Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Words and our world: A series of occasional essays on the intersection of life and literature


One of the wonderful things about a liberal arts education is that  it presents students with the opportunity to come into contact with literature. While there are myriad lessons to be learned in chemistry labs and business seminars, it is in the exploration of novels, poetry and short stories that we see a multifaceted reflection of the worlds we inhabit, and begin to think about our own place within them.

Literature dramatizes, sympathizes and humanizes - it makes palpable the intangible and concrete the abstract, it provokes and engages. For all of these reasons I believe that a constant connection to literature, both in the classroom and beyond, contributes to the health and well-being of democratic societies. So with this idea in mind I've decided to post a series of occasional essays here on my 36 Voices blog about the intersection of literature and civil society, human rights and public policy, which I'm calling "Words and our world: A series of occasional essays on the intersection of life and literature."

In this first piece I'm going to go back and look at john Updike's Rabbit tetralogy, a series of novels I first explored when wring my masters thesis.

Rabbit is still running

When I was in graduate school and looking for a topic for my master's thesis I considered and rejected a number of possible ideas, including an examination of the portrayal of Cold War fear and politics in the work of several novelists whose work in the 1950's and 60's - Vonnegut's Slaughtehouse Five, Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King - but in the end I decided to write about the portrayal of class and socioeconomic mobility in john Updike's Rabbit tetralogy. I enjoyed exploring the topic, bringing in historical and sociological sources to provide greater context for Updike’s chronicle of the internally tortured  life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Anyone who has read the books knows that Updike’s protagonist faces frustration at nearly every stage of his life and I argued that one source of his near constant frustration was an inability to find his way in a rapidly changing America where the economic landscape is difficult to read and the nuances of socioeconomic mobility feel opaque at best.

While overt discussions of class remain something of a taboo in America, the topic of income inequality has become the subject of frequent discussion in the media. Histor, economics and sociology have much to teach us when it comes to understanding the potential dangers of a society in which there is a vast gulf between rich and poor, but Updike’s Rabbit series, bring great value to this discussion as well.

In the opening chapters of the first book in the series there are powerful parallels to be found between the state of affairs in which we find Harry Angstrom, an optimist whose dreams seem within reach, and a current generation of Americans, both young and old, who find themselves  struggling following the economic turbulence of 2008-2009.  

The frustration that Harry Angstrom feels is not just economic, but social - financially his life is a roller-coaster ride, sometimes he is flush and at other times, nearly destitute - but he only briefly touches the trappings of social stability along the way, constantly frustrated by his inability to gain access to the spheres of influence and respectability that he sees around him.

It seems to me that that there are many people who feel this way today, essentially shut out of a system they can glimpse but not grasp, and something tells me that this not a good thing for our country. While we can (and should) watch the news, read history and engage in conversation about the apparent limits of socioeconomic mobility in America today, I would make the case for reading Updike's works as well.

Not only are they engaging works of literature, but there is something deeply human and humanizing about following his protagonist on his personal journey through American life from the 1950's to the 1980's. Although these books are an exploration of the latter half of the previous century, in Harry Angstrom, Updike has created the perfect avatar through which to view the frustrations encountered by those seeking to move "up" the socioeconomic ladder today. Anyone who cares about the growing gulf between rich and poor in America, and the lasting impact such inequality can have not just on societies but individuals, would do well to pick up a copy of Rabbit, Run  - and keep reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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