Saturday, 2:15 PM
Acclaimed writer John Updike dies at 76
By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff
John Updike, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, whose jeweled prose and quicksilver intellect made him for decades one of America's foremost literary figures, died today. He was 76.
Mr. Updike, a long-time resident of Beverly Farms, died of lung cancer at Hospice of the North Shore in Danvers, said his wife, Martha.
"He was obviously among the best writers in the world,'' said David Remnick, editor the New Yorker, Mr. Updike's literary home for more than half a century.
A master of many authorial trades, Mr. Updike was novelist, short story writer, critic, poet -- and in each role as prolific as he was gifted. He aimed to produce a book a year. Easily meeting that goal, Mr. Updike published some 60 volumes. The first was a collection of poems, "The Carpentered Hen" (1958). "My Father’s Tears and Other Stories" is scheduled to be published in June.
Mr. Updike combined diligence with brilliance. Few writers have staged such elegant lexical ballets on the page. "The scrape and snap of Keds" fill "the moist March air" in the opening of Mr. Updike’s second novel "Rabbit, Run" (1960). Thirty years later, in "Rabbit at Rest," something as mundane as angina becomes “that singeing sensation he gets as if a child inside him is playing with lighted matches.”
Mr. Updike could be brilliant even about his own diligence, writing in his memoir "Self-Consciousness" (1989) of "my ponderously growing oeuvre, dragging behind me like an ever-heavier tail." Or there was the description of Fenway Park, "a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark," in Mr. Updike's classic account of Ted Williams' final game, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu."
It was Mr. Updike's boyhood attachment to Williams, as well as access to area beaches, that brought the Pennsylvania native to the North Shore, in 1957. He lived north of Boston the rest of life: first in Ipswich, later in Georgetown and, for the past three decades, Beverly Farms.
Mr. Updike long ago became a monument on the literary scene, so much so that in 1991 the novelist Nicholson Baker could devote an entire book to his fascination with him, "U and I." Yet what seemed monumental and effortless to readers didn't necessarily feel that way to Mr. Updike.
"It's always a push to get up the stairs, to sit down and go to work," he told Time magazine in 1982. "You'd rather do almost anything, read the paper again, write some letters, play with your old dust jackets, any number of things you'd rather do than tackle that empty page, because what you do on the page is you, your ticket to all the good luck you've enjoyed."
Mr. Updike's detractors held the sheer gorgeousness of his style against him. “Stale garlic,” Norman Mailer called it. “Fixed in facility,” Gore Vidal said. The presence of so distinctive a style, they implied, must mean an absence of substance. “A brilliant actionlessness,” the critic Alfred Kazin wrote, “the world is all metaphor.”
The novelist David Foster Wallace consigned Mr. Updike, along with Mailer and Philip Roth, to the authorial category of "G.M.N.s" (Great Male Narcissists), condemning his "radical self-absorption."
That Mr. Updike was among the few serious American writers of any era to make a living from his books -- let alone quite a good living -- made him further suspect. So did his unwillingness to court literary fashion.
“When I write,” Mr. Updike once noted, “I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas.”
Yet beneath the comfortableness of the affluent, suburban settings Mr. Updike most often wrote about, and the glittering surface of his prose, were profound and piercing concerns. One was an ongoing examination of his native land. “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy,” he wrote in the 1980 story collection, “Problems.”
Another concern (unto obsession) was sex. Mr. Updike told Time in a 1968 cover story that when his wife read his then-scandalous novel “Couples” (1968) “she felt that she was being smothered in pubic hair.” Adultery looms as large in Mr. Updike’s fiction as paranoia does in Thomas Pynchon’s or hunting and fishing in Ernest Hemingway’s. “Sex is like money,” he once wrote; “only too much is enough.”
Mr. Updike focused on the spiritual no less than the carnal. "I wouldn't want to pose as a religious thinker," he said in a 1990 Globe interview. "I'm more or less a shady type improvising his way from book to book and trying to get up in the morning without a toothache.”
He was being unusually modest. Religion figures throughout Mr. Updike’s writing (fiction as well as essays). References abound to such religious philosophers as Kierkegaard, Paul Tillich, and Karl Barth. The protagonists of his novels “A Month of Sundays” (1975), “Roger’s Version” (1986), and “The Witches of Eastwick” (1984) are, respectively, a minister, a religious historian, and the Devil (memorably played in the movie adaptation by Jack Nicholson).
Raised a Lutheran, Mr. Updike became a Congregationalist after moving to Massachusetts and later an Episcopalian. “The inner spaces that a good story lets us enter are the old apartments of religion,” Mr. Updike said in that Time 1968 interview.
Mr. Updike’s three most enduring literary creations might all be seen as variants of himself.
Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a former high school basketball star, features in a tetralogy: “Rabbit, Run,” “Rabbit Redux” (1971), “Rabbit Is Rich” (1981), and “Rabbit at Rest.” The character also inspired the 2001 novella “Rabbit Remembered.”
“Rabbit Is Rich” won a rare literary trifecta, the Pulitzer, the American Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award. “Rabbit at Rest” won the Pulitzer and NBCC.
Rabbit is an Updike who stayed in southeastern Pennsylvania, with talents athletic rather than literary. “It’s a relief to be dealing with Harry,” Mr. Updike said in the Globe interview. “I’m able to be as naïve, maybe, as I really am.”
Rabbit is the vessel for Mr. Updike’s most lasting achievement: a monumental rendering, at once affectionate and damning, of middle-class American life in the second half of the 20th century. It is also a kind of X-ray of vexed, perplexed masculinity. Rabbit demonstrates a truth Mr. Updike memorably expressed in his 1978 novel “The Coup,” “that in America a man is a failed boy.”
Henry Bech, the hero of “Bech: A Book” (1970), “Bech Is Back” (1982), and “Bech at Bay” (1998), is a much-lionized (and vaguely ridiculous) Jewish-American writer. As an undergraduate, Mr. Updike had been president of Harvard’s student humor magazine, the Lampoon. The Bech books are the most potent reminder of how playful and witty Mr. Updike could be when he so chose.
Bech was Mr. Updike’s riposte to those who consigned him to the tony blandness of WASP suburbia, the successor to John O’Hara and John Cheever in The New Yorker’s fiction pages. “A strangely irrelevant writer,” the critic Leslie Fiedler called Mr. Updike; “all windup and no delivery,” another prominent Jewish critic, Norman Podhoretz, wrote of Mr. Updike’s stories.
In fact, Mr. Updike shared little with O’Hara and Cheever other than magazine and/or milieu. He felt the writer who had the most pronounced influence on him was the English novelist Henry Green. Rather surprisingly, perhaps, he wrote in the introduction to his “Early Stories” (2003) of his debt to Hemingway for showing him “how much tension and complexity unalloyed dialogue can convey, and how much poetry lurks in the simplest nouns and predicates.”
Mr. Updike’s early stories show traces of J.D. Salinger in their emotional delicacy and occasional preciosity. Above all, in his writing’s metaphorical luxuriance, there is a marked affinity with Vladimir Nabokov, one of the very few 20th-century writers in English whose stylistic virtuosity exceeds Mr. Updike’s.
Mr. Updike’s third great literary incarnation, as man of letters, was likely his most impressive. Only Henry James rivals Mr. Updike among American writers as a novelist-critic. A polymath reviewer and essayist, he would regularly turn up writing about Nabokov (or Doris Day, of whom he was an ardent admirer) in the back pages of The New Yorker, art in The New York Review of Books, or about his favorite sport in Golf or Golf Digest. (“Golf appeals to the idiot in us and the child,” Mr. Updike once wrote. “Just how childlike golf players become is proven by their frequent inability to count past five.”)
"When I was young,” Mr. Updike said in that Globe interview, "I thought I wanted to be a kind of latter-day [James] Thurber or [Robert] Benchley. ... The abortive humorist, who passed away -- like the dinosaurs becoming birds -- became this New Yorker critic.”
John Hoyer Updike was born on March 18, 1932, in Shillington, Pa., which he would recast in his early short stories as Olinger. His parents were Linda Grace (Hoyer) Updike and Wesley Updike. Mr. Updike would lovingly portray his father, who taught junior high school mathematics, as the teacher in his National Book Award-winning novel, “The Centaur” (1963).
Mr. Updike’s mother encouraged her son to write and draw. While acknowledging the effect of her influence, he saw at least two other factors in his becoming a writer.
“I’m sure,” Mr. Updike said in a 1978 Newsday interview, “that my capacity to fantasize and make coherent fantasies, to have the patience to sit down day after day and to whittle a fantasy out of paper, all that relates to being an only child.”
And in “Self-Consciousness” he wrote: “My assets as a novelist I take to be the taste for American life acquired in Shillington, a certain indignation and independence also acquired there, a willingness to suspend judgment, and a cartoonist’s ability to compose within a prescribed space.”
A straight-A student, Mr. Updike was president of his high school class, editor of the school paper, and won a scholarship to Harvard. Mr. Updike excelled there, too. He graduated summa cum laude in English and won a fellowship to study abroad.
While in college, Mr. Updike married Mary Pennington. They divorced in 1977. The couple spent a year living in England, where Mr. Updike was studying at the Ruskin School of Drawing, at Oxford. While there, Mr. Updike was offered a staff position on The New Yorker by E.B. White. The magazine had published a poem of Mr. Updike's, "Duet, With Muffled Brake Drums,'' in 1954. It would be his employer for the next two years -- and literary home for the rest of his life.
Mr. Updike became one of the magazine’s signature writers. "No write was more important to the soul of The New Yorker than John,'' said Remnick, the editor.
It was there that the early stories that helped make his reputation, such as “Pigeon Feathers,” “Flight,” “The Happiest I’ve Been,” and “A&P,” first ran. The association extended to two other generations of his family. Both his mother, writing under her maiden name, and his son, David, published stories in The New Yorker’s pages. Although detractors typecast Mr. Updike as a “New Yorker writer” -- safe, settled, self-satisfied -- he delighted in throwing such curveballs as the “Bech” books and the play “Buchanan Dying” (1974).
As he aged, Mr. Updike demonstrated a growing venturesomeness. The Saint-Simon of the suburbs also wrote novels about a modern-day Tristan and Iseult in Rio de Janeiro (“Brazil,” 1994), Hollywood (“In the Beauty of the Lilies,” 1996), a “prequel” to “Hamlet” (“Gertrude and Claudius,” 2000), and the post-9/11 world (“Terrorist,” 2006). Updikean familiar and Updikean exotic even merged, in “Toward the End of Time” (1997), which takes place on a post-apocalyptic North Shore.
“There's a kind of confessional impulse that not every literate, intelligent person has,” Mr. Updike said in his 1990 Globe interview. “A crazy belief that you have some exciting news about being alive, and I guess that, more than talent, is what separates those who do it from those who think they'd like to do it. That your witness to the universe can't be duplicated, that only you can provide it, and that it's worth providing.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Updike leaves two sons, David of Cambridge; Michael, of Newburyport; two daughters, Miranda, of Ipswich, and Elizabeth, of Maynard; three stepsons, John Bernhard, of Lexington, Jason Bernhard, of New York City, and Frederic Bernhard, of New Canaan, Conn.; seven grandchildren; and seven step-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements were pending.