The United States may have expanded on November 4 with the election of Barack Obama, but a large part of its imaginary geography seceded from the union Tuesday with the death of John Updike, America’s last great man of letters.
In more than 50 books of fiction, prose and poetry, Updike has been this country’s most keen-eyed observer of Americana in all its tacky muchness, its heart-breaking entropy, its skin-slapping, sexually forward, mentally hung-up body politic.
Like Edith Wharton and Henry James, writers he admired and on occasion equaled, Updike wrote with the belief that Americans’ social lives were best observed in bulging miniature.
We, his readers, were his greatest, most pressing assignment.
But while Wharton and James followed their characters into the grand hallways of Fifth Avenue mansions, Updike funneled his most gloriously realized observations through the mind of an unlikely everyman: the solipsistic ex-basketball star turned car salesman, Rabbit Angstrom.
Through Rabbit’s brief, attenuated life, Updike followed America’s awkward shuffle from sock hops to sex talk, from Eisenhower certainties to new racial realities. The demographic and cultural shift toward a more openly multicultural union put Updike—as a white, protestant, heterosexual male—back on his heels.
Easy to forget now, in the lubricious wake of novels such as “Couples,” that this posture is where he started calling from.
First published in 1960, Rabbit, Run was Updike’s retort to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a novel about the wide-open possibilities of the American road and countercultural attitudes. Those possibilities weren’t open to Rabbit. His biggest road trip is a flight across town into the arms of his lover.
Time and again, in Rabbit’s life, not to mention the lives of many other Updike characters, this flight shatters the domestic idyll. Barring a Neal Cassidy in their lives, Updike’s casts smash into one other: the friction of bodies their shortcut to the American sublime.
In lesser work, such as the novels Toward the End of Time and A Month of Sundays, this fleshy metaphysics, however lyrically observed, took on the regimental quality of pornography.
For every dip, however, Updike always managed to resurrect his better instincts. The Rabbit books, and their lurid lesser cousins, were merely Updike’s most visible, most contestable contribution to the world of letters—a commitment that seemed to expand with each passing year like an intellectual empire, inspiring the kind of resentments and pushback in writers that empires do with citizens.
From 1957, the year he abandoned a job as a Talk of the Town reporter at The New Yorker to retreat to his own bolt-hole in Massachusetts, Updike made his living as a free-lance writer.
He approached this task with the admirable work ethic of a child of the Depression. The Early Stories: 1955-1975, which cut off in Updike’s forty-third year, contained over a hundred short stories.
Many of them were among his best work—such as “Friends from Pennsylvania,” “Snowing in Greenwich Village,” and the “Pigeon Feathers.” Reading the collection, one can watch Updike write his way out of Salinger’s gimcrack shadow into his own, rolling lyrical universe.
Though most famously associated with The New Yorker, hundreds of publications around the world can claim him as a contributor, from Popular Mechanics to US Airways’ in-flight magazine.
Nothing, it seemed, fell outside of his purview. In addition to his steady stream of short stories, novels and poems, he wrote essays on baseball, the value of a penny, presidents, and train travel. He brought back dispatches from Helsinki and Anguilla, lectured in Brazil and Africa and folded those observations into two surprising novels.
He seemed happiest writing from the tilted forward perch of a committed amateur. He published several hundred book reviews on writers as diverse as Gunter Grass and Yashar Kemal.
He may have proudly worn his provinciality on his sleeve as a fiction writer, but as a critic Updike assigned himself the writers of the world—and but for some notable exceptions, as when he commented in a review of an Alan Hollinghurst novel that the agonist of gay men came from their inability to procreate—Updike managed to meet them on their own terms.
In a world increasingly bending toward snark, Updike managed to remain curious, solicitous, a gentleman. If you wrote to him, a letter came arrowing back. He was cordial to interviewers, often to the point of embarrassment. He seemed almost immune to the literary urge for payback.
In 1982, he delivered a passionate, moving address upon the funeral of John Cheever. Eight years later, reviewing The Letters of John Cheever, he discovered the writer whom he described as occupying the top penthouse of letters when he was still on the street, didn’t much like him.
“Updike and I spent most of our time back-biting one another,” Cheever apparently wrote to Frederick Exley. “I find him very arrogant but my daughter tells me that I’m arrogant. We dined together at the White House last Tuesday and I did everything short of putting a cherry bomb in his bug juice. It made me feel great.”
Updike responded to this revelation with sadness, and then spent another 2,000 words praising Cheever’s work, concluding: “He was a gem of a man, instantly poetic and instinctively magnanimous—one of those rare persons who heighten your sense of human possibilities.”
The words apply equally well to Updike. Though he possessed the lyrical gifts of a poet, he clung to the side-skirts of American life with the dogged tenacity and literal curiosity of a newspaperman.
We, his readers, were his greatest, most pressing assignment. Still, following Updike’s work along its close parallel track to his own life—early marriage, children, flight, divorce, remarriage, and the accompanying guilt of family failure and the squint-eyed possibility that a new start was possible—it was possible to live vicariously, in advance or in tandem, with a man’s journey through the world.
The only station he skipped is the one has now passed. Twenty years ago, in his beautiful, Proustian memoir, Self-Consciousness, however, he tried to peer forward into the darkness. “The idea that we sleep for centuries and centuries without a flicker of dream, while our bodies rot and turn to dust and the very stone marking our graves crumbles to nothing, is virtually as terrifying as annihilation. Every attempt to be specific about the afterlife, to conceive of it in even the most general detail, appalls us.”
And somehow, after all these books, it is appalling to imagine our world without him.
John Freeman is the American editor of Granta magazine.