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British Association for American Studies


Issue 3, Spring 2003: Article 4


Issue 3, Spring 2003: Article 4

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 3, Spring 2003: Special Conference Edition

Epic Aspirations for the Great American Novel: John Updike’s Song of America

Catherine Morley
© Catherine Morley. All Rights Reserved

It’s a certain burden, this American-ness. If you come from a small nation you don’t have that. I feel sometimes that an American artist must feel like a baseball player or something – a member of a team writing American history.
Willem de Kooning

As Rome herself, by long unwearied toil,
Glean’d the fair produce of each foreign soil;
From all her wide dominion’s various parts
Borrow’d their laws, their usages, their arts;
Imported knowledge from each adverse zone,
And made the wisdom of the world her own:
Thy patient spirit thus, from every Bard
Whose mental riches won thy just regard,
Drew various treasure: which thy skill refin’d
And in the fabric of thy verse combin’d.
William Hayley, An Essay on Epic Poetry, 1782

the Great American Novel is not extinct like the Dodo, but mythical like the Hippogriff
Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist, 1903

John Updike has been heralded as the writer of middle America, both poet and historian, a novelist who speaks eloquently to and of the American national consciousness. For Rabbit is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990) Updike’s name was set alongside the term Great American Novel and the author was celebrated for his poetic rendering of the American psyche in the midst of the twentieth century. However, such classifications, in their implicit singularity, belie the multifarious nature of Updike’s ouevre and the social world of his art. The America of the Rabbit Angstrom series is, after all, a continent composed of a multitude of identities and ethnicities, rather than a country. Of a nation as radically diverse as Amish Pennsylvania and the sun-bleached Florida coast to which the protagonist flees, can one, with assurance, speak of a certain, identifiable, ‘American-ness’? If not, then it is also impossible to engage with the term and the myth of the Great American Novel, which in its annual resurgence has become somewhat hackneyed and clichéd. My intention here is to reconsider the dominant characteristics of the so-called Great American Novel by providing an inclusive, trans-Atlantic frame in which to view the Rabbit Angstrom series of novels. By focusing upon Updike’s engagement with the motifs and tropes of the European Epic, I hope to gesture toward a break with the deficient term Great American Novel (from here on after referred to as the GAN) and, by implication, examine Updike’s prose beyond his assignation as the bard of American middle-class domesticity. This, of course, is not to say I reject those critiques that focus upon this aspect of Updike’s work. Rather, I wish to underscore the near-sighted nature of such generic and national specificities by highlighting the inescapable influence of the European Epic upon such great American literary achievements as Rabbit Angstrom.

Given the polyphonic breadth of Updike’s fiction and his idiosyncratic proclivity for historical recuperation, the title of Epic over the GAN seems more fitting. Historical recuperation as a deterministic feature of the Epic has long been acknowledged by epicists and classical critics alike. Paul Merchant has described the genre as a chronicling ‘book of the tribe’ while Ezra Pound reads it as a poem containing history. [1] Bearing such classifications in mind, one can firmly posit Updike’s engagement with the details of the past (moreover, his attention toward these particulars as richly multifaceted) as working within the Epic tradition. However, it is not simply Updike’s patent penchant for historical recreation, which places him within this ambitious milieu. Nor, indeed, is it the sheer scale of his endeavour – intended in 1960 as a short novella the Rabbit Angstrom series has grown to encompass decades and occupy more than 1,500 pages of text. That which classifies Updike as a contemporary epicist is not simply his assimilation of the genre but this very absorption, combined with a modification of its features, to facilitate its relevance to contemporary America. Through a conscious engagement with Joyce’s modernist Epic (which I here elucidate), Updike takes on the genre’s historical and stylistic tradition– its reflexivity and adaptability as well as its characteristics and themes. In many ways, Updike is as much concerned with the foundation and history of the American people as Joyce was with the forging of an Irish consciousness and Virgil was with the establishment of Rome. Therefore, not unlike his Irish and, by implication, Latin precursor, Updike, in the creation of the national Epic, seeks to incorporate the formative features of the very nation within his art.Rabbit Angstrom as naturalistic American Epic envelops the literature of American Individualism many of the characteristics of European Modernism and, consequently, the conventions of Greek and Roman Epic. The composition of a ‘song’ of America thus incorporates the songs of those that have fashioned the nation. Furthermore, Updike demonstrates the inescapable influence of ancestry and European forms on the literature of the so-called ‘New World.’

Updike’s systematic fusion of precise historical detail with fictional textures betrays the ingredients of a prose Epic. Despite its traditionally perceived status as a long narrative poem composed in language of an elevated style, concerning the ideals of a hero and utilising various conventions, the form has evolved within American literature into a prose phenomenon. According to John McWilliams’s study The American Epic: Transforming A Genre, 1770-1860, a new form of Epic was required for a new nation:

Just as Virgil and Milton contributed to the epic tradition by changing it, so an Epic for the New World had to be something other than a Virgilian, Homeric or Miltonic poem. Once histories and novels became the dominant literary forms of the 1820s and 1830s, the American Epic was far more likely to be written in prose, and probably would not be valued by a wide reading public unless it were written in prose. [2]

Further to its prose composition, the case for Rabbit Angstrom as Epic is strengthened by the evolution of the genre in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While Homeric Epic focused upon ‘exterior achievement [and] great and heroic deeds by great men,’ more recent attempts at the genre have emphasised interior action, meditation and contemplation (for example, Ulysses and Moby Dick) with adventures scaled down to human dimensions. [3] But, Updike’s generational tale is also vast in scope, spanning five decades and integrating events of national magnitude. Thus, fitting with Merchant’s assessment of the genre as a ‘book of the tribe, chronicle and storybook’ in its combination of the fictive and the historical. [4] If the Epic, at least in its American manifestation, originated in a need for an established and recorded history, Updike’s series is significant not only by virtue of the density of historical record but also in the gradual investment of an historical consciousness within Rabbit himself. This interpenetration of fiction (based on the American mythology of individualism) and the provision of an historical texture, again, suggest generic characteristics associated with the European supreme poetic form, which merged myth and history.

As A.J. Boyle argued in his influential essay ‘The Canonic Text: Virgil’s Aeneid,’ the Epic, from the very first translation of Homer’s Odusseia by Andronicus Livius, has formulated itself as a palimpsestic text, deriving much of its significance from the rewriting of earlier accomplishments. [5] This is true of the genre in its early Roman expressions, which were composed largely in the modification and rewriting of previous Greek texts. From the Roman period to the present, this tendency toward imitative reproduction has endured. Medieval, Renaissance and even contemporary Epic is firmly fixed in this influential pattern forged by Virgil (one need only to recall Joyce’s Ulysses and its requisition of Homer’s Odusseia as evidence). The William Hayley verse that opens this article, however, not only outlines the multi-textual nature of Epic but also illuminates the intrinsic eclecticism of Empire. This forces one to reassess the genre as an ambitious, cross cultural vision of a universal humanity rather than simply the tale of the founding of a singular nation. Virgil’s epic, in its absorption of the Homeric quest, is, thus, an Epic of a multi-dimensional Empire. Moreover, the Virgilian text as a commentary upon the foundation of the Roman Empire casts a long shadow of association between the Epic as a literary genre and the ideals of the imperial dream. The Virgilian Epic is not eulogistic in a manner which may be attributed to Homer or, indeed, his own Latin predecessors but, rather, was reformed as a critical dialectic of ideas about the foundation of nationhood, with a concern for historical origins. Epic (à la Virgil) became the social and political commentary we associate with a writer as prolific and stylistically adaptive as Updike, focused upon historical reclamation, political interrogation and textual integration. By engaging with the Virgilian text as the exemplar of epic writing (and as a model for Updike) one is, thus, confronted primarily with a political genre, concerned with the establishment of the state and populace, attentive to political and historical issues of national identity and expansionism. Just as Virgil came to assess critically the ideals of imperialism in the Aeneid, Updike, in the Rabbit Angstrom series, presents a non-didactic discourse on the nature of the American state and citizenship.

Bearing this in mind, the quest for Epic is a more suitable designation of Updike’s enterprise (or at least that assigned him) for his fiction, in its historical scope and its sundry array of characters and personages, offers an elaborate and politically insightful vision of the world’s current hegemonic nation. Previous contenders for the title of the GAN such as Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), James Fenimore Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Tales (1823-1841) and, more recently, DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), bear none of the narrative panegyrics one would expect the GAN to represent. All impart the disparate and miscellaneous aspects of American life and rather than celebrate the tenets of American civilisation and the American frontier, they question the very nature of cultural refinement and explore epistemological issues regarding both the universal and individual nature of human existence. Certainly, the core narrative of each of these contenders is the Homerically inspired heroic quest, the journey across a harsh and difficult landscape, which at every point illuminates the diminutive nature of the human in the face of a vast terrain.‘Heroes’ such as Ishmael, Natty Bumpo and even the infinitesimal Rabbit Angstrom, seemingly content in their existence, are forced to interrogate both the nature of self and nation as they embark upon a journey/quest for enlightenment. Updike’s narrative, as Epic, critically expounds rather than extols the realities of contemporary American power (see especially Rabbit, Run, 1960) and the American dream of individualism and exceptionalism (Rabbit, Run and Rabbit is Rich).Rabbit Angstrom examines the relationship between the American national image and its realities, representing the effect of the public world of nation with its imperial achievement on human values and human history.

Thus, at this preliminary juncture it is important to recognise that the decision to compose Epic was/is rarely viewed as solely a poetic undertaking. Virgil’s engagement with the facts of history in the formulation of a dialectic on the establishment of the state necessitated an interchange with Homer. However, as opposed to Homer and his own antecedents Virgil administered the socially and politically critical nature of the genre. From the outset, the Epic has been characterised by its transformative qualities and receptivity to change. According to Boyle, the once panegyric Epic was revolutionised, ‘by overtly using mythical discourse as political discourse … he made it difficult … for mythological epic to be apolitical.’ [6] This merging of the mythological and the political, thus, re-characterises the genre as a politico-historical mode, composed to make the past of immediate relevance to the present. This rendering of the past is engaged to elucidate the politics and social mores of contemporaneity, offering insights into the mechanics of everyday life. Virgil composed the Aeneid as a carmen heroum – ‘large scale, narrative, heroic poetry, concerned with the deeds of heroes and/or the history of a nation.’ [7] Updike’s engagement with the myth of American individualism pitched against the history and politics of the United States from 1959-2000 affords a remarkable comparative resemblance in terms of authorial motivation and generic composition.

Updike’s tightly-woven historical thread most resolutely associates the fictional series with the factual domain of national character. When we first encounter the young ex-basketball star in 1959, the issues that dominate Rabbit Angstrom’s life are, indeed, those of the day – the Korean War, the rapidly developing system of labyrinthine highways, the permeation of television into everyday life, and the escape of the Dalai Lama to India. In the 1960s, hippies, drugs, sexual experimentation, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the moon landing infiltrate not only the national consciousness but also the protagonist’s home. The 1970s bring with them the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the Gasoline Crisis, President Jimmy Carter’s crisis of confidence, and the impending Japanese invasion of the American economy. In 1989, the end of the Cold War, the mid-air explosion of Pan-Am 747 over Lockerbie, America’s foreign debt, the rise of feminism and the AIDS epidemic each loom largely in the personal and national psyches of Updike’s protagonists. In 1999, Updike marries Rabbit’s various sexual promiscuities (as well as his ability to avoid being made accountable for them) with those of former president Bill Clinton in evoking the disquiet and discontent amongst Americans in the wake of the Lewisnsky-Jones accusations that arose toward the end of the Clinton administration.

Throughout each decade the public events of the day infiltrate the very individual life of the ‘hero,’ the tensions of the nation become, both implicitly and explicitly, those of the loyal citizen (in spite of his many failures and crises of confidence, Rabbit is a devoted believer in the institutions of the nation). For example, throughout his life Rabbit identifies with a number of US presidents. In the 1970s, (Rabbit is Rich) Rabbit suffers a similar crisis of confidence as then president Jimmy Carter (although Rabbit’s confidence involves his waning sexual potency). In 1989, he even begins to jog in emulation of George Bush. Most striking, however, is his parade performance as Uncle Sam in Rabbit at Rest – a vast yet crumbling symbol of the American nation in the midst of a national crisis of identity (the end of the Cold War and the invasion of former enemy Japan’s electronic merchandise upon the US economy). At all times, throughout the series, the national is evident – often foregrounded, and, in many ways, Rabbit is the product, not of Updike, but of these larger forces of history. One might even conjecture that Rabbit is, in fact, a symbol of the post-war nation itself:his youth and innocence, that of the quiet and tranquil Eisenhower presidency, and his adolescence the hedonistic and experimental America of the 1960s. Mid-life crisis and disillusionment with self-identity come with the gasoline crisis of the late 1970s. Rabbit’s death befalls with the ultimate shock to post-war US identity – the end of the Cold War. It is evident, thus, dealing with the history of the nation and the mythology of individualism in his treatment of the hero, that Updike is engaging with the Virgilian inspired carmen heroum, aspiring to the epical in his juxtaposition of the individual and the nation, myth and history.

Especially effective in underscoring the historical (and indeed, textual) reclamation of the Rabbit Angstrom series are the strategically placed news items in each of the Rabbit texts, which disclose the dominant ideological discourse of the period. As Harry makes his first flight from home, in Rabbit, Run, the radio filters a series of advertisement for 1950s consumer gadgets in between the musical features. It is the news of the day, however, which explicitly renders the formative features of the hero:

President Eisenhower and prime Minister Harold Macmillan begin a series of talks in Gettysburg, Tibetans battle Chinese Communists in Lhasa, the whereabouts of the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of this remote and backward land, are unknown, a $250,000 trust fund has been left to a Park Avenue maid, Spring scheduled to arrive tomorrow. [8]

Later in this first novel and later in his life (shortly before his death in Rabbit at Rest) Harry wonders what it would be like to be the Dalai Lama. Frequently throughout the original text, Harry is placed upon a similar platform as the Eastern leader. Just as the Dalai Lama makes his journey southwards toward India rather than moving in an easterly direction (into the domain of the Communists), Rabbit makes the first of his escapes southwards through the biblically inspired Amish towns of Paradise, Intercourse and Bird-In-Hand. Not unlike the leader of the ‘remote and backward’ Tibet, Rabbit’s flight from home involves a quest for spiritual and emotional freedom. Also, evident and pervasive throughout the news report is the threat of Communism. Although the McCarthy witch hunts had dominated the earlier part of the decade, the fear of an outside Communist presence remained at the heart of 1950s American politics through to the latter part of the decade. The Eisenhower-Macmillan talks were, in fact, organised to reach an agreement regarding the containment of Nikita Khrushchev’s USSR. Therefore, Rabbit draws affinities with the Eastern spiritualist on the level of a perceived shared ‘enemy.’The mention of Gettysburg, naturally, evokes a further foundational historical level – the 1863 address by Lincoln which sought the promotion of equality and the ‘new birth of freedom,’ the principles of democracy upon which the nation was established. Quite ingeniously, in a single reel of historical footage, Updike portrays the spirit of an American decade: the threat of Communism both from Russia and within, the impending decline into the spiritual decadence of the 1960s with the growth of consumerism, and the foundational decrees of a nation which permeate every aspect of the individual life.

Given the particular polyphonic nature of Rabbit Angstrom, the application of the Epic as a palimpsestic, cross-fertilised form (bearing the marks of numerous generations’ myths and stories) is especially pertinent. Indeed, that which generates the meaning and force of the series is its relationship to and integration of other texts (both fictional and historical), most especially its allusions to Homer, Virgil and Joyce. [9] That which is, at once, remarkable about the Rabbit series is its evocation and transmission of the prevailing American national mood and concerns over five decades, through four generations of Angstroms (Ma and Pa Angstrom, Rabbit, Nelson and Judy). Thus, in many ways it would seem that Updike has assumed a position akin to that of an Homeric epicist – assembler of generational tales and anxieties, creating a richly imbued mosaic of historical, fictional and often fantastical threads. Furthermore, Updike’s ability to infuse a pungent oral quality to his rendering of the national mood and character at a particular point in the previous half-century (with astonishing accuracy and insight), in a way, integrates and emulates the oral nature of the Homeric Epic.

This intertextual resonance brings us back to the idea of Epic as intrinsically associated with the rhetoric of imperialism and consolidation of Empire. Virgil’s recapitulation of Homer’s Iliad in singing of ‘arms and the man who first from Troy’s shores came’ is, in a way, an imperial act. The Roman epicist commandeers and colonises the earlier Greek text. This formal mimesis, however, is designed to delineate the moral and political implications of imperialism. Furthermore, it outlines the necessary interaction of coloniser and colonised. The Hellenisation of Rome between 250 and 100BC not only subjugated but also offered Rome access to its culture and arts. Thus, in the words of Horace:

Captive Greece captured her savage conquerer
And brought culture to rustic Latium. [10]

This essential immersion and interaction of competing cultures in the formulation of a national and artistic identity is certainly evident in the formulation of an Epic for the United States. Spectres of European forebears haunt much of the fictional outpouring of American writers. Even the fiction of Updike bears resonance of the writer’s Dutch lineage (more notable than Rabbit Angstrom is In the Beauty of the Lilies). Consequently, the American quest for the supreme work of fiction resembles that of the artist trapped within the colonised space. For example, one might look to Joyce’s aspiration to forge the consciousness of the Irish people in Ulysses – a consciousness free of the cadences and afflictions, which marked Ireland’s colonial identity. Yet, to do so, Joyce (writing in English) was obliged to embrace the Greek tradition of Homer’s Odusseia and remained unable (and unwilling) to escape the looming spectre of Shakespeare. Similarly, the case may be posited in terms of those writers of the Harlem Renaissance who sought a literature of their own yet often were caught within the language, rhythms and inflections of the perceived dominant white voice. The alternative, in both instances, was not to reject completely what had in fact performed a formative role in the establishment of their art, but to engage and negotiate with that which had gone before. In the case of Updike, the author engages not only the age-old themes, motifs and forms of Virgil, Homer and Joyce but also those of Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Melville and Sinclair Lewis in attempting to create something distinctly American, something bearing threads of old rendered anew (which, in many ways, characterises a nation founded by Old World Europeans). Thus, the polymorphic identity of Updike’s text may be perceived, in fact, to be a reflection of the author’s perception of America (that is, as a character of multiple and shifting identities) and American art as a whole.

Updike’s engagement with those ‘dead writers and poets who went before him’ is, of course, more than an exercise in demonstrating the inescapable nature of the past or, indeed, utilised in the illumination of the far-reaching tentacles of colonialism. [11] Intertextual reference generates much of Rabbit Angstrom’s meaning and connotative strength, especially its allusions to Homer, Virgil and Joyce. But, this intertextual weaving, as has been conjectured throughout this chapter, is nothing new to Epic. Although little is known of the precise origins of the Homer’s Odusseia and Iliad they are believed not to be the work of a single poet, rather part of a rich and diverse oral tradition. Eventually this opulent and diverse mosaic of generational songs, stories and poems came to be gathered and written down (and perhaps, according to Knox, not even written by a single person). [12] Virgil rewrites Homer in his ambition to unite the Iliad and the Odusseia in a larger, all-encompassing work. From the outset, Virgil subverted Epic expectations by reversing the order of the Homeric Epics. [13] This reversal is cardinal to recent and contemporary experimentation with the genre. The Odusseia deals with the humane and moral world of Odysseus, presenting a more morally pensive hero than the one-dimensional heroic warrior of the Iliad. Thus, Books one to six of the Aeneid narrate the wanderings of the lonely hero in search of a homeland and an identity. Aeneas reveals himself not to be the archetypal man of empire, a more Odyssean than Iliadic hero: vulnerable, sensitive, reflective and uncertain of the future yet driven by an inner yearning to successfully make the journey from Troy to Italy. Books seven to twelve relate a more Iliadic Aeneas, a warrior driven only by the quest for Empire’s expansion.

Updike’s contemporary Epic has, to some extent maintained, this thread. The first book of the Rabbit series introduces the individuality and personality of the young Harry Angstrom as he roams southward through the Pennsylvanian countryside. Propelled by an internal longing to uncover something of the nature of reality and his existence, the first book of the series offers little historical sub-text, narrating, instead, the wanderings of a disillusioned ex-basketball hero. The experiences of Virgil’s Aeneas result in a development of self-perception and a realisation of the human costs of imperial ambition. For Updike’s ‘hero’ such insights are never realised and the individual fails to reach any enlightened state of acuity. Thus, as Virgil both incorporates and destabilises the original Homeric Epic, Updike encompasses this feature of subversion but takes it still a step further in presenting the predicament of a twentieth century hero. A dialectic (of sorts) occurs but the protagonist never reaches the heights of intellectual, political or historical enlightenment. Virgil’s inversion presents an interesting comparison in the case of the Rabbit Angstrom series, for the protagonist with which we are presented in the first(Rabbit, Run) and second books (Rabbit Redux), though not quite antithetical, are certainly dissimilar. A change has occurred in Rabbit, just as a change in Aeneas occurs in Book seven of the Aeneid when he becomes a man of the public.Rabbit Redux (1971) is perhaps the most historically saturated of the Rabbit books. So much in fact, that we are given very little insights into Harry’s psychological mechanisms. He is presented, first and foremost, as an entity moulded by the political and social forces around him. Ten years older and no longer the contemplative young man of the 1950s who sought to understand the forces that governed his existence, Harry has become a loyal government supporter and an advocate of the Vietnam War. At every turn throughout the second book the national is foregrounded: drugs, hippies, sexual experimentation, the moon landing and the Civil Rights Movement all concurrently infiltrate the Angstrom living room and the narrative itself. Rabbit’s observation is extended outward and he moves from the private sphere to the public domain, from personal motivation and reflection to representative of the national. If Rabbit, Run was a novel about the struggle for self-knowledge and individual growth, Rabbit Redux is about emotional degeneration and the loss of personal identity. As the series progresses personal identity becomes further lost in this degenerative vortex and subsumed by the state.

There is, thus, more than narrative point in Updike’s decision to present a hero whose identity fuses increasingly with that of the state. The reader is invited to construe this tendency as part of Updike’s Epic discourse. The movement of Harry Angstrom from private to public man, as outlined, is both a continuation of the Epic code laid down by Virgil and an inversion of the earlier Homeric convention. Joyce also attended to such inversions, presenting a hero who is manifestly a private man of intellectual cast of mind but whose interactions with the public world stifle such lofty aspirations as self-improvement. Updike appears, thus, to be working within a long tradition of revolutionary epicists, striving towards variation and modification. It seems that the re-forming of the genre constitutes Updike’s methodology in creating an American Epic. By taking his own version of the genre a step further than Virgil takes in his movement from poetry to prose, Updike’s Epic is more despondent in its vision of humanity. Rabbit Angstrom represents a hero who, unlike Aeneas, is doomed to perpetually wander aimlessly in the veil of ignorance indoctrinated by state ideology and national forces larger than the individual will. Updike overthrows the notion of American individualism and the Virgilian/Homeric optimism in humanity. The contemporary epic (both Joycean and American) therefore continues with the critical strain of Virgil but offers little hope for humanity in the face of large-scale politico-ideological forces. Whilst Aeneas is a hero who fails to remember his private moral creed of Books one to six, Rabbit Angstrom never manages to articulate a personal ethos in the first place.

Within the Epic tradition and certainly within the contemporary American Epic intertextuality has come to function as a convention. Indeed, as previously stressed, it has been intrinsic to the genre since its inception. Part of this code is Rabbit Angstrom’s numerous allusions to both Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922) and Joyce’s epic of the same year Ulysses. Of the Lewis text Updike himself has admitted:

When I came to read Babbitt, it was because its central character’s name rhymed with that of a fictional character of my own. The parallels astonished me – the bondage to one’s father-in-law’s business, the baffled love for one’s son, the dips into low life, and the scared skid home. [14]

Again, textual polyphony emerges as the listed parallels are not only evident in the Updike series, but may also be attributed to Ulysses. Certainly, the befuddled love of a son and the passage homeward are Joycean (as well as Homeric and Virgilian). In fact, one might establish an intertextual chain based on Updike’s own observations on the earlier American text:

For the next seven chapters and ninety pages, the author follows Babbitt through his rounds, returning him to the sleeping porch and enclosing his unconscious form within another omniscient overview of the city. The mock-epic note and the absurdist diurnal inventory are so strikingly reminiscent of another novel published in 1922, Joyce’s Ulysses, that one wonders if Lewis, in his wide reading, had encountered any of the Little Review excerpts. He was not above borrowing tricks from the avant-garde. [15]

Thus, we may establish a pattern: Updike engaging with Lewis and Joyce, Lewis engaging with Joyce and Joyce engaging with Homer’s Odusseia and Shakespeare’s Hamlet (as well as many other texts such as the New Testament, travel literature, philosophical exegesis, and so on). As a palimpsest, Rabbit Angstrom sits atop Babbitt, Ulysses, Hamlet, the Bible, the Aeneid and the Odusseia. All texts eventually allude (implicitly or explicitly) back to the Odusseia but it is Joyce’s ‘epic of the body’ in which past, present and future renderings of the genre meet at moments of intense imaginative vision which haunts the Updike series, almost invisible but ever present.

The shadow of the inept yet yearning Leopold Bloom as he wanders through the streets of Dublin precedes Rabbit on each of his journeys (through Pennsylvania in Rabbit, Run to his final southerly flight to Valhalla Villas, the palace of bliss for the souls of slain heroes, in Rabbit at Rest). Rabbit walks around Brewer with distorted television messages in his head in the same way that Bloom walks around Dublin turning advertising jingles in his head. Both are, rather ironically, assigned the names of animals: Leopold the rather tame lion and Harry the domesticated Rabbit, an infinitesimal ray of light (Angstrom) – both individuals lost and insignificant amongst the nation’s masses. Joyce’s term ‘epic of the body’ is taken on board literally by Updike as his character celebrates his own body and journeys deeper and deeper into the bodies of women with each decade’s instalment of his sexual dalliances. Further to this, Updike’s experimentation with the linotype in Rabbit Redux bears more than a passing resemblance to the Aeolus section of Ulysses in which the reader is presented with various newspaper headlines, column titles and advertising jingles which punctuate the narrative. Both Rabbit (in Rabbit Redux) and Bloom are employed to work for the news print trade, a device each epicist employs to illuminate the infiltration of the media in contemporary life and, indeed, the contemporary text. The all-pervasive news linotype not only affords Rabbit his day-to-day livelihood but also permeates his existence by documenting the events of his life. Joyce adopts a similar technique in demonstrating the media divestment of individuality ‘in the heart of the Hibernian Metropolis’ by using a series of newspaper headlines to illuminate the reality of a public centred modernity, which refers to the ‘hero’ as L. Boom. Further allusions to Joyce include the Janice-Molly soliloquy in Rabbit Redux, the association of male creative fertility and female reproductive fertility in Rabbit, Run (see ‘Oxen of the Sun’), and the journey home which microcosmically parallels the life-long journey toward death. Throughout the series, Updike uses the earlier text of Joyce, thematically and stylistically, to enrich the texture of his narrative, initiating a whole series of analogies between the wandering Jew and the American dreamer, which relay both the opacity and the particularity of a modern life.

Updike’s fictional engagement with the elapsed past and his preoccupation with historical and textual recuperabilty is both a formal and a generic aspect of his writing. His engagement with specific events is designed not merely to document historically but to attempt to reach a synthesis of the various social, political and cultural phenomena, which dominate the American psyche at a particular moment in time. By creating the American Epic as a palimpsest, both style and content merge and historical/textual reclamation is as rich and diverse as the America Updike seeks to encapsulate – a continent, indeed an Empire, which contains multitudes. The contest for the Great American Novel no longer dominates the fictional outpouring of the United States’ most culturally significant writers. America has inherited Rome’s sense of the Epic as its supreme literary genre. Thus, the Epic has transformed itself, formally and temporally, to resume its task of critically surveying the western world’s current hegemonic culture.

Oxford Brookes University


[1] Merchant, Paul, The Epic (London: Methuen, 1971), 3.

[2] John McWilliams, The American Epic: Transforming a Genre 1770-1860 (Cambridge, CUP, 1989), 6.

[3] ibid., 6.

[4] Paul Merchant, The Epic, 3.

[5] This is the core argument of A. J. Boyle’s 1993 essay ‘The Canonic Text: Virgil’s Aeneid’ from Roman Epic (London: Routledge, 1993), 79-107, to which I am greatly indebted for the formulation of this article.

[6] ibid., 2.

[7] ibid., 6.

[8] John Updike, Rabbit, Run (London: Penguin Books, 1960), 31.

[9] The use of the word ‘texts’ in the case of Updike is obviously intended to transcend the usual understanding of the term to incorporate radio and television news-reel reports, newspaper and magazine article, and advertisements from both print and television media.

[10] Horace, Epistles,(2.1.156-7).

[11] A. J. Boyle, Roman Epic (London: Routledge, 1993), 2.

[12] See Bernard Knox, ‘Introduction to the Odyssey’, The Odyssey, (London: Penguin, 1999).

[13] Boyle attends to this Virgilian inversion extensively in ibid., 95.

[14] John Updike, More Matter: Essays and Criticism (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1999), 239.

[15] ibid., 237.