Obituary: John Updike, 1932-2009
“My subject,” remarked the American novelist John Updike, who has died at the age of 76, “is the American Protestant small-town middle class.” In a society of extremes, where violence, verbal and otherwise, was a familiar cultural routine, Updike remained a believer in the possibilities of ordinary life in America. “When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teenaged boy finding them, and having them speak to him.”
Undeniably white, heterosexual and a Protestant, during his lifetime Updike carried the burden of being a writer who was not black, not female, not gay, not Jewish – decidedly not multicultural. He had a gift for being on the “wrong” side of issues about which there was a liberal consensus. Updike supported the American intervention in Vietnam, and doubted the wisdom of government support for the arts. He wrote with passionate grace about the love of women, but found even elegant depictions of homosexuality not to his taste. Gay writers queued up to express their annoyance. With so much about him of the upperclass Wasp, the reality of Updike’s modest origins was forgotten.
He was born in Shillington, a small town in eastern Pennsylvania near the larger city of Reading. Updike’s father Wesley, after periods of unemployment in the 1930s, found work as a poorly paid maths teacher in the local junior high school. A lifelong Republican, he switched parties to vote for Roosevelt and never switched back. “His memory of being abandoned by society and big business never left him,” Updike wrote in 2007. Wesley’s preference for the party that offered “the forgotten man” a break, a new deal, became the lifelong sentiment of his son. Updike’s mother, Linda Hoyer, a woman of larger cultural interests and fierce small-town aspirations, worked as a saleswoman in a local store. Linda had a masters’ degree in English from Cornell, and wanted to be a writer. (She later published two collections of stories, Enchantment, 1971, and The Predator, 1990.) Her son John carried the burden of her ambition. The boyhood memory of the sound of her typing gave their house “a secret, questing life”. When asked in later years about her son’s great fame, she coolly remarked: “I’d rather it had been me.”
Updike’s family steadily voted Democratic. (Updike staunchly supported Obama in 2008, and described Sarah Palin as a “bird-brain”. He was quite perplexed to learn that both Obama and McCain included his books among their favourites.) He attended the local Lutheran church in Shillington, where his father was a deacon. In 1945, when John was 13, the Updikes bought the Hoyer family farm and moved to Plowville, Pennsylvania. John Updike, the most urbane of American writers, spent his adolescent years on an 83-acre farm.
Shillington remained his Dublin, his Paris, his Lower East Side. “Shillington was my here… I loved Shillington not as one loves Capri or New York, because they are special, but as one loves one’s own body and consciousness, because they are synonymous with being.” That sense of belonging, of coming from a place where your family’s name (particularly his mother’s family name, Hoyer) had a resonance, gave the young writer a quite different sense of America as a subject for the writer. He never lost a feel for the poetry of ordinary life, of the average, public-school, supermarket America. “It was there I felt comfortable; it was there that I felt the real news was.”
A tall, shy, priggish, mamma’s boy as a teenager, with a bold Roman nose, Updike found his greatest pleasure in drawing and writing. He was an accomplished cartoonist and hoped to work as an animator for Walt Disney. He wrote regularly for the Chatterbox, the Shillington high school paper, and won a scholarship to read English at Harvard.
While at Harvard he was a roommate of the social critic Christopher Lasch. He stayed away from the university’s leading literary magazine, the Advocate, staffed by ambitious cut-throats, and instead joined the Lampoon, a venerable undergraduate club for dilettante bluebloods. He was a prolific contributor and then was elected president of the Harvard Lampoon, a magazine of satire and parody.
Updike was turned down twice by Archibald MacLeish for admission to the top-level creative writing course at Harvard, and escaped notice by talent-spotters of the Harvard-Boston literary establishment. In his junior year he married Mary Pennington, a fine arts major at Radcliffe College, and graduated summa cum laude the following year.
Updike studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford, where the couple’s first child, Elizabeth, was born in 1955. He returned to America that year to join the staff of William Shawn’s New Yorker. Katherine White, wife of the fabled New Yorker writer EB White, offered Updike a staff job writing the Talk of the Town column. The magazine had been a major influence on Updike. At 12 he was given a subscription and he fell in love with its understated typography and cosmopolitan wit. At his mother’s suggestion, he had been submitting contributions to the New Yorker for years before a poem and a story were accepted in June 1954, the month he graduated from Harvard.
After returning from England, Updike was summoned by the Selective Service System to be examined for the draft. Psoriasis, a condition which persisted throughout his life, resulted in a 4-F classification and medical exemption from military service. He watched the escalating war in Vietnam on television.
Shawn soon promoted him from a Talk reporter to a Talk writer at a salary of $120 a week. The promotion meant his contributions – interviews, “fact” pieces or “visits” – were no longer automatically submitted to the magazine’s notorious process of rewriting. The Updikes rented a small fifth-floor apartment on Riverside Drive on the Upper West Wide of Manhattan. It was a time of thrilling literary discoveries. Updike first read Nabokov at Oxford; he encountered Joyce, Proust and Kierkegaard in New York. He admired the way JD Salinger showed how the short story could accommodate “a more expansive post-war sense of American reality”. When not working for the magazine, he worked on a long manuscript entitled “Home”, about his life to the age of 16. It was plundered for short stories, but abandoned as a suitable first novel. That a literary career might be built on a reading of Hemingway, Steinbeck or Dos Passos never occurred to him. The era of American literature which was shaped by the experience of the first world war and expatriate Paris in the 1920s ended in John Updike’s apartment in New York in the second term of President Dwight D Eisenhower.
The New Yorker enhanced Updike’s loving respect for facticity, the gravity of things. His loyalty was to the sense of what and how, of things which could be smelled and touched. He was frankly uninterested as a novelist in “opinions.” The critic John Carey’s comment that “intellectually” the first three of his Rabbit novels were a desert would have been accepted with no small pride by Updike. He stayed 20 months at the New Yorker, but felt that the city itself was too distracting and might even threaten his creativity. Updike wrote in 2003 that “New York, in my 20 months of residence, had felt full of other writers and of cultural hassle, and the word game overrun with agents and wisenheimers. The real America seemed to me ‘out there’… Out there was where I belonged.” He gave up the job (though he continued to write for the Talk column, and supported his family on the sale of short stories to the New Yorker) and in 1957 moved his family to Ipswich, Massachusetts.
In Massachusetts, the Updikes had three more children, and entered into the life of a small town on the fringe of the Boston commuter belt. They attended the local Congregational church (Updike wrote and performed in an historical pageant for the church’s anniversary), were members of a recorder group and were registered as Democrats. Mary, more liberal and much more a feminist than her husband, drew them into the city’s Fair Housing debates.
Updike’s debut novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959), was a masterful observation of the inhabitants of the Diamond County Home for the Aged, who were engaged in a struggle of values between a Christian inmate and the poorhouse master, a believer in the perfectibility of man. Updike’s verbal brilliance was greeted with tempered appreciation in 1959. “It is all very well done,” wrote Orville Prescott, lead reviewer for the New York Times, “but it is fuzzy and formless, too, easy to lay down and easy to forget.”
With the publication of two collections of short stories, The Same Door (1959) and Pigeon Feathers (1962), Chekhovian studies of the awkward cadences and narrow horizons of eastern Pennsylvania, Updike’s reputation for clever craftsmanship was confirmed. It was something of a poisoned chalice for a young writer. What might be forgiven or even admired in a Borges or a Nabokov (two writers whom Updike championed in his critical essays) was regarded with suspicion in a young American. With increasing asperity, reviewers and contemporaries like Norman Mailer wondered whether he was just an empty stylist.
Updike provided many different kinds of answers to that hurtful criticism. Rabbit, Run (1960) began a four-decade-long encounter with the ex-high school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. The four novels (Rabbit, Run, followed by Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest) – reissued in a lightly revised omnibus edition in 1999 as Rabbit Angstrom – appeared at decade-long intervals, and provide a precise, nuanced picture of the changing fortunes of a thoroughly ordinary man, and of a small Pennsylvania town, Brewer. A sequel, Rabbit Remembered appeared in Licks of Love in 2000. The Rabbit novels had a greater ambition than simply recording American mores. They provided Updike with a way to make sense of the waning American male, the American woman (his endless subject as a writer), infidelity (no less inexhaustible), and the American child (the sullen, cynical Nelson, Rabbit’s son, is portrayed with uncomfortable accuracy).
The Rabbit novels were showered with awards and twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1982 he appeared for a second time on the cover of Time. “I like middles,” Updike remarked. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly runs.” Few novels have had a surer grasp on ordinary small-town life and its travails.
The Centaur (1963) was a bid for literary seriousness which worked; he won the National Book Award for Fiction. But as an act of homage to his father, the rich load of psychological interest in the relationship of a humble man and an intensely ambitious son was all but swallowed up by pretentious mythological parallels which swaddled the story.
The 1960s was a pretty good time in America to be a young, hotshot novelist. Updike rented a study above a restaurant in downtown Ipswich, and wrote, by longhand, six mornings a week. (He first used a computer in 1983.) Vietnam was a long way from Ipswich, Massachusetts, and there were excellent local golf courses. (Updike wrote for golfing magazines, and collected his essays and stories in Golf Dreams, 1996.) He made regular visits to the Museum of Modern Art when he was in New York (Just Looking, his art criticism, was collected in 1989), and there was always a steady flow of books to review for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. (Assorted Prose, 1965, followed by several further substantial collections of criticism). None the less, the doubt remained that Updike was just too comfortable in America’s suburbia, that he had no big subject, nothing really to say.
The social excitements of the 1960s had an immense impact on the hard-working writer in his garret. There was a sexual revolution taking place in the lives of the young, upwardly mobile couples around them. “We smoked pot, wore dashikis and love beads and frugged ourselves into a lather while the Beatles and Janis Joplin sang away on the hi-fi set.”
When his fifth novel, Couples, was published in 1968, Updike hit the bestseller lists and stayed there. He made the cover of Time magazine. Despite its smalltown setting, Couples was an ambitious portrayal of the first post-Puritan American generation, where money and the pill shaped the lives of 10 couples, all “swingers” (a new usage in American culture) whose marriages were in varying degrees of disintegration, and for whom sex was a matter of cocktail party chit-chat. He described a suburban world far less touched by politics than readers today might expect. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Vietnam and the struggle over civil rights are noises off which scarcely disturb the sexual buzz of Couples.
Updike was not by temperament a Bad Boy like Philip Roth or Henry Miller, but he scorned “good taste” (“I think ‘taste’ is a social concept and not an artistic one,” he told an interviewer) and wrote of women, their sex, skin, orifices, hair and scent with good humour and unabashed pleasure. (The New York Times declined to publish an Updike poem containing the line “with love of my country, of cunt, and of sleep”.) Worried commentators who linked Couples with Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint as examples of the degradation of American morality missed the point. Updike did not make a moral endorsement of the couples’ infidelities, or even seek to judge them. He observed, and described, as Flaubert or Joyce had done, as a novelist should. When that formula broke down, as it badly did in Terrorist (2006), it was a reminder that with so many things well-seen and well-understood, there were limits to his understanding, and not just his own, when confronting a devout 18-year-old Muslim boy in New Jersey in the aftermath of 9/11.
Updike separated from his wife in 1974 and they divorced amicably two years later. He married Martha Bernhard in 1977. The ending of his first marriage furnished an abundance of material for an autobiographical cycle of stories about Richard and Joan Maples, whose marriage was also on the rocks (Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories, 1979). He had become a public figure in the 1970s, serving as an honorary consultant to the Library of Congress, touring Africa on a Fulbright. The Coup, published 1978, was Updike’s attempt to make sense of what he had seen in Africa. BBC film crews accompanied him on nostalgic journeys back to Shillington. One major project, a novel about James Buchanan, the only American president to come from Pennsylvania, stubbornly resisted his interest. His lone attempt as a playwright, Buchanan Dying (1974), came out of his forlorn attempt to resurrect one of the most unsuccessful of 19th-century politicians. It was terrain best left to Gore Vidal.
Updike produced an autobiography, Self-Consciousness, and four substantial novels in the 1980s, one of which, The Witches of Eastwick, Updike’s take on the trend of 1980s feminism, was made into a notably successful movie. (He resurrected his characters in The Widows of Eastwick in 2008.) Five novels, a collection of stories (The Afterlife, 1994), the book on golf, a substantial Collected Poems, and several further collections of literary essays, followed. Memories of the Ford Administration (1992), with an academic deconstructionist as seducer and villain, and Brazil (1994), retelling the story of Tristan and Iseult in contemporary Brazil, showed Updike at the full flourish of his stylistic brilliance and inventiveness. A volume of more than 800 pages collected Updike’s Early Stories (1953-1975) to much acclaim in 2003. It received the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2004.
He was a lead reviewer for The New Yorker for three decades. The range of Updike’s interests, from a learned discussion of a theological treatise by Karl Barth to a review of the autobiography of Doris Day, made comparisons with Edmund Wilson appropriate. By temperament he was inclined to celebrate the distinctive good in writing of any and every kind. His rare negative reviews of novels by Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe had a disturbing impact on both writers. They were a sign that his judgment, never aggressively delivered, was being read with increasing respect.
The quality of Updike’s prose was an ever more supple and rewarding medium, freshly minted decade after decade. He described Piet Hanema in Couples as “a man who was by profession a builder, in love with snug right-angled things”. It was a fitting self-description. Peter Conrad concluded an interview with Updike in late 2008 in these emphatic terms: “He has done more to enrich us than all of Wall Street’s bankers and brokers, and his books, unlike the papery profits of the Stock Exchange, will not lose their value.” So productive, so good a writer; he was an adornment to American letters.
He is survived by his wife and the two sons and two daughters from his first marriage.
John Hoyer Updike, writer, born 18 March 1932; died 27 January 2009