The Magazine

Man of Letters

John Updike, 1932-2009.

Feb 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Part of the achievement of John Updike, who died on January 27, was that he became the preeminent all-around man of letters in our cutthroat literary culture without ever losing his reputation as a generous and gentle person. He did so while being derided by half the country as an unadventurous bourgeois, and distrusted by the other half as a risqué writer of dirty books.

Updike did not cultivate eccentricity, but two things about him were, for his era, idiosyncratic. The first was that he felt at home in the unsophisticated center of American life. He described cardboard Santa Clauses in drugstore windows, piles of pink receipts in garage offices, and the way the air smells at a high school football game. He was also at home in America's sophisticated, mostly private, precincts--its libraries and art galleries. He had a better understanding than most writers of how dependent the latter is on the former. He never condescended to America, nor did his time at Harvard or at art school in England make him feel "alienated" from it. Of the public school he attended in Shillington, Pennsylvania, he wrote, "I could not understand how anyone could rebel against a system so clearly benign."

Updike's willingness to take the world as he found it drove his generation's more ostentatiously ideological novelists up the wall. Gore Vidal called him a "dupe." Norman Mailer thought Updike had no sense of the drama that surrounded him. This only shows Mailer's stunted sense of the dramatic, for the drowning in Rabbit, Run may be the most horrifying scene in 20th-century American fiction. But it is true that Updike's stories and novels revolve more around changes in state of mind than around changes in state. He deals in epiphany, not peripeteia.

It takes a tremendously agile and well-stocked mind to make such writing interesting. Updike had one. His second great idiosyncrasy was his way of viewing the world. He is not America's greatest writer but, among American writers, he is surely the greatest describer. Sometimes this was just a matter of having a good eye or ear. Looking into a dentist's rinsing bowl he would remark "the little comet-tail-shaped smear of rust this miniature Charybdis had worn down the section of the vortex where its momentum expires" (The Centaur). He noticed "thermoses chuckling in the straw hampers" and the way gravel driveways go unch, unch under your feet ("When Everyone Was Pregnant").

And sometimes his observations of small, finite things invite us to meditate on every thing. The randy clergyman, sneaking up to a window after midnight to spy on his mistress, hears "if not quite voices, then the faint rubbed spot on the surface of silence that indicates where voices have been erased" (A Month of Sundays). A suburban father notices his "children dispersed into the neighborhood on the same mysterious tide that on other days packed their back yard with unfamiliar urchins" ("Your Lover Just Called").

This is writerly power. The novelist who possesses it can apply it to just about anything. And Updike did. In the late 1960s his writing took a turn for the sexual. Couples, a mostly excellent novel about marital rupture in a Massachusetts town, was the tocsin that would send whole regiments of anthropomorphized vaginas and breasts marching across the terrain of his work. As a subject, sex must have seemed the same to Updike as the inventory in a Pennsylvania five-and-dime store--they can be both beautiful and ridiculous at the same time--but this is the quirk of his writing that will endure least well.

Updike was a witty and underrated light-verse poet. The only reason his reputation as a poet is not higher is that, as with Kingsley Amis, it strains critics' credulity (or generosity) to believe that a good novelist can also be a good poet. Updike was also a natural art critic. His gift was for bringing a painting or drawing to life by making it a metaphor for the world outside the museum, as when he wrote that Bruegel's monsters have, aside from their bodily grotesqueries, "rueful, semi-aggressive expressions like those of the man next door."

The best thing about John Updike was that he was uncowed by the bullying forces of modernity that would have us believe that writing is not as necessary to culture as it once was. He continued to believe that--no matter how entertaining the movies--the life of reading and writing is ultimately the only way into culture. In the beautiful ending to his story "The Deacon," the eponymous churchman, closing up the building on a stormy night, reflects that the church