Updike's Vintage `Memories'
THE hero of John Updike's 15th novel, "Memories of the Ford Administration," Alf Clayton (born in 1936 and named after Alf Landon, that year's "affable but unsuccessful" Republican presidential candidate), is a history professor at an obscure New Hampshire college. His long-cherished but unrealized ambition is to write a major biography of James Buchanan, 15th president of the United States, a man generally condemned by historians for having done little if anything to prevent the country from plunging in to the Civil War shortly after he left office.Skip to next paragraph
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Along with the fact that Buchanan is relatively untrodden academic territory, Clayton feels a deep personal affinity for the man: "A big fellow, six feet tall, with mismatching eyes, a tilt to his head, and a stiffish courtliness that won my heart. He projected a certain vaporous largeness, the largeness of ambivalence...." What Clayton likes about Buchanan is precisely what is commonly held against him: his inability to make up his mind. "There is," the historian muses, "a civilized heroism to indecisio n - `the best lack all conviction,' etc." What Yeats bemoans, Professor Clayton condones.
Invited by the Northern New England Association of American Historians to contribute his particular memories of the Gerald Ford administration for a forthcoming issue of their journal, "Retrospect," Clayton provides the eponymous book, which - whatever else it may be - is obviously not what the requisitioning editors had in mind. Clayton gives them an intimate, probably unprintable, account of his own domestic and personal life during the Ford years, interlarded with large chunks of the unfinished biogra phy of Buchanan that he was working on at the time. The result - however unsuitable for the historical society's journal - is vintage Updike.
Alf, approaching 40 during the Ford years, was having a kind of midlife crisis. Looking back from the perspective of the Bush administration, he now perceives his attempt to complete the Buchanan book and his attempt to replace his wife, Norma, as twin aspects of "a single vain effort to change my life."
Juxtaposing scenes from Alf Clayton's life with scenes from Buchanan's, Updike unveils a series of comical, poignant, and unexpected contrasts and similarities between the two eras.
The mounting tensions of the decades leading up to the Civil War - years of westward expansion, North-South rivalry, and the great slavery question - are implicitly contrasted with the curious post-Watergate lull of the Ford era:
"... a time of post-apocalyptic let-down, of terrifying permissiveness.... A President had been shot, a war had been lost, our empire had been deemed evil, our heavenly favored-nation status had been revoked, the air had been let out of our parade balloon, and still we bumped on, as we had in 1865, with wandering steps and slow, as out of Eden we took our solitary way."