Follow by Email

Saturday, June 9, 2018

John Updike and the A&P of the mind *


Last week I found myself again on the same route from Southern NH to Wingaersheek Beach travelled on by my family for more than fifty years. Originally the route we traced followed the Merrimack River between my mother’s childhood home in Sandown NH to our beach house in Gloucester. The route as it passes through Essex and Ipswich is pastoral, full of old New England architecture and plenty of antique shops. With many of the large estates still intact one can imagine that it will never change. In those days it was my mother who drove accompanied by my grandmother. I was often on the floor of the car playing with my cars not considered unusual in the Fifties before seat belts. My younger sister was typically suffering from carsickness as we debated whether to pull over or hope that the nausea would pass and my older sister would be gloating over her ice cream cone that she was still savoring long after I had gobbled down mine.  Now the back and forth which starts from our house in Durham NH to the beach home that we have since inherited has become routine.  It was the requisite visits as we monitored my mother’s aging and then the long process of preparing the house for Summer rental.   As memories are embedded in the scenery I relate a few of them to my daughter who rolls her eyes and reminds me that these recollections are oft repeated. I came up with what I hoped was a fresh memory of seeing John Updike crossing the street in Ipswich. My daughter Eve acknowledged that she had never heard that story before. Not much of a story, just a flash of recognition as the author tried to negotiate the five-corner intersection of downtown Ipswich.

The memory instigated by our slow traversal of the center of Ipswich was suddenly interrupted by the telltale crunch of being rear-ended. I looked behind me and caught the gestures of the driver who acknowledged the incident. We signaled to each other to turn into the next side street to appraise the damage. The accident took place in front of the fire station. Before long several of the firemen walked over to see what was going on, presumably to make sure there were no gasoline leaks. They lingered awhile but one of them remained. While I was looking for a pen to take down driver license #s and insurance information, he took out his cell phone and in the most efficient modern way photographed everything, the damage to the car, my license and insurance card. My daughter, equally at ease with the powers of the cell phone did the same of his documentation. I thanked him for his consideration and attention to the accident. He introduced himself as the father of the young man who just plowed into me. Someone in the back seat of a passing car haled us and asked if we needed any help. The fireman chuckled that it was the local tower looking for an opportunity to make a buck. The accident had thrust me into the middle of a small community of Ipswich “locals”.

As we awaited the arrival of the Police to document the accident, I thought I would pick up where I left off before the accident and ask them if they had known their famous Ipswich resident John Updike. Yes! they knew of him and saw him around town. The fireman asked me if I knew that the Rite Aid down the street had once been the A&P, that was the local of one his best known short stories. I recalled having read it, vaguely remembering that the narrator was a store clerk.

Since the recent death of Philip Roth, there has been a lot of chatter about Updike: Their friendship and their falling out. Who was the greater author? Both had their territory: Roth, the chronicler of New Jersey and in particular the Jewish immigrant’s move  from the city to the suburbs and the middle class. Updike’s territory was Pennsylvania and Massachusetts and in particular that of the Protestant America. Today, Updike is typified as a narcissistic white male by David Foster Wallace, who would have not survived unscathed the #metoo era. Roth in his later years was somewhat reclusive but socialized on the  phone with with the guardian of the Western Canon Harold Bloom.

Once home, I decided to read the short story “A&P”. Online there were a few copies most transcribed with misspellings. A neat version was a PDF from the Littleton NH library. The setting was undoubtedly Ipswich and the Rite Aid down the street had the emblematic A&P cupola on it. It was about the right size for an A&P .The company  went out of business before the era of the megastores.

It was a good read.  The first time around I found the conformity/non-conformity take a little stale. The corporate versus sexual dichotomy may have been part of the early percolation of the sexual revolution and carried more psychic impact when the work was first published. A split that was less pronounced in the story but indelibly there was that the girls were upper class and Sammy, the nineteen old towny, was aware of it in the way they moved and talked and in the choice of hors d’oeuvres that they were picking up for their parent’s cocktail party. Just the nonchalance of the girls walking into a supermarket in their bathing suits implies that they didn’t feel compelled to follow the priggish rules of the middle class.  These girls probably lived in those beautiful estates that are protected by conservation easements that make the ride through Essex and Ipswich so scenic. I once wrote a blog about the insider/outsider phenomenon experienced by the Armenians.  As a member of youth sailing at the Annisquam Yacht Club, coming from the then decidedly middle class Wingaersheek Beach I experienced first hand the self-assuredness of the well-to-do descendants of the Mayflower in contrast to my adolescent insecurity. They lived in the large shingle style estates that probably had been in their families since the 19thc. Clearly Updike was impressed by their demeanor that radiated self confidence. In the end the narrator tries to insert himself into the story by making an attempt to resolve all the moral quandaries he has set up within the writing. He quits his job in protest of the boss’s embarrassing the girls for walking in to his store half-naked. Sammy may have hoped they would have noticed but like the rich in "The Great Gatsby" they move on unaware of the effect they have had on others.

Like so much literature the story is about the nature of writing itself: the artist as observer, always looking from the outside in. Updike keeps trying to pin down the meaning of the sensory experiences; what do they mean in terms of larger societal constructs:  corporate/sexual or rich and poor. So much of the writing is just raw data: e.g. the movements of the actors through the store being like a pinball game and the detailed description of the cloth and color of the girl’s bathing suits. He has created a world for himself held up by incisive description and cultural insights but in the last lines of the story it forbodes a life time that is described as going to be hard. Could it be because he will always be on the outside looking in, never fully owning or identifying with the setting in which his description takes place. For the corporation the world is a site for the display of its brands. The artist, is a competitor in this realm but his power only comes from the fertility and staying power of his imagination not his bank account. However, we can say Updike has had the last word: his A&P of the mind* still exists whereas the original is long gone.

*a play on Henry Miller's comment about Coney Island as a state of mind that was used as a title of  Ferlinghetti's "Coney Island of the Mind"




2 comments:

  1. Thoughtful and incisive deep dive into writing and the under currents of change. I also appreciated how a accident lead you there. Your willingness and ability to construct a literary birdhouse out of negative circumstances impressed me.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Dear Martin,
    An excursion into fiction! Subtle, sympathetic. A relief to have quiet intelligence in action.

    fondly,
    Rosanna

    ReplyDelete