Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike, 1932-2009

The image is of a man both curious and intelligent, yet with eyes that betray the sense of humor that was frequently present in his writing.

Sad news comes today, of the death of John Updike, perhaps the greatest American author of the second half of the twentieth century. A true man of letters, Updike's literary output includes not only short stories and novels, but also poetry, essays, criticism, and even sportswriting. He published his first story in the New Yorker in 1954, the year he graduated from Harvard, and published more than a hundred additional stories, essays, articles, and poems there in the next five years (more than eight hundred before he was done). News stories today typically referred to his output as "more than fifty" books: the actual count to date is sixty-one, but I think he has another coming out later this year. He did it the way one must: every day he went to the office and wrote, three pages a day.

I loved his writing. It was in reading Updike that I first saw how writing could be described as "lapidary": he is second to none as a prose stylist, although in an interview with the Times last fall he said that he didn't think of himself as a stylish writer, just one who wanted to get everything right, so that the reader would see the people and the world he was writing about exactly as he saw it. He could also make you love the unlikable character: I know of at least one person who couldn't bring herself to read the final scene in Rabbit at Rest, in which his greatest character, whom we have known since he was a young, not very good, husband, dies.

I also loved the fact that in his books he included a note about the typeface, Janson, although in his later books, instead of saying that it was set on the Linotype, it was a digitized version.

We still have his writings, and it is part of the measure of his greatness that we can feel that a writer with two Pulitzers and two National Book Awards was underappreciated. It may be that the anti-Americanism bred of Bush's presidency is what deprived him of the Nobel, but this oversight will not diminish the legacy of this great man.

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