Remembering John Updike

Remembering John Updike

M. Dickstein remembers John Updike (1932-2009)

THE OUTPOURING of tributes to John Updike over the past week stems from the fact that he was, with Philip Roth, arguably our greatest living writer. He was at it for so long, with such consistent intelligence and unflagging energy, that his writing life virtually coincides with our reading life. It is hard to imagine our literary world without him. As a novelist, grand master of the short story, prolific and keen book reviewer, occasional poet, and art critic, he exemplified the disappearing figure of the man of letters, the consummate professional who worked hard yet avoided pedantry, a writer who could turn the most fugitive of impressions—of people or of books, of sports or of paintings—into language that uncannily enabled you to see and feel it. Any serious reader over the last five decades would have a rich store of impressions of his work, but here are a few random notes:

The writer: Updike’s early influences range from Nabokov’s gorgeous plumage of language to the crisp, focused attention to everyday life, especially in the old Protestant and suburban America, that was the terrain of John O’Hara and John Cheever. In Rabbit, Run (1960), his first major book, there is a surprising new influence found in his story of youthful rebellion against marriage, fatherhood, and responsibility: Kerouac and the Beats. I once wrote about this and passed the essay on to Updike, who reminded me that he had also published a parody of On the Road. Parody, as we all know, is a form of tribute. Kerouac helped Updike break out of the domestic confinements of 1950s but also to break away from the period’s mandarin aesthetics and excesses of style. Without surrendering eloquence, Updike would hew more closely to the mundane and the ordinary, to which his own sensitivity, along with his religious sensibility, lent an unexpected radiance. From early on, he had a spiritual hunger that colored his feeling for everyday life.

The real advance came as his work grew more autobiographical, his style less obtrusive as it focused on his own experiences and wealth of memories. He never lost his amazing gift for metaphor, but gradually his writing drew less attention to itself and became more of a transparent window on the world, diffracted through his own sensibility. The writers who paid tribute to him this week describe him as the best noticer, the kind of observer who simply caught more of what was happening around him, found more resonance, more layers of implication.

The books: Updike was a careful shaper, hungry for form and symmetry, not someone who let his words spill out onto the page. The concluding scene of the Rabbit tetralogy, with Rabbit reliving a moment of basketball glory, circles back to the opening of the first novel, written thirty years before. Closure was important to Updike, which may explain why he ended the series prematurely; otherwise, he thought, he might not live to round it off. Or if he did, it would grow unwieldy. He might also have sensed that the books’ energy, like Rabbit’s, was running down. Though these later books won all the big prizes, for me the increasing tawdriness of Rabbit’s life rubbed off on the books themselves. Rabbit making love in a bed of Krugerrands in Rabbit Is Rich may have been a good metaphor for America as it moved into the 1980s, but this was not a character I wanted to spend more time with, however useful a lens he provided on the changes in American life from decade to decade.

The Rabbit novels will stand as a stupendous piece of fictional history, but Updike’s early novels and stories will always mean the most to me: the young man’s discontent, his flight and guilt, in Rabbit, Run; the portrait of Updike’s father in The Centaur (1963) and his mother in the peerless novella Of the Farm (1965); the troubled marriage in the first half of Rabbit Redux (1971); the scenes from his boyhood and family life collected in the Olinger Stories (1964) and the rueful stories based on the break-up of his first marriage in Too Far to Go (1978). Both these collections were later integrated into his monumental but reader-friendly The Early Stories: 1953-1975 (2003), which may be his best book, though it is not really a single work.

I haven’t read all his later books, and I can only admire how far afield he went to write some of them. But the best of those I have read, including the memoir, Self-Consciousness (1989) and the novel, Villages (2004), echo his earlier material from the viewpoint of a much older man. I once heard Updike say that he thought he had exhausted every scintilla of his own experience, but then old age gave him a different angle on these memories, and hence, an unexpected second helping. His mistake, if there was one, was to continue writing so explicitly about sex, which lost its edge of discovery and turned gratuitous or clinical, as it already threatened to do as far back as Couples (1968), his first commercial success. Still, the comfortable, familiar sex of the long-married deserves its place in literature alongside the excitements of youthful sexual adventure.

A word needs to be said about those omnivorous collections of critical essays, from Assorted Prose (1965) to Due Considerations (2007) that could serve as a literary chronicle of the age. Despite his habit of including every scrap of occasional writing in the later volumes, as if they were his files or archives rather than essay collections, these books represent a level of sustained reading and commentary that matches the long career of another of his idols, Edmund Wilson, his major predecessor in the critic’s chair at the New Yorker. From early pieces on theology to later reviews of his juniors and contemporaries, with many bold discussions of international fiction so different from his own, these books attest to Updike’s unquenchable curiosity as well as his unique profile as the complete man of letters. My only regret is that he saw such a narrow role for criticism compared to fiction. This sense of limits was reflected in the self-denigrating titles he pasted on these volumes: Picked-Up Pieces, Hugging the Shore, Odd Jobs, More Matter. Surely they mattered more than that, even if his novels and stories always came first.

The man: I met him only twice but each time got the same impression of engaging modesty and unpretentious authority that I had from seeing him interviewed. The first time we met was a small dinner before a reading he gave at Queens College, the second, some five years ago, was when I introduced a reading he gave at the 92nd Street Y. On the earlier occasion he spoke about the changes in the literary world from the time when a writer, very much the private creature, tied to his desk, simply wrote the books; the publisher went out to sell them. Now writers had to perform their work, pitch it in public. Yet he followed this with a high-octane reading that would have delighted any publicist. At the Y he patiently signed hundreds of individual copies, including a few of my own, with the same agreeable demeanor. He was even more affable in the green room beforehand and in correspondence afterward. When I published the introduction I had given him in a small literary journal, he agreed to send in a poem, a really good one, to go with it. In part his affability was a protective shell that charmed people even as it kept them at a distance. But there seemed to be no “side” to him, no eccentricity, no bloated authorial ego, the self-will born of decades of fame and adulation. He appeared to be the kind of genius, rare enough, who husbanded something ordinary himself, something that kept him tied in to everyday life.

This helps explain his affinity for Rabbit, who represents what Updike might have been had he not left home, not been brilliant, sensitive, and determined, not found his calling. For Philip Roth, Zuckerman is an alter-ego who enables him to look at his experience from the outside, to exaggerate , to riff, to fabulate freely around it. For Updike, Rabbit is simply an ordinary man, the homme moyen sensuel, more typical than his distinguished author, fleshly, confused, beset by inchoate longings yet unable to recapture his early intimations of glory, when life felt uncomplicated and full of promise. There is much of Updike in Rabbit, but in the gulf between the artist and the world, Rabbit is the world, and Updike never lost his creative link to it.

Morris Dickstein’s new book, Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, will be published by Norton in September. He teaches English at the CUNY Graduate Center and is a longtime contributor to Dissent. Photo: Martha Updike (courtesy of Knopf).