the radiance rose from the brevity of the explosion. So quick bright things come to confusion. (The few apparent exceptions to the rule of early bloom and sudden destruction, or else long late wither, were either writers excused as monastic recluses in the Deep South or the deeps of England—monks, like Henry James and William Faulkner—or else, as with William Dean Howells or Edith Wharton, those who kept a note of self-announced minority about themselves, even when, as with Howells and Wharton, there was nothing really minor in them at all.)

What then are we to do about John Updike? A bright light and a very long arc, youthful blossoming—the cover of Time at thirty-six—followed by a rich middle-aged variety topped by a late harvest of what the reviewers call “arresting departures.” So quick bright things become slower, older, ever brighter things. Of all modern American writers, Updike comes closest to meeting Virginia Woolf's demand that a writer’s only job is to get himself, or herself, expressed without impediments. Short stories and essays, book reviews and poetry, art criticism and even the occasional bit of commentary and reporting, all this wrapped like ivy around the red brick wall of those—what is it? Twenty-eight(!) novels. No part of the possibilities of writing seems to have eluded him. Waiting nervously in a dentist’s office one bumps one’s shins against Updike on dinosaurs in National Geographic; apprehensively turning the pages of the New York Review of Books in fear of being beaten up by a brutish British critic, one finds five perfect columns on Renoir or Chuck Close—and always the same shining serene sentences, the same puckish note of bemused praise, which he learned from E. B. White and the old New Yorker, and never disposed of (let's come back to that), the spirit of purposeful, slightly schoolboyish intensity: the feeling that this subject, whatever it may be today, is to be taken seriously, not slightingly, much less sneeringly, but still lightly, for reader’s pleasure, not instructional pain. The willingness to write, to say “Yes” not merely to editors but to the writer's encompassing job of registering experience of all kinds, has something so inspiring in it to younger writers that it can seem like an achievement in itself. His rival and companion over the past fifty years, Philip Roth—and the “intertextual” comparison of those two grizzled vets, novel by novel and sex act by sex act, will make for several good, fat unreadable Ph.D. theses in the near future—has accomplished something similar, for sheer dint and grit. But Roth has over the decades withdrawn from all the littler labors of writing to become one more of those diligent American monks, a man at his hassock in his studio in Connecticut, a novelist tout court and a novelist alone, where Updike continues to amaze us as a man of letters, a pitchman for writing, up on the balls of his feet wherever readers may be found.

This has been so much the case that, I suspect, it is a source of exasperation to Updike; certainly one senses in his response to worshipful younger writers like Nicholson Baker in Baker’s wonderful fan letter, U and I, a note of frustrated bewilderment: stop admiring the inscriptions and read the damn books. For—and this is what makes Updike unique—the micro-gift for prose is matched by a macro-gift for scale, with getting it all in. Updike wrote once that he admired Kerouac, and though this seems absurd—the perfect sentence-maker against the non-sentence non-writer—it is true, surely, in their twin desires to pay attention to American reality as it really is. The wires of poet and reporter cross in Updike as they do not even in his God, Nabokov: the language-loving, witty, inventive meta-fictioneer who delights us postmodernly in The Coup or Gertrude and Claudius is the same writer as the attentive, news-minding chronicler who gives us Terrorist and the Rabbit novels.

Updike remains both conjurer and chronicler, each gift serving the other. Updike began his pro writing career back in the fifties reporting for the “The Talk Of The Town” the jump-off section of short pieces that still begins the New Yorker, and there is something of the willing journalist in him still. His readiness, not to mention ability, to write a novel like Terrorist reminds us always of the roots of the novel in news, and of Updike’s seismographic ear for the tremors of his time—just as Skeeter, the black militant in Rabbit Redux sprang credibly, as they say, right out of the headlines of his dark Nixonian era into Updike’s pages. Each of his early novels, and many of the later ones, have been, as Updike has allowed, shaped to a presidential period—Truman's in The Centaur, Eisenhower's in Rabbit, Run, Kennedy's in Couples, to which one could add the discomforts and anxieties of the Carter era in Rabbit Is Rich and the bewilderments of Reagan in Rabbit at Rest (not to mention the more obvious Memories of the Ford Administration). The same will to get it down as it was happening that made Howells move to New York to write about unions and violence and brought Trollope out of the cathedral close to write about Disraeli and parliaments and politicians inspires Updike too.

But if the persistent journalist in him is one of the things that has kept his novels alive, it is the satirist and humorist in him that have kept his sentences aloft. Despite the “lyrical” surface of his prose, he is a realist, never even marginally a romantic. He is genuinely unfazed by, unseduced by, all of the myths of American romanticism—gorgeous Daisys and vast sinister Western landscapes are equally absent from his books. His girls and women are real with scratchy pubic hair and vaginas (albeit shaped like ballet slippers) and his American landscape of car dealerships and fast-food retreats, has no place for doomed, exciting, existential gunmen. Salinger and Fitzgerald anticipated Updike’s kind of tenderness, the ability to summon a world in a phrase, the bouncing love of the surface of existence—yet Updike has written tartly of Salinger’s self-enclosure, his need to make a world and a family more beautiful than can be hoped for in the real world; and I sense in his criticism of Fitzgerald, too, once more an unconvinced disdain for all those improbably beautiful girls whom, he remarks sensibly, the writer loves too much to give the reader any space to love them for himself. He is, for all those perfect shining sentences, a realist; the sentences sing, but they don't ennoble.

And though it has been too long since his parodies and casuals have graced the pages of the New Yorker, still, the urge to amuse (and mock) remains strong in him. Updike the humorist is probably the least known, or recognizable, Updike of them all, but something of the White-cum-Thurber sound of the old “Talk”—that bemused, high-spirited, ironically smiling but resolutely well-wishing, not merely un- but anti-malicious comic tone—still lingers in his work. There is at least the material of comedy implicit in almost every sentence he writes: the dancing recognition of the likeness of the unlike, the will to treat the organic mechanically—his sexual congresses are blissful but funny, never “transcendent,” because they are so entirely acts of organic machinery, wise souls made into copulating machines. The simple common sense which regularly inflects his judgments of big writers and dubious ideas has its origins in a humorous tradition too; in his criticism he catches the notes of Wolcott Gibbs and Brendan Gill as much as of Edmund Wilson.

And he is a moralist, too, of a surprisingly old-fashioned kind. Throughout all that varied work, one theme has risen and been repeated over and over. Updike’s great subject is the American attempt to fill the gap left by faith with the materials produced by mass culture. His subject is how the death of a credible religious belief has been offset by sex and adultery and movies and sports and Toyotas and family love and family obligation. For Updike, this effort is blessed—and very nearly successful, almost close enough to grace to count—and yet in the long run doomed, since the fact and shadow of death hangs over it all. Unlike his European contemporaries, who see the same space and the attempted filling as mere aridity and deprivation, Updike is close enough to, and fond enough of, the source of postwar material abundance to love it fully, and for itself. (And he knew enough of the decade of deprivation that preceded the big blossoming never to be jaundiced about plenty.) He views the material culture of American life with a benign appreciative ironic eye—like Wayne Thiebaud viewing his cakes. But he has no illusions about it either, for its ability to cover the failure or wish away mortality. His recent novel In the Beauty of the Lilies, which this reader suspects will emerge as his Golden Bowl or Our Mutual Friend, the late masterpiece overlooked or praised by rote in its day, only to be rediscovered by another generation, makes this almost schematically apparent: The death of American religion is matched by the rise of the American movies. The longing for the transcendent and numinous, wherever it appears —in cult camps in Oregon or in a computer lab in Cambridge—is to be respected, caressed, but not to be deceived about.

It is in the longing for the numinous, and the awareness that it can only be remade in our time from the normal, that, I suspect, his wonderful writing on art, placed in two fine volumes already and still being written, is far from a workingman's diversion. Updike recognizes in the struggle of the modern artist to make art at all the same spiritual struggle that fills his characters’ lives, carried on in the thinner air of avant-garde experiment and with consequences that are blessedly semipermanent, very nearly death-defying feats. In the attempts of modern artists to wrest meaning from the flotsam and detritus of the world—in Cubist collage or Schwitter’s Merz, or even in the less referential attempts of a Cézanne to register the apple as the apple appears to him, not in smooth certitudes of chiaroscuro, but in stabbing, apprehensive touches of direct color—Updike sees a trace, perhaps even a chart, of the common search to find religious meaning in experience previously deemed marginal or merely material. As much as Rabbit fleeing Reading, Cézanne or Picasso flees the regularities of perspective and illusion in search of something larger. In his essay (collected with the unfortunately too-jocose title of “What MoMa Done Tole Me”) on his early experience of the then still spectator-sized Museum of Modern Art, he makes this likeness explicit:

A religion reassembled from the fragments of our daily life, in an atmosphere of gaiety and diligence: this was what I found in the Museum of Modern Art, where others might have found completely different—darker and wilder—things. Gaiety, diligence, and freedom, a freedom from old constraints of perspective and subject matter, a freedom to embrace and memorialize the world anew, a fearless freedom drenched in light: this was what I took away, each time, from my visits of an hour or so, usually in the afternoons, my day’s journalism done, before heading south to my wife and apartment and daughter on West Thirteenth Street. I took away, in sufficient-sized packets, courage to be an artist. . .

In this way, his writing on art, far from being a minor chapel in the church of Updike, actually occupies, I suspect, a central place. More, I suspect, than among the countless writers he has sung and (mildly but unmistakably) chided, it is among the painters whom he has praised that he finds a pursuit that chimes with his own deepest ambitions for his art: to save something shining from the great garbage disposal of time. Certainly, a note of almost religious happiness rises from his art writing. However much it may be frowned on by the pros for being insufficiently “serious” or “critical,” i.e., contextual or historical, it has always seemed to this ex-pro truthful in its unashamed enthusiasms, the desire to match the artist evocation for evocation, representational trick for trick. (In the decade when I wrote about art for the New Yorker, supplying context and history up the reader’s wazoo and beyond, Updike would emerge a couple of weeks later in the New York Review of Books with a few diffident and amateurish-seeming pages which always seemed, frustratingly, closer to the true mark, more infused with the artist’s own ambitions and resonating with the real feel of the thing.)

With all the other, dutiful things said, it is this note of happiness, there in unalloyed form in his art writing, that rings throughout Updike’s prose, and that draws us to it, makes us happy when we read it. It is not a fatuous happiness, or a happiness made unaware of death—it is his preoccupation with death and dying that is most steady in his work, if anything is—but neither does it cede too much to mere mortality. One has a sense of someone who—as much as, though with more wit than, Andy Warhol—has spent a good deal of his life liking things. Women’s clothes, their hair, American voices, the hybridization of American accents, the way girls smell in football season; the way that the hyper-cold of the airline baggage compartment can be felt like a secret in the bag as you unpack—all of these images and moments, recalled at random from his work, are not just reported but quietly rhapsodized, registered with love.

Since this happiness is, in a certain sense, banished by some of what I take to be his tougher-minded religious beliefs, which are hard and Protestant, not to say Pennsylvanian, I am inclined to believe that the act of writing, like the act of art-making, is such a source of quiet glee to him that it holds off death for a while at arm’s length. And I wonder, too, if he does not still find in the act of sentence-making—not “construction,” or “plotting,” but getting one sentence down right about one specific thing—something of the serenity that illustrators still find in the act of confronting a sketch pad with a pencil. Surely some touch of his original ambition to be a cartoonist or illustrator lingers still for him in at least the act of writing. Certainly in the few times that we have shared a stage or a table—most often with the avid, nerve-rattled, high-voiced junior introducing the elegant silver-haired senior partner—I have been impressed by this slightly monarchical inwardness, a cordial but still remote, dancing-eyed detachment, as though at any moment he might disappear into the corner, cross-eyed, to register on paper, as sketch or note, some small improbability unnoted by everyone else in the room. (And, as I hope that sentence shows, the mere thought of this proximity is enough to set off pastiche, if not parody, in the junior writer’s sentences.)

Having said all that, one thing I am sure of is that, while his triumphs have been mostly in prose, his emotional proximity to painters and poets has been one of the things that has kept his prose the thing it is. Updike's affinity for painting and poetry—the still felt desire to have been a painter or poet—is perhaps the secret fuel that keeps the prose shining and still in motion. One would want, therefore, in the end to triangulate him, as he once did T. S. Eliot, above all, among the poets, some near and some far: with Richard Wilbur, for a stubborn graceful adherence to craft and finish in a time of improvisation and amnesia; with Wallace Stevens, for the intimation of the numinous in the ordinary Sunday mornings of the mid-Atlantic states; and with Shakespeare himself for the ability to get himself expressed fully, unimpeded, and for the desire, even in the face of time, to set down, for readers still unborn, all the sweetness of our common life.

Interview

Jefferson Lecturer John Updike shares his passion for American art with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole. Updike, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and well-known novelist, has also written two volumes of art criticism: Just Looking and Still Looking.

NEH Chairman Bruce Cole: I think I may have told you that in my former life I was an art historian. While there are many Ph.D. art historians, the people I most enjoyed reading were the poets and the critics who brought great language to their description of art and were able to express the meaning of the art.

John Updike: I think it’s a field where to be an amateur is not necessarily a disgrace. Some of the best have been, in a sense, amateurs—Baudelaire and Henry James, to name two.

COLE: Right, many of my heroes in the history of art never had any art history courses. From Berenson, who’s one of my great idols, to Ruskin and John Pope-Hennessy. That was before the professionalization of the field.

UPDIKE: It all reflects our fascination with the visual in the last century and a half. It’s one of the reasons, I’m sure, that you’re getting such a good response to your program, Picturing America. Schoolchildren these days are raised on TV, they’re using their eyes from the age of six weeks on.

COLE: I did some teaching with these images in a school here. It was amazing what those kids brought out of the reproductions—and really gratifying.

What’s your earliest memory of actually coming into contact with art?

UPDIKE: Well, comic strips. And a reproduction of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy that hung in the house. I was raised in a suburb of Reading, Pennsylvania, which does have a rather small but attractive museum erected, I suppose, by the money of the mill owners in the region. It was within a walk of our house. My father and mother—I’m an only child—and I would take that walk on a Sunday fairly often. And so I began to go to the Reading Museum.

It contained not just paintings, but all sorts of cultural objects—things like Polynesian paddles and Chinese carvings. There was an Egyptian mummy, which was morbidly fascinating—all this on the first floor. It was the story of mankind in the form of a grab bag. Upstairs, there were paintings, which I looked at with kind of, you know, a child’s partial boredom; but something got through.

COLE: How old were you when you first started to go?

UPDIKE: I want to say six, but I might have been maybe eight or nine.

COLE: It sounds like a wonderful old cabinet-of-curiosities museum.

UPDIKE: It was. There were tiny doll-like duplications of people building the pyramids, living as cave people, or being ancient Mesopotamians, and it was in its way very instructive and, well, fascinating.

COLE: Did you ever think you wanted to be a visual artist?

UPDIKE: Yes. I don’t know at what age I began to look at the comic strips, the funnies so-called. I think my first coherent artistic ambition was to become a cartoonist. It was also the era in which the early Disney films were coming out—the animated shorts plus Snow White. Snow White came out, I think, in 1937, when I was five.

Anyway, all this imagery—these bouncy creatures, irrepressible little animations without any of the Depression worries that filled my household—all this seemed to offer real escape from my life into a better world.

My mother—she was another only child, raised on a farm—had artistic ambitions, literary ones. The local public schools offered art instruction in those days; there was no question of art not being one of the subjects you were taught. Depression or not, school budgets kept it in the curriculum. Not like now.

In addition to that, we happened to live across the street from the only artist in Shillington, a man called Clint Shilling; he was descended from the Shilling who created the town. At my mother’s request, Clint gave me some lessons when I was about eleven or twelve. All this was instructive.

It was instructive to try to look at something in terms of line and color. I remember one lesson—and I’ve written about this, and I don’t want to repeat what I’ve already put in print—where Clint put an egg in the sun on a piece of white paper and said to paint what I was seeing.

What he could see was a little rainbow at the edge of the shadow of the egg, which I couldn’t see until he pointed it out. That art lesson has stuck with me maybe more than any I’ve had since. The rainbow at the edge of the shadow of the egg. You can find it in a poem of mine called “Midpoint.”

COLE: That’s very interesting. One of the things we’re trying to accomplish with Picturing America is to show that to read a book is wonderful, and to hear a lecture is wonderful. But to see a work of art is different.

UPDIKE: Trying to see and draw shows you how much there is to see and how, as we proceed through our ordinary days, how oblivious we are to the visual facts around us. The history of art demonstrates how long it took artists to focus on what was actually there before their eyes instead of what they knew was there—that is, to move from the Egyptian way of putting down an ideological notion of what, say, the human body was.

In their aesthetic, you showed the body to the best advantage, so the profile was the best way to look at the face, and head-on was the best way to look at the chest. I was in Egypt not so long ago, and our guide talked about the idealism of the mode of representation, which was static for several thousand years.

They always showed the feet sideways, with the big toe outwards. You didn’t see the little toe, in classical Egyptian paintings, which gave the figures, depending on which way they were facing, two left or right feet. It’s only when the Roman and Hellenistic influences came in that you began to get little toes and anatomically correct knees and all the other realistic details that are so triumphantly present in Michelangelo and Leonardo and other Renaissance masters.

It’s not a natural thing to see what’s there. What’s natural is to represent what you know is there. And so this swinging back and forth now, between literalism and stylization, between representation and abstraction. When I was young, there wasn’t really much talk of abstract painting. Malerich and Mondrian, and Arthur Dove had done it, but it was still widely assumed that the duty of the artist was to become highly skilled at giving the illusion of thereness, of texture and space and perspective, and so on.

COLE: Yes.

UPDIKE: And so, in a way, it was easier to try to become an artist since it was fairly clear what you were trying to do. Norman Rockwell was reigning on the covers of the Post, and he was sort of the ultimate—the ultimate at least in illustration. And it’s taken some stretch of my own imagination to realize that there’s more to art than just this illusionistic accuracy.

COLE: In the Renaissance, you get the invention of one-point perspective, which also is not really the way we see. We see much more, I think, impressionist­ic­ally, but somehow we think that we see in perspective. It is amazing how these conventions work on us as well.

UPDIKE: That’s so true, isn’t it? Of course, the human eye moves all the time. It’s unnatural for it not to move. To paint in the very precise way of Holbein or Van Dyke is to freeze the seeing process in a way that is highly unreal. Surreal, one could say—Dalí and Max Ernst have this same uncanny precision, of the frozen eye.

Visual art is very fertile ground for this kind of philosophical—existential—speculation, especially now that the abstraction has spoken up so strongly on its own behalf. Now, we’re not really sure what we’re looking for. What is excellent—what is excellent about this piece of abstraction as opposed to this other piece? Why is Rothko so eloquent, for example, and Hans Hofmann not? Hofmann is a thrilling theorist but his paintings look like linoleum.

COLE: It seems to me that we don’t have any guideposts anymore. And I think one of the hallmarks of what we now call “modern art,” whatever that means, is that we want originality. But when artists are no longer bound by any kind of boundaries, when they break them, it’s not obvious what is originality. So we are kind of adrift, I think.

UPDIKE: In my own art criticism, if I can dignify it with that term, I really go kind of blank about thirty years ago. The last movement that I felt I dug one hundred percent was, I suppose, Pop, which was in the sixties. So it’s more than thirty years ago that I became personally kind of numb as far as gut response.

I recently read in the New Yorker a profile of John Currin, whose paintings are very meticulous and yet cartoonish and often bawdy. He’s terribly skillful. And yet I had to read the article to really begin to understand why he painted the way he did—why he would, you know, devote Holbeinesque attention to these forms. In one painting there’s an uncooked turkey, uncooked but prepared. And the shine of it and the look of it, you know, the little pimples on it, everything is there in this masterful way and yet . . .

COLE: A Holbeinesque turkey?

UPDIKE: It was an actual turkey; the people were a little weirder. At any rate, Currin has all the old masterish devotion to what seemed to be basically a very ironical and kind of off-putting subject. Funny. But why not, in the post-abstraction era, have all those old skills, you know, the underpainting and the overpainting and the glazes and all that technique work in his paintings? It has an element of a joke, saying, I’m going to do all this, and yet you still won’t like the painting, you bourgeois klutzes out there.

COLE: Well, that’s always something that struck me about abstract art. What it does is formalize art, removing all the annoying detours, like figures and narrative and all that. You just basically have the formal elements, light and color and the like. But that’s it. When you talk about that turkey, that’s what comes to mind.

UPDIKE: Yes, it seems at some level, for the reasons you’ve just given, frivolous to try to give a thing both formal qualities so that in some way the color itself speaks to you, and yet at the same time to make these accurate representations of real things, real people, real furniture. You just feel that some people did manage to do both things at once. Vermeer and Velázquez and others in which you can see, yes, that this presents object—things, people, clouds. You can also see the strokes; you can see the little pointilles that Vermeer uses, the individual brushstrokes. A painter was at work. At the same time, you’re moved—especially Vermeer. The women standing alone with the window over on the left and a letter or a delicate little scales in their hands. The images speak in the way that religious symbolism used to speak to believers.

COLE: I agree with that one hundred percent. When I look at one of those Vermeers—and I think that’s a great example, because it is almost abstract in the way that the forms are manipulated. But it sanctifies.

UPDIKE: There is a saintly feeling in Vermeer and some others—Rembrandt, too, or Chardin—where you feel that the act of putting down what you see in front of you at this point in history had a lot of cultural momentum behind it. There wasn’t a question of irony, but on the other hand it wasn’t a question of doing the church’s will either.

I mean, you were off on your own in the seventeenth century in a way that that hadn’t really been true before, because the patrons had requirements. You were a craftsman who was going to produce something to order. Christian art was almost Egyptian in the rigor of its formulas.

So, to arrive at a cultural place where you could make a living painting more or less what you wanted to is a liberation, but there is also a scary freedom to it too. And we’ve been living with that freedom for the last hundred years, ever since Picasso—a dreadful freedom.

COLE: One of the things that has struck me is that there is a great tradition of art. And whether it’s Egyptian art, as you just described, or Western art up to the middle of the twentieth century, there was a canon, and the canon formed subsequent works. And there was this tradition of art into art: You built on the shoulders of your predecessors. You modified it, you changed it, but there was always art into art into art into art. But there was a huge gulf created with people like Pollock who consciously broke that tradition.

UPDIKE: Pollock certainly is the figure to reckon with. But a paradox there is that he also was a news item. Life ran those dramatic photographs of him painting, and he had a celebrity quality that made you look at those big canvases of scribbles in a different way. They weren’t just art; they were fashion, the newest thing. There was a sexiness about Pollock the person that made his painting sensational in the same way that, around the same time, the topless bathing suit was sensational. It was a shock but somehow muffled by the very oddity of it. Pollock’s dripping was played initially as a joke, as a kind of Dada.

COLE: I’m reminded of that wonderful Rockwell cover where there is that man in the gray suit, dove-gray suit with a cane, I think, looking at a Pollock.

UPDIKE: It wasn’t a bad Pollock. Who knew Rockwell had it in him?

COLE: I’m a big fan of Rockwell.

UPDIKE: Well, he certainly gave you what I was just describing in that turkey. Come to think of it, there’s a memorable turkey in Rockwell’s wartime poster “Freedom from Want.” It’s a cooked turkey as opposed to Currin’s raw turkey, but i’s still quite a turkey, with a crispy brown skin.

This is a turkey we’re going to eat, this is a turkey that’s been processed and rendered safe for us to eat; and the Currin is raw. You don’t like to look at it for too long. But, yes, he gave a lot of value, Rockwell did, more than was asked for, in commercial art.

He was an artist, a real artist in that he went beyond the requirements. He could have painted with less loving detail; he could have had fewer little anecdotal touches and facial expressions in his work. But he went always to fill the glass to the brim—fill the whole canvas with warmth and enlivening details.

I think Rockwell is the standout in an age of great illustrators, because he never settled for a formula, unlike many of them. The late covers he did for the Post, just before it folded were really very painterly.

COLE: Well, you could see how he was trained in a classical tradition. I mean he could really draw and he knew how to put paint on canvas. I think he’s coming in for a little bit of a reappraisal, don’t you?

UPDIKE: I think it’s already come. He has his own museum. He was everything that art critics used to hate. But now, with so many representational artists, contemporary and old-time, coming into fashion, it’s a little harder to dismiss Rockwell.

COLE: One of my pet peeves is that there are a number of books on American art that don’t include Rockwell. I don’t see how you can really talk about American art without Rockwell. Most Americans, if you ask them to name an American artist, they’d probably say Rockwell.

UPDIKE: One artist I know went to the Norman Rockwell Museum and he was struck by how, as he put it, “horrible” the actual painting was. The application of paint was very displeasing to his eye, although, since it reproduced beautifully, he said it didn’t matter. The purpose of a Rockwell painting was to be reproduced.

COLE: Right.

UPDIKE: But there wasn’t any of that pleasure in brushwork, the sense of palpable paint, that you get from many painters—from all of the Impressionists, for example.

COLE: I am curious to hear your thoughts on Jackson Pollock and this shattering of tradition and also the importance of celebrity to art. But, for starters, could Pollock’s explosive rise have happened in any place but New York?

UPDIKE: I suppose it was tied in with the Manhattan ethos of buzz—even though the word “buzz” wasn’t coined, my impression is, when the Abstract Expressionists appeared. As far as I know, none of them got very rich in their prime. Pollock struggled for money when he was alive.

But the notion of the painter as a romantic figure was certainly achieved in the New York School. You didn’t feel that way about Pollock’s onetime teacher Thomas Hart Benton, who was also in his way an interesting man, a cantankerous, violent guy. But he was not a gorgeous creature the way that Pollock was, or Rothko, who, remember, committed a very bloody suicide, or Franz Kline, who drank himself into an early grave.

These men—and the movement had a macho side—were romantic, heroic. Their art was so unexpected, although there had been abstraction around for decades. They made art glamorous. They made American art glamorous to the rest of the world, which had not happened hitherto. They were the first American artists really, as you know, to be global trend setters and to influence European artists.

American art, for all the charms it has, especially for Americans—and it certainly speaks to me—until Abstract Expressionism didn’t speak much to anybody who wasn’t American.

COLE: Do you think Americans have an inferiority complex about their own art?

UPDIKE: I think that has been the American condition. Somebody like Copley paid great deference to the English and their dashing style. And then later in the century the French were the ones to imitate.

And rightly so. There was an establishment, a culture establishment, in Europe that didn’t exist in the U.S. The Founding Fathers tried to separate government from religion, and in the same spirit I think they didn’t underwrite art. The artist was unsponsored to a marked degree. He had to make his way on his own. Copley complained that the artists in Boston were merely tradesmen. Portrait painters, anonymous or not so anonymous, early on scratched out a living almost travelling house to house.

The American sense of an artist casts him as an outlaw, an outsider. The ones we love are outrageous in some way. They don’t all have to commit suicide or drink themselves to death, although that can help a posthumous reputation.

Look at the poets—all those hardworking, nineteenth-century, learned, respectable poets boil down now in the modern consciousness to Whitman and Emily Dickinson, who were both terrifically eccentric citizens. And so, in the same way, we tend to like painters who were hermits, as Winslow Homer became, or somewhat disgraced, as Eakins was, or pugnacious fops like Whistler or naïfs like Ryder.

We’re drawn to artists who tell us that art is difficult to do, and takes a spiritual effort, because we are still puritan enough to respect a strenuous spiritual effort. We don’t really want to think that the artist is only very skilled, that he has merely devoted his life to perfecting a certain set of intelligible skills. Sargent misses getting top marks because he made it look easy.

COLE: That’s interesting. Of all those hardworking poets, only two of them really remain. Yet we continually rediscover figures in American art who have now come into prominence. Last summer, I interviewed Bill Gerdts for our magazine. And when he was going to college in the forties, hardly any American art was being taught. And there weren’t many retrospectives and the like. But now the story is totally different. It is amazing, I think, the depth and quality of some of our lesser known American art and these artists nobody has actually ever heard of.

UPDIKE: Like Martin Johnson Heade. He was a painter who was known and had a studio in New York, and he somehow made a living, and went down to Brazil and painted orchids. But, yes, it took a hundred years for him to be seen as a great image-maker, in The Coming Storm, in his salt marshes. The entire Luminist School—Kensett, Lane, Gifford—they look awfully good now, at least to me. These were real painters, pre-Impressionist and yet somehow fresh in the same way that the Impressionists remain.

For me, the mid-century American landscapes are better than the European landscapes. Because they’re just—I don’t know—they had less junk to paint. They had fewer ruins; they just had a beach, the sea, cliffs, trees, mountains.

COLE: There is something I think wonderfully American about someone like Albert Bierstadt. It’s the frontier, it’s the West, it’s the rising sun, a kind of hope and optimism about it that you don’t see in European painting.

UPDIKE: Somewhere I read that Bierstadt made the mountains look taller than they actually are. And that was somehow helpful to me to realize he was a showman. He wasn’t just painting the Rockies as he saw them, but painting the Rockies as an epitome of splendor and drama. He was in a way selling the Rockies.

Church also was a showman. With these painters, there’s an element of the spectacular, of something that has never been seen before in paint. They are panoramic, with marvelous little details are worked in—a little cross in the corner of the huge canvas of the Andes, like God’s signature.

What is art supposed to do except make us say, Wow!—to strip the skin of dullness from what we see? And that’s showbiz, to get back to your point about the Abstract Expressionists. They were showmen in their fashion. They thought of themselves probably as, I don’t know, struggling, neglected, underappreciated artists, but then there is this boldness and their daring. You mentioned Rothko, and he still looks good, unlike some of the Abstract Expressionists; he is still spoken of reverently. Every museum of any size has to have a Rothko. One wonders, will there ever come a moment when people will look at a Rothko and say, Well, what’s so great about that?

COLE: A question you dare not ask. Talking about Bierstadt and Church, and their exaggeration and the like, I love Picasso’s definition of art, which I’m sure you’ve heard before: “Art is a lie that tells the truth.”

UPDIKE: Of course it’s a very accurate description of fiction, too, isn’t it? A lie, a set of lies that tries to tell the truth. And that was the excitement of fiction, when I was setting out to write it. There were still areas of life, as I had experienced it, that hadn’t yet gotten into print. There were things in life that fiction could still disclose—sex, for example.

I mean, it had been done here and there, but there was more to explore—how it fit in to the rest of our social intercourse. And the way people interrelate in general. And the fact that life isn’t an adventure the way you’re taught as a child that it’s going to be. It’s another kind of adventure.

Offhand, people don’t know that they are living the adventure, though the author does. Take the stories of Raymond Carver, all these ordinary people sitting around getting drunk together. Or the early stories of J. D. Salinger, which were a revelation to me when I was starting out—the Zen of the mundane. There was so much of life waiting to be turned into fiction, and now you wonder if journalism and television dramas have lapped it all up and left almost nothing to say.

COLE: Does art, I mean visual art, affect you at all when you’re writing fiction?

UPDIKE: Yes, at a certain level. Having tried to draw the rainbow at the edge of the shadow of the egg taught me how much there is to see. And I’ve been blessed with fairly good eyesight. So the visual element plays a larger part maybe in my narratives than in many.

But beyond that, well, I think painting remains the heroic modern art. I can’t speak for music. Musicians are very mysterious and wonderful people to me; I don’t know how they do it. I can’t imagine ever sitting down and writing a symphony, picking your keys, scoring the instruments. But as far as writing goes and wondering what’s been done, or overdone, or stale, or what is really potentially exciting that I could bring forth, going to a museum is what excites me. Going to MoMA when I lived in Manhattan in the mid-fifties really liberated and stimulated my sense of what was possible in writing. Modern art gave me courage. I would leave feeling buoyed up.

A painting you can absorb in a couple of minutes of looking and get most of it. Whereas a novel requires about ten, twelve hours to read. There is an instant quality to pictorial art that makes it I think popular among people who feel they should absorb culture. The artists in slower mediums, that unfold in time, look to it to lead the way.

COLE: Just to shift gears a little bit: Who do you like to read on art?

UPDIKE: Well, reviewers like Michael Kimmelman in the Times and Peter Schjedahl in the New Yorker. I marvel at somebody like Schjedahl who almost every week confronts what the Met, MoMA, or the Guggenheim offer him in New York. He is with an old master one week, and the next week he’ll be presented with an artist who is still very problematic—I mean, for whom there is no consensus, so the reviewer has to gamble on his own nervous reactions, his gut feelings. I think of Currin again, in this regard, and how his work does not just displease people, but makes them angry. This angry-making quality tells me that the art is alive and the artist is pushing the envelope, is trying to do something new. Anyway to be able to handle all that weekly I admire.

I read a few books about art that meant something to me. Herbert Read wrote a lovely book about the art of sculpture in which he talks about the haptic sense—we don’t really see a sculpture, we feel it with this sense of weight, of volume.

And I read André Malraux’s Voices of Silence when it was a fashionable book. I read it and thought it was really an amazing survey about the basic issues we are talking about. He writes beautifully, and in this grand geste covers all of art from Scythian belt buckles and cave paintings up to now. It really gave me my framework insofar as I have a framework.

COLE: Have you read Kenneth Clark?

UPDIKE: Yes, on Leonardo and the nude. And of course I followed his television series on civilization. It was in the days when there were some things in television we really didn’t want to miss, and his series was one of them. Like Malraux, he knew it all and got it all in. Clark is one of the few very wellborn people who has amounted to anything in the arts.

COLE: That may be true.

UPDIKE: I think it’s a matter of the kind of discipline and the kind of daring, the kind of patience that an artist needs; it’s not something that people who are aristocrats are often equipped with.

COLE: Do you collect?

UPDIKE: My wife and I have a few paintings, but they’re basically ones that have fallen to us. I don’t collect. I used to collect comic strips. As a boy, I used to write away to comic-strip artists and cartoonists and beg them to send me an original strip, and I had quite a little collection, actually; a number of artists would do it. It shows what an innocent world it was once.

COLE: If you were equipped with absolutely unlimited funds, who are a couple of artists you would buy?

UPDIKE: Homer, Hopper, Klee. I’d love to have a Pollock, and it wouldn’t have to be a big Pollock either. Some of the smaller things he did between finding himself and losing himself, in a rather brief window in the late forties and early fifties, when you see them are just exquisite, in the same way that Chinese porcelain and calligraphy are.

Speaking of Pollock, it’s odd there hasn’t been another. He has no followers. Nobody has been able to do what he did, and we think of him as this ill-educated, neurotic alcoholic. But he did know somehow when to quit on the canvas. It was a gift, a real talent that didn’t get enough credit. Sure, I’d like to own a Pollock.

COLE: It seems to me one of the great challenges that faces any visual artist is knowing when the work is finished. You can’t go look that up anyplace. That must be true also in your work. I mean your criticism and your fiction. How do you know when you’re finished?

UPDIKE: Donald Barthelme, I think it was, talked about the capacity for being bored as one of an artist’s assets. For a writer, there is nothing like the problematical quality I would think stopping is for a painter. You look at Lucian Freud and ask when has he put enough paint on paint, when is it crusty enough?

COLE: Right.

UPDIKE: It’s all too subjective, isn’t it? With abstraction, how do you know when you’re finished? How did Pollock know that it was time to stop dribbling? The Abstract Expressionists put the emphasis back on spiritual rightness: you knew when to quit because you were in a way with God, with the god of art. There was a kind of unanswerable rightness that you were looking for, and could get, although you could lose it too. An artist has to change, has to grow, and often you grow away from what you do best. Pollock certainly did. Pollock stopped dribbling and was revealed again as a very modestly gifted painter.

COLE: What are you working on next? More criticism?

UPDIKE: My mother didn’t raise me to be a critic, but I seem to have become one anyway. As I’m approaching my seventy-sixth birthday I would like to do less. But I must say that it’s nice to write something that you’re almost certain is going to be published. And there’s a kind of cheap comfort in acting the judge, instead of putting your creative work out there to be judged. And for me it involves leaving a kind of secluded, suburban New England life. It’s bracing to get on the shuttle and go to the Met or MoMA and look at something with an objective in mind, and to have your little notebook as a sign that you’re a serious person. It’s like taking a quick seminar. I suppose I enjoyed college enough to make the rest of my life somewhat like going to college. You read a book, you write a paper, you write a review of it.

COLE: It must be nice to know that it will get published too.

UPDIKE: You know, it makes it real. One trouble with writing poetry or fiction is that you can be kidding yourself. Or the air can be leaking out of your balloon and you don’t know it. There is always a chance of failure, of producing something totally unnecessary. But I guess that chance of failure is what makes tightrope walking, race-car driving . . .

COLE: . . . and doing criticism and . . .

UPDIKE: writing novels fun, interesting. You’re one level out, though, when you’re writing fiction. I called one of my collections Hugging the Shore. When you’re writing out of your head—imaginary stuff—you are alone out there, but you’re also the only person in charge. In this kingdom of one, you’re the boss. And the slave, too. You are the workforce.

You asked about what I was doing. I have a novel coming out in the fall, and I’m trying to write a story or two to round out a collection beyond that novel. That takes me into the year 2009, and that’s about it on my immediate desk. You get to the point where you should be wrapping up and delivering, you know, last words. At the same time you secretly hope you never reach that point.

Lecture Text

The Clarity Of Things: What Is American About American Art?

As many in this audience already know, the National Endowment for the Humanities, in association with the American Library Association, has launched in 2008 a program that will supply classrooms and public libraries with reproductions of significant American art, one example on each side of twenty high-quality posters, forty examples in all, under the overall title Picturing America. It was my idea, invited to give the 2008 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, to use some of these forty works, with others, to pose the question, “What is American about American art?” The question has often arisen; it was asked in almost these exact same words in 1958, by Lloyd Goodrich, then the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. His essay was titled “What Is American—in American Art?” and began, “One of the most American traits is our urge to define what is American. This search for a self-image is a result of our relative youth as a civilization, our years of partial dependence on Europe. But it is also a vital part of the process of growth.” Inquiries into an essential American-ness are less fashionable, my impression is, than they were fifty years ago, since they inevitably gravitate, in this age of diversity and historical revision, to that least hip of demographic groups, white Protestant males of northern European descent. These thin-lipped patriarchal persons figure, as founding Puritans or Founding Fathers, as Western pioneers or industrial magnates, at every juncture of traditional history books, and our diverse, eclectic, skeptical present population may have heard quite enough about them.

Yet my skimming survey of our sensitively diverse set of forty artworks cannot avoid these founders. Let us begin with the first great painter cast up by our art-sparse, undercivilized, Eastern-coastal New World, a young man as precocious as he was assiduous, John Singleton Copley. Born in 1738 of Irish immigrants on Boston’s Long Wharf, his childhood marred by his father’s early death and then, when he was thirteen, by that of his stepfather, the English artist and engraver Peter Pelham, Copley was all his life a striver and, with what I would like to think of as a typically American trait, a learner. Colonial Boston, a town of less than sixteen thousand, accounted for forty per cent of the colonies’ shipping; it abounded in shops and skilled craftsmen but was devoid of art schools and museums; European art entered its homes, if at all, in the form of fine consumer goods and inadequate monochrome prints. Copley was to complain in letters that his fellow colonials “generally regard [painting] no more than any other usefull trade, as they sometimes term it, like that of a Carpenter tailor or shew [shoe] maker, not as one of the most noble Arts in the World” and that his native land offered him “neither precept, example, nor Models.” Peter Pelham was proficient in the art of mezzotint, and Copley’s first known work, done when the boy was fifteen, skillfully imposed the head of one clergyman, the Reverend William Welsteed, upon the torso of a portrait print his stepfather had executed of another, the Reverend William Cooper.

Copley’s oil portrait of his stepbrother, Charles Pelham, executed a year or so later, is a typical stiff portrait of the period, with a totally indecisive background and a tabletop in odd perspective, yet with a pleasing care in such details as the pen and the vest and an arresting liveliness to the young subject’s glance. By 1756, the teenage artist attempted, in the portrait of Ann Tyng, a nearly full-length female figure, a landscaped background, and an apparatus of pastoral conceit; by the next year, in that of the aristocratic Theodore Atkinson, Jr., who still wears a wary stiffness in the pose and expression, the painter achieved a marvelous virtuosic realism in the white silk waistcoat embroidered with silver thread. A canvas of Epes Sargent, the seventy-year-old owner of half of Gloucester, shows a textural brilliance of another sort, in the thoughtful aged face and the puffy, wrinkled hand set off against a coat of plain gray broadcloth. The painter’s voracious eye even notes the little snowfall on Epes’ shoulder from his powdered wig. By the year of this painting, Copley, not yet thirty, was already recognized as a worker of visual miracles, the supreme portraitist not only in New England but in all the colonies, combining a preternatural skill in rendering fabrics—as marvelous in pastel, as we see in this rendering of the merchant prince Jonathan Jackson and his blue-green silk morning coat, as in oil, with an increasing power of conveying the inner life behind the faces of his New World aristocrats. For instance, the expression of Mrs. James Warren, née Mercy Otis, a colonial rarity, a female intellectual, poet and future playwright and historian, is as complex as the folds and lace trimmings of her blue-satin sacque dress in this portrait, done when Copley was only twenty-five.

The example chosen by the Picturing America series is this 1768 portrait of a successful Boston silversmith, Paul Revere, whose name, thanks to an 1861 poem by Longfellow, would come to reverberate in the legend of the American revolution. It is Copley’s only portrait of a craftsman in shirtsleeves, and the painting itself shows some merely craftsmanly qualities. The shirt is splendid but the hand on the chin appears too big for the face, and the reflection of the fingers of the other in the silver of the teapot seems surreally artful. Whatever Revere is thinking about, it is most probably not the midnight ride he will undertake in eight years’ time but the job he will undertake tomorrow morning, its meticulous graving and polishing. This painting, and one several years later of the rising firebrand Samuel Adams, might lead one to associate Copley with the colonies’ cause of independence, but in fact he married the daughter of Richard Clarke, principal agent for the British East India Company; it was Clarke’s tea, largely, that was dumped into Boston Harbor by revolutionaries painted as Mohawk Indians. In the coming crunch, Clarke was a Tory, and by 1776 Copley had settled with his wife, children, and father-in-law in London’s Leicester Square. But for a decade before this Copley had been seeking to make his painting more English. He wrote of yearning to “acquire that bold free and gracefull stile of Painting that will, if ever, come much slower from the mere dictates of Nature, which has hither too been my only instructor.” In 1765, seeking better instruction, he submitted a painting of his half-brother Henry Pelham, titled Boy with a Squirrel, to the 1766 exhibition of the Society of Artists in London. His friend Captain R. G. Bruce, who had carried the canvas to England, sent back the approbation of Joshua Reynolds, the leading British portraitist of the day and soon to be the first president of the Royal Academy. In Bruce’s paraphrase, Reynolds said “considering the Dissadvantages . . . you had laboured under, that it was a very wonderfull Performance” despite “a little Hardness in the drawing, Coldness in the Shades, An over minuteness.”

The same mail brought Copley word from Pennsylvania-born Benjamin West, who in three years of London residence had apparently mastered English artistic style and manners. West wrote of “the great Honour the Picture has gaind you,” though he and some fellow artists had found fault with it as “being to[o] liney, which was judged to have arose from there being so much neetness in the lines.” Reynolds, by way of Bruce, encouraged Copley to come to England “before your Manner and Taste were corrupted or fixed by your working in your little way at Boston,” and the Society of Artists elected him a fellow on the strength of the “liney” canvas; the contemporary art authority John Wilmerding points out that it was the “first major work painted by an American artist for himself, rather than on commission, and it also became the first American picture to be exhibited abroad.” Copley, Tory or not, was the George Washington of American art, and, rather disconcertingly, he knew it, writing Pelham in 1775 from England’s shores, “It is a pleasing reflection that I shall stand amongst the first of the artist’s that shall have led that Country to the Knowledge and cultivation of the fine Arts.”

This picture’s transatlantic intentions give it a schizophrenic quality: the mahogany tabletop, the water glass, gold chain, and the tiny pet flying squirrel have all a dry minuteness, but the subject’s face, unlike that of Copley’s usual hard-faced colonials, is creamy, dreamy, and in romantic profile. Copley’s customers for portraits in the colonial gentry put up with an absence of flattery, a refusal to glamorize, that British sitters of comparable status might not have accepted; even here, Copley’s warts-and-all portrait policy permanized in paint his half-brother’s oddly folded ear, as well as, elsewhere, Nathaniel Allen’s hairy moles and Miles Sherbrook’s acne scars. Copley’s next submission to the Society of Artists, for the 1767 exhibition, was titled Young Lady with a Bird and Dog. This time, Benjamin West complained that the girl looked “disagreeable” and conveyed Reynold’s opinion that “Each Part of the Picture [is] Equell in Strength of Coulering and finishing, Each Making to[o] much a Picture of its silf, without the Due Subordanation to the Principle Parts, viz the head and hands.” What Reynolds meant is shown by a sampling of his own portraits of Horace Walpole and Lawrence Sterne. In both, light is sharply focused on the head and one hand. Incidental details are confined to papers, since both men are writers, acting out their roles on a minimalist stage. In Reynold’s more elaborate portrait of Warren Hastings, the first governor general of India, the proficiently painted details of clothing and furniture do not usurp attention from the casually posed nobleman and agent of empire, but frame him, in his relaxed dignity; he has a good opinion of himself, and the portrait agrees.

The confident theatricality of English portraits, when Copley attempts it, seems to embarrass his down-to-earth colonial subjects, and turns their expressions ironical, as we see Sylvester Gardner’s here. If their poses are stiff, it is an honest wooden stiffness; in Copley’s paintings of English gentry, the stiffness is burnished to a metallic luster, and rings hollow. Even in his most admired and ambitious English painting, a historical tableau in the approved Grand Style, The Death of Major Peirson, the central pictorial incident, with its single drop-shaped drop of blood, feels staged to the point of farce. And the dying hero’s flowing hair, and the spruce details of the uniforms crowding around him, seem, well, “liney.”

What did Benjamin West mean by this word? A line is a child’s first instrument of depiction, the boundary where one thing ends and another begins. The primitive artist is more concerned with what things are than what they look like to the eye’s camera. Lines serve the facts. Folk art tends to be “liney,” as we can see in these examples of anonymous portraits done well before Copley, earlier in the eighteenth century. From around 1720, Lavinia Van Vechten, now in the Brooklyn Museum. From 1721, a lady called Ann Pollard, in Massachusetts. And Magdalena Douw, by an artist from the Hudson River valley, around 1729. Such portraits, executed as a “useful trade” like sign-painting and print-making, were the sole genre of high art widely practiced in America before the nineteenth century brought in romantic landscapes. They share a resolute attempt at likeness and an honest notation of such details as fabric patterns but lack a convincing atmosphere and a third dimension; they are, as it were, two-and-a-half-dimensional, and so was Copley’s early work. The conventions of illusionistic painting, providing through tint and brushwork the sense of recession in space and of enclosing atmosphere, are not demanded by every culture. In the art-sparse, mercantile world of the American colonies, Copley’s lavish literalism must have seemed fair dealing, a heaping measure of value paid in shimmering textures and scrupulously fine detail. “Overminuteness” could scarcely exist, as it did not exist for Holbein or Jan Van Eyck.

In the wake of the great Copley retrospective in Boston in 1966, the critic Barbara Novak ascribed Copley’s sensibility not to any artistic predecessor but to a “conceptual bias” present in Puritanism; Jonathan Edwards wrote of “the clarity of ‘things,’” of things as the mediator between words and ideas, between empirical and conceptual experience. “The manifestations God makes of Himself in His works,” Edwards wrote, “are the principle manifestations of His perfections, and the declaration and teachings of His word are to lead to these.” The first great painter of American landscapes, Thomas Cole, who also perpetrated a number of religious pictures and large allegorical canvases, lamented that the public preferred “things not thoughts.” Moving from America to England, Copley passed from an art whose soul was empirical to one whose soul was conceptual, societal, and theatrical. Two self-portraits record his inner migration: a pastel at the age of thirty-one shows, but for the touch of vanity in the elegant, leisurely costume, an enigmatically bland young man, his eyes watchfully on you. A tondo in oils after a decade in London paints in dashing brushstrokes a faintly haggard man of fashion in his forties. His eyes, directed away from us, are those described by an observer, not long after he had left America, as “small eyes, which, after fatigue, seemed a day’s march in his head.” Always laborious in his painstaking methods—sitters, including the younger daughters of George III, complained of being “wearied” during the many sittings Copley demanded—he had left behind the land that had rewarded him with unchallenged eminence and what he described as a “pretty living” of three hundred guineas a year, for an England where he always struggled to prove himself. Lloyd Goodrich’s essay puts it bluntly: “America lost her greatest artist, to add another good painter to the British school.”

In the ninety-eight years that went by between Copley’s birth and that of Winslow Homer, on Boston’s Friend Street, into the family of a well-to-do hardware merchant, Boston still had acquired no art school and very little of an artistic community. When young Winslow, whose mother was a dedicated amateur watercolorist, expressed a desire to be an artist, the best his indulgent father could do for him was to acquire, on a business trip to England, some instructive lithographs and to arrange for his son’s apprenticeship to an acquaintance, the commercial lithographer John H. Bufford. Winslow Homer did not speak well of his two years with two years Bufford; he called working ten hours a day for five dollars a week “bondage” and “slavery” and “a treadmill existence.” On his twenty-first birthday, he left Bufford’s and set up shop in Boston as a free-lance illustrator; he caught on very quickly, first with Ballou’s Pictorial and then with Harper’s Weekly, in New York. In 1859, Homer moved to New York, to be closer to his main source of income; there, in what had become the country’ s most vital artistic center, he took lessons in painting and enrolled in life classes. His artistic education, however, was interrupted by the Civil War; in late 1861 Harper’s sent him as “a special artist” to “go,” he wrote his father, “with the skirmishers in the next battle.” Instead of going to Europe, as he and his family had intended, he went to war. Here is one of the many wood engravings based on the “special artist’s” work that Harper’s published in the next two years; titled “The Army of the Potomac—A Sharp-shooter on Picket Duty, “ it appeared in the issue of November 15, 1862, with the attribution, “From a Painting by W. Homer, Esq.” It was his very first painting, done in his late twenties. His friend Roswell Shurtleff attested that he “sat with him many days while he worked on it,” in Homer’s studio in New York’s University Building. It is, in its careful delineation of pine branches and rumpled trousers, “liney,” though the darkness that swallows the marksman’s head expressionistically conveys “the horror of that branch of the service” which Homer shared with ordinary foot soldiers.

The painting by Homer chosen for the NEH portfolio, The Veteran in a New Field, also concerns that most deadly of American wars, but from the happier perspective of disarmament. Painted in 1865, the canvas was used for a woodcut in an issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of July 1867, illustrating an article celebrating the widespread return of armies from the fields of battles as a triumph of a democratic society. The woodcut is liney, stalk by stalk, but the painting is not; the field being harvested forms a wall of solid golden-brown, and the stalks already cut in the foreground are indicated by a quite loose sprawl of dry brushstrokes. A close friend of Homer’s, the painter Eugene Benson, also the art critic for The New York Evening Post, asserted of this painting that its style was “an effective protest against a belittling and ignorable manner in art”—that is, of the American followers of the English Pre-Raphaelites—and “a sign of that large, simple and expressive style which has made the names of Couture and Millet . . . so justly honored.” French art had replaced English as the model; the peasants dignified in the images of Jean-François Millet and the landscapes of the Barbizon School, freed of mythological apparatus, prepared the ground for Impressionism and its vivacious brushwork—“the touch, the sweep, the dash of the brush,” Benson wrote. Without these, “no man can be called a great painter.” In late 1866 Homer and Benson sailed for Europe, and Homer spent nearly all of 1867 in or near Paris; it has been said, in a tone of complaint, that Homer paid insufficient attention to the newest French art, and returned with no sign of French influence; but even a painter as self-willed and individual as Winslow Homer needs courage, and he returned to his studio in the University building with a braver style.

An oil like Croquet Scene in 1866 has the static lininess and posed “human interest” of his woodcuts. A holiday seaside scene such as Long Branch, New Jersey, of 1869, strikes quite another note—breezier, vaster, with a deep perspective and an overall palette so bright we involuntarily squint. Crossing the Pasture, of 1872, epitomizes the Homeric country idyll—the open meadow splashed with wildflowers, the monumental children caught in a moment of reverie. With little or no recourse to French models Homer has developed an American expressionism—the floating daubs of the flowers, the brilliantly painted tin pail, the dazzlingly white shirt, the dashes of complementary green on the sun-reddened faces. Another pair, Boys in a Pasture, two years later, gives us a low horizon, a hat of sunstruck straw, a Pythagorean triangle, and beautiful bare feet—we can feel the grass tickle them. The medium of watercolor lightens and loosens his style quite marvelously; in Apple Picking, of 1878, opaque gouache strengthens the sun on the bonnets and skirts while sunlight presses in yellow dabs, the same size as the red apples, through the lacy screen of trees. Red plays about the girls’ shoulders and their all but hidden faces; they are caught in a magic moment instantly freighted with nostalgic. The style, which in some of Homer’s watercolors can be as dry as the pencil underdrawing, is here fluid and wet.

He spent most of his second stay abroad in the North Sea village of Cullercoats, where his paintings of fisherwives, more studied and chromatically subdued than his American watercolors, achieved an uncanny stateliness, as of priestesses from classic Greece. After his return to America in late 1882, up to his death in 1910, his allegiance belonged almost entirely to water—swampy and shadowed in the Adirondacks, sparkling aquamarine in the Caribbean, thunderous, surfy, and titanic off the coast of Maine. His father and brother, early in 1883, had bought up almost all of the peninsula in Maine called Prout’s Neck. Visitors to Winslow Homer’s separate cottage and studio may be struck, as was I, by how closely interwoven it was with the busy resort life his family had created within their compound, and how domesticated the nearby shore was, its paths worn through a broad margin of beach roses and grasses. From this cozy setting Homer wrested images of primal wildness and power, scenes of water and rock generally unpopulated. Here is High Cliff, Coast of Maine, a beautifully radical work of 1894 in which the rocks are broken into fragments of color as if by the weariless pummeling of the waves; frustrated by the painting’s failure to find a buyer for nine years, Homer as if defiantly signed it twice. But Northeaster, done the next year, is perhaps his signature canvas, unforgettable in the sense it gives us of the ocean’s webbed, heaving weight. The following year’s Maine Coast is similar but freer, almost carefree in the manner of its painting, in brush scribbles and palette-knife slatherings of raw white. In admiring such pictures, and in gazing at the foaming left half of Homer’s masterly tableau Undertow, painted a decade before Maine Coast, we cannot but be conscious of the paint itself; white dabbled and stabbed, swerved and smeared into place in imitation of the water’s tumultuous action; we simultaneously witness both the ocean and the painter at work. These arduous passages of tumbling foam and exploding spray are at once representations of natural phenomena and examples of painterly artifice; thing and idea are merged in the synthesis of artistic representation.

Though Homer observed and imitated the surging waves as intently as Copley did the sheen of fabric and hair, the effect is not “liney.” The opposite of “liney,” it turns out, is “painterly.” It is not an aesthetic misstep to make the viewer conscious of the paint and the painter’s hand; such an empathetic consciousness lies at the heart of aesthetic appreciation. Beginning as a rather dry, scratchy, anecdotal recorder of military and social life, serving in magazines an illustrative purpose that within a few more decades will be taken over by the novel art of photography and the technology of photo-engraving, Homer ended as the wettest of artists, not only a supreme watercolorist but an inventor, on this continent, of Impressionism and action painting in oils.

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In the long perspective of this talk the only contemporary of Homer’s worthy of being considered a rival is Thomas Eakins. This watercolor, John Biglin in a Single Scull, was done in 1873, one of a number Eakins executed of scullers on the Schuylkill around Philadelphia. Though the scene is watery, the technique is dry—a preparatory study, as exact as a blueprint, for the painting has been preserved. The ripples this side of the scull have been calibrated with a scientific precision, stippled to serve up the boat’s reflection in measured wavelets. Eakins loved science, and his determination to give his students the undraped benefit of male anatomy put a cramp of scandal in his academic career. He dared attempt, in his Portrait of Doctor Gross, to show, with Rembrandtesque chiaroscuro, surgery in progress, and in his portrait of Professor Benjamin Rand meticulously rendered the anatomy of a microscope. Only in his searching, tender portraits of friends and family members does he not seem “liney” to me; this favorite former student, Amelia Van Buren, is seated in a costume and a physical environment as carefully detailed as those in a Copley, but the brooding mood, and an evenly applied painterliness, unifies and humanizes the whole.

And what others in our government-sponsored Picturing America series might be called liney? Paul Revere, painted by Copley, reappears in Grant Wood’s 1931 oil, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. This aerial view certainly is guilty of what Benjamin West called “there being so much neetness in the lines.” But neatness was a main feature of Grant’s style, often used, as here, with a flavor of parody; the village is toylike, a Christmas-yard village with its lit windows throwing out golden druggets onto the road. Revere’s steed is stretched out in the position of a hobby horse, and the playfully patriotic mood of Longfellow’s overfamiliar poem is knowingly evoked. The County Election, by the less-well-known Midwestern painter George Caleb Bingham in 1852, has the same too-good-to-be-true polish, a citizenry busily engaged in civic duties but for the two idle boys and a slumping man in the foreground. The 1975 mural Origins of Country Music, by Thomas Hart Benton, shows another energetically involved crowd, limned in Benton’s usually wiry, restless lines. Such cartoonishness genially asks for a suspension of disbelief while it presents not so much an American scene as a rendering of America’s self-image. An abundance of detail becomes, then, a reassurance that the vision is true, or will come true. What Joshua Reynolds called “Hardness in the drawing, Coldness in the Shades, An over minuteness” verifies a collective vision.

Charles Sheeler’s 1930 American Landscape portrays, in muted cool colors, an actual industrial site—the Ford Motor Company’s huge River Rouge plant near Detroit—but ideally cleaned-up, with none of the grime, litter, and air pollution that actually attend industry. And—talk about “the clarity of things”—here are some locomotive wheels that Sheeler painted in 1939, entitled Rolling Power. With a passionate closeness the details of piston and lever and fuel line are rendered to an effect of purity and silence, a reduction of machinery to its spiritual, Newtonian essence. In Walker Evans’ 1919 photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge, the lines do not regulate the distribution of power but gracefully resist the downward pull of gravity, as the pointed arches of a Gothic cathedral do; Joseph Stella’s painting ten years earlier uses those same lines to fragment a somewhat hectic native version of Cubism, an epochal European invention. In both Europe and America pictorial art was permeated by the intuition that machinery constituted Man’s future; Futurism, an Italian movement in a wide spectrum of arts, was launched in 1909, espousing a rejection of the past and its sentimental humanism, and by the 1920s had involved its founder, the writer Filippo Marinetti, in support of Benito Mussolini and fascism, a totalitarian political creed prolific of romanticized, mechanized images of mass force.

Is this propagandistic image by Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech, from the Saturday Evening Post of 1943, liney or painterly? It is rendered without visible brushwork, the hallmark of a painterly manner, and is crammed with fragments of faces—an ear here, an eye there—that are, to quote Reynolds again, “Each part . . . Equell in Strength of Coulering and finishing, Each Making to[o] much a Picture of its silf.” Yet the artist does not fail on the score of “Due Subordanation to the Principle Parts”; attention is focused from all sides on the speaker, who dominates this ideal town meeting, his starry-eyed, open-mouthed head framed by what we guess is a school blackboard. Rockwell, like Copley before him, gave heaping measure to his clients, principally the Post and its millions of readers, always exceeding the necessary with an extra caricatural vitality or, in his late works, with lovingly observed detail. It does not add to the joke, for instance, of this Post cover of 1944, to make the scale so vivid a thing, nor do we need, in this winsome cover of 1955, the brick-by-brick wall through the window, the coat and hat on the hook, the spittoon, the geranium, and the kitten. Liney in its “overminuteness,” yes, but also painterly in its fond lavishness; this most successful of twentieth-century commercial artists also practiced art for art’s sake.

And is this robust portrait from 1797, the so-called Lansdowne Portrait of you know whom, liney? Emphatically, no, for Gilbert Stuart, though born in Rhode Island, was at the age of thirteen a pupil of the recently arrived painter from Aberdeen, Cosmo Alexander, and received from him an essentially Scots artistic education. In 1775, only nineteen years of age, Stuart left the roiling colonies for London, where he at first supported himself playing a church organ and eventually became an assistant to Benjamin West, the native Philadelphian who had become history painter to King George III. The student outdid the master in mastering English technique, and succeeded as a portrait painter, though money troubles chased him in 1787 from London to Dublin, where he lived and painted five more years. Eccentric and profligate, given to quarrels and to continually talking while he painted portraits, Stuart opportunely returned first to New York and then to Philadelphia, where he developed a profitable business in the painting of President George Washington. This, the last of three poses he painted of Washington in the flesh, though only one of at least a hundred he produced by reproducing his originals—is excellent in the head, but Stuart used another model for the body, a much broader and softer body, Washington’s grandson complained, than the actual “matchless combination of bone and muscle” who served as father of this country. In using a portly body double Stuart was out of line but never liney; the Lansdowne Portrait in its dignifying, eloquent painterliness would befit a king.

Are Picturing America’s specimens of John Singer Sargent and Childe Hassam liney? No—Sargent, like Stuart, was a European painter with American citizenship, though as with Copley his possibly too fluent styule did best with American portrait subjects like Elizabeth Withrop Chanler. Childe Hassam is, with William Merritt Chase, a foremost American Impressionist. Yet there is little thoughtfully analytical, in the developed manner of Monet and Seurat, about Hassam’s nervous, scratchy, hasty manner of painting. Of the hundreds of canvases he turned out, his flags, of which Allies Day, May 1917, is one, bring the most money on the art market, perhaps for the elementary reason that Americans respond to their flag like few other nationalities. And what of Edward Hopper, as represented in Picturing America by a house right on the railroad line? Like Homer, he began as an illustrator, and his work retained the clarity of illustration; yet he worked in broad planes of light and shadow, conveying a sense of volume as well, uncannily, of a lonely human drama being enacted, even though, as here, only a piece of architecture is painted. Unlike Andrew Wyeth, who similarly aspired to paint an inward America, he cannot be accused of being liney; Wyeth rejected what he called “the diversion of so-called free and accidental brush handling.”

And, to leap ahead beyond the bounds of our forty chosen posters, into Abstract Expressionism, which for the first time in art history saw the United States decidedly shake off the influence of Europe and lead the way—what of this, by Mark Rothko, bleakly called Number 10, dating from 1950? It has the two-dimensionality of liney work, but the rectangles would not float and intrigue the eye if they were less painterly, with the thin wash of variation within the central yellow panel and a casual dribble leaking from it; if the edges of were less feathery in their brushing, they would not hover in their ghostly way. But what of this, by Jackson Pollock, Number 30, also from 1950? It is all line, dribbled and spattered in an ecstatic dance in the mystic space between concept and thing. Or these lines, by the young Andy Warhol, in 1960? Or these, the next year, in a liquidex and silk-screen work designed not to hang but to lie on the floor? Or these, by Roy Lichtenstein in 1965, titled Big Painting, in obvious satire of the broad painterly strokes of Abstract Expressionism? Or this by Lichtenstein the same year, satirizing our stock emotions as they are beamed back at us by comic books? Or these painstaking lines, by the photorealist Richard Estes in 1979, titled 34th Street, Manhattan, Looking East? The “overminuteness” is such that dozens of tiny signs can be read and the pale Empire State Building in the distance is reflected by the exquisitely replicated smear in the foreground. This remarkable artist, beginning with commercial work in advertising and beginning to paint in a semi-Pop, Larry Rivers manner, quickly became the precisionist limner of our glassy, thing-ridden city streets.

Two centuries after Jonathan Edwards sought a link with the divine in the beautiful clarity of things, William Carlos Williams wrote in introducing his long poem Paterson that “for the poet there are no ideas but in things.” No ideas but in things. The American artist, first born into a continent without museums and art schools, took Nature as his only instructor, and things as his principle study. A bias toward the empirical, toward the evidential object in the numinous fullness of its being, leads to a certain lininess, as the artist intently maps the visible in a New World that feels surrounded by chaos and emptiness.

About the Jefferson Lecture

The Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, established by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1972, is the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.

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