Paul Harvey and John Updike: Religion in American Culture

Paul Harvey

Paul Harvey, the voice of a conservative, midwestern Protestant, genial radio populism, has died, while Rush Limbaugh, bombast intact, has risen to be unofficial head of the GOP. Makes me wonder if libertarianism is supplanting moralism in the struggle for the soul of the right. For the record, I shared an Oklahoma birthright with Paul Harvey, but nothing else, so you so-called friends of mine can stop sending me your smart-ass emails as of now, k?

Paul Harvey wove homespun stories amidst brief dollops of conservative commentary so deftly that most associated him with the rest of the story, not with any political messages.

Limbaugh's populism largely accords with Harvey's views, but is comparatively areligious, and his humor is as deliberately obnoxious as possible (to put it charitably) in contrast to Harvey's Reader's Digest style of gentle ribbing.

It makes me wonder if a national figure dispensing religious-themed homilies could ever again rule the airwaves a la Father Coughlin, Charles E. Fuller, or the many others who were such a part of American broadcasting. For more on Fuller in particular, see Phil Goff, "We Have Heard the Joyful Sound," available on J-STOR (institutional subscription required). Heck, even 'Reinhold Niebuhr did some very successful radio broadcasts, something impossible to conceive of today.

I've never connected John Updike and Paul Harvey before, but will do so now. Both came approximately from the same era, and Updike's perfectly pitched prose reached a New Yorker audience as deftly as Paul Harvey's genial stories attracted those who had never heard of the New Yorker, and wouldn't have read it if they had.

I felt some distance from both, perhaps more suprisingly from Updike. John Updike was never a writer I could love; it seemed as though his work, especially his reviews, often lingered over not-so-interesting subjects, or expressed not-so-interesting views on interesting subjects (such as in his review of Matt's Sutton's biography of Sister Aimee), in a highbrow Paul Harvey sort of way; and his most memorable character, in the Rabbit novels, just seemed a little too Sinclair-Lewis-like for my tastes. Philip Roth was more my man -- American Pastoral and other novels perfectly exploring the rise and unraveling of a certain segment of American life, as well as being tremendous family chronicles of Jewish Americans, the Faulkner of New Jersey both in terms of being rich in local history and in prose full of passionate intensity.

But then, in fairness, I read Updike now and again, in bits and spurts, and often found myself annoyed at his beautifully written but seemingly somewhat vacuous reviews in the New Yorker. Ian MacEwan has me rethinking Updike, by placing him also as a novelist for whom religious questions were central. Seemingly more comic than angst-ridden, his characters somehow, in ways they could never figure out themselves, found themselves perplexed by the most religious of questions, even amidst the most mundane of circumstances. A brief excerpt:

This most Lutheran of writers, driven by intellectual curiosity all his life, was troubled by science as others are troubled by God. When it suited him, he could easily absorb and be impressed by physics, biology, astronomy, but he was constitutionally unable to "make the leap of unfaith." The "weight" of personal death did not allow it, and much seriousness and dark humor derive from this tension between intellectual reach and metaphysical dread

This is the finest eulogy for Updike I think I have seen, and makes me want to go back and pick up some of his work that I deliberately avoided before.

As for Paul Harvey -- well, he does have a son, Paul Harvey Jr, who broadcasts, albeit now in competition with Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee, who are also vying for the spot of Head Folkster Persona:

And so, as Journey sang on the final scene of that great classic of American religious drama, The Sopranos,

well the movie never ends, it goes on and on and on . . .


Matt Sutton said…
Although Updike took me to task for my "sociological thrust" (which is more of an insult to sociologists than to me); for my "copious acknowledgments" (which appear on pages 337-339 of the book for gawd's sake); and for acknowledging the impact of Foursquare on my grandmother's life, the New Yorker did a hell of a cartoon of Aimee Semple McPherson!

Paul, I am glad that you are not dead. Are you still on the radio? :-)
Anonymous said…
is that the rest of the story?
DEG said…
I guess now that he's passed I won't be framing conversations about this blog with "No, not that Paul Harvey."
Anonymous said…
Thanks for this post. I've always felt the way you feel about John Updike, both repulsed and strangely drawn to him. I do think Gore Vidal put a fine point on it when he took Updike to task for supporting the Vietnam war. If I recall, Vidal's complaint is that Updike is kind of, well, sympathetic to authority.
Brad Hart said…
My grandmother (a life-long Paul Harvey listener who suffers from dementia) was under the delusion that he (the radio Paul Harvey) was my graduate professor. She called me to ask, "So are you still going to be able to finish your degree now that Dr. Harvey is dead?" I was taken back at first, but quickly realized who she was talking about. She then concluded with, "I sure hope they don't replace him with some liberal historian from California."


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