Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Death of John Updike

The death of John Updike caused a flurry of retrospect and comment in the New York Times, and as usual looking at all of it gives a fuller picture than looking at any bit of it. Michiko Kakutani wrote a great appraisal, and Christopher Lehman-Haupt wrote the actual obituary. The slide show link below is somehow richer than all the words surviving writers lavish on Updike, the master of words.


Somewhere in these materials Philip Roth eulogizes that Updike was 20th century America's version of 19th century America's Nathaniel Hawthorn. I don't think that's far off at all. I like the comparison to Henry James, because of the full array Updike brought to the label "Man of Letters." Michiko Kakutani, in her piece, finally said he published too much, and observed that in one of his nonfiction collections of articles he reprinted the captions he'd written for Marilyn Monroe's pictorial in Playboy way back when.

Updike was not only a man of letters but a man of books. The Times coverage included Updike's famous thoughts about the origins of his writing, that before he loved writing sentences, he loved books, the making of books, printing presses, binding, typewriters, pens, paper, filling pages with handwriting or typing or print. For him, finally getting his written words between the covers of a published book, that alone was supremely important and satisfying to him, and thus he kept the mighty pace of three pages of writing a day, an average of one book a year (and way more writing than just one book in a year -- 800 contributions to the New Yorker magazine, counting the fact that he, like our friend Jamaica Kincaid, was an anonymous writer of the New Yorker's Talk of the Town feature).

A friend who is a friend of a relative of Updike's has written me that his death of lung cancer began in September when he was hospitalized for what they thought was pneumonia. It was reported that he checked into a hospice facility near his home in New England on Monday and died Tuesday. I believe I read he has two books coming out this coming year.

Because of his prose, which could be especially when he was young a bit of an acquired taste, I'm seeing persistent critical comment about his style even in his obituaries and the appraisals. He was a big deal and it will take years to get him into perspective. Michiko Kakutani quoted James Wood from long ago saying, in effect, that Updike was way more style than substance. I've said on this page that even I, who worship at his feet and memory, believe Updike's novels were not the best display of his writing. I've said you can find his best writing in his short fiction precisely because his expansive painting of detail is controlled better in the short form -- he really lets the horse go in the long work. I am fond of a couple of his short novels that are rarely mentioned, one being A Month of Sundays.

My ex-wife was a fanatic about Updike from the time I met her in 1964. She introduced me to his work and we followed his career all the way. I believe in my files I have that Time magazine from '68, pictured above. I have a hardback copy of Couples from back then, and many copies of the Rabbit and Bech series. In 1995 I was on a road trip for my job and was driving back to the hotel on the beltway between Eden Prairie and Minneapolis airport. The NPR station announced that Updike was in town, speaking McAlister College in St. Paul. I went to the hotel, changed into jeans, and drove up there for the reading. I got there way early (two hours). I found the venue, an old gym at the college, with a student center (I seem to recall) one floor below it. I got two slices of pizza and a large cup of orange juice, went into the gym where chairs were being set out for the event, placed myself on the center aisle in the first row, and waited. I was 49 years old, and I felt like I was thirteen and about to meet Stan Musial. After the reading, I was second in line behind another fanatic for the book signing. The other fanatic had brought all his old Updike books and, while 300 people lined up to meet the author, had Updike sign them all. Then I stepped up and Updike flashed a smiling generous look at the departing fanatic, a look that very clearly and bemusedly said, "You see it all in this business."

The only book I had with me that day that he might sign was my softback copy of the 1995 Best American Short Stories. I had a story ("Forty Martyrs") in the back list that year, the section of the book "100 Other Distinguished Stories from 1994," and he was in the same list. He was always in the book or in the backlist, year after year. For me it was unique and happy, this development, so I carried it with me everywhere I went. I told him it was the second time he and I had been in a book together (we were both in the 1988 O. Henry volume -- he was frequently in there, but once ["Arcola Girls"] was quite a thrill for me). He said, "Let me see," and I gladly flipped from U's to the D's. He said, "It's great to meet you," and shook my hand. He was super cordial, and in a great mood, as his appearance at McAlister was co-sponsored by The Hungry Mind bookstore on the occasion of the publication of his Rabbit compendium, all four of the Rabbit novels in one book. Combined into that volume, the Rabbit series was a ranking contender for the elusive label The Great American Novel. My encounter with him was about a minute and a half and I'm surely treasuring both the signature and the memory this week.


  1. Updike's poems are also a treasure trove. One of the upcoming books, according to Terri Gross on Fresh Air this week, is another collection of poems.

    I admire his poems for all the reasons I admire his fiction --- they are lush, smart, felt, audacious, and engaging. Poets (and others) who are constantly stirring around for something new to read in American poetry should pick up the "Collected Poems, 1953-93."

    It was always comforting to know that Updike was there, appearing in the New Yorker like a steady gift, and I agree it will take a very long time to understand what he left us and what has passed from our midst. Thanks for this post, Phil.

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  3. Jeannie, thanks for hopping in. Like a steady gift, yes -- he was a perfect stalwart for the New Yorker, still vital and yet venerable, familiar to at least a couple of generations. A few years ago he wrote a review of a couple of books about evil, and took the opportunity, as he was apt to do, to deliver an essay on the topic himself. I've never been able to find it again, though it must be collected in one of his collected volumes of nonfiction. Vonnegut once told the story of going to Updike's house and staying over, and in the morning, a Sunday, Vonnegut ambled down to the kitchen from his guest room and found he was in the Updike home alone. He worried and scurried, nobody anywhere. Presently JU and his wife arrived back. "We went to church," Updike told Vonnegut. "You're kidding!" Vonnegut replied.

  4. This isn't related to John Updike, exactly, but this blog is a place I think about now when I think about short stories, so I thought I'd just tell others who read here that Harper Perennial is pushing short stories these days. Yayy for Harper and yayyy for short stories! Beside releasing a bunch of collections soon, they're publishing a short story every Sunday for a year here:


    If you scroll down to the bottom, you'll notice they're also accepting submissions.

  5. Thanks for this reflection on Updike, PFD. I longed to meet him through my step-father-in-law, who played golf with him in Hamilton MA as well as trips to Scotland to clumsy around the St. Andrews course. But Updike always told Steve, "Don't ask me about my writing." My mum-in-law is close with Updike's widow, and perhaps I'll ting my wine glass against hers one of these days and words will spring up into the air between us, and I'll carry a net just in case, to catch them, of course.