The Moderate Imagination
The Political Thought of John Updike and the Decline of New Deal Liberalism
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
“I thoroughly enjoyed The Moderate Imagination: The Political Thought of John Updike and the Decline of New Deal Liberalism. Yoav Fromer’s point that John Updike grappled early on with the idea that New Deal liberalism could not survive the complications it created is very compelling. Fromer’s book makes a strong case for a revision of US political development as it has often been portrayed over the last five decades. The book successfully juxtaposes political events with Updike’s literary work and his relationships with political people. This book will stimulate fresh discussions on topics such as Putnam’s understanding of the decline of civil society and the impact of 1968 on American politics.”
—Leah A. Murray, PhD, Brady Presidential Distinguished Professor, political science and philosophy, Weber State University
“The Moderate Imagination is one of the most illuminating and useful critical works I’ve read on John Updike. Most significantly, it alters the common misperception that Updike was simply a domestic novelist. Fromer persuasively argues that Updike was an acute political thinker whose domestic realm was shaped by history, economics, media, and culture.”
—James Schiff, editor of the John Updike Review and professor of English and comparative literature, University of CincinnatiSee fewer reviews...
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.