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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 August 2015

American Studies Program and Department of Political Science, Tel Aviv University E-mail:


This article, through a close engagement with John Updike's work, explores the manner in which the postwar liberal temper shaped American fiction. By contextualizing the novelist's early writings within the changing intellectual climate of the period, it demonstrates how his liberal sensibilities deeply informed his literary imagination. The essay employs new archival material about Updike's Harvard education and sketches his political biography—the first of its kind—to offer a fresh and more nuanced understanding of Updike as not only a gifted writer but also a political thinker. Although he chose the less traveled road of fiction to do so, Updike expressed a particular temperament pervasive among many liberal intellectuals at the time. By challenging the widely held view of him as an apolitical writer, the article also enriches our understanding of the meanings and complexities of postwar liberalism while illuminating the often overlooked link between literature and politics.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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I am grateful to Charles Capper and to the anonymous reviewers of Modern Intellectual History for their patience and productive commentary, which significantly improved this article. I would like to thank Jim Miller, David Plotke, Oz Frankel, Inessa Medzhibovskaya, Robert Boyers, Brian Steele, Michael Kimmage, Jack De Bellis, and Jim Plath for their guidance and advice. I also appreciate the cooperation of Christopher Buckley, William Massa, Sam Tanenhaus, John Bethell, the John Updike Literary Trust, and the Wylie Agency. I owe a particular debt of gratitude to Leslie Morris and her staff at Houghton Library for all their assistance and support.


1 William F. Buckley Jr to John Updike, 15 March 1978, Box 262, Folder 2258, William F. Buckley Jr Papers, MS 576 S01, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

2 John Updike, “One Writer's Testimony,” National Review, 26 May 1978, 641.

3 Buckley to Updike, 12 Sept. 1978, 25 Sept. 1978, Buckley Papers, Box 262, Folder 2258, original emphasis.

4 Updike to Buckley, 15 Sept. 1978, Box 262, Folder 2258, Buckley Papers. Copyright © by John Updike, used by permission of the Wylie Agency LLC.

5 See Kimmage, Michael, The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whitaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-communism (Cambridge, MA, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Jimmy Carter to Updike, 26 April 1980, the John Updike Papers (henceforth JUP), Folder 3396, MS Am 1793, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Fenton, John, “Liberal Is Winner in Massachusetts,” New York Times, 1 Oct. 1969 Google Scholar. Michael J. Harrington to Updike, 1 Dec. 1976 and 8 Aug. 1978, JUP, Folder 4223.

7 John Everett to Updike, 28 Jan. 1972, and Gerald Heeger to Updike, 14 Aug. 1990, JUP, Folder 5368.

8 Abramowitz, Alan I., The Polarized Public: Why American Government Is So Dysfunctional (New York, 2012)Google Scholar.

9 For more on this see Broer, Lawrence, ed., Rabbit Tales: Poetry and Politics in John Updike's Rabbit Novels (Tuscaloosa, 1998), 17 Google Scholar.

10 Vigilante, Richard, “The Observer Observed,” National Review, 19 May 1989, 51–5Google Scholar; Gingher, Robert, “Has John Updike Anything to Say?”, Modern Fiction Studies, 20 (Spring 1974), 97105 Google Scholar; Podhoretz, Norman, Doings and Undoings (New York, 1964), 251257 Google Scholar. For an overview see Mazzeno, Lawrence W., Becoming John Updike: Critical Receptions, 1958–2010 (Rochester, 2013)Google Scholar.

11 Boswell, Marshall, Mastered Irony in Motion: John Updike's Rabbit Tetralogy (Columbia, MO, 2001), 45 Google Scholar.

12 Plath, James, ed., Conversations with John Updike (Jackson, MS, 1994), 31 Google Scholar.

13 For more on this see Dickstein, Morris, Leopards in the Temple (Cambridge, MA, 2000), chap. 1Google Scholar; Szalay, Michael, New Deal Modernism (Raleigh, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Denning, Michael, The Cultural Front (New York, 1997)Google Scholar; Burns, Jennifer, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (New York, 2009)Google Scholar; Shapiro, Edward, We Are Many: Reflections on American Jewish History and Identity (Syracuse, 2005), chap. 3Google Scholar.

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16 Trilling, Lionel, The Liberal Imagination (New York, 1953), 289 Google Scholar.

17 Sennett, Richard, “On Lionel Trilling,” New Yorker, 5 Nov. 1979, 204–17, at 209Google Scholar.

18 Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, xii. For more on Trilling's liberalism see Kimmage, The Conservative Turn.

19 Although shared by many Democrats and Republicans, this liberal mindset, which for decades shaped political policy, was more of a temperament than an ideology. On postwar liberal thought see Marsden, George M., The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief (New York, 2014)Google Scholar; Mattson, Kevin, When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism (London, 2004)Google Scholar; Whitfield, Steven J., The Culture of the Cold War (Baltimore, 1996)Google Scholar; Brinkley, Alan, The End of Reform (New York, 1995)Google Scholar; Pells, Richard H., The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age (Middletown, 1989)Google Scholar; Fowler, Robert Booth, Believing Skeptics: American Political Intellectuals, 1945–1967 (Westport, 1978)Google Scholar.

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21 Brick, Howard, Transcending Capitalism: Visions of a New Society in Modern American Thought (Ithaca, 2006), 4, 22Google Scholar.

22 Fowler, Believing Skeptics, 217. For more on this see Dahl, Robert A., Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City (New Haven, 1961)Google Scholar.

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25 Ibid., 245.

26 Neuchterlein, James, “Arthur Schlesinger Jr and the Discontents of Postwar American Liberalism,” Review of Politics, 39/1 (Jan. 1977), 340, at 7CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On Schlesinger's ideas see Diggins, John Patrick, ed., The Liberal Persuasion: Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and the Challenge of the American Past (Princeton, 1997)Google Scholar.

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28 Greif, Mark, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973 (Princeton, 2015), 23–4Google Scholar.

29 Naveh, Eyal, Reinhold Niebuhr and Non-utopian Liberalism: Beyond Illusion and Despair (Brighton, 2002)Google Scholar. See also Crouter, Richard, Reinhold Niebuhr: On Politics, Religion and Christian Faith (New York, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Niebuhr quoted in Naveh, Niebuhr and Non-utopian Liberalism, 8.

31 For an example of this optimism see Dewey, John, The Public and Its Problems (New York, 1927)Google Scholar.

32 Niebuhr, Reinhold, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York, 1932), 4 Google Scholar.

33 Galbraith, John Kenneth, The Affluent Society (Boston, 1958), chap. 17Google Scholar. Bell, Daniel, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York, 1976)Google Scholar.

34 Mattson, When America Was Great, 96.

35 De Bellis, Jack, John Updike's Early Years (Lanham, MD, 2013)Google Scholar; Ludwig, Jeffrey, “Roommates and Rivals: John Updike, Christopher Lasch, and a Harvard University Friendship,” John Updike Review, 2/2 (Spring 2013), 325 Google Scholar. The only extant account of Updike's Harvard years is De Bellis, Jack, John Updike Encyclopedia (Westport, 2000), 196 Google Scholar.

36 Silverman, Robert, “Vets Flooded Campus under GI Bill,” Harvard Crimson, 7 June 1999, available at Google Scholar.

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38 Lipset, Seymour Martin and Riesman, David, Education and Politics at Harvard (New York, 1971), 189 Google Scholar.

39 Ibid., 199.

40 Smith, Richard Norton, The Harvard Century: The Making of A University to a Nation (Cambridge, MA, 1998), 163 Google Scholar. On the Redbook see Kenneth Lynn, “Son of ‘Gen-Ed’,” Commentary (Sept. 1978), 59–66; Jacques Barzun, “Harvard Takes Stock,” Atlantic Monthly (Oct. 1945), 52–5; Report of the Harvard Committee on General Education in a Free Society (Cambridge, MA, 1945).

41 Miller, Eric, Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch (Grand Rapids, 2010), 2527 Google Scholar.

42 As quoted in Smith, The Harvard Century, 163.

43 Official Register of Harvard University, 47/16 (July 1950), 13–14, 44–7, Box 85, Harvard University Archives, Pusey Library, HU 75.25.

44 Alston Chase, “Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber,” Atlantic Monthly (June 2000), 41–65.

45 For more on this see Berlin, Isaiah, Enlightening: Letters 1946–1960 (London, 2009), 244412 Google Scholar; Cherniss, Joshua, A Mind and Its Time: The Development of Isaiah Berlin's Political Thought (New York, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Mayhew, Leon, “In Defense of Modernity: Talcott Parsons and the Utilitarian Tradition,” American Journal of Sociology, 89/6 (May 1984), 12731305 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On Schlesinger, Hartz, and Galbraith see Pells, Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age, 147–75. For a faculty guide see “General Catalogue Issue,” in Official Register of Harvard University, 1950–54, Boxes 85–90, Harvard University Archives, Pusey Library, HU 75.25.

46 Donaldson, Scott, Archibald MacLeish: An American Life (Boston, 1992), 413–14Google Scholar. John Bethell, who is the secretary of the Harvard Class of 1954 and Updike's former classmate, told me that they took MacLeish's poetry course together. The original email is in the possession of the author. MacLeish to Updike, 14 May and 4 July (year unknown), JUP, Folder 4937.

47 Luytens, David, The Creative Encounter (London, 1960), 76 Google Scholar. For his biography see Donaldson, Archibald MacLeish.

48 Vanderlan, Robert, Intellectuals Incorporated: Politics, Art, and Ideas inside Henry Luce's Media Empire (Philadelphia, 2010), 9 Google Scholar.

49 Archibald MacLeish, “The Unimagined America” Atlantic Monthly (June 1943), 17–30, at 18.

50 Trilling, Lionel, Matthew Arnold (New York, 1949), 231 Google Scholar.

51 MacLeish, Archibald, “Dover Beach: A Note to that Poem,” in Archibald MacLeish, Collected Poems: 1917–1982 (New York, 1985), 313 Google Scholar; Theodore Morrison, “Dover Beach Revisited: A New Fable for Critics,” Harper's Magazine (Dec. 1939–May 1940), 235–44. On Morrison's influence see Updike, Letters to Plowville, 8 Jan. 1952, JUP, Folder 6887. “Letters to Plowville” refers to Updike's parents.

52 Updike, “English 99 Paper,” JUP, Folder 418, 10. 1953–4 copyright © by John Updike, used by permission of the Wylie Agency LLC. Updike, Letters to Plowville, 2 March 1952.

53 Kimmage, The Conservative Turn, 99.

54 Trilling, Matthew Arnold, 127, 137. On the book's American reception see Mazzeno, Laurence W., Matthew Arnold: The Critical Legacy (Rochester, 1999), 2152 Google Scholar.

55 Trilling, Matthew Arnold, 79–80.

56 Kimmage, The Conservative Turn, 101.

57 Trilling, Matthew Arnold, 189, 206.

58 Updike, Letters to Plowville, 30 Sept. 1951; Levine to Updike, 4 Feb. 1980, JUP, Folder 4808.

59 Levin, Harry, Grounds for Comparison (Cambridge, MA, 1972), 15 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

60 Updike, John, Odd Jobs (New York, 1991), 840 Google Scholar.

61 Levin, Grounds for Comparison, 4.

62 Pike, Burton, “Harry Levin: An Appreciation,” Comparative Literature, 40/1 (Winter 1988), 2943, at 35CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

63 Updike, Letters to Plowville, 29 April 1953; John Updike, “Criticism and Inspiration,” JUP, Folder 395, 7.

64 Updike, “Criticism and Inspiration,” 7, 10. 1952–3 copyright © by John Updike, used by permission of the Wylie Agency LLC.

65 Updike, Letters to Plowville, 27 Sept. and 2 Nov. 1953; Plath, Conversations with Updike, 32.

66 Malia, Martin E., “Michael Karpovich, 1888–1959,” Russian Review, 19/1 (Jan. 1960), 6071, at 66Google Scholar.

67 On Havelock see Updike, Letters to Plowville, “Thursday Night,” 1950 (following 26 Sept. 1950).

68 Havelock, Eric A., The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics (New Haven, 1964), 20 Google Scholar.

69 Ibid., 379, 386.

70 Updike, Letters to Plowville, 9 Nov. 1950, 12 Jan. and 22 Jan. 1951. For more on the course see Philip Boffey, “Best in the System,” Harvard Crimson, 8 Nov. 1956, available at

71 John Updike, “Marx: Man of Mission,” JUP, Folder 416.

72 Ibid., 9. 1951 copyright © by John Updike, used by permission of the Wylie Agency LLC.

73 Ibid., 20–21. 1951 copyright © by John Updike, used by permission of the Wylie Agency LLC.

74 John Updike, “An Exposition of the Morality in the Communist Manifesto,” JUP, Folder 431.

75 John Updike, “Just Ruler, Pious Saint, Chivalrous Knight,” JUP, Folder 414, 4. 1950–51 copyright © by John Updike, used by permission of the Wylie Agency LLC.

76 John Updike, “The Tragedy of Peter Abelard,” JUP, Folder 445, 14–16, original emphasis. 1950–51 copyright © by John Updike, used by permission of the Wylie Agency LLC.

77 John Updike, “The Decline of Moral Stability Since The Divine Comedy,” JUP, Folder 397, 19–20. 1952 copyright © by John Updike, used by permission of the Wylie Agency LLC.

78 Updike, John, “Apologies to Harvard,” in Updike, , Tossing and Turning (New York, 1977), 34 Google Scholar. Both excerpts from Updike's entry to the class of 1954 reports were generously provided to me by John Bethell.

79 Plath, Conversations with Updike, 11, 45. For more on “middleness” see Miller, D. Quentin, “Updike, Middles, and the Spell of ‘Subjective Geography’,” in Olster, Stacey, ed., The Cambridge Companion to John Updike (New York, 2006), 1528 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Regan, Robert, “Updike's Symbol of the Center,” Modern Fiction Studies, 20 (Spring 1974), 7796 Google Scholar.

80 On Barth's influence see De Bellis, John Updike Encyclopedia, 48; Hunt, George W., John Updike and the Three Great Things: Sex, Religion, and Art (Grand Rapids, 1980)Google Scholar. On Tillich and Barth see Updike, John, Hugging the Shore (New York, 1984), 825836 Google Scholar.

81 Updike, Picked-up Pieces, 129.

82 Ibid., 384.

83 Ibid., 407.

84 On Updike's criticism see Pritchard, William H., Updike: America's Man of Letters (Amherst, 2005)Google Scholar.

85 Plath, Conversations with Updike, 173, 242. Updike, John, Assorted Prose (New York, 1965), 163 Google Scholar; Lorna Kaufman to Updike, 5 Nov. 1972, JUP, Folder 2921; Tanenhaus, Sam, “Man in the Middle,” New York Times Book Review, 18 Nov. 2012, 31 Google Scholar; Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Updike, 31 Aug. 1992, JUP, Folder 5250; Updike to Arthur Schlesinger Jr, 3 Feb. 2002, Arthur Schlesinger Jr Papers, Box 137.2, New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division.

86 Begley, Adam, Updike (New York, 2014), 263 Google Scholar.

87 Rather than endorse the war efforts—about which he was skeptical—Updike adamantly opposed the antiwar movement, which he considered too radical and dangerous. In his novel The Coup (1978) Updike actually demonstrated a clear distaste for America's foreign interventions. For more on this see Updike, John, Self-Consciousness (New York, 1989), chap. 4Google Scholar; Quentin Miller, D., John Updike and the Cold War: Drawing the Iron Curtain (Columbia, MO, 2001)Google Scholar.

88 Updike, John, Midpoint and Other Poems (New York, 1969), 42, 72 Google Scholar.

89 Updike, John, Preface to Updike, The Poorhouse Fair (New York, 1977), vii–xx, at xxi Google Scholar.

90 See Schiff, James A., John Updike Revisited (Boston, 1998), 17 Google Scholar; Newman, Judie, John Updike (London, 1988), 8 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Greiner, Donald J., John Updike's Novels (Athens, OH, 1984), 9 Google Scholar; Searles, George J., “TPF: Updike's Thesis Statement,” in Macnaughton, William R., ed., Critical Essays on John Updike (Boston, 1982), 231–6, at 232 Google Scholar.

91 Updike, John, The Poorhouse Fair (New York, 1963), 185 Google Scholar.

92 On the criticisms see Greiner, Updike's Novels, 3–6.

93 Updike, The Poorhouse Fair (1963), 52, 66.

94 Ibid., 132, 134.

95 Ibid., 17, 87, 116.

96 Updike, John, Rabbit Angstrom: A Tetralogy (New York, 1995), xvxvi Google Scholar; on the novel's politics and Updike's reaction to the 1960s see Begley, Updike, 295–342; Boswell, Mastered Irony, chap. 2; Miller, Updike and the Cold War, 90–96; Ristoff, Dilvo I., Updike's America: The Presence of Contemporary American History in John Updike's Rabbit Trilogy (New York, 1988), chap. 3Google Scholar.

97 Updike, John, Rabbit Redux (New York, 1990), 159 Google Scholar.

98 See Miller, James, Democracy Is in the Streets (Cambridge, MA, 1994)Google Scholar.

99 Updike, Rabbit Redux, 229–32. For more on this see Bloom, Joshua and Martin, Waldo, Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley, 2014)Google Scholar. For postcolonial critique see Jay Prosser, “Updike, Race and the Postcolonial Project,” in Olster, The Cambridge Companion to Updike, 76–91.

100 Updike, Rabbit Redux, 233.

101 Ibid., 45.

102 Ibid., 131, 245.

103 Ibid., 295–6, 349. On Rabbit's ambivalence see Matthew Wilson, “From Solitude to Society to Solitude Again,” in Broer, Rabbit Tales, 96.

104 Updike, Rabbit Redux, 330.

105 Ibid., 82.

106 For more on this see Kloppenberg, James T., “In Retrospect: Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America ,” Reviews in American History, 29/3 (Sept. 2001), 460–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gerstle, Gary, “Race and the Myth of the Liberal Consensus,” Journal of American History, 82/2 (Sept. 1995), 579–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

107 Hutner, Gordon, What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920–1960 (Chapel Hill, 2009), 335 Google Scholar.

108 See Denby, David, “A Life of Sundays,” New Republic, 22 May 1989 Google Scholar, 29–33; Hardwick, Elizabeth, “Citizen Updike,” New York Review of Books, 18 May 1989, available at Google Scholar.

109 Plath, Conversations with Updike, 61, 224.

110 Kloppenberg, James T., The Virtues of Liberalism (New York, 1998), 7 Google Scholar.

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