john updike

Updike: Unpublished Thoughts on the Great Depression and Barack Obama

In 1955.

When New York spoke to John Updike for a profile in October, the legendary writer shared his insights, gleaned from personal experience, on the Great Depression and the world of politics leading up to Barack Obama. Here are some previously unpublished excerpts from that conversation.

The Great Depression
“I was born in ‘32, when the Depression was at its worst. It’s frightening: From one Depression to the next. Years ago I saw a psychiatrist for a couple of years, and when I’d done a couple sessions describing myself, he said, ‘Oh, it certainly smacks of the Depression.’ I’ll tell you what was nice about being born in 1932: There were a lot of only children. Because people were pulling in there, they were scared. My mother wanted to have another child, I believe, but my father was out of work. He was thrown out of work and my father simultaneously lost his investments. They weren’t enormous, but they were enough to sustain him and his wife in the nice small-town house where I grew up. The men combined forces, my father did get a job and scrape through, but it was a scraping-through, even relative to the other people in the town. A schoolteacher makes less than a full-fashion knitter, which is what a lot of the men did. But you’ve seen movies about that era, and there was a certain coziness, and a dollar went a long way, and people were kind of kind to each other. It was considered correct form to give a dollar to bums when they came to the back door, and when they did, we did. But … it was a very stable world for a child. Children don’t like change, they don’t like changing grades, or I didn’t, [they don’t] love changing houses, but the Depression froze small towns. And then the war came along, and froze them additionally. So by ‘45, it was a world that hadn’t really changed in fifteen years. Now, you get used to nothing looking the same and nothing being there that was there. It’s a different world entirely.

“But the economic terror was very real. My father was a minister’s son and a responsible man who was out of work and had no idea how to get work. And he never forgot that. Never stopped voting Democratic, too. My secret hope is that if it is a [new] depression, everyone will start voting Democratic again!”

Politics and Barack Obama
“It’s very worrisome: I think if this country doesn’t elect Obama, it will have blown an opportunity that will never come along again. I just think he’s so much the superior candidate. Everything about him. But maybe I’m speaking like a teenage crush. Being the child of Depression Democrats, I’ve never had a great love for Republicans, although some of my best friends, etc., are Republicans. I’ve lived my adult life mostly under Republican administrations, mostly after LBJ — there was just Clinton and Carter. And this deification of Reagan, you mention Reagan, somehow the waves will part! I remember when people thought it was incredible that he’d be elected — as incredible as it is for Sarah Palin to become V.P., it was incredible for him to become president. He was charming, though, in a way. And he sort of convinced you — my mother once asked, how does he convince everyone that they’re rich?

“I don’t know if we’re on the eve of a depression. It sort of showed us America at its best. The movies that came out of the Depression, they’re wonderful in a way. The rich are rich! And nobody blames them for it. Houses in Long Island, and flighty daughters, and limousines — figures of gentle fun. It’s funny to watch them, because they don’t have the anger you’d think it would have called forth. But America is a place where everyone could become rich.”

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Updike: Unpublished Thoughts on the Great Depression and Barack Obama