John Updike 's reputation as a novelist was sinking even during his lifetime.
David Foster Wallace peered out from his glass house in 1997 and placed Updike among Great Male Narcissists Philip Roth and Norman Mailer, blasting Updike for his sexism while leaving out the notorious sexual predator Saul Bellow. Wallace quoted an unnamed female critic who summed up Updike as "just a penis with a thesaurus."
Updike's later novels declined from his lauded early works. As Updike's abilities as a novelist waned, he excelled as an essayist, poet and literary and art critic. But to young women and "sensitive" men of Wallace's generation, he was a wounded white whale of American literature.
But despite his sexist reputation and late-career decline, Updike might be gaining fresh appreciation among a new generation, including women.
British writer Claire Lowdon in the July 5 Times Literary Supplement gives a sympathetic assessment of Updike's early novels "The Poorhouse Fair," "Rabbit Run," "The Centaur," and "Of the Farm." The Library of America recently published the novels in one volume.
While Lowdon sees the early novels as expressing the attitudes of male dominance prevalent in the late 1950s and early 1960s, she credits Updike for creating sympathetic female characters. The author of the novel "Left of the Bang" and an assistant editor at Arte, Lowdon is one of the emerging young talents of British literature.
Like other critics, Lowdon sees Updike's strength, his facility for descriptive writing, as his greatest weakness. She cites passages where Updike loses control of his language. But overall, she champions him as a writer of astonishing power and beauty.
She finds much to praise in all of the books, although she sees the National Book Award-winning "The Centaur" as too dependent on Greek myth and derivative of James Joyce.
While Lowdon views "The Farm" as an accomplished achievement, she gives her highest praise to "Rabbit Run" as a true American classic worthy of continued readership. The first of four books about former high school basketball star Rabbit Angstrom, "Rabbit Run" is the most accomplished of the series, revealing enduring truths about American character.
Lowdon touches upon Updike's "Maples" short stories, without acknowledging Updike's standing as a short story master rivaling John Cheever.
Overall, she rates Updike as a "B-League" novelist, with Joyce in the A League. As Lowdon concludes, that makes Updike's brilliant early works worthy of rediscovery.