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"Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow?" | John Updike's Complete Stories Summary Analysis

“Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow?” (1956)
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.

[“Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow?,” written in New York in 1956, was published in the April 7, 1956 New Yorker, Collected in The Same DoorThe Early Stories and the Library of America’s Collected Early Stories.]

Initially titled “The Spine of the Universe.” A frivolous, overwritten story, intended to show the chasm between old and new money, showing instead the gaudiness and asphyxiating pretension of old money, starting with a florid page describing the interior of Fred Platt’s parents’ apartment before he calls college friend Thomas Clayton to set up a date when he could, presumably, ask him for a job. “This blue, the dark warm wood of inherited cabinets, the twilight color of aged books, the scarlet and purple of the Carpet from Cairo (where Charlotte, Uncle Randy’s wife, had caught a bug and died), and the dismal sonorities of the Seicento Transfirguration on the west wall vibrated around the basal shade of plum.”


Is there anything more dismal than using the word Seicento, which, to the best of my googling, means “of the seventeenth century”?  The New Yorker version had it as “The Secentistico allegory.” When the story was collected in The Same Door, it became the Secentistico Transfirguration. And when it found its final resting place in Collected Early Stories, it was the Seicento Transfiguration. What is it? A painting? A sculpture evocative of the Italian 17th century? No such thing exists. What are we to make of these “dismal sonorities,” having no frame of reference to then make sense of the words that follow? This is Updike enthralled by the sound of his own words’ sonorities, whether they make sense or not. And they don’t. We get it: Updike wants precisely to create that atmosphere of stuffy old money. But he doesn’t have to do it in a stuffy way.

The two men meet. A duel ensues as Thomas half-knowingly imposes his knowingness, in contrast with Fred’s helplessness. Updike is working out his Harvard demons. Thomas is the advertising executive and a stand-in for Updike, down to Thomas’s stint at the Quaff, the college’s Harvard Lampoon equivalent, where Thomas outworked everyone (as Updike did), but never quite made it into the magazine’s old money society. He was never accepted. The prose can, as it did S.J. Perelman, make you ill: “Now he smiled, and stood bodied forth as a great-boned Teuton in the prime of his fifties, with a segmented shining bald head and portentous ears covered by a diaphanous fuzz that brought to the dignity his head already possessed a certain silky glamour.” So can the duel, though that may have been Updike’s intention. It is tense, angry, revealing, as Clayon cannot help but display his industriousness like a peacock’s feathers. The story is as annoying to read as Fred must have felt, down to the last French lines intended to convey Fred’s kiss-my-ass resignation (none of it included in the New Yorker version).

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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