Universally Speaking

It was strange to wake up and see a post about John Updike and asking for recommendations for more recent high literature in one of the book groups I follow on Facebook given that that was the topic I went to sleep thinking about. Stranger still was that when the author of that post replied to my comment suggesting Colson Whitehead as he, Like Updike, has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, he revealed that he had a very different experience than myself in reading Rabbit, Run.

For me Rabbit Angstrom’s whiteness is impossible to ignore. Rabbit, Run is a book about privilege. Rabbit Angstrom runs out on his wife, shacks up with a lady of the night, and everyone seems to like him and thing he is a very fine fellow. The reverend of his wife’s church even becomes his golfing buddy, all while Rabbit fails to see that what he is doing is wrong and believes that as long as he does what he feels he is in the right.

What that individual on Facebook was looking for wasn’t high literature. He was looking for white literature. He complained that modern publishers publish too many books about race which makes me question if he is as well read as he thinks.

Eventually someone did suggest that he read James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and the like which I do think would do him some good, but I do think there first needs to be an acknowledgment that Updike was writing about white privilege, even if it wasn’t called that then.

I don’t think someone could be living in the world of Brown v The Board of Eduction, Jackie Robinson, and Ruby Bridges and be ignorant of the impact of race in America. John Updike was a highly intelligent individual and I believe he knew what he was doing. Think for a second on how Rabbit, Run would read if Rabbit Angstrom were black. Think about his runner through rural Pennsylvania and into West Virginia. Want to tell me that farmer would have just let him go or that he wouldn’t have ended up in a sundown town.

I used to say that the highest form of art was that which had timeless and universal appeal, but I have come to realize that that was quite ignorant and there is no such thing as universal appeal. There is literature that stands the test of time and we find ways to relate to. We think certain things are universal like love, struggle, trauma, and triumph, but are they?

As I said last night literature cannot be separated from the time it was written in and should be viewed that way. Think about how your view on certain books would change if you thought of them as being from the time they were written instead of being, somehow, outside of time. 1984 is a popular book people mention and point to as everything suddenly being just like 1984, but no one ever mentions that it was written in a 1948 England that was recovering from the aftermath of the Second World War.

Separating literature from its era is like separating the specimen from the microscope. Certainly, somethings can be seen with the naked eye but an understanding of the time period in which literature is from gives us a lens that magnifies it. Truth is not beauty and that is not all we need to know. There is nothing that is universal and no such thing as timeless.

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