More Matter: Essays and Criticism

by John Updike

Hardcover, 1999




New York : Knopf, 1999.


John Updike's fiftieth book and fifth collection of assorted prose, most of it first published in The New Yorker, brings together eight years' worth of essays, criticism, addresses, introductions, humorous feuilletons, and-in a concluding section, "Personal Matters"-paragraphs on himself and his work. More matter, indeed, in an age which, his introduction states, wants "real stuff-the dirt, the poop, the nitty gritty-and not-the obliquities and tenuosities of fiction." Still, the fiction writer's affectionate, shaping hand can be detected in many of these considerations. Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, Dawn Powell, Henry Green, John Cheever, Vladimir Nabokov, and W. M. Spackman are among the authors extensively treated, along with such more general literary matters as the nature of evil, the philosophical content of novels, and the wreck of the Titanic. Biographies of Isaac Newton and Queen Elizabeth II, Abraham Lincoln and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Benchley and Helen Keller, are reviewed, always with a lively empathy. Two especially scholarly disquisitions array twentieth-century writing about New York City and sketch the ancient linkage between religion and literature. An illustrated section contains sharp-eyed impressions of movies, photographs, and art. Even the slightest of these pieces can twinkle. Updike is a writer for whom print is a mode of happiness: he says of his younger self, "The magazine rack at the corner drugstore beguiled me with its tough gloss," and goes on to claim, "An invitation into print, from however suspect a source, is an opportunity to make something beautiful, to discover within oneself a treasure that would otherwise have remained buried."… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member jensenmk82
One of the most annoying things about many of the reviews that accompanied the publication of More Matter in the fall of 1999 was the ungrateful tone of reviewers who complained about the heft, the bulk, the sheer immensity, the allegedly self-indulgent inclusiveness of Updike's most recent collection of prose. Containing — by my count and including the preface — some 191 separate items, the size of this assemblage of "Essays and Criticism" (as Updike subtitles the volume, despite his protestation on page 810 that "I write not criticism but book reviews") would seem to justify such complaints. But such carping must really have been due to the understandable and forgivable (albeit unprofessional) readerly fatigue of grubstreet reviewers laboring against a deadline. Their griping is as absurd as nieces and nephews complaining that some rich uncle has left them too much money. The grace and insight that have marked Updike's prose since he became a professional writer almost fifty years ago distinguish every page of this collection.

The volume is arranged in four parts. About 100 pages address "Large Matters"; it would be well if every American read the first piece, on freedom and equality. Five hundred pages consist of "Matter under Review," mostly book reviews but including some articles that a candid Updike would have to admit to be genuine criticism, since they go far beyond the "matter under review." Especially good are essays on Mickey Mouse, Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, Camille Paglia, and the Titanic, as well as collective reviews on (1) the novel per se, (2) five books on evil, (3) sex and fashion, and (4) the new edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage. (Other readers will have their own favorites, of course.) The third part, entitled "Visible Matters," contains about 100 pages, mostly on movies and art. Here I especially liked a personal essay on a 1941 photograph, a piece entitled "Descent of an Image" on the famous Iwo Jima photograph, a review of a book of 19th-century photographs of the dead and dying, and a historical exploration of the relationship of Daniel Webster and a portrait painter named Sarah Goodridge. More Matter concludes with about 100 pages on "Personal Matters"; leading off is a Borgesian teaser entitled "Updike and I" that will doubtless become an anthology piece, and further in lies Henry Bech's hilarious account of interviewing Updike. As he grows ever more eminent, the author of Self-Consciousness takes increasing delight in satirizing himself.

John Updike's first serious ambitions were, it seems, directed toward the visual arts. What is sometimes a weakness in his fiction — the obsessive, voyeuristic need to see — is, when he turns to non-fiction, almost always a strength. Is this because he can then spare himself the effort of conjuring up his subject before his mind's eye and devote all of his discriminating intelligence to the task of understanding and seeing into the matter at hand? Updike believes that "devotion to reality's exact details . . . characterizes literary masters" (p. 697) — a category in whose first rank Updike will, surely, long remain. If you love literature, you'll be grateful for More Matter.
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