John Updike, prize-winning writer of ‘Rabbit’ novels, dead at age 76
By HILLEL ITALIE
The Associated Press
For readers and writers of a certain generation, it’s hard to imagine that they will have to grow old, or at least older, without John Updike.
“He’s certainly been on the screen of my life since I was a teenager,” says fellow author Richard Ford, 64, speaking just hours after he learned of the death Tuesday of the 76-year-old Updike, the Pulitzer Prize-novelist and man of letters who had been ill with lung cancer.
“He’s a person who dedicated his life to writing, who wasn’t a teacher, and, most importantly, wrote very serious books that a lot of people read,” Ford said.
Dependable as time itself, Updike released more than 60 books in a career that started in the 1950s, winning virtually every literary prize, including two Pulitzers, for “Rabbit Is Rich” and “Rabbit at Rest,” and two National Book Awards.
The tall, hawk-nosed Updike wrote novels, short stories, poems, criticism, the memoir “Self-Consciousness” and even a famous essay about baseball great Ted Williams, with its immortal line about the surly slugger who refused to tip his hat to his fans: “Gods do not answer letters.”
The first few lines of the essay, in which he described Fenway Park as a “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark,” were inscribed on the walls of the arena’s front office. “He will be missed,” said team president Larry Lucchino.
Updike’s literary home was the American suburb, the great new territory of mid-century fiction, white-fenced compound of sex and anxiety. Born in 1932, Updike spoke for millions of Depression-era readers raised by “penny-pinching parents,” united by “the patriotic cohesion of World War II” and blessed by a “disproportionate share of the world’s resources,” the postwar, suburban boom of “idealistic careers and early marriages.”
He captured, and sometimes embodied, a generation’s confusion over the civil rights and women’s movements, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Updike was called a misogynist, a racist and an apologist for the establishment. His characters, complained one younger author — David Foster Wallace — had no passion but for themselves.
“The very world around them, as beautifully as they see and describe it, seems to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions inside the self,” Wallace wrote in 1997. “Though usually family men, they never really love anybody — and, though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, they especially don’t love women.”
On purely literary grounds, he was attacked by Norman Mailer as the kind of author appreciated by readers who knew nothing about writing. Last year, judges of Britain’s Bad Sex in Fiction Prize voted Updike lifetime achievement honors.
But more often he was praised for his flowing, poetic writing style. Describing a man’s interrupted quest to make love, Updike likened it “to a small angel to which all afternoon tiny lead weights are attached.” He might rhapsodize over the film projector’s “chuckling whir” or look to the stars and observe that “the universe is perfectly transparent: we exist as flaws in ancient glass.”
Born in Reading, Pa., raised in the Protestant community of Shillington, Pa., where the Lord’s Prayer was recited daily at school, Updike was a lifelong churchgoer influenced by his faith, but not immune to doubts.
“I remember the times when I was wrestling with these issues that I would feel crushed. I was crushed by the purely materialistic, atheistic account of the universe,” Updike told The Associated Press during a 2006 interview.
“I am very prone to accept all that the scientists tell us,” he said. “But I can’t quite make the leap of unfaith, as it were, and say, `This is it. Carpe diem (seize the day), and tough luck.'”
He received his greatest acclaim for the “Rabbit” series, a quartet of novels published over a 30-year span that featured ex-high school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom and his restless adjustment to adulthood and the constraints of work and family. To the very end, Harry was in motion, an innocent in his belief that any door could be opened, a believer in God even as he bedded women other than his wife.
The series “to me is the tale of a life, a life led by an American citizen who shares the national passion for youth, freedom, and sex, the national openness and willingness to learn, the national habit of improvisation,” Updike would later write. “He is furthermore a Protestant, haunted by a God whose manifestations are elusive, yet all-important.”
Other notable books included “Couples,” a sexually explicit tale of suburban mating that sold millions of copies; “In the Beauty of the Lilies,” an epic of American faith and fantasy; and “Too Far to Go,” which followed the courtship, marriage and divorce of the Maples, a suburban family.
After graduating from Harvard University in 1954, he accepted a one-year fellowship to study painting at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts at Oxford University. During his stay in England, a literary idol, E.B. White, offered him a position at The New Yorker, where he served briefly as foreign books reviewer. Many of Updike’s reviews and short stories were published in The New Yorker, often edited by White’s stepson, Roger Angell.
By the end of the 1950s, Updike had published a story collection, a book of poetry and his first novel, “The Poorhouse Fair,” soon followed by the first of the Rabbit books, “Rabbit, Run.” Praise came so early and so often that New York Times critic Arthur Mizener worried that Updike’s “natural talent” was exposing him “from an early age to a great deal of head-turning praise.”
In recent years, his books included “The Widows of Eastwick,” a sequel to his “The Witches of Eastwick”; and two essay collections, “Still Looking” and “Due Considerations.” A book of short fiction, “My Father’s Tears and Other Stories,” is scheduled to come out later this year.
His standing within the literary community may never have been greater than in 2006 when he delivered a passionate defense of bookstores and words, words on paper, at publishing’s annual national convention. Responding to a recent New York Times essay predicting a digital future, he scorned this “grisly scenario” and praised the paper book as the site of an “encounter, in silence, of two minds.”
“So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts,” he concluded. “For some of us, books are intrinsic to our sense of personal identity.”