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"How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time" | John Updike's Complete Stories Summary Analysis

“How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time” (1972)
Reading John Updike’s Complete Stories

(Click to order)

This series is a re-reading of John Updike’s short stories in the wake of the publication of “The Collected Early Stories” and “The Collected Later Stories,” the twin-volume set by the Library of America (2013). A comprehensive table of the complete stories with links to each story summary appears below. The commentaries include the Maple and Bech stories, most of which are excluded from the Library of America edition. Contact the editor for questions, debates or corrections.

[“How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time” was published in the Aug. 19, 1972 issue of The New Yorker, collected in Problems, The Early Stories, and the Library of America’s Collected Early Stories.]

The meaning of America in five pages. Or rather, evocations on the vast joys of being in America, the country’s roadside romance evoked by its vastness, the generosity of its distances and empty canvasses, ready to be filled in. Updike or his protagonist, again interchangeable here, fill one in as the family takes a road trip through the west of mesas, orange landscapes and grandiloquent vistas. They stop for the night at a motel.

From there, the protagonist imagines and reflects, freely associating sounds and sights with his words. A siren’s sound is trigger to the thought of a sudden intrusive death: “Imagine an old Californian, with parched white beard and a mountain goat’s unfriendly stare, his whole life from birth soaked in this altitude, this view, this locality until an hour ago unknown to you and after tomorrow never to be known again–imagine him dead, his life in a blood-blind moment wrenched from his chest like a root from a tummock.” (The choice of tummock is anachronistic and pretentious, tummock being neither an American word nor one recognizable by most dictionaries. Updike was going for alliteration and got lazy.)


It’s not the only image of death, that death Updike’s characters can’t run from, even on vacation, though it’s not a depressing image. It’s even witty, celebratory in a Walt Whitman sort of way: “Think of the dead unknown,” he goes on, “–plodding flights of angels–who dared cross this land of inhuman grandeur without highways, without air conditioning, without even (a look underneath confirms) shock absorbers, jolting and rattling each inch, in order to arrive here and create this town, wherein this wagon has become a receptacle for (a look inside discovers) empty cans of Coors Beer, Diet Pepsi, and Mountain Dew.”

He pushes the rediscovery down to a rebranding of one of the country’s iconic odes to itself: “This is America, a hamburger kingdom, one cuisine, under God, indivisible, with pickles and potato chips for all.”

Of course, being Updike, he can’t help dropping in a bit of chauvinism, of comparative-culture chest-thumping. Until now the story had the breeziness of its vacationers’ impressions, but it takes a turn for the Ugly American way, if only briefly, as if the traveling protagonist was Clem of “I Am Dying, Egypt, Dying”: “When a Japanese says ‘Japanese,’ he is trapped on a little definite racial fact, whereas when we say ‘American’ it is not a fact, it is an act, of faith, a matter of lines on a map and words on paper, an outline it will take generations and centuries more to fill in.” Filling in that paragraph with the image of the waitress as illustration of “these meditation” doesn’t improve maters, but it barely weakens the rest of the meditation, a vacation from Updike’s usual angsts for a trip through his great love: “America is a conspiracy to make you happy.”

John Updike: The Complete Stories (Click on Links for Summaries and Analyses)

Title
Year Written
First Published
First Collected
Ace In the Hole
1954
New Yorker, April 9, 1955
The Same Door (1959)
Friends From Philadelphia
1954
New Yorker, Oct. 30, 1954
The Same Door (1959)
A Game of Botticelli
1954
The Liberal Context, Fall 1963
Collected Early Stories (2013)
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth
1955
New Yorker, Apr. 30, 1954
The Same Door (1959)
Dentistry and Doubt
1955
New Yorker, Oct. 29, 1955
The Same Door (1959)
Snowing in Greenwich Village (The Maples)
1955
New Yorker, Jan. 21, 1956
The Same Door (1959)
The Kid's Whistling
1955
New Yorker, Dec. 3, 1955
The Same Door (1959)
Toward Evening
1955
New Yorker, Feb. 11, 1956
The Same Door (1959)
Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow
1956
New Yorker, April 7, 1956
The Same Door (1959)
Wife-wooing (The Maples)
1960
New Yorker, March 12, 1960
Pigeon Feathers (1962)
Giving Blood (The Maples)
1963
New Yorker, April 6, 1963
The Music School (1966)
Twin Beds in Rome (The Maples)
1963
New Yorker, February 6, 1964
The Music School (1966)
The Bulgarian Poetess (Bech)
1964
New Yorker, March 13, 1965
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech in Rumania
1966
New Yorker, Oct. 8, 1966
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech Takes Pot Luck
1968
New Yorker, Oct. 7, 1968
Bech: A Book (1970)
Rich in Russia (Bech)
1969
New Yorker, Jan. 31, 1970
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech Swings?
1969
New Yorker, Jan. 31, 1970
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech Panics
1970
No magazine publication
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech Enters Heaven
1970
No magazine publication
Bech: A Book (1970)
The Gun Shop
1972
New Yorker, Feb. 25, 1972
Problems (1979)
Believers
1972
Harper's, July 1972
Problems (1979)
How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time
1972
New Yorker, Aug. 19, 1972
Problems (1979)
Nevada
1972
Playboy, January 1974
Problems (1979)
Sons
1973
New Yorker, April 21, 1973
Problems (1979)
Daughter, Last Glimpse Of
1973
New Yorker, November 5, 1973
Problems (1979)
Ethiopia
1973
New Yorker, Jan. 14, 1974
Problems (1979)
Transaction
1973
Oui, March 1974
Problems (1979)
Augustine's Concubine
1974
The Atlantic, April 1975
Problems (1979)
Except for most of the Maples stories and the Henry Bech stories, the summaries and analyses are based on the texts presented in the two-volume Library of America edition of the complete stories (2013).
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