Drawing the Iron Curtain: The writings of John Updike and the Cold War

Date of Completion

January 1996


History, Modern|Literature, American




In an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of the effects of Cold War culture on John Updike's writings, my dissertation investigates all of his fiction, poetry, and prose in terms of this international conflict. The threat to American hegemony posed by the Soviet Union and its capacity for nuclear warfare provide a contextual framework for the tensions that typify the world of Updike's fiction. At the same time, the Soviet Union serves as the Other that has always been necessary for American identity. His frequent use of Cold War tension as a metaphor for domestic life and as a cultural reality that affects the psychological security of his characters reveals the implicit conflict in his world. The oblique presence of this conflict helps to explain the struggle for spiritual meaning, the problematic relationship between men and women, and the directionless movement of his characters. Yet once this conflict is over, Updike's characters look back fondly on the years when their national identity was so easy to define in contrast to the Soviet Other.^ Critics have frequently studied Updike's writings in terms of such "timeless" subjects as religion and aesthetics, removing him from the American cultural scene and neglecting an important critical angle. By examining his entire career to date in light of the historical developments which coincide with it, I demonstrate how important the early Cold War mind-set was to his thinking and to the trajectory of his fiction. The Cold War consensus which had helped to define America at the beginning of Updike's career fell apart completely during the debate over the Vietnam War (1962-1975). A marked difference between Updike's writings before and after this period, both in form and content, demonstrates how changes in the structure of the Cold War affect his ideology and his celebrated style. The investigation of Updike's career through the lens of the Cold War reveals how his writing relies to a great degree on the development of the global conflict that defined his times and underscores how essential history is to understanding Updike's fiction. ^