Millions of admiring and appreciative words have already appeared in newspapers, magazines, and the blogosphere celebrating the life and work of John Updike, the prolific author who died January 27 at the age of seventy-six. Grace, charm, generosity, and erudition are the words most often being used to describe both his personality and his writing—an astonishing body of work that ranged from novels, short stories, and poetry to literary and art criticism. Philip Roth, his fellow novelist and contemporary, simply called him “our time’s greatest man of letters.”
Updike, raised a Lutheran, considered himself a Christian believer, if a conflicted and fitful one. Still, he often wrote exuberantly about the possibilities of faith (see his early short story “Lifeguard”). He once told an interviewer that he had never been able to do without religion, and that for him the world was too lonely without God.
For many, the world seems a lonelier place now that Updike’s unmistakable voice has been stilled. Commonweal has devoted a good deal of critical attention to Updike’s work, right up to William Pritchard’s sympathetic review of his last novel, The Widows of Eastwick, in our December 19, 2008, issue. Over a five-year period beginning in 1957, Commonweal was also lucky enough to publish four of Updike’s poems. After the publication of Rabbit at Rest, the last volume in Updike’s epic four-novel chronicle of the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a very fallible American everyman, we published a review-essay on the series by Rand Richards Cooper (“Rabbit Loses the Race,” May 17, 1991). Cooper noted that Rabbit ends his life in a Florida hospital unable to pray and seemingly “without benefit of faith.”
Commonweal routinely sends copies of reviews to authors and publishers. In this case, the author responded by postcard, evidently something Updike often did. Not surprisingly, the stamp on the postcard was titled “America the Beautiful,” and the stamp itself depicted a herd of buffalo roaming a plain at the foot of a majestic mountain range. Updike was unapologetic in his love for his country. On the reverse side was typed the following note.
Dear Mr. Baumann:
I was sent the May 17 Commonweal with a little card inviting me to comment. But, except for corrections of clear error, surely a writer most becomingly holds silent on criticism of his work, flattering or un-. But of course how could I not be (off the record) pleased by Mr. Cooper’s admirably sensitive and well-tuned survey of Rabbit’s decades. In the last book, God does seem to be less overtly present, and yet I found the hero’s rendezvous in Florida not without its transcendent comforts; he is drawing close to the source, and God perhaps is less an idea and more a presence at last.... Commonweal once printed a few of my poems, and I remain grateful. Yours, John Updike.
Most becomingly, a sense of gratitude was at the heart of Updike’s understanding of his place in this world and of his Christian faith. Now that God is less an idea and more a presence for John Updike himself, we trust he would not object to our sharing this correspondence with our readers.
Related: Rand Richards Cooper on worshiping Updike: "To the Visible World"