By John Updike
Original Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Current Publisher: Ballantine Books
Amity Gaige writes:
“If you have the guts to be yourself,” says Rabbit Angstrom, mid-way through John Updike’s 1960 novel Rabbit Run, “other people’ll pay your price.” He speaks these words to his mistress, a prostitute who has just realized she’s pregnant, which makes the words hit like shards of glass. Rabbit is just a lanky, witty also-ran in his late twenties who sells Magi-Peelers in the shadow of one of Pennsylvania’s mountains. But he feels himself to be extraordinary, and he wants an extraordinary life. One thing I love about the line above is that even in moments of great revelation, Rabbit is too lazy to avoid contractions. People’ll pay your price.
Will they? Probably. All but a few of us feel obliged to live together in towns and families, and we end up sharing the burden of mistake making. I cannot help but see Rabbit and Janice Angstrom as an echo of so many marriages made too early, in order to avoid the stigma of premarital sex in mid-twentieth century America. Rabbit quickly realizes that Janice is his inferior, not much between the ears, a real “mutt;” her mouth―in one of Updike’s most dehumanizing metaphors―hangs open like “a dumb slot.” But in between their ill-considered wedding day and the birth of their second child, the sixties dawn. When Rabbit runs, he runs away from one paradigm and toward the next. The previous, pre-sixties paradigm privileged familial and communal duty at the expense of self-exploration. The new paradigm privileges self-exploration over, well, everything else.
We can judge him―and we do―but the book wouldn’t be so good if you could easily make up your mind about the rightness of what Rabbit says and does. Rabbit runs. He runs into the city of Brewer to live with his mistress Ruth and to discuss God with the priest who runs after him, his foil Eccles, and he comes back to Janice only to experience immediate existential suffocation and to leave again, to disastrous consequences. But do we really think he should stay? To what effect? When the priest Eccles tells Rabbit that problems and disappointments are common in early marriage, and asks him why he thinks he should be an exception to this rule, Rabbit says, “You don’t think there’s any answer to that but there is. I once did something right. I played first-rate basketball. I really did. And after you’re first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate. And that little thing Janice and I had going, boy, it was really second-rate.”
Later, after the accidental death of his infant daughter, Rabbit decides that this exact aspiration―the belief “that somewhere there was something better for him than listening to babies cry and cheating people in used-car lots,” in short, his sense of exceptionalism―is responsible for the baby’s death, and he finally tries to “kill it.” But he can’t, and he runs away again, this time from his own daughter’s funeral. The hillside up which he runs in the final, devastating scene of the novel happens to be familiar to me; I was raised on the other side of it. It is Updike’s fictionalized version of Mount Penn. Updike often referred to Rabbit as the person he might have become had he stayed in Pennsylvania, in his backwater hometown. But Updike didn’t stay. Fortunately for the body of American literature―within which this exquisitely written novel sits as a benchmark―he ran too.
Amity Gaige is the author of three novels, O My Darling (2005), The Folded World (2007), and Schroder, which is forthcoming from Twelve Books in 2013. She was the recipient of the Foreword Book of the Year Award for 2007, and in 2006, she was recognized as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. Amity is the winner of a Fulbright Fellowship, fellowships at the MacDowell and Yaddo colonies, and a Baltic Writing Residency. Her short stories and essays have appeared in publications such as The Los Angeles Times, O Magazine, the Literary Review, The Yale Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is the current Visiting Writer at Amherst College.
Fiction Finalists That Year:
- Louis Auchincloss for The House of Five Talents
- Kay Boyle for Generation Without Farewell
- John Hersey for The Child Buyer
- John Knowles for A Separate Peace
- Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird
- Wright Morris for Ceremony in Lone Tree
- Flannery O'Connor for The Violent Bear It Away
- Elizabeth Spencer for The Light in the Piazza
- Francis Steegmuller for The Christening Party
- John Updike for Rabbit, Run
- Mildred Walker for The Body of a Young Man
Fiction Winner That Year: Conrad Richter for The Waters of Kronos
Fiction Judges That Year: B.J. Chute, Robert M. Coates, Arthur Mizener
The Year in Literature:
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
- Ivo Andric won the Nobel Prize for literature.
More Information: Updike won the National Book Award twice: in 1964 for The Centaur and in 1982 for Rabbit Is Rich. He was a Fiction Finalist five other times: in 1960 for The Poorhouse Fair; in 1963 for Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories; in 1971 for Bech: A Book; in 1972 for Rabbit Redux; and in 1980 for Too Far to Go. Updike also received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 1998.