To the Visible World

On Worshiping John Updike

I knew that someday I would find myself writing this essay. I just didn’t think it would be yet. If you’d put money on which American writer of the postwar generation would be blessed with longevity, proceeding deep into a svelte nonagenarianism while putting forth stories and novels packed with elegantly detailed reports on the experience, wouldn’t you have bet on John Updike?

He led a charmed life, after all—a beloved only child, son of a doting mother who siphoned her own artistic ambitions into him; a small-town boy whose very first published stories, when he was fresh out of college, graced the pages of the New Yorker. Many of those stories betrayed a fascination with mortality, and I had imagined that death itself would backpedal before Updike’s approach, offering serial reprieves in exchange for luxuriating a little longer in his matchless descriptive prose.

But it wasn’t to be. Updike went with shocking quickness. I hadn’t even known he was ill; and then, one morning in January, I clicked onto the New York Times site to see the headline: “Novelist John Updike Dies at 76.” Was it possible? In recent videotaped interviews he had appeared hale. Later I learned the dire sequence of events. In October, a cough that wouldn’t go away. At Thanksgiving, the diagnosis of advanced-stage lung cancer. Six weeks later he was in a hospice, rushed there to spend his last twenty-four hours in a room with a view of the water, the masts of ships visible from his window.

The morning after Updike died, I woke at dawn and watched tree limbs take shape in the grayness outside the window; light was accumulating visibly, and the silence possessed that extra, emphatic dimension that informs you, without your having to look, that it has snowed during the night. And I thought, Here is Day One without Updike in the world, seeing things.

It was a lonely feeling, tinged with the disbelief that follows upon the deaths of loved ones and family members. Such disbelief originates in our own astonishing mortality, and becomes one way we extend to others the preciousness with which we invest our own selves and lives. That is a highly Updikean notion. But then again, my notions tend to be. As I lay in bed that morning, and again in the days afterward, I had the uncanny feeling that wherever my thoughts took me, Updike had been there. However well I might see or imagine things, or describe them, he would have seen and imagined and described them better, and indeed already had, in the millions of words he committed to paper during his life. This was by no means envy on my part. More like acknowledging a very large and very personal debt.

I’ve been a fulltime writer for over two decades. I’m the kind of writer people by and large haven’t heard of, but who manages to make a living at it, though sometimes just barely. The kind of writer who begins with large dreams of writing fiction, then branches out into doing nonfiction for magazines—partly from a broadening interest, partly in order to pay the mortgage. A “freelance” writer, who savors his freedom from the routines of a conventional career while continuing to clutch the dream of making literature-happy to spend hundreds of unpaid hours, once that mortgage is mailed in, attempting yet again to cut the perfect, sparkling, eternal gem of narrative, even when there’s no guarantee anyone out there will want it.

Not, in other words, a writer like Updike, who—though with charming modesty he liked to call himself a freelance writer—grew rich and famous through his efforts, and kept a conga line of editors dancing to his melody. And yet my relation to him was an important one. Every person who, like me, has devoted anonymous decades to making art, and felt both the steep joys and the loneliness of doing so, has some such mentor he’s indebted to, a writer whose work inspired worship and emulation. This is an account of how such a debt is incurred and, I hope, discharged.

My Updike worship began in high school in the mid-1970s, when I was a girl-and-sports-crazed kid with a secret reading habit, a jock who loved English. We read the usual books: Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, The Grapes of Wrath. Then came a senior honors English class...and Rabbit, Run. Written in a cinematic present tense I’d never encountered before, it grabbed me from the opening scene, in which Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, walking home from work, stops to shoot baskets with some kids. The chapters that followed were full of domestic rancor and dialogue you might hear if you barged in on someone’s dinner conversation. And sex. How mind-bending to think that literature, which just last year had been Jane Austen, was now this! Updike brought my worlds together and pointed in a direction where anything could be written about.

Worshiping a writer usually begins just this way, in an explosion of fervent gratitude to someone who breaks the rules, revealing them as mere conventions and allowing you to play by newer, looser ones. Suddenly obstacles have been removed, making for a dizzying enlargement of the possible. You’re getting away with something, and you can hardly believe it. So how, once you begin to write yourself, can you not respond by trying to write like that? As Updike once observed, imitation is praise, in literature as in life. During college I took a fiction-writing class with novelist Mary Gordon, who for one assignment had us choose a well-known writer and imitate his prose style. The idea was that by imitating someone who actually has a prose style, you might magically acquire one of your own. I didn’t choose Updike. I didn’t need to, because by then I already was doing my best, albeit mostly unconsciously, to channel his voice, his habits of mind, his rhythms.

The poet James Merrill once noted that a young writer “makes do with whatever odd conglomerate of wave-worn diction the world washes up at his feet.” Typically, what washes up are things from other writers’ books. Beachcombing is a gentle euphemism for the literary scavenging that at times more closely resembles piracy. There were plenty of writers I scavenged from, from Russell Banks to Nadine Gordimer and E. L. Doctorow. But Updike was the one whose influence persisted—which is to say, the voice I eventually accepted as mine more closely resembled his than those others. Along the way I discovered that Updike, too, had worshiped masters of his own. Several of the stories in his 1966 collection, The Music School, betray the telltale ventriloquism. Touches of ornate syntax; a cold control tempered by warmly lyrical memory; an eccentric concern with visual pattern that turns the observable world into a created work of art: this was a voice Updike got straight from Vladimir Nabokov, who in turn had fashioned it partly from Proust. How thrilling, as a writer in my twenties, to understand where I was indebted—to take a place, however tiny, in the great chain of stylistic inheritors.

But being influenced by Updike involved more than imitating his prose style. We immerse ourselves in a writer’s fictions; and over time, through a mysterious osmosis, these narratives become a part of our selves. In midlife, I find that the touchstone moments I owe to Updike’s stories feel a great deal like personal memories—places I’ve been and events I’ve lived through. Like the close of “The Happiest I’ve Been,” capturing the sadness and exaltation of a new college student driving away from home. Or the moment in “A&P” when teenaged Sammy impulsively quits his job as a grocery-store bagger, a triumphant gesture quickly compromised by the sight of his manager grimly taking over, his face gray and back stiff, “as if he’d just had an injection of iron”—the image hinting at how unforgiving the adult world may turn out to be. The newly divorced narrator of “Deaths of Distant Friends” both echoed and informed my understanding of my own father’s life after he left my mother (“years when I scuttled without a shell, between houses and wives, a snake between skins, a monster of selfishness, my grotesque needs naked and pink, my social presence beggarly and vulnerable”). And not only did I shamelessly rip off Updike’s “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth,” whose young high-school English teacher tries vainly to forge a connection with his students equal to the size of his idealistic hopes, for a story I wrote in college; a few years later, I found myself living it, during a brief and challenging stint as that teacher.

At some point you wonder. Yes, we know life can imitate art...but is my life imitating someone else’s art? In this sense, we are all puppets dangling from the strings of great writers. This is what renowned critic Harold Bloom meant when he wrote a book proposing, with grave playfulness, that Shakespeare is God. To say that a great writer invented us (Bloom’s book was subtitled “The Invention of the Human”) is to offer an audacious metaphor for how literature structures our categories and modes of perception, our emotions and recognitions: in short, our lives and our selves. The great writer seems to know your private thoughts, even your private nonthoughts. I grew up in eastern Connecticut, and I recall how you always knew when you’d crossed over into Rhode Island-that it was somehow a different place, scrubbier, emptier, flatter; poorer and more haphazardly settled. This wasn’t a coherent idea, just the kind of thing you know without thinking about. Then, decades later, I read The Witches of Eastwick and Updike’s scene-setting riff on the “subtle change” that occurs when you enter Rhode Island, with its “cheerful dishevelment [and] contempt for appearances,” its “vacant hinterlands hastily traversed by straight black roads,” and “lunar stretches... [with] only an abandoned roadside stand offering the ghosts of last summer’s CUKES.”

There was that uncanny thing again. With a few strokes Updike had limned my inchoate personal impressions, amassed over years of personal experience, and rendered them more vividly than I could have. How did he know Rhode Island so well? How did he know me?

Through college and beyond, there was hardly a book of his I didn’t read. It was that young writer’s greedy and ferocious way of being all over another writer’s work. And to think that this person whose books I loved was a living writer—someone who, unlike Dickens or Austen, was out there somewhere, writing still more of them.

In 1985, I was living in Manhattan and had just published a story in the Atlantic. Updike was giving a reading at Seton Hall University—poetry—and I took a bus out to New Jersey. In a small lecture room in the student center, Updike stood at a lectern and, in a quiet and surprisingly thin voice, read several poems. Afterward, escorted by the English Department chairman, he headed out in the hall to a table set up for book signing. I trailed close behind, ready to be recognized should a magic beam of heavenly light illuminate me in the Author’s gaze. Just then, however, a mop-haired groupie, female, dressed in black lace and bare midriff, inserted herself between me and Updike, brazenly demanding to know how to “become a writer.” Updike tried politely to parry, but she asked again and again, beseeching him, She had to become a writer, did he have any, like, you know, any advice? At last Updike turned toward her and said, coolly and to my infinite satisfaction, “Have you tried reading?”

Moments later I was handing him my copy of The Carpentered Hen. As he signed it, I hesitated. Should I tell him about the story I’d just published, confess how his books had shaped my hopes for writing fiction? I took a deep breath—but he was already looking past me to the next person in line. With a mumbled thank you I walked away.

When my first book of fiction was published, four years later, I girded myself for boldness. If I could get my book to Updike in advance, might he not recognize it as the work of a devoted apprentice, perhaps even bestow a few crucial words of praise for the back cover? I sent the galleys...and heard not a word. The next year, Updike’s memoir, Self-Consciousness, was published. After reading it, I sent him a long and psychologically dubious letter in which I catalogued what I saw as the amazing similarities between his life and that of my father, from their Depression-era Pennsylvania childhoods to their bad teeth to their dominating and still-surviving mothers and their long-dead weak fathers and the coincidence of certain family names and and and.

I also enclosed, humbly, a copy of my book. A week later I got my reward: a typed postcard in which Updike thanked me for my “lovely” letter and congratulated me on a book “handsomely garlanded with high praise from responsible quarters.” Then he slipped me a little rebuke—or so I read it—for having solicited the blurb months earlier. “Wright Morris was persuaded to give my own first novel, a little thing called The Poorhouse Fair, a puff,” he wrote, “and I always had mixed feelings about it, pleased but also thinking it was somehow more heroic to break upon the public cold turkey, asking no quarter.”

I read the card over and over, applying a Talmudic scrutiny to its every phrase. Somehow more heroic. Had I been too pushy, too self-promoting? The thought made me wince. And worse still: Did the congratulation Updike offered me in any way imply that he had read my book, or even that he remotely intended to?

In time, as my writing career took its own course, I relaxed somewhat where Updike was concerned. Over the years I saw him at other readings; reviewed his books here and there; received updates from my former professor, the critic William H. Pritchard, who wrote a literary biography of Updike and kept up a correspondence with him. The last time I saw Updike was four years ago, when he came to read at the prep school where my wife teaches. At the cocktail party he graciously implied, without undue specificity, that he knew who I was. I went home hoping that circumstances might one day allow a longer conversation, one in which I could say all I wanted to say by way of gratitude. There was still time, I thought. But then, suddenly, it was a January morning, and I was clicking on my computer and the headline in the Times.

In March I attended a tribute to Updike at the New York Public Library. The roster of speakers included former New Yorker fiction editors Roger Angell and Charles McGrath, as well as Updike’s editor at Knopf, the ageless Judith Jones, all offering personal recollections and reading passages from his pages as a photo of the author smiled genially from a screen alongside, projected larger than life. Jones recalled how secretive Updike had always been about the next book he was working on. The only glimpse she’d get was on the backs of letters he sent—typed, frugally, on recycled manuscript pages. “I’d read them,” she said, “and get a clue that it might involve a coup in Africa, or a romp in Brazil.” She described how the finished manuscripts would arrive complete with sketches for a cover and suggestions for every detail of the book’s production: the cloth for binding, the color of the top stain, and so on. Updike often said that his true affinity in the book trade was for printers, and Jones recalled that he affected never entirely to understand what editors and publishers did, seeing them as “potentially troublesome intermediaries between himself and the print.” That got a good laugh from the crowd.

It was a notably elderly crowd-there was something funereal in that, I thought, not merely for Updike, but for a certain kind of book-loving life. It was hard not to turn Updike’s passing into a valedictory moment for the pre-Internet era, when sources of knowledge were few, and the love affair with literature was conducted with actual, physical magazines and books. I found myself recalling Charles McGrath’s taped interview with Updike for the Times in October. Asked why he continued to write short stories as well as novels, Updike confessed it was because he loved magazines. “In the kind of American town I lived in, magazines on the drugstore rack were the chief emissaries of culture,” he recalled. “There was a gloss to them, and an excitement; and the cartoons, the ads, everything, it all spoke of a wider world which I wanted to enter.”

That wider world included a career, of course, and a move from provincial America to the metropolis. But it was also the world of literature itself, with its endless opportunities for discovery and delight. Updike’s curiosity about the world seemed limitless—whether world literature, which he engaged more extensively than any other American critic, or the worlds portrayed in his novels. If his protagonist underwent coronary catheterization, or worked on an auto assembly line, then readers were guaranteed a compact, precisely detailed tour of what was involved. Philip Roth once despaired in an interview of ever approaching the amount of reality Updike packed into his novels. How does he know all that? Roth asked, piteously. Each of the four Rabbit novels came bigger than the last, crammed full with pop lyrics, jokes, ad slogans, political headlines of the day, sports scores, news. How Joycean, really, the torrent of pedestrian realities Updike poured through the tetralogy, filling each installment with the mood of a particular American moment. These time capsules of Americana are part of what made Updike, as Roth called him after his death, “a national treasure.”

Since Updike’s death I’ve thought a lot about what made him, for me, a personal treasure, and why I worshiped him. There was, of course, his intelligence. His feel for the shapes of language, and the glamorous architecture of his sentences. The fabulous eloquence, both on the page and in interviews. The intrepid range of his interests and his colossal productivity, hilariously lampooned by Martin Amis, who imagined a typical Updike morning beginning with the phone ringing (“A science magazine wants something pithy on the philosophy of subatomic thermodynamics; a fashion magazine wants 10,000 words on his favorite color. No problem—but can they hang on? Mr. Updike has to go upstairs again and blurt out a novel.”) His Proustian preoccupation with memory and how the passage of time alchemizes the routine into something ineffably precious.

And, maybe above all, his refusal to write carelessly. Even those cards Updike typed to strangers proffered little gifts of wit and phrasing. He seemed unable to let a single sentence escape, written or spoken, without building some graceful performance into it. Updike’s critics often disparaged him for writing beautifully “about nothing.” True—if by “nothing” you mean consciousness itself. More richly than any of his contemporaries, he conveyed the perceptions of ordinary people making their way through the world. Consider this moment from his penultimate New Yorker story, “Outage,” in which a retiree using his computer at home is interrupted by a power failure. Deciding to run an errand instead, he drives into town, and in passing notes “it seemed odd that his car started as usual.” Isn’t that exactly the kind of quirky thought you would have during a power outage? A trivial thought, to be sure; yet for a writer, as a means of convincing readers they’re being put down in the middle of a “real” life, it is far from nothing. Indeed, a large part of what made Updike’s realism so persuasive and involving—to me at any rate—was just this sort of “nothing.” His pages teem with offhand feats of description that recall the reader to his own life and perceptions with renewed freshness, even as they pursue the goal, as Updike once described it, of “giving the mundane its beautiful due.”

Since Updike was perhaps the most celebrated literary writer of his era, it may sound strange to say that he was underappreciated. But his precocious genius, rewarded early on and amply, and expressed with such seeming effortlessness, made him easy to beat up on, and many critics did—including those who resented the politics of a Johnson Democrat who abstained from Vietnam protest. Their arguments were in the end mostly ad hominem ones: just personal, as Gatsby said. Poets and fiction writers, meanwhile, who sit down to the blank page and the daily challenge of bringing imaginary worlds to life in language that will do their visions justice, knew in their bones how good he was. He made the all-but-impossible happen, over and over and over, in such sentences as are not likely to be written again. What do I need to do to be a writer? an eager student asks. Try reading, Updike said.

Which was another way to say what all writers know: You need to love sentences. It helps to love the world, too, and your life in it. At the tribute in New York, David Updike read from his father’s final New Yorker story, “The Full Glass,” in which the Updike figure, a retired insurance salesman approaching eighty, stands at the mirror, a glass of water in one hand and in the other, the large array of pills he takes every night. Though his thoughts about death are mordant, the drink of water brings a sensation of “bliss,” linking him to the child he was many decades ago—a boy who “had usually been running from somewhere or other and had a great innocent thirst”—and to the places in his small town where he’d had his thirst slaked: a bubbler at a car repair garage; a country spring where he drank, using a tin dipper:

The water was cold, tasting brightly of tin, but not as cold as that which bubbled up in a corner of that small-town garage, the cement floor black with grease and the ceiling obscured by the sliding-door tracks and suspended wood frames holding rubber tires fresh from Akron. The rubber overhead had a smell that cleared your head the way a bite of licorice did, and the virgin treads had the sharp cut of metal type or newly ironed clothes. That icy water held an ingredient that made me, a boy of nine or ten, eager for the next moment of life, one brimming moment after another.

What was that elusive ingredient? What is this self that has been blessed to perceive such a startling thing as the world? Throughout Updike’s oeuvre, from the very first stories on, the prospect of these brimming moments one day ceasing provoked dread and disbelief. Personal extinction was all but unimaginable, for the vision it would foreclose; “The self,” Updike wrote in Self-Consciousness, “is a window on the world we can’t bear to think of shutting.” It was this will to keep seeing anew that Updike possessed in such superabundance, and that suggested an unvanquishable spirit. But the body fails. When he wrote “The Full Glass,” Updike didn’t know he would be dead in less than a year, yet the story’s resignation reads like a rehearsal. Its narrator takes his pills and hoists his glass—“drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned.”

It’s a strange thing, this intimacy you feel with a writer whose books you’ve lived in for so long. Your relationship was with the work, so when the person dies, there’s nowhere for your grief to go. “The world is being tended to,” Updike wrote in his last story; “I can let go of it, it doesn’t need me.” But he was wrong.

 


Related: The Editors, "John Updike, RIP"
William H. Pritchard reviews 'The Widows of Eastwick': "Toil & Trouble"

Published in the 2009-05-08 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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