To Win Ohio, Read the Rabbit Books

Josh Cochran, “John Updike,”

The political parties spend millions of dollars on demographic studies analyzing the electorate. It would be a lot cheaper if they simply read certain novels. A very interesting New York Times article recently recommended a series that would have helped the campaigns better understand the elusive Midwest independent voter that they were obsessed with: John Updike’s Rabbit books, consisting of Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990), and the novella Rabbit Remembered (2001).

Author Sam Tanenhaus argues that Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom—the “man in the middle”—presents this voter in all of his complexity. Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who lives in a city modeled on Brewer, Pennsylvania, is a Reagan Democrat. As the series progresses, the once flourishing economy starts going badly, the composition of the city changes, and Rabbit isn’t sure what to make of all the black faces he are appearing.You can see why he could have gone either way in the past election.

On the one hand, Tanenhaus points out why the Angstrom would be open to Democrat defenses of social safety net programs. Here is is talking about Rabbit’s father:

Earl, rescued first by the New Deal and then by the Great Society, swears by Medicare. “I’ve been paying in since ’66, it’s like a ton of anxiety rolled off my chest,” he tells his son over a Schlitz after work. “There’s no medical expense can break us now. They called L.B.J. every name in the book but believe me he did a lot of good for the little man.”

On the other hand, here’s why Rabbit would be susceptible to the Republicans’ subtle racial appeals:

But Rabbit’s politics are getting complicated, because of race. “The bus has too many Negroes,” he observes on the ride to his suburban tract house. “They’ve been here all along,” of course. And in fact, even in 1969, they made up only 6.6 percent of Reading’s population. But to Rabbit they seem a “strange race” of invaders. Unlike the African-Americans who were once half-invisible on Brewer’s downtown streets, who “ just looked” when he walked by, those he meets now seem to think the city belongs to them no less than to him.

Tanenhaus concludes his article with reminiscences of a meeting he had with Updike:

John Updike visited The New York Times a week before Election Day in 2008. Whom, I asked him, would Rabbit Angstrom most likely vote for? “I’m so for Obama,” Updike replied, “that I can’t imagine creating a character who wouldn’t vote for him.” And yet in “Rabbit at Rest” — the last novel in the cycle, which concludes with the hero’s death — we discover he cast his final vote for George H. W. Bush. When I reminded Updike of this, he looked startled. But he was right about 2008. Obama carried Reading that year, and he did it again on Nov. 6. The finally tally, John Forester said, “was 17,248 for Obama, and 3,740 for Romney.” Why the lopsided outcome? Because the city’s population has indeed changed, though not in the way Rabbit foresaw. Nearly 60 percent of its population is now Hispanic. Rabbit, more open-minded than he first appears, would have made his peace, just as he did in 1969. “I love my country,” he avows, “and can’t stand to have it knocked,” even if it has become something he no longer recognizes.

 

A note on the artist: Josh Cochran’s art work can be found at www.joshcochran.net.

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One Comment

  1. Barbara
    Posted November 20, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    I may have to revisit Rabbit. We had to read Rabbit Run in sophomore honors English in high school and I remember hating it, probably because I couldn’t identify with Rabbit and the female characters were, as I recall, an odd combination of depressing and not compelling. More books added to the list, which is looking to exceed my life expectancy at this point!

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