The Moderate Imagination

The Political Thought of John Updike and the Decline of New Deal Liberalism

Yoav Fromer

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, Americans finally faced a perplexing political reality: Democrats, purported champions of working people since the New Deal, had lost the white working-class voters of Middle America. For answers about how this could be, Yoav Fromer turns to an unlikely source: the fiction of John Updike. Though commonly viewed as an East Coast chronicler of suburban angst, the gifted writer (in fact a native of the quintessential Rust Belt state, Pennsylvania) was also an ardent man of ideas, political ideas whose fiction, Fromer tells us, should be read not merely as a reflection of the postwar era but rather as a critical investigation into the liberal culture that helped define it.

Several generations of Americans since the 1960s have increasingly felt “left behind.” In Updike’s early work, Fromer finds a fictional map of the failures of liberalism that might explain these grievances. The Moderate Imagination also taps previously unknown archival materials and unread works from his college years at Harvard to offer a clearer view of the author’s acute political thought and ideas. Updike’s prescient literary imagination, Fromer shows, sensed the disappointments and alienation of rural white working- and middle-class Americans decades before conservatives sought to exploit them. In his writing, he traced liberalism’s historic decline to its own philosophical contradictions rather than to only commonly cited external circumstances like the Vietnam War, racial strife, economic recession, and conservative backlash.

“John Updike has long been acknowledged as one of the great American novelists of the twentieth century, even while his political insights have consistently been underappreciated. Yoav Fromer’s The Moderate Imagination delivers an important new understanding of Updike’s political instincts and vision. This fuller and more rounded picture of Updike’s literary intentions and his social and political insights will benefit even the experts.”

—Cal Jillson, author of The American Dream: In History, Politics, and Fiction

“John Updike has long been regarded as one of America’s great writers, but one whose domain was largely American domesticity. Fromer’s book builds a compelling case for Updike also being one of America’s great prescient writers—one who anticipated the current political state of events more than fifty years ago. ‘More than anything,’ Fromer writes, ‘Updike’s writings help illustrate the fundamental inability of more and more Americans to grasp, let alone cope with, profound transformations they could neither understand nor control.’ This is a smart book that reads at times like the academic equivalent of a ‘real page-turner.’”

—James Plath, author of Conversations with John Updike and John Updike’s Pennsylvania Interviews and R. Forrest Colwell Endowed Chair and Professor of English, Illinois Wesleyan University

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A subtle reinterpretation of John Updike’s legacy, Fromer’s work complicates and enriches our understanding of one of the twentieth century’s great American writers—even as the book deftly demonstrates what literature can teach us about politics and history.

About the Author

Yoav Fromer is director of the Center for the Study of the United States in partnership with the Fulbright Program and a fellow in the School of Government at Tel Aviv University. He is a senior editor and columnist at Yedioth Ahronoth, and his writing has also appeared in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, New Republic, and Tablet Magazine.