Pritchard '53 Celebrates Updike's Work And Philosophy In New Book
By by DAVID AZOULAY, Staff Writer
The latest book by Professor of English William H. Pritchard '53, "Updike: America's Man of Letters," is, as its title implies, a celebration of the life and works of author John Updike. It is neither a biography nor a piece of criticism really-at least not in the sense of criticism as interpretation-but, rather, more of a guidebook for readers interested in contextualizing and appreciating the works of this major American writer.

Pritchard has taught literature and criticism at Amherst since 1958 and is the author of many books and reviews on the subjects. For any who have taken a class with him, or who have read his writing, the approach and style of this newest work will doubtless be familiar. It is an approach informed by a carefully, clearly explained philosophy about what literary criticism ought to be.

For Pritchard, the recent focus on literature's "content," on its "socio-political thematic concerns," by professors in college English classes comes at a price he thinks too high: the discounting and depreciation of art. When critics, he says, approach literature with the intent of interpreting its content-unearthing its patterns, its omissions, its politics, its relations to some larger cultural puzzle-these concerns draw attention away from language, from artistry and, in fact, from the author himself, whose genius and creativity are usurped by the critic's own.

Thus, in explicating the purpose of his undertaking, Pritchard writes that he is "less interested in telling someone else what the novel or poem means, what its 'significance' is ... than in suggesting what the experience of reading is like, and how that experience is a vital one."

Whether or not one agrees with this philosophy, no one, I think, will deny that Pritchard succeeds terrifically in meeting his stated goals. The book reads beautifully, bringing a wealth of subtle insights to bear on each of Updike's works, all in language whose clarity and elegance shines.

What is more, Pritchard, true to his word, steadfastly refuses to steal center stage away from his subject; though we might appreciate Pritchard's treatment of the works reviewed, it is always Updike's skill that is showcased and lauded. Pritchard quotes frequently and lengthily, and refrains, almost completely, from interpreting the words he instead would have us hear.

The book is not without its bias, however, and this is admitted by its author at the start. Pritchard likes Updike. Many people don't; for years readers and writers have complained that the body of Updike's immense oeuvre, for all its eloquence and style, lacks soul and substance-that Updike is a weaver of pretty lace and nothing more. In addition to reviewing Updike's works, the book responds to many of these concerns, functioning as a defense of sorts. This "lace," asserts Pritchard, if lace at all, is, in the words of Updike himself, "taut and symmetrical lace, with scarce a loose thread."

Pritchard concedes that the subjects chosen by Updike are often mundane, that they rarely address "big" concerns or show marks of angst and struggle in the way that works by writers such as D.H. Lawrence or Dostoevsky do. Nevertheless, he sees Updike's salvation, his greatness, in his ability to dress such mundane subjects in a language of exquisite color and texture. It is there, in Updike's style, in his words and sentences, that Pritchard sees captured the "all-too-human" tones and images that comprise the experience of living-and it is this the book celebrates.

On an interesting final note, the book is written in an unusually personal, empathetic way that makes it much more than a book about Updike. It begins by drawing parallels between the lives of Updike and of Pritchard to alert the reader that the impulse to do so "comes unbidden, is prompted by no clear motive or design," but must instead be the product of some deep "affinity" the latter feels for his subject.

Throughout the book, further parallels are drawn: for instance, during the discussion of Updike's views on criticism, the reader might very well think that one is reading a description of Pritchard himself as a critic. Or when the reader hears of the unfavorable reviews directed toward Updike, on account of his works' lacking worthy "content," he or she cannot help being reminded of Pritchard's own style of writing-a style that eschews thematic exploration for the sake of aesthetic appreciation.

Some of the parallels are clearly intentional; others may or may not be. In either case, what we have here is not only a defense of a man, a writer, but also a defense of an entire philosophy of reading literature-and presumably of teaching it.

In the lines of Pritchard's praise, in the figure of Updike he draws, we are surely invited to embrace the legitimacy of Pritchard's own style and beliefs about literature, and to see the salvation of a man who continues to teach by those beliefs in an era, and at a college, that are increasingly less friendly toward them.

Issue 02, Submitted 2000-09-13 15:58:02