Memories of the Ford Administration

Overview

When historian Alfred “Alf” Clayton is invited by an academic journal to record his impressions of the Gerald R. Ford Administration (1974–77), he recalls not the political events of the time but rather a turbulent period of his own sexual past. Alf’s highly idiosyncratic contribution to Retrospect consists not only of reams of unbuttoned personal history but also of pages from an unpublished project of the time, a chronicle of the presidency of James Buchanan (1857–61). The alternating texts mirror each other ...
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Memories of the Ford Administration: A Novel

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Overview

When historian Alfred “Alf” Clayton is invited by an academic journal to record his impressions of the Gerald R. Ford Administration (1974–77), he recalls not the political events of the time but rather a turbulent period of his own sexual past. Alf’s highly idiosyncratic contribution to Retrospect consists not only of reams of unbuttoned personal history but also of pages from an unpublished project of the time, a chronicle of the presidency of James Buchanan (1857–61). The alternating texts mirror each other and tell a story in counterpoint, a frequently hilarious comedy of manners contrasting the erotic etiquette and social dictions of antebellum Washington with those of late-twentieth-century southern New Hampshire. Alf’s style is Nabokovian. His obsessions are vintage Updike.

A fascinating departure for an acclaimed American novelist--winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. When a history professor is asked to record his impressions of the Ford Administration, he recalls a turbulent piece of personal history as well: his unfinished book on 19th-century president James Buchanan.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Quintessential Updike . . . [a] comic and melancholy reflection on politics and passion.”—The New York Times Book Review
 
“Updike has the ability to evoke the micro-epochs that fascinate us. He can bring to life what seem to those of us who have lived them the vital differences between the decades of our lives.”—Chicago Tribune
 
“Compelling . . . Alf’s life and times are light and funny; Buchanan’s are dark and serious. Alternating between the two, Mr. Updike entertains and instructs . . . in gorgeous prose.”—The Wall Street Journal

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Irony, whimsy, supple prose, pungent imagery, penetrating social observation and a focus on his protagonist's libido are the familiar elements Updike brings to his 39th book (after Rabbit at Rest and Odd Jobs). But there is more: a biography/historical novel interpolated into the main story makes this an uneven, hybrid work. Ostensibly preparing a paper on the Ford administration, narrator Alfred Clayton, a professor at a New Hampshire junior college, finds his impressions of the period inextricable from the events of his own life at the time. Epitomizing the sexual liberation of that pre-AIDS era, he had begun an affair with a colleague's spouse, Genevieve Mueller, whom he dubs the Perfect Wife, in contrast to his own mate--messy, scatty Norma, the Queen of Disorder. His halfhearted attempts to divorce the one and marry the other are as inconclusive and bumbling as was (by implication) President Ford's lackluster half-term. Meanwhile, Alf is writing a biography (never finished) of James Buchanan, whose administration immediately predated the Civil War. Realizing that his recollections of his own experiences in the 1970s are as unreliable as were contemporary accounts of Buchanan's life and times, Alf concludes that it is impossible to arrive at the truth of any event. Updike's attempt to weld his two stories together is not always successful. Alf's sexual exploits are, by design, conveyed with more energy than Buchanan's aborted romance, and the details of Cabinet meetings attending the crisis at Fort Sumter retard the narrative's pace. Yet Updike's skill as a raconteur overcomes his novel's hobbled structure; in the end, his account is social history of a high order. BOMC alternate. (Nov.)
Library Journal
A simple request from an organization of historians for impressions of the Ford administration elicits these ``memories'' as reponse. Professor Alfred Clayton remembers what the Ford years meant for him: domestic disruption in the wake of his leaving his wife, the Queen of Disorder, for his idealized mistress, the Perfect Wife; ubiquitous sexual license; and the eventual abandonment of his attempt to write a sympathetic biography of President James Buchanan. But the subject of this virtuoso performance is not so much life during the Ford years as it is human memory and how lives, both our own and those of the historical dead, are remembered. Updike writes with droll wit and sly observation, serving up a meditation on history hidden in an erotic comedy. This should stand in the Updike oeuvre where Pale Fire does in that of Nabokov.-- Charles Michaud, Turner Free Lib., Randolph, Mass.
Kirkus Reviews
His dreadful play of some years back, Buchanan Dying, must have left Updike with a raft of research material that he seems now to have taken and thrust into the fictional hands of a New Hampshire girls'-college historian, Alf Clayton, who's writing a sympathetic book about Buchanan, the president that had the misfortune to usher in the Civil War. Clayton also is writing a personal recollection of his chaotic sexual and family situation during the Gerald Ford administration—this makes up the narration here—and thus Updike can move freely inside two ideas: that the past is no more knowable than the confusing present, and that things—even if they do it at wrenching cost—"bump on," work out. Clayton has left his wife and family of three to live alone yet sleep with Genevieve. Genevieve's "The Perfect Wife" of a creepy deconstructionist—who finally sabotages the affair with a bit of deconstruction of his own devising. Alf sees sex, during the 70's, mostly as pathos, determined taboo-breaking that yields little more than manners; this is contrasted with the historical judgment of Buchanan, whose good instincts have been forgotten in favor of his ill-stars ("the erratic half-steps whereby a people effects moral change and whereby well-intentioned men of substance seek amid agitation and the long stasis of contending equal interests the path of least general harm"). It's a novel about failure—and that paradoxical spinoff of failure, optimism. The Buchanan stuff, though, is gluey, boring; and Alf's Gongoristic high-style, stuffed with tropes and excruciated vocabulary, is rarely more palatable. It's the sex, as so often with Updike, that you come to the tablefor and is the most filling thing here—the grace notes of man/woman perceptiveness for which Updike is rightly renowned. The idea of macro- and micro-history clearly is something Updike wanted to chew over (as he did the ramifications of computers in Roger's Version), but it's the grounded experience of wanting and losing that grows the grass.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780449912119
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/28/1996
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 1,147,938
  • Product dimensions: 5.44 (w) x 8.27 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

John Updike was born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, in 1932. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954 and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Foundation Award, and the William Dean Howells Medal. In 2007 he received the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. John Updike died in January 2009.

Biography

With an uncommonly varied oeuvre that includes poetry, criticism, essays, short stories, and novels, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner John Updike helped to change the face of late-20th-century American literature.

Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Updike graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1954. Following a year of study in England, he joined the staff of The New Yorker, establishing a relationship with the magazine that continued until his death in January, 2009. For more than 50 years, he lived in two small towns in Massachusetts that inspired the settings for several of his stories.

In 1958, Updike's first collection of poetry was published. A year later, he made his fiction debut with The Poorhouse Fair. But it was his second novel, 1960's Rabbit, Run, that forged his reputation and introduced one of the most memorable characters in American fiction. Former small-town basketball star Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom struck a responsive chord with readers and critics alike and catapulted Updike into the literary stratosphere.

Updike would revisit Angstrom in 1971, 1981, and 1990, chronicling his hapless protagonist's jittery journey into undistinguished middle age in three melancholy bestsellers: Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest. A concluding novella, "Rabbit Remembered," appeared in the 2001 story collection Licks of Love.

Although autobiographical elements appear in the Rabbit books, Updike's true literary alter ego was not Harry Angstrom but Harry Bech, a famously unproductive Jewish-American writer who starred in his own story cycle. In between -- indeed, far beyond -- his successful series, Updike went on to produce an astonishingly diverse string of novels. In addition, his criticism and short fiction became popular staples of distinguished literary publications.

Good To Know

Updike first became entranced by reading when he was a young boy growing up on an isolated farm in Pennsylvania. Afflicted with psoriasis and a stammer, he escaped his self-consciousness by immersing himself in drawing, writing, and reading.

An accomplished artist, Updike accepted a one-year fellowship to study painting at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts at Oxford University. He decided to attend Harvard University because he was a big fan of the school's humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon.

One of the most respected authors of the 20th century, Updike won every major literary prize in America, including the Guggenheim Fellow, the Rosenthal Award, the National Book Award in Fiction, the O. Henry Prize, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Union League Club Abraham Lincoln Award, the National Arts Club Medal of Honor, and the National Medal of the Arts.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John Hoyer Updike (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 18, 1932
    2. Place of Birth:
      Shillington, Pennsylvania
    1. Date of Death:
      January 27, 2009
    2. Place of Death:
      Beverly Farms, MA

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