Rabbit, Run was published in 1960 by American author John Updike. He wrote three more Rabbit novels, one at the end of the '60s, '70s, and '80s. He says these novels became “a running report on the state of my hero and his nation.” He won the Pulitzer Prize for the “final” two books. But, the series actually continued after Rabbit’s death in Updike’s 2001 novella, Rabbit Remembered. In 2006, The Rabbit series was voted number four on The New York Times list of “the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years.” Rabbit, Run was also selected by Time magazine as one of the top 100 books from 1923-2005. And the novel is also listed by the American Library Association as one of the 100 most frequently banned books in the 20th century.
Why was it banned? Isn’t it set in 1959, like Leave it Beaver time? Yes, that’s true, but Rabbit, Run touches on some delicate issues, like prostitution, male and female orgasms, alcoholism, adultery, blow jobs, homosexuality (though only briefly and ambiguously), birth control, abortion, and even accidental infanticide (We realize the phrase is a contradiction in terms, but we promise it’ll make sense when you get into the novel). Its 26-year old protagonist Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom even leers at 14-year old girls (though only to make his girlfriend jealous). Rabbit, Run also has lots of conversations between people arguing about different Christian philosophies, a main character with a bit of a Jesus Complex, a couple of atheists, and even a Freudian. Are you beginning to see why maybe this was touchy? Rabbit, Run was also what some consider a “biting critique” of America in 1959. That might or might not have anything to do with why it was banned, but a working knowledge of America in 1959 might help us understand the novel.
1959 was, let’s face it, repressive. A little thing called McCarthyism had much to do with that. You’ve heard about it in history class, on Shmoop History, and have maybe even seen the 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck, about Edward R. Murrow fighting McCarthyism, a few years before Rabbit, Run was written. You’ve probably read about suspected communists being blackballed from their industries, fired from their jobs, or even executed (like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg). But did you know that popular McCarthyism was also against public vaccination, water fluoridation, and mental health care services? These were deemed figments of the communist plot to bring America down. 1959 also brought us Barbie, and we all know what she did for a woman’s body image. Civil Rights? Women’s Lib? Not much. Divorce: big no-no. Gay rights? Nope. You get the drift. Another thing about 1959: popular culture was on the rise. 1959 was ushering in the postmodern age, and information was becoming more easily accessible than ever before, though nothing like today with our cell phones, laptops, and satellite radios. Reality TV was in its infancy. I Love Lucy was still on the air and so was Leave it to Beaver. The American Dream meant being married with children, and having the latest in modern appliances and beauty products. Many of these issues are barely visible in the novel, but a working knowledge of America 1959 might help us understand the characters a little better.
Have you ever dreamed of running away from your life, secretly applying for a passport, and then disappearing into the wilds of Central America, leaving the student loans, the 9-5, and all those pesky family members behind to fend for themselves? They’d be better off without me, you might think, as you practice your moody pout for the office, and then you get in your car to drive to class. You turn the radio on because maybe it will give you some answers on how to solve your miserable life (don’t cry, it might get better). Maybe a song or even a commercial will reveal your secret destiny. This is what comes on:
No one heard a single word you said.
They should have seen it in your eyes
What was going around your head.
Ooh, she's a little runaway.
Daddy's girl learned fast
All those things he couldn't say.
Ooh, she's a little runaway.
A different line every night guaranteed to blow your mind
I see you out on the streets, call me for a wild time
Hey that’s Bon Jovi! Maybe this is going be a good day after all! He always knows just how you feel. A few minutes later you tune back in from your big hair spandex fantasy and hear:
I don’t know where I’m running now, I’m just running on
Running on - running on empty
Running on - running blind
Running on - running into the sun
But I’m running behind
Gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive
Trying not to confuse it with what you do to survive
What’s that dude’s name? Jackson something. And then you start thinking of Jackson Pollock and about how maybe your destiny is to paint, or how maybe you should start back up with those cello lessons. It’s not too late, right? And then this comes on:
ya must have done (must have done),
Wo! Somet'in' wrong (something wrong)
Why you can't find the
Place where you belong?
Do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do (running away)
Do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do (running away)
Is that you Bob Marley? But wait, all these songs are about: RUNNING!!! Suddenly everything is clear. So you drive on past the college and hit the open road! Central America here you come!!!! Well, maybe you should stop off at your nearest book store and pick up a copy of John Updike’s 1960 classic, Rabbit, Run. Instead of Bon Jovi and Jackson and Bob singing about running away, you’ll get to read what comes on the radio as you fly through the night with Rabbit, Run’s main man, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Timeless ditties like "I Ran All the Way Home Just to Say I’m Sorry," "Almost Grown," "Let’s Stroll," "The Happy Organ," "Turn Me Loose," and Rabbit’s favorite, (maybe because he lives in Pennsylvania?) "Rocksville, P-A." (When you look it up on your lap-top from that expensive little Central American Internet Café, you find out the Internet thinks it’s a fictional song, and so you can’t find the lyrics. And so you pout and call Updike a tricky sucker.).
In addition to telling you what’s on the radio, Rabbit, Run can tell you what happens when Rabbit Angstrom runs away from his pregnant, alcoholic wife Janice, and sweet little toddler Nelson, and moves in with the tough talking ex-"hooer," Ruth Leonard. Why does Rabbit run? Because he feels like he’s in a trap. Like just maybe there’s something better over the horizon. Rabbit, Run forces us to ask if we are settling for mediocrity by standing still, or risking everything when we make a move. So grab a copy. It might not help you decide which way is best for you, but it’ll keep you good company on that international flight, where they just happen to be showing Michael Crichton’s Runaway, which stars Tom Selleck as the "tough cop assigned the dangerous task of discovering who is responsible for a rash of killings perpetrated by rebellious robots."
"Three months ago Rabbit went out to buy his wife cigarettes. He hasn’t come home yet."
That’s the quote from a poster for director Jack Smight’s 1970 film adaptation of Rabbit, Run, staring James Caan.
Sort of an adaptation.
Curtis Hanson’s 2002 film 8 Mile which stars rapper Eminem is a very loose adaptation of the novel.
Updike as a Harvard Senior, 1954
Is it just us, or does Updike look a little rabbity here?
"The Art of Fiction No. 43"
Check out this 1968 interview with Updike in The Paris Review.
"You Cannot Really Flee"
A review of the novel, by David Boroff, from The New York Times in 1960.
"John Updike at Work: Revising Rabbit Run"
Check out Updike's revision process with your own eyes in this slide show from the New York Times.
"Ex Basketball Player"
A poem by Updike. We think Rabbit would approve.
"John Updike's Archive: A Great Writer at Work"
In 2009, after Updike's death from lung cancer, Harvard University bought his archives. Read all about it here.