When Everyone Was Pregnant by John Updike, 1972
The magic trick:
Combining personal memories with broader historical commentary to create nostalgia with a message
Updike has a miraculous way of turning his own life into fiction that resonates with entire generations. Frankly, I really couldn’t possibly care less about the so-called plight of white, middle-class Baby Boomers, and yet his writing not only makes me care, it makes me nostalgic. And I was born in 1978!
Here, he does it by distilling everything down to two words: grateful and afraid. He sums up his youth, his generation, that entire era of American history perfectly. So now what risks drifting into the realm of narcissistic delusions of nostalgia becomes nostalgia with a message. And that’s quite a trick on Updike’s part.
Had we expected to starve in the Depression? Be bayonetted by Japs when they invaded California? Korea seemed the best bargain we could strike: extremities of superpowers tactfully clashing in distant cold mud. The world’s skin of fear shivered but held. Then came Eisenhower and gave us a precious peace and a sluggishly rising market and a (revokable) license to have fun, to make babies. Viewed the world through two lenses since discarded: fear and gratitude. Young people now are many things but they aren’t afraid, and aren’t grateful.