One Man's Family Struggles With a Century of Change

By

IN THE BEAUTY OF THE LILIES

By John Updike

Alfred A. Knopf

Recommended: John Updike: 10 quotes on his birthday

528 pp.,$25.95

John Updike's 17th novel is the four-generation saga of an American family, their changing fortunes, beliefs, and values. The title is taken from Julia Ward Howe's ''Battle Hymn of the Republic,'' the great anthem of the Civil War expressing the belief that Union soldiers fighting and dying ''to make men free'' were following in the footsteps of Christ.

''In the Beauty of the Lilies'' can be read as an extended meditation on the theme of values, that woefully overworked and underexamined term that has of late come to mean so many different things to different people.

The story begins in 1910 in Paterson, N.J., a town with a flourishing silk industry where the clip-clop of a farmer's horse-drawn wagon can still be heard making its way along Broadway. Clarence Wilmot, a conscientious Presbyterian minister in his 40s, finds himself in the uncomfortable position of no longer being able to believe in God.

Despite the fears of his devoted wife as to what will become of their family, and despite the well-meaning efforts of his church superiors to prevent his precipitate departure, Clarence feels unable to preach what he cannot believe. His principled decision to resign his post proves sadly impractical, however, and he spends his remaining years trying to sell encyclopedias door-to-door and escaping into the dark new palaces of silent fantasy called movie theaters that are cropping up all over.

In the next generation, the focus shifts to Clarence's youngest child, Teddy, a gentle, soft-eyed fellow who can't bring himself to embrace the faith that - as he sees it - failed his poor father. While Teddy's older brother and sister eagerly latch on to the go-getting ethos of the Jazz Age (the one becoming a financial speculator, the other a tough-talking flapper), Teddy doesn't quite fit in: ''He didn't want to compete, and yet this seemed the only way to be an American.'' Eschewing the ratrace, Teddy marries a shy girl whose special qualities are overlooked by everyone else, and finds an unglamorous job that gives him a sense of security and of contributing to the community.

His daughter Essie - the Wilmot singled out for our attention in the next generation - is a lively girl blessed with the conviction that she is someone special: ''Oh, she knew there were girls richer and famouser than she, like Shirley Temple and ... those two little English princesses, but fame and riches were things she could always have in the future, which was endless and tremendously large.'' Essie's faith in the future proves prophetic, and she grows up to be a famous movie star of the 1940s and 1950s.

With Essie's son Clark, the story comes full circle. In a somewhat dissolute, confused, Hollywood-kid's way, he is a young man in search of spiritual values. Unfortunately, he stumbles into a David Koresh-like cult, an event that provides this novel with its quasi-apocalyptic final scenes.

Updike's survey of the current century, from Clarence in 1910 to Clark in 1990, poses the implicit question: What do Americans value? Prosperity? Wordly success? Self-confidence?

Certainly, the simple-minded images of passion, romance, and glamor projected onto the big screen seem to overpower older ideals of civic, moral, or religious virtue. Yet the people in this saga who lack faith are often more virtuous than those who have it.

Essie, of all the Wilmots, has the firmest sense of what might be called Protestant election. From toddlerhood on, her childish, self-centered prayers always seem to be answered by a considerate deity. Thanks to her unreflective credo of hard work and will power, she becomes a bona-fide matinee idol in the materialist American cult of success.

Teddy, who has no religious beliefs, leads the humble life of the proverbially righteous man, putting others first, taking care to harm no one, and refraining, for all his humility, from acting like a self-conscious saint or martyr.

Clarence, in many ways, is the most poignant figure, and the part of the novel devoted to him contains much of Updike's most evocative and subtle writing. The doubt-ridden minister is portrayed as a man of honor, yet there is a faint suggestion that the force that impels this gentle idealist to place the claims of his conscience above his family's well-being could be a kind of spiritual pride. In the arrogance of his deep innocence, he fails to grasp just how socially and financially vulnerable his family will become after he leaves the ministry.

By the time it reaches Essie and Clark in California, Updike's meticulous survey of American cultural history has become rather too thickly encrusted with the sort of period details that are all too familiar to most of us. There is less a sense of a specific individual consciousness - like Clarence's or Teddy's - confronting a changing world, than of minds, like blank slates, being written on by the fads and fashions of the times.

Updike at least gets the details right, whether he is evoking the charms of Paterson in bygone days, the more languid pace of life in Delaware, where the Wilmots subsequently move, or the landscapes of southern California and Colorado, where the latter parts of the novel are played out.

But in many ways, the story of this particular family and the sensibilities of its individual members becomes overshadowed by the more cliched and overrehearsed history of the changing American Zeitgeist. Sociology seems to eclipse individual psychology. But perhaps that is the point of the story.

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