Snaking out from the Middle Atlantic states is a long distinguished line of political and literary Copperheads: Millard Fillmore, Horatio Seymour, Harold Frederic, Edmund Wilson, and the Pennsylvania duo of James Buchanan and John Updike. These men were certainly not proslavery, but they did view the Union cause with rather more skepticism than did their New England brethren. As with Southerners, they remember their dead: the anti-Lincoln New York Governor Seymour was memorialized years later by novelist Frederic, who in turn was rediscovered by his choleric fellow North Country patriot Wilson. Likewise, Shillington, Pennsylvania’s Updike dedicated a play, “Buchanan Dying” (1974), to the Keystone State’s only President, the oft-derided failure “in the trembling shadow of the Civil War.” With Memories of the Ford Administration, John Updike takes another crack at this doughface whose sole claim to fame—his bachelorhood—has of late won him the tag (from, among others, Penthouse) of “America’s first gay President.”

The novel’s queer title comes from its character Alf Landon Clayton, a history instructor at the all-girl, too-cute-by-half Wayward Junior College in a dreary New Hampshire industrial town. Alf is asked to provide “memories and impressions” of Gerald R. Ford’s presidency for a scholarly journal; what he writes, instead, is a retrospective of his collapsing marriage and bed-hopping during the years 1974 to 1977.

You’ve read all this before: bored faculty wives awash in gin, pert coeds, available menopause babes, etc. It is the exiguous grist of campus Creative Writer Mills, impossible to read but not, alas, to write. Talk about chewing more than you’ve bitten off; if any American thirsts for one more peek at the couplings of unattractive campus un-deads in their graves of academe, come and get it. But there is more. Side by side with Alf’s boring lecheries are fragments of his “historical/psychological, lyrical/elegiacal,” as well as highly speculative, biography of his magnificent obsession. President James Buchanan.

Buchanan is the most unlovable doughface. Douglas at least had Lincoln, and Pierce his dead son and his drinking problem, but poor Old Buck seldom gets credit for anything more than “shrewd inertia.” To Alf, however, “he projected a certain vaporous largeness, the largeness of ambivalence. . . . [Regarding] Buchanan’s mind, people complained he couldn’t make it up, and I liked that.”

The key to Alf’s Buchanan lies in his courtship of Anne Coleman, the fickle daughter of a Lancaster iron magnate. Jimmy Buchanan is a young lawyer, a Federalist, and somewhat of an arriviste, and like so many of our eminent forefathers he wants to marry well. Anne, his betrothed, is a volatile pettish princess; she calls off the engagement after a silly misunderstanding fueled by a local doxy. Or so goes the story Alf concocts from the scraps and gobbets of gossip that survive over the years. Sent to Philadelphia for some R&R, the distraught Anne dies—a suicidal overdose of laudanum, goes the whispering—and Buchanan is cursed ever after. “He was scared of the world, Buchanan was. He thought it was out to get him, and it was.”

The interdeterminacy of history bedevils Alf. Did Anne really dismiss Jimmy because of an unstable tart’s loose lips? Did Anne take her own life? How can we possibly know the welter of secret motivations and hidden jealousies that animate the wooden stiffs in the history books? And it’s all so random. In one of the novel’s many delightful passages, Alf imagines swain Jimmy pursuing Anne to Philadelphia, winning her back, and settling into the blissful domesticity of Lancaster, while President Stephen Douglas craftily and bloodlessly reconciles North and South.

Young Buchanan, more than Old Buck the President, is Alf’s quarry. He broods upon “the curious long wrestle between God and Buchanan, who, burned early in life by a flare of violence, devoted his whole cunning and assiduous career thereafter to avoiding further heat, and yet was burned at the end, as the Union exploded under him. The gods are bigger than we are, was to be the moral. They kill us for their sport.”

Scattered throughout the novel are refreshing revisions that give the Buchanan material the character of an amiable, digressive, iconoclastic essay: “He tried to keep peace. That whole decade of Presidents did, Fillmore and Pierce and Buchanan—try, I mean—and they succeeded, they did keep the South placated, and in the Union, which was important, since if war had come in 1850 instead of 1860, the outcome might have been very different; the South had all its assets in place—the military tradition, the great officers, the down-home patriotism. King Cotton—and the North still needed to grow. And precious little thanks they’ve got from history for it—the doughface Presidents. History loves blood. It loves the great blood-spillers. Poor Buchanan was ahead of his time, trying to bring mankind up a notch, out of the blood.”

Much of Alf’s biography of Buchanan affects the euphuistic language of the period’s popular prose; there are no leaves in the Lancaster fall, but there is plenty of “arborial foliage.” And if it’s Updike, there must be sex, although the fornication scenes are detumescent as ever—”as tiresome as an old mortgage,” as the novelist Henry W. Clune complains.

Despite the parallels in the lives of Alf Clayton and James Buchanan, the dual narratives are neatly divided. The reader who can overcome his compunctious reluctance to skip pages—dozens of them—will be rewarded with a charming and playful novelette about a little-known President who, for all his difficult dithering, killed 600,000 fewer Americans than did his successor.


[Memories of the Ford Administration, by John Updike (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 369 pp., $23.00]