Slate Bids Updike Adieu

Editors and writers remember John Updike.

Click here to read Troy Patterson’s obituary of John Updike, and here to read John Irving on receiving Updike’s mail.

John Updike died of lung cancer in Danvers, Mass., on Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009, at the age of 76. Updike’s career spanned five decades, and his work brightened every corner of American letters. He is perhaps best known for his four Rabbit novels, which chronicled the life of a former Pennsylvania high-school basketball star, but he also wrote acclaimed stories, poetry, essays, criticism, and meditations on the meaning of golf. In the following roundup, editors and authors remember Updike.

Chip Kidd, author, graphic designer
My relationship to Mr. Updike and his work is varied and curious. First, I was born and raised in the exact same small town in southeastern Pennsylvania as he (Shillington). His father, Wesley, was my father’s high-school math teacher, and they were quite fond of each other. As I grew up, my dad would regale us with stories about the “real” Harry Angstrom from the Rabbit books, a local former Shillington High basketball star since gone to seed.

In college, my very first assignment in Introduction to Graphic Design was to create a cover for Updike’s Museums and Women, a short-story collection. My solution (which I’d thought brilliant at the time and which certainly was not) was roundly dismissed by my teacher, who suggested that perhaps I was better suited to another line of work.

So it was more than a little—what? ironic? fateful?—that I would be hired directly out of school to be a book-jacket designer at Knopf, eventually designing covers for … you guessed it. Working with and for Mr. Updike was an honor and a treat, and because he was so prolific—not only in quantity but in type of book (novel, poems, essays, criticism)—there were many different kinds of design scenarios. One extreme was his habit of drawing up by hand the entire cover layout, including type specs, which I or another of us in the art department would then execute. On the other end of the spectrum, he would occasionally let us do whatever we wanted. And then everything in between. The last book of his I worked on, Terrorist (a novel), was a very happy collaboration. He had found the art, but I ended up laying it out in a way he didn’t expect at all (upside-down) yet was delighted by.

I feel so incredibly fortunate and proud to have known and worked with this truly great American artist.

Anne Fadiman, author
Updike surrounds me. Thirty-three of his books crowd my shelves, some of them read so often and so strenuously that their covers have parted from their spines. Above my desk hangs an author photo Xeroxed from the hardback edition of Assorted Prose, his first nonfiction collection. Updike sent it to me in 1997 after reading a nostalgic essay I’d written about the paperback edition. (I’d noted the courage he displayed in allowing his substantial nose to be photographed in profile; in the picture he sent me, he faces the camera head on, looking rumpled and heartbreakingly young.) No boy-band groupiecould have been more overjoyed to receive a missive from the object of her affections. For more than two decades, Updike’s ravishing sentences had set a bar I knew my own could never reach but toward which they longingly inclined.

Not long afterwards, I became the editor of a small quarterly called The American Scholar. Over the next seven years, Updike submitted work, mostly poetry, at regularintervals. The arrival of an envelope from Beverly Farms, Mass.—cheap, white, with the home address stamped smudgily in the top left corner—never failed to make my heart skip. My favorite Updike poemwas “Transparent Stratagems,” nine unrhymed quatrains inspired by a Scientific American article on transparent marine animals: siphonophores, Venus’s girdles, jellyfish, and roachlike creatures whose needle-shaped guts rendered their partly digested but still-opaque contents as inconspicuous as possible. (Who but the polymorphously curious Updike could have found poetry in this subject?) He didn’t let us publish “Transparent Stratagems” until, over the course of six months, he had sent in four versions. It didn’t matter that our circulation was modest and our honoraria microscopic. What mattered was getting every word and rhythm right. He changed “boundariless” to “unbounded” and finally to “boundless”; “unsolid” to “sun-shunned” and then back to “unsolid”; “slants” to “tilts”; “tear” to “shred”; “seized” to “ambushed.” He deleted qualifiers (“a bit,” “so-called”), replaced a comma with an exclamation point and a dash with a semicolon. I’d always imagined that his sentences were born perfect, like Athena from the head of Zeus, but it was even better to see that perfection required work.

On Tuesday morning, when I heard he had died, I took out the Updike file and, swallowing hard, reread the contents of the “Transparent Stratagems” folder.From his letters:

3/14/2000. “Here is a poem I’ve been trying to work into shape, though the material may be refractory.”3/21/2000. “Well, knock me over with a jellyfish, I’m delighted you want to take that poem. … Being invisible with only your food showing–disgusting to think about, actually.” 6/1/2000. “I’ve been worrying about ‘Transparent Stratagems’–it seems long for what it does, and the four-line stanzas spin it out a little clunkily. Try this version, without the stanza breaks and the blank verse a bit regularized.”7/2/2000. “I have gratefully bowed to your preferences—most noticeably, in restoring the quatrains, which do indeed break up the somewhat dense matter and work, sometimes, as verse units. I just am wearying, I guess, in my verse, of these ghost forms—sonnets that don’t rhyme or break into octave and sestet, quatrains that run on like free verse.”7/17/2000. “Do you think our correspondence will make it into the Fitzgerald-Maxwell Perkins category, or shall we settle for Granville Barker-Bernard Shaw?”        Undated. “All this for $100?” (Actually, we paid him $50.)

Can it really be that John Updike will never write another sentence?           

Michael Agger, senior editor, Slate
I read John Updike as a Pennsylvanian. Beached in my hometown of Bethlehem (“The Christmas City”) one summer, I sped through the four Rabbit novels. They’re set in a fictional version of Reading, Pa., and Updike’s writing entered and magnified everything around me. The squat brick homes now vibrated with uneasy dreams, and the low ridge of mountains were now Updike’s “damp green hills” of Pennsylvania, a landscape from which young lives were launched and where they sputtered.

The Rabbit books also inspired my first (and only) literary pilgrimage: I visited Updike’s town of Shillington, found his old house, and found the alley that must have been the model for the opening moments of Rabbit, Run when Rabbit joins a pick-up basketball game with school kids. I couldn’t believe how such ordinary stuff, such a day-to-day little place, had been reworked into a multiplex human fiction. To this day, I still think of Rabbit Angstrom as someone I knew, an uncle who died when I was in college.

Updike wrote so much that there are many Updikes. I cling to the Pennsylvania Updike—the questing narrator of “Flight,” the ironic ad-man of Of the Farm. Those books contain slivers of my own past rendered more precisely than I ever could. The danger of reading Updike is that he overwhelms your native sensibility (see Nicholson Baker’s U and I), but I’m not complaining. It’s a bit like having been Proust’s neighbor in Combray. Farewell, John. Thanks for the memories.

J. D. McClatchy, poet, editor, the Yale Review
In 2007 I had the honor of presenting John Updike with the Gold Medal for Fiction at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. It is not given often, and over the century had been presented to William Dean Howells, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, and a few others. The first award the Academy had given John was in 1960, for his very first novel, and four years later he was elected a member. There is a good deal of gray hair on the top of those academicians, and it is astonishing to realize that John was just 32 when he was tapped. Henry James was 55 when he was elected, Edith Wharton was 64, and Sinclair Lewis 55. But by 32 Updike had already written The Centaur and Rabbit, Run, and staked out the territory he explored with acuity and virtuosity for decades. As a realist, he knew that the novelist’s task is not merely the accumulation but the illumination of details. That, in turn, was accompanied not merely by a keen observation of the murky secrets repressed beneath the bright façade but by revealing that tension between inner and outer in sentences of astonishing lyrical grace and rhetorical power. If sex and religion—his moral arena—preoccupied many of his chronicles of American life, it was because he wanted to discover how we cling to the moment and to something beyond the moment, or what he once called “the tension and guilt of being human.”

When he came up to the lectern that afternoon to receive the medal, he reminisced about all his years as a member of the Academy, but then went on to talk about the mysteries of fiction. “Its purpose is a matter of debate, its practice a matter more of feel than of rules. For all that is said, and taught, about the art and craft of fiction, there remains something incorrigibly amateurish about it; time and again a novice puts his or her hand to it and leaves us so-called professional practitioners in the shade. After more than a half-century of living by and for fiction, I can only tell you that it takes everything you can give it—every inspiration, every flight of imagery—and wants more; and that, in the writing of it, when it’s going even half-well, there is a distinct bliss to it; and that there is nothing like it for taking hold of the many-sided, volatile, fraught, live truth of the human condition.” That is just what he gave us. He painted the nation’s spiritual portrait, and in times to come we will return to his novels to find ourselves—sympathetically and mercilessly displayed—in ways that will continue to startle and stir.

Ann Hulbert, books editor, Slate
John Updike was a writer you could entrust to a young editor: His prose required no tinkering. It welcomed a devoted eye. More than two decades ago, when I worked on the New Republic’s back-of-the-book section, I was thrilled to be handling what I’m pretty sure was the first piece on art he ever wrote for the magazine, on Fairfield Porter. I proudly ushered his tidy typewritten manuscript—how neatly he’d penned in a few last-minute changes—through the typesetting process. Then I eagerly awaited the task of going over the galleys. Scrutinizing those sentences was a chance to learn from the master—to appreciate up close the way he made words do what Chardin’s brush could manage with a peeled lemon: At his best, Updike caught the depths, the shifting lights and shadows, beneath the exquisitely rendered surfaces. I marked the typos as neatly as he had made those small revisions of his and I mailed the long galley sheets back, along with a letter (how I slaved over it) asking him to let me know if he saw anything I’d missed.

I wasn’t surprised that I had heard nothing back from him by the time we went to press. The piece had been just right; I had been totally obsessive. So why—on the very day the boxes of fresh TNRs arrived in the office, his essay announced on the cover—did a fat envelope also arrive, with Updike’s blue-inked return-address stamp in the left-hand corner? It was plainly stuffed with his galleys. What error hadn’t I spotted? However tiny it was, I wouldn’t forgive myself. I tore open the envelope in a panic that comes back as I write this: Neatly, Updike had marked up each page with changes, big and small.

He not only forgave me but made fun of himself as a fusser who would have yet another chance to preserve an even more final version in the collection of essays he was planning. John Updike was “an incorrigible retoucher,” as he noted of Degas in a later piece (if only he’d warned me earlier). The ease and the grace in his work went hand-in-hand with meticulous care. The result was a truly rare generosity with words.

Ben Yagoda, author
Some time in my teens, I became aware that there was such a thing as a writer. Shortly thereafter, John Updike became my idea of what a writer was. He remained so throughout his life, and he remains so now. In my college years, I became something of an Updike buff; I remember my excitement when my college library’s copy of Buchanan Dying appeared on the shelves. That state of extreme fandom faded, but not my great admiration for his intelligence, his taste, his diction, his sentences, his work ethic, and his work.

Updike was, of course, the quintessential New Yorker writer. In researching a history of the magazine, I discovered that his percentage of acceptances—somewhere in the mid-to-high 90s—outstripped all other contributors’ to roughly the degree Art Tatum played faster than all other pianists. He graciously answered, by mail, my questions about his experiences with the magazine. Do I have to add that his typewritten letters and postcards were composed with insight and care? But the quote that sticks in my mind on this sad day is from a 1960 letter I came upon in the magazine’s archives, written to Updike from his editor and great friend William Maxwell. “From the very beginning,” Maxwell said, “I have been so confident of your ability to paddle your own canoe—so positive that the day would come when you would have to go to Sweden and make a speech in white tie and tails—that I have allowed myself the fatherly feeling of pride in your career, but not the equally paternal feeling of having had much to do with it.” And what is up with the Nobel Committee? Among its many missteps over time, its ignoring of John Updike may be the most indefensible.

Stephen Metcalf, critic at large, Slate
John Updike had talent, he was prolific, and he sold a lot of books—the three things posterity cares least about. Borges once said something canny to V.S. Naipaul about literary fame: “The important thing is the image you create of yourself in other people’s minds. That image—as with Byron—may in the end be more important than the work.”

What image has Updike created in other people’s minds? He chronicled the horny undercurrents of suburban normality. He loaded even the most banal detail with writerly elegance. He wrote about being white, Protestant, and male, as these began to surface as suspicious facts worthy of inspection, rather than sources for a universally aspirational norm. He created the last naïve Everyman, Rabbit Angstrom, a unit of close to no account—and yet the protagonist of the great American midcentury epic.

The work is so profuse, the image still indistinct. And yet almost any page induces at least one swoon. I hold in my hand The Early Stories: 1953-1975 and open almost randomly to:

“But when has happiness ever been the subject of fiction? The pursuit of it is just that—a pursuit. Death and its adjutants tax each transaction. What is possessed is devalued by what is coveted.” What is possessed is devalued by what is coveted—like a formula, it captures a structure of reality so elegantly that it is beyond comprehension that the thought ever lay beyond comprehension. Together with a million such moments, an idea of Updike will coalesce—the last literary gentleman, chronicling the end of the great white male?

Tom Perrotta, author
Updike’s Rabbit novels form a genuine American epic—I can’t think of any contemporary fiction that works so well on the microcosmic level. So much of our recent history, for better and worse, is reflected in Harry Angstrom’s experience—not just the sexual revolution, but Vietnam, the racial and generational upheavals of the ‘60s, feminism, the gas crisis, the fat years of the ‘80s, even changing attitudes about food and healthy living. I remember talking to a woman friend of mine, a true veteran of the ‘60s, telling her how much I loved Rabbit, Run. “It’s amazing,” I said. “The marriage actually broke up over a blow job.” “Believe me,” she said, “a lot of marriages broke up over that blow job.” A hundred years from now, if people want to know what it was like to be a middle-class white American in the second half of the 20th century, they could do a lot worse than reading the four novels Updike wrote about this flawed Everyman who, like the country he embodied, always wanted a little more than what was good for him.

Emily Yoffe, author, Slate columnist
My parents kept their dirty books under their bed, and when I was a teenager, I discovered John Updike’s Couples there. It was a scandalously explicit book at the time (1968) about the incessant, adulterous couplings of the dissatisfied citizens of a small Massachusetts town. Since my parents had a marriage that could have come out of an Updike novel and I lived in a small Massachusetts town, I read the book not so much as a novel but a guide to the adults around me. I haven’t looked at it in the 40 years since, but so precise and vivid was Updike’s prose that I still remember his description of a tongue licking papery, freckled skin. Updike’s writing about sex didn’t make me want to have sex. Instead it made me feel that I would be compelled to—that sex was something inevitable, exciting, and awful.

I read Updike avidly for many years (although to read him completely would mean turning over one’s life to his prodigious output). I don’t have a very retentive memory, but Updike was able to put scenes in my head that have stayed there for decades. I just looked up the O. Henry-esque opening story, “Friends from Philadelphia” from his 1950s collection, The Same Door in which the 16-year-old protagonist, sent by his mother to buy a bottle of $2 wine for company, is refused service by a clerk. The boy is rescued by the big, bluff father of the neighbor girl he lusts after, who completes the mission by handing the teenager $1.26 in change and a bottle of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1937. Then there is his 1971 description of a television commercial for natural gas, “Commercial,” in his collection Problems and Other Stories. This isn’t the finest short story he ever wrote, but I remember being galvanized by it. I had seen the same commercial myself dozens of times, but Updike’s second-by-second dissection was as powerful as an experiment in quantum physics in demonstrating how acute observation utterly changes the thing being observed.

William Pritchard, author
Two personal memories of Updike. He came to Amherst College in 1983 to receive an honorary degree. At the president’s party the night before, he ran into a woman who informed him that her mother had been disgusted by Rabbit Is Rich (doubtless, the sex writing). Updike smiled his most elaborate smile, raised his eyebrows, and said, most winningly, “I hope she won’t be here tonight!” That seemed to me very resourceful. He then proceeded to be introduced to a trustee who hadn’t the faintest notion of what was going on. “And what do you do?” the trustee asked Updike.  Another winning smile and the confession, given rather haltingly, “I … write.”

Always charming, he had his unsmiling side that rarely surfaced, but when it did, you knew it. I once wrote a letter to the New York Review of Books defending him against aspersions cast on his recent books (especially Roger’s Version) by Frederick Crews. In it, I said he had written a dozen memorable short stories that would last, etc. A note from him said thanks, but allowed to me how he’d written, by his count, a good many more than a dozen memorable ones. Nicholas Delbanco said this week on The News Hour With Jim Lehrer, when asked about Updike’s sunny nature, that the velvet glove could contain an iron fist, and this was an instance of it.

Donald Fagen, co-founder, Steely Dan
In a 1997 review for the New York Observer, the late David Foster Wallace said that many of John Updike’s protagonists—”clearly stand-ins for the author himself”—are “incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous,” and “self-pitying,” and that many younger readers consider him to be the worst of the generation of “Great Male Narcissists” that included Mailer, Roth, Exley, and Bukowski. As a reader who came of age in the bohemian subculture of the ‘60s, I’ve found myself reacting in much the same way to Updike’s “old school” attitude toward women and to the sometimes near-sociopathic detachment that seems to be part of the profile of his leading characters.

And yet I remember my excitement when the publication of a new installment of the Rabbit Angstrom series was announced. Each novel was a reality check on the preceding decade, revealing a just-lived chunk of time in startling new ways. If you want to know what it really felt like to live through the late ‘60s, forget Easy Rider: check out the creepy, entropic nightmare that is Rabbit Redux. That strangely nourishing epic  Rabbit is Rich nails down the Me Decade in the most entertaining possible way. And throughout the series, as in all of Updike’s work, we’re treated to those Proustian waves of prose in which Rabbit, magically endowed with his creator’s extraordinary perceptual depth and descriptive power, tries to find some key to eternity in the details of the physical world.

Wendy Lesser, author, editor, the Threepenny Review
Though John Updike was never one of my personal literary talismans (the way, say, Norman Mailer was), I always considered him an essential and indeed somehow permanent part of the American landscape, so I am both shocked and sorry to hear that he is gone. I am also sorry because, as he got older, I liked his work better and better: The virtuosity and ironic coolness of the earlier novels was being transmuted, book by book, into something much weightier and more moving if less self-consciously perfect. This was heartening to see and interesting to read, and I would have liked to go on reading it for the rest of my life. His death is a loss for everyone in the writing world, and we can ill afford such losses these days.

John Swansburg, culture editor, Slate
Beverly, Mass., is a town on the state’s second-best cape, sandwiched between better-known neighbors—Salem, famous for its witches, and Gloucester, for its fish sticks. When I was a kid, Beverly posted signs trumpeting its status as the “Birthplace of the American Navy,” a claim disputed, convincingly, by a town in Pennsylvania called Philadelphia.

Beverly had this going for it, though: John Updike lived there. My mom used to see him at the post office, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I crossed paths with him. I was back in Beverly for the summer, working as a cashier at the local supermarket. (Foolishly, I had accepted this position despite having been versed in its indignities by “A&P”; I found myself hoping a manager would reprimand some improperly attired girl so I could quit in protest.) On my days off, I’d often visit the Beverly Public Library. It was there that I saw Updike, wearing a yellow alligator polo and a belt from the Myopia Hunt Club.

After an amiable chat with the reference librarians, he made his way to the stacks. I followed him, loitering nearby while he located the volumes he was after (on Helen Keller, I noticed). Under normal circumstances, I’m not the type to accost a celebrity. But I knew tomorrow it was back to bagging cat food. Here was a chance to rescue the summer of ‘98 from oblivion. So as he made his way back to the elevator, I caught up to him, getting aboard just as the elevator doors were closing.

“Are you John Updike?” I blurted.

“Some people say that I am,” he replied with a grin.

“Oh. My name is John, too.”

My witty riposte hung in the air for a long moment, until finally the elevator doors opened on the sleepy lobby. It was Updike’s opportunity to flee, and if I’d been him, I’d have taken it. Instead, he asked if I was from Beverly, and seemed genuinely pleased to discover that we lived off the same loping street, down near West Beach. He asked what brought me to the library. Surely he had more pressing matters before him—a review of a new Helen Keller biography would appear a few weeks later in TheNew Yorker—but he took the time to be neighborly to a tongue-tied shopping-cart shagger. Such gifts, but also such graciousness. Hey, Philadelphia—you can keep the Navy.

Sven Birkerts, author
Like some others, I had my “Updike problem” in recent years. I thought he should have practiced more literary “tantra,” holding the prose back for better eventual issue—this in spite of the fact that I understood deeply his contention, made public I forget where, that only by writing every day could he certify not just his literary citizenship, but his title to existing. Still, since I heard the news of his death, he has been front and center in my thoughts. It’s as if another vast shelf of language, a landmass outcropping, had sheered off. Bellow, Mailer, Sontag, and now Updike. These were the presiding figures of my first formation, the ones who gave me the certainty that writing mattered. Updike was the sentence guru; he showed me just what lyric accuracy a string of words could accomplish. Back then, in my teens, it was all about surfaces—the world rendered. Now I see that it’s more about memory, the life of the senses refracted back through time, becoming a code for the emotion of being alive. Being alive is an emotion—Updike persuaded me of that. Harry Angstrom working the remains of a caramel from his molar is a straight shunt to the living human now.

My one contact with the man lasted for a stutter and a gulp. I was in New York, attending some large literary event. There was a reception, and in the breath-catching moment when the crowd opened, I saw that I was just a few feet away from Updike. John Updike. He was—could this be?—unattended. I took it as my sign. I stepped over and introduced myself. I offered the standard-issue, but sincere, praise of the work. As memory has it, Updike blinked and tipped his head down so that he was looking over his glasses. There was a pursed smile. “You look so much younger than you sound on paper,” he said. “I thought you’d be a good deal older.” A compliment or a subtle dig? I’ll never know, but I grinned like the young man I was. And I felt right then that a circuit had closed, one that had started in early high school when I bought the blue paperback of The Centaur and took in the first sharp cut of his prose.

Brad Leithauser, poet
For the aspiring young writer—such as I once was and as my students are today—there’s an especially acute if poignant pleasure in feeling that someone has gotten in just ahead of you. You come across a bright observation, an astute simile, a nimble play on words, and you think, I might have come up with that. While you may regret being pre-empted, there’s a compensatory thrill in feeling that you’ve become part of a loose collaborative exercise, that you’re pursuing the same ends: You’re a writer among writers, combing the streets in search of unexpected vistas, curious encounters, lost coins.

It’s mostly a misconception, of course—this sensation that you might have arrived at the same admirable observation, simile, wordplay … But one remains forever grateful to the writer who inspires this illusion, and when I first began to read Updike seriously—in the late ‘60s, when I was in high school—I was time and again struck by this feeling. I mention this only because so many writers of my generation had the same experience; in our populous but scattered literary world, the debt to Updike runs very deep. He continually left one imagining, If I’d only been a little more astute or industrious or venturesome, I might have thought of that. Or, If I’d only been John Updike, I might have written like John Updike.

Paul Berman, author
I love Updike’s writing so much I can barely read it. My eye falls on a sentence. My mood has already improved. I slam the book shut. Another sentence may do me in. Still, I read on, and my mood goes vaulting upward yet again. This isn’t reading; this is drinking. I read him in order to become ebullient. Those extra words he plunks into his sentences, the unusual images, the way that everything seems to shimmer, his habit of dissolving each new visible thing into microscopic radiant glints of God knows what—every last over-the-top element of Updike’s prose has the effect of lighting me up.

I think Updike became somewhat neurotic in his later years, annoyed at his own readers, intent on finding ever more aggressively humble postures to adopt. I blame America. Updike was well-appreciated, but not sufficiently well, even if he won all the prizes. There are two parties in the American literary world, the Updikeans and the anti-Updikeans, and the Updikeans will someday be redeemed. He wrote better book reviews than everyone else. But why didn’t he like Emerson more than he did? My first emotion on learning that Updike had died was a stab of regret that now I will never learn. I am stuck with my own puzzlement—the form my reader’s grief has taken.