Remembering John Updike

Very few—indeed, few writers—have so incisive an awareness, so frank and unsparing an eye, as did John Updike, who died of lung cancer on Jan. 27. Lyrical and elegant a prose stylist as he was, he never compromised the rigorous precision of his observations; he saw clearly, and described vividly what he saw, from the movement of raindrops down a window ("the window screen, like a sampler half-stitched, or a crossword puzzle invisibly solved, was inlaid erratically with minute, translucent tesserae of rain") to the effects of the '70s energy crisis on the lives of average Americans. His range was astounding, his prolificity legend: from the time his first story was accepted by The New Yorker, in 1954, until weeks before his death, Updike lived, passionately, the life of the writer: he wrote, and wrote, and wrote. He published well over 50 books. Not only did he produce novels, short stories and poems in near unparalleled abundance; he wrote both literary and art criticism of a high order, as well as essays and reminiscences. His brilliant autobiography, "Self-Consciousness" (1989), provides us with much personal insight; but he was, above all, a writer who looked out onto the world, an alchemist who wrought art from the stuff of ordinary lives.

His own life, a paragon of establishment literary success (oxymoronic as this sounds), was as wrought as his fictions; and the forge in which he was formed was Harvard College of the 1950s. "My generation, once called Silent, was, in a considerable fraction of its white majority, a fortunate one," he wrote, " 'too young to be warriors, too old to be rebels'." He came from a modest middle-class family in Shillington, Pa., the only child of a schoolteacher father and a mother who aspired to write. He suffered from psoriasis; he stuttered. But from earliest adolescence, he set his cap at The New Yorker as the summum of American literary production; and by the tender age of 22 he attained his goal. His association with the magazine endured a lifetime; and for much of that period, his work was the exemplar of the "New Yorker short story."

For writers, it may be that these short stories prove his most enduring legacy. To the broader culture, however, it is his novels for which he is chiefly known: among them "The Centaur," "Couples," "The Witches of Eastwick," the trio of "Bech" books and, of course, the "Rabbit" tetralogy in which he chronicled the life's progress of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, a former high-school basketball star, as he bumbles through the decades. Updike's Everyman stood for a generation of fundamentally cautious men whose rebellions were chiefly sexual, swingers in suburbia. I will never forget reading "Rabbit Is Rich" at the age of 15, amused and horrified at the imagined sexual antics of my parents' generation and at the idea that a novelist had recorded them.

In this sense, Updike was specifically of his postwar, pre-rebellion moment; and certain of his triumphs seem, now, to belong to the past. Just as the daring of Kingsley Amis curdled through the years into curmudgeonliness so too Updike saw the riskiness of his younger work come to seem staid with age. More than a decade ago, Updike conceded that "I am a white male born at a certain time, probably with some of the sexist baggage of men of my age and vocation"; but, he went on, "I can't believe that I'm misogynist. Bright, clever, good women have played a major part in my life." For a man so precise, his diction is telling: the condescension inherent in "bright" and "clever" is as poignant as it is unwitting. For all his self-awareness, he could not escape being a man of his time; with the result, as he wrote late last year, that "the early works remain the ones I am best known by, and the ones to which my later works are unfavorably compared. Among the rivals besetting an aging writer is his younger, nimbler self, when he was the cocky new thing." In later years, his formidable literary presence attracted both adoration and hostility: praised for his elegant prose, he was reviled by critics who complained that he squandered his talents on small subjects, that he fell prey to complacency. As ever, Updike's greatest gifts and his weaknesses were intertwined.

With the wisdom of maturity, Updike wrote, in the same, recent essay, that "an aging writer has the not insignificant satisfaction of a shelf of books behind him that, as they wait for their ideal readers to discover them, will outlast him for a while." In addition to the books, and to his literary influence on writers as diverse as Richard Ford, Nicholson Baker (whose 1991 book "U and I" is a homage to Updike) and Lorrie Moore, his generosity as a senior statesman of letters—as a critic, a juror and a man—has left an indelible imprint. (He led the jury of writers that granted me a living award some years ago; and their approval of my efforts was as important to me as the award itself.) Even though in death, as he put it, "the earth tumbles on, and the sun expires, and unfaltering darkness reigns where once there were stars," the unflinching lyric remains his enduring gift. He wrote, so rightly, of his early stories, and metonymically, of his life's literary enterprise: "My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me—and to give the mundane its beautiful due." We are grateful.