I’d like to begin this post by asking readers what they think of John Updike, as a novelist, as a critic, as a poet, and as a short story writer. That question is open even to those who haven’t read him. Perhaps it’s even better more of those readers answer, because I’d like perceptions of Updike as much as I’d like evaluations. It seems to me that he’s been falling out of fashion since his death in January 2009. These days, it’s more likely I’ll hear someone mock him than see someone reading his work. I may be misreading the times, of course, and, at any rate, this is hardly uncommon (may Norman Mailer’s work continue to drift away). Still, when I first read “A & P,” John Updike was one of the most written-about living American novelists.

In fact, “A & P” was the first thing I ever read by John Updike. I was working in a library and found a short story anthology. I remember sitting down in a soft chair and (it was a great job) reading it straight through . . . and having no idea what I had just read. I thought, therefore, that it might be a good place to start some periodic posts on Updike’s short stories, which were recently put together in a fantastic box set by The Library of America (I wrote a bit about the set here).

Updike-Early-Stories

“A & P,” though not my favorite Updike story, is certainly one of his most famous. I think it is rightly well-regarded. It showcases how Updike can take an every-day ordinary event and open it up, show how it can forever change (maybe) the person who experienced it. That person in “A & P”? Sammy, the nineteen-year-old check-out boy at an A & P grocery store, who happens to be our narrator.

Sammy has grown up, presumably comfortable, in the 1940s and 1950s under the cultural norms of a conventional sea-side town above Boston. At nineteen, he is experiencing his first tastes of independence and independent thinking. By the end of the story, Sammy is going make a gesture of defiance against the culture of his cushy upbringing, and his boss is going to say, “Sammy, you don’t want to do this to your Mom and Dad.” Sammy thinks, “It’s true, I don’t.” He’s afraid of disappointing them. He may even be afraid of them. His parents have provided and will continue to provide stability he can depend upon. His boss, someone who has, in a sense, made it through this life, thinks practically. Certain thoughts and attitudes, like those Sammy is entertaining, make life harder to live. Why do that to yourself?

The story begins almost as if the narrator is beginning to tell a joke:

In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.

It would be somewhat shocking today to see three girls, who happen to be young teenagers, walk into a grocery store in nothing but bathing suits. Especially two-piece suits, which is the case here. I wasn’t there, but I imagine it was even stranger in 1960, when this story was written. Sure, this is a sea-side town, so girls in bathing suits are common, but not in the A & P. Everyone stops to watch the girls roam around in this setting.

You know, it’s one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach, where what with the glare nobody can look at each other much anyway, and another thing in the cool of the A & P, under the florescent lights, against all those stacked packages, with her feet paddling along naked over our checker-board green-and-cream rubber-tile floor.

Essentially, here’s the story: the girls walk in, Sammy’s boss asks them to leave, and Sammy quits. Interestingly, Updike even takes the drama out of the most dramatic event in the book because Sammy doesn’t feel all that good when he walks out. For one thing, he mainly said he was quitting so the girls could hear him and be impressed. For another, it may be fatal to make a gesture and then wimp out, but it may be just as fatal to carry through.

There are many ways to look at this story. There’s the liberation angle. Obviously these girls are flaunting societal norms. They’re causing a scene, and they know it. They are acting inappropriately for all who are watching them. That was the point.They’re defying expectations and conventions. Sammy just wants to do the same, out of solidarity.

Then again, in the end, where does this get the girls? Perhaps a bit of trouble, but they were also subject to the eyes of everyone in that store, and our narrator in particular focuses on every bit of sexual energy their bodies are evoking. He’s invigorated by their gesture and, after his boss asks the girls to leave, decides to make one of his own. Before he makes the gesture, he says, “Now here comes the sad part of the story, at least my family says it’s sad, but I don’t think it’s so sad myself.”

This story was originally published in the July 22, 1961 issue of The New Yorker.

This story was originally published in the July 22, 1961 issue of The New Yorker.

When the story ends, the narrator is looking forward to a harder life. He’s a bit nervous, he feels a sinking feeling, but he seems to accept that pushing oneself away from those who support you will make for a difficult but ultimately more rewarding life.

The interesting thing for me is Sammy’s revised reason for standing up to his boss. His dramatic gesture began in the hopes of pleasing some girls he was sexually attracted to; he wasn’t attracted to their principles, except to the extent their principles gave him a long look at their bodies. Yes, he wants the world to be free enough he can ogle at these girls. When they’re turned away, he wants to impress them. When they don’t hear him, he’s tempted to take back his gesture, but he’s too principled — or too arrogant. No, he doesn’t love his parents’ world, but his actions suggest he’s going to fit pretty well in a few years.

As I mentioned when I wrote about the release of the Library of America set, I hope more people will visit Updike’s short stories. For me, his best work is in this form, and I look forward to digging into more.

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By |2013-12-05T23:18:10+00:00December 5th, 2013|Categories: John Updike|16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Jan Wilkens December 5, 2013 at 11:51 pm

    I used to love teaching “Separating” to suburban high school students. He hits the painful yet ordinary event of families dissolving so accuratey. Opening paragraph is beautiful.

  2. Madwomanintheattic December 6, 2013 at 12:14 am

    John Updike, like all of us, was a product of his time. Because it happens to be my time too, I appreciate his capturing the zeitgeist so that I can say to my 45-year-old son when he asks about my marriage to (and subsequent divorce from) his father, “Read ‘Couples.’ ” And yet in the “Rabbit” books, my favorites, he showed deepening consciousness of the effects of that time: we saw The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit dissolve into rootless yearning. I loved “Poorhouse Fair”, hated “Bech: a Book,” so in answer to your question, I would say he was a fine novelist – sometimes. I liked his poetry that unlike some of the New Yorker offerings, did yield to interpretation – look at these first lines from “Furniture,” my favorite:

    To things we are ghosts, soft shapes
    in their blindness that push and pull,
    a warm touch tugging on a stuck drawer,
    a face glancing by in a mirror
    like a pebble skipped across a passive pond.
    . . . . .
    His criticism too I found interesting and accessible, and best of all at the end I appreciated his more personal essays, like the one he wrote about his psoriasis. Although I had read his work for many years, I never sensed a real person until I read that essay.

    I like and agree with your analysis, but for me there’s even more richness in the descriptions of the girls and the manager, and the ending of the story never fails to wring my heart – that recognition of the embarrassing uselessness of a gesture that moments ago seemed noble. How awful.

  3. Trevor December 6, 2013 at 12:37 am

    Jan and Madwomanintheattic, thanks for your comments. Each of you mention particular passages and lines you found beautiful.

    Madwomanintheattic, I get what you’re saying about him being a product of his time, and of course time ushers many once-relevant authors off the stage forever. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen to Updike. He’s such a fantastic stylist that he shouldn’t be pushed aside even if he was primarily writing about things we take for granted today (I still find them relevant).

    And thanks for the comment about “A & P.” I wasn’t thinking of my emotional response at the time I was writing the above, but I sunk with Sammie, even if I never trusted his motives.

  4. Amateur Reader (Tom) December 6, 2013 at 1:30 am

    It has been strange to see, here and there, the contempt directed at Updike, usually by people who have not read him at all. Perhaps they have seen bits of his prose in pieces on Bad Sex Writing or something like that.

    I barely know him myself, and the one novel I read (the Hamlet one) was a dud, but every story I have read of his is made up of good writing, and what else do people want?

  5. Lisa Hill December 6, 2013 at 5:41 am

    The only one I’ve read is Terrorist, which I thought was clever, and brave and thought-provoking, but I’ve also got two of the Rabbits on the TBR and Couples, and (for some reason I can’t remember) The Witches of Eastwick. (That was a film? a TV series? But I never saw it, whatever it was.)
    To answer your question, I don’t care what’s fashionable, in fact I’m less likely to read something that’s fashionable than otherwise. 1001 Books recommends the Rabbit series, and that’s good enough for me, because (so far, and I’ve read about 35% of the 1001), I’ve found almost every recommendation they’ve made to be well worthwhile reading.

  6. Anton December 6, 2013 at 7:06 am

    Trevor, I think I wrote a comment here recently about JU. I said then I did not think much of his Rabbit books, I read a few here in Belgium, back in the 1970s after they were passed on from an American friend who picked them up at the flea market. Then I recently read a review by Julian Barnes of JU’s last collection of short stories. On this recommendation I bought the book and found them delightful. I also picked up a book with his collected criticism, which seemed quite interesting, on a quick browse, but I plumped for another work, which appealed to me more (I think it was a parallel text version of Rimbaud’s poems, incidentally). Do you recommend the collected short stories?

  7. Lee Monks December 6, 2013 at 8:06 am

    I loved Updike initially but found him a little daunting: not the style so much as the subject matter.

    I was then, I think, more than a little susceptible to a lot of Updike debunkers, critics mauling him for merely finding new lapidary ways of parsing the same issues again and again.

    Then I went back, when his ‘Early Stories’ collection was released, and I was free of any conjectural interference and prejudice. I realised, ultimately, that he’s a truly brilliant stylist. There are no answers for the questions he was asking, but he was, similar to Cheever, tormented by them. I find Updike exhausting after a while (he won’t leave anything alone: he ransacks everything he deems relevant and there are zero merely passable lines: he wants to preserve moments in a way that’s almost insanely forensic – clothes, the jut of a chin, the tenor of a word in a sentence, the unwitting arch of a brow etc) but I don’t question his greatness nowadays.

  8. leroyhunter December 6, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Happy to provide some perceptions Trevor – and interesting to read the responses of others.

    Of the big, male, post-war American writers, Updike is (along with Bellow) the only one I haven’t read. I have at least tried all the others (I think) – I may not like them, but I tried them – Roth, Mailer, DeLillo et al. I will probably try a Bellow some day, or at least I’m open to it. But with Updike I have no interest in reading his stuff. Why is that, I wonder?

    Well, the best I can come up with is that I perceive him to be bland, somehow. Narrow. Lacking the edge and the wildness, or the variety and risk-taking that the others possess to varying degrees. Is that fair, or reasonable? Probably not, but that’s where I’ve got to with Updike, and nothing I’ve read of or about him convinces me (yet) to change.

    I must add (a little uncharitably) that the whole “craft” thing when it comes to his writing is something I find particularly grates.

  9. Lee Monks December 6, 2013 at 9:11 am

    leroyhunter: I think you encapsulate there all the perceptions of Updike that my reading friends share. One of them likens his work to a Bentley. “Supremely designed and plush but ultimately out of date” is the gist of it. I can sympathise with that viewpoint. And the novels, for me, can force you to move at a leisurely speed uncomfortable for many. I’d try the Olinger stories first up, if you were going to have a punt…

  10. Trevor December 6, 2013 at 11:01 am

    Great comments, everyone. Thanks!

    Lisa said:

    To answer your question, I don’t care what’s fashionable

    I agree, Lisa. I guess my question is meant to see if Updike was simply fashionable and we now are moving away from something we may as well let slip into the past though he can write well, or whether today it’s simply fashionable to dismiss him as a WASPy male writer with WASPy male concerns.

    I can see both sides. I don’t love the novels I’ve tried, but I do love his short stories and find there is a lot there.

  11. KevinfromCanada December 6, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    Well, Updike does have a special place in my personal reading history. I was still in high school when my mother picked up my library copy of Couples, scanned a few of the sex scenes and denounced me for reading pornography. Somehow she had managed to miss many of the other library books that had been sitting in my room. She did not read a lot — that was the only “literary” argument the two of us ever had.

    So I obviously have been reading (and recently re-reading) Updike for all of my adult life. In the 1960s, as a youthful New Yorker subscriber, the appearance of an Updike story was every bit as welcome as a Salinger one. I read each of the Rabbit novels when it appeared, have re-read the collection twice since then (I’ll admit I thought on the last read that its impact on me was fading, so I’m not planning another read soon).

    Having said all that, I’m inclined to think that Updike may well be one of those authors who speaks more to a generation (and perhaps even location) than he does to a place in literary history. In a sense, I can’t escape that impression — I am of that generation and geography.

  12. Steven December 6, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    The only American writer whose prose style could be compared to Vladimir Nabokov’s.

  13. Amateur Reader (Tom) December 6, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    My anecdotal observation is that readers who dismiss Updike are not much interested in literary art at the level of the sentence. They don’t know what to do with Nabokov, either.

  14. Roger December 6, 2013 at 11:28 pm

    A&P is arguably the quintessential American coming of age story, which might be why it is so widely anthologized. Sammy, looking back at how things have turned out, says “my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.” It seems as if he had hoped his big gesture of quitting would somehow ennoble him, make him good enough for one of those girls, get their attention, and then, who knows? He looks for them “but they’re gone, of course.” (The “of course” comes from the older, wiser Sammy who is narrating the story.) Now it’s time for the disillusionment, the realization of “how hard the world was going to be.” A great example of Updike taking a small moment and revealing it as a turning point in a character’s life.

    I’ve found Updike to be unflinching and non-judgmental in revealing the psyche of the 20th century American male and doing so as a remarkable stylist, as an earlier post points out. And these are the very qualities he has been criticized – no, attacked – for. His critics find him too male, too white, too suburban, and too heterosexual. It is similar to the attacks on Phillip Roth. I don’t think these writers have really fallen out of favor; they’ve just been on the receiving end of barbs from folks with an agenda that has little to do with the appreciation of great literature and more to do with identity politics, with literature just being another arena to host the battle.

  15. Betsy December 8, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    Hi Trevor – just want to comment that when my husband and I were students in Japan in the late sixties, we read Updike for company. But I had just been married a year. When my husband’s handsome professor arrived in Tokyo on a junket, I asked his classy wife if “Couples” was what marriage was all about. I still remember the answer she didn’t give me.

    In “A&P” (available on-line in the July 22nd, 1961 issue), I think Updike is writing about Autonomy and Power, despite all the entertainment provided by the sexualized word painting and the terrific voice.
    You might think, with the voice, he was competing with Salinger, who published “Catcher in the Rye” in 1951, but I actually think he is dismissing him. (You notice that “A&P” is not a novel, nor do we yearn for it to be one. Updike had bigger fish to fry.) You might think Updike was riding on Nabokov’s coat-tails, what with how his naively seductive nymphs are reminiscent of Nabokov’s 1958 “Lolita”. As much as he admired Nabokov, though, “A&P” may have also been influenced by the success of Playboy, first published in 1953. In particular, Updike may have had his eye on its large audience. Playboy, after all, also had an interest in serious literature; in 1954, their second year, it published “Fahrenheit 451” in installments. With “A&P”, Updike is snapping his towel at the other guys in the locker room.

    But I contend: this story is more about power and the threat that women pose to power than anything else.

    Nineteen year old Sammy has a dread of women that is palpable: he details the parade of his possible future that he sees in the A&P: a “young married screaming with her children” in one aisle, a few “house-slaves in pin-curlers” in another, the women with “six children and varicose veins mapping their legs” in the parking lot, and a fifty year old witch with “rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows” in the check-out line. Sammy is surrounded by women who could easily be described as the old block and tackle.

    Sammy is practically swamped by women. When he and Stoksie make audible cracks about the nearly naked (in their eyes) girls in the store, it is in a kind of falsetto. Stoksie says to Sammy, “Oh, Daddy, I feel so faint.” and Sammy answers, “Darling…Hold me tight.” Thus do three self-possessed girls reduce a couple of guys to yodeling like girls!

    Later, when Sammy is trying to think of a retort for his boss, he comes out with a crack his grandmother liked: “Fiddle-de-doo.” Thus does his grandmother unman Sammy.

    The pressure of women is inescapable – when he remembers his mother ironing his shirt, we get a sense of a determined good woman pressing Sammy into shape.

    Part of Sammy’s problem in “A&P” is that he is so interested in these girls with the “tony” accent that he can imagine their parents’ cocktail parties: power, money, class. In this aspect, I feel Updike looking over his shoulder, and not for the last time, at Philip Roth and his 1959 “Goodbye Columbus.”

    Not only are women threatening to his sense of autonomy, young women from another class are a power challenge Sammy cannot ignore. First he and Stoksie mock them, and then Sammy tries to get their attention by defending them. Ipswich is a town where there is considerable wealth. There are the townies, of whom Sammy is one, and then there are the people like Queenie, the ones with the “tony accent” that Sammy recognizes from even the little sentence that Queenie utters. Perhaps what Updike is after is the considerable gulf between the townie and the rich girl.

    Part of what makes me say this is when he notes of Queenie: “…do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?”

    He knows women have minds – his mother is determined, his grandmother has opinions, and his family talks. What he doesn’t know or can’t bear is whether rich girls also have minds.
    It feels like class and sex are Updike’s means of talking about power.
    In this issue of July 22, 1961, there is also a cartoon of a girl in a two piece bathing suit on the beach, where she is (ridiculously) painting a landscape. Nearby, a fellow is surreptitiously painting a picture of her, but he has carefully left the easel and paint brush out of the picture. Of course, it’s funny. What serious painter goes to work in a two piece bathing suit?

    In this same issue, a few pages after Updike’s story, there is a poem by Sylvia Plath.

    The last stanza of “On Deck” begins:
    “And the white haired jeweler from Denmark is carving
    A perfectly faceted wife to wait
    On him hand and foot, quiet as a diamond.”

    Sylvia Plath. Now there’s a “tony” mind for Sammy to consider. “…do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?”

  16. Trevor December 9, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    This is a fascinating response, Betsy, and one I’ve never considered. To me, Queenie and the other two girls were simply objects Sammie admired. Sure, they were the ones breaking the conventions, but Sammy’s fine with that as long as he is the beneficiary.

    But you have a compelling argument that these girls threaten him. I’m going to keep thinking on it. I’m not quite there, yet, I must say, but it’s a promising new perspective for me.

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