Updike on "The Clarity of Things"

John Updike has written another one of those uncommonly fine articles about American Art that are so common for him.

“What is American about American art?” The question has often arisen; it was asked in almost these exact same words in 1958, by Lloyd Goodrich, then the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. His essay was titled “What Is American —in American Art?” and began:

One of the most American traits is our urge to define what is American. This search for a self-image is a result of our relative youth as a civilization, our years of partial dependence on Europe. But it is also a vital part of the process of growth.

My impression is that inquiries into an essential Americanness are less fashionable than they were fifty years ago, since they inevitably gravitate, in this age of diversity and historical revision, to that least hip of demographic groups, white Protestant males of northern European descent. These thin-lipped patriarchal persons figure, as founding Puritans or Founding Fathers, as western pioneers or industrial magnates, at every juncture of traditional history books, and our diverse, eclectic, skeptical present population may have heard quite enough about them.

In the rest of the article he plays the part of docent, describing in great detail the careers of the 18th century painter John Singleton Copley and Winslow Homer in the 19th. He writes of a distinction between “liney” paintings, with their origins in folk art and an emphasis on things, and the “painterly”, in which the paint on the canvas is emphasized. This distinction continues to this day: Jackson Pollack, who is certainly “liney”, and Mark Rothko, “painterly”.

And he quotes Korrketiv’s favorite Puritan: “Jonathan Edwards wrote of “the clarity of ‘things,'” of things as the mediators between words and ideas, between empirical and conceptual experience. “The manifestations God makes of Himself in His works,” Edwards wrote, “are the principle manifestations of His perfections, and the declaration and teachings of His word are to lead to these.”


  1. questionsaboutfaith says

    What an intellect. It’s refreshing to run into a blog like yours when most are dedicated with the malaise over oil prices or what I’m going to do at my party next weekend. Deeper thought brings more meaningful dialogue. Very good 🙂

  2. Quin Finnegan says

    Thank you, QAF. I think Roger’s Version affected me the most when I first read it. Soon after I finished, I was talking to a friend of mine about Updike in general, and he said (without knowing I’d read RV), “… but Roger’s Version – what a piece of filth!” So I always feel the need to be careful when recommending that one.

    Rufus is the real Updike fan at Korrektiv (has corresponded with him), but I also like the Bech books a lot. I’m always looking for bits of Bellow or Roth in them. I agree though, he’s quite an intellect; recently what I’ve enjoyed reading are not the novels so much as the criticism. I’ve especially liked his commentary on painting, of which the article referred to here is only the latest example.

    By the way, I just took a look at your site, and I like the upshot of what I see. Interests similar to ours here at Korrektiv, but different enough for some interesting exchanges, I think. A couple of brief comments:

    (1) I also have an Aunt Jean, to whom I also recently sent a book (synchronicity!), Lost in the Cosmos, by Walker Percy. The title alludes to Carl Sagan’s book, and Percy has a bit of fun with Sagan throughout. But LITC is above all has an extremely intriguing take on the connection between Faith and Science. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone, but after looking over your site, I really think you’d enjoy it.

    (2) People at Korrektiv have heard me bang this drum before, but my second recommendation for matters of faith, science and culture is the work of Rene Girard, who in time will come to be seen as a Darwin of Cutural Anthropology. In Violece and the Sacred he explores prehistoric mythologies from all over the world and reveals a great deal about the cultural origins of mankind. In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World he goes on to show how these very early cultural changes affected evolution. Indeed, I see it as something of a scandal that Dawkins, Dennet, et al. remain ignorant of Girard’s work, as it can (will, I think) be seen as an important bridge over the chasm between Science and the Humanities, and then also a way of making distinctions between the various truth claims of most any intellectual endeavor, whether it be scientific, religious, literary, theoretical, or what have you. A former student of Girard, Eric Gans, is also doing some great work on these questions; you can read some of his work at http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/.

    In any case, thanks much reading, QAF. Look forward to reading more of you in the future.



  3. Rufus McCain says

    The book that turned me on to Updike was Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, which is still a favorite. And in general I like his earlier stuff better — Poorhouse Fair, The Centaur, Rabbit Run, the first couple of Bech books. But I’ve by no means read them all and it’s been awhile since I read anything. The Rabbit series is his tour de force I’d say.

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