DETAILS: The middle class is disappearing. Where did it go?
UPDIKE: In a city like New York, you’re aware of the rich and poor. You get outside the major cities, and you see them in their habitat—mowing their lawns, having their Saturday-night cookouts, and whatever else the middle class does. But it’s a stressful world, and increasingly expensive. At this moment the gas prices demonstrate how hard it is to be in the middle class. You’re paying more and more for what have become the basics of middle-class life.
DETAILS: So it was easier being middle class back in the Fifties?
UPDIKE: We were comfortable enough [in the Fifties] not to be preoccupied by work and money the way my father’s generation had been. And the middle class could afford the luxuries of fine living, which included dinner parties and, I guess, adultery. It was one of the by-products of the kind of cozy, friendly, self-enclosed economic existence of that particular branch of the middle class. I think it is no longer—you can no longer do your job “by the way.” Your job is either your—what’s the word…obsession—or you’re not good enough. Often, both [halves] of the couple have to work to maintain middle-class comforts. I don’t think that was true in the Fifties. My generation kind of, not to make too much of this, but we just sort of walked into a boom. It was the fruit of being American then, the fruit of being victorious after this terrible war. And that lasted, I think, up through the sexual revolution, which was sort of a product of the same prosperity. I mean, all those hippies were living on Daddy’s spare change.
DETAILS: Do you think you had it easier back in your day?
UPDIKE: Well, relatively. I was lucky. But, then again, it didn’t take a lot of money to support a family, if you lived in a small town and sent your kids to the public schools and didn’t try to live any higher than your neighbors do. I think it’s a big mistake for a writer, if you want any advice, future writers shouldn’t run with the rich, because no matter how you’re doing, they will make you feel poor. You’ll feel dissatisfied. You can see that in Hemingway. He played with the rich, and he came to resent them. The rich—they just live in another realm, really.
DETAILS: It looks to us like you’ve led a charmed life. Not this sort of Charles Bukowski life of frustration and agony.
UPDIKE: It would sound very conceited if I were to say…Certainly, I have been fortunate, as I look at my college classmates, many of whom who had artistic aspirations and so on and many of my friends from New York in the Fifties, I’ve been fortunate. To be frank, I approached at it as kind of a job. It’s sort of good to see your vocation as a daily task and have fairly modest expectations for financial or reward in other coin—glory, love, whatever.