Essays By John Updike

Born on March 18, 1932 in Reading, Pennsylvania, John Updike was the only child of a high school science teacher father and a mother who aspired to be a writer. It was apparently his mother who instilled in young John the passion to write and draw. Updike was a huge fan of humorist books and mysteries throughout his youth and he was prone to consuming them in mass quantities. He aspired to become a cartoonist. He excelled in school, becoming co-valedictorian of Shillington High and receiving a scholarship to attend Harvard. At Harvard, he majored in English and wrote and drew for the Lampoon; his beginnings were thus principally in the mode of humor writing.

Before graduating summa cum laude from Harvard, Updike married Mary A. Pellington, a student at Radcliffe, and in 1954, the year of his commencement, he sold a short story and a poem to The New Yorker. Updike moved with his wife to England to study at Oxford's Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, during which time Mary gave birth to their first daughter, Elizabeth. When they returned to the United States, they settled in New York City, where Updike landed a job as a staff writer for The New Yorker. In 1957, after the birth of their first son, David, the family moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts - where Updike spent the rest of his life. Maintaining ties with The New Yorker but resolving himself to write full-time, Updike began work on his first book of poetry, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, which was published by Harper and Brothers in 1958.

Next came The Poorhouse Fair (1959), Updike's first novel, which was well-received and widely regarded to show true promise. He fulfilled that promise with his second novel, Rabbit, Run (1960), published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Updike published through Knopf for the rest of his career. Rabbit, Run was a huge success, and Updike added further laurels to his crown with The Centaur, which won him the National Book Award in 1963. By the age of thirty-one, he was already one of the country's leading literary voices.

In 1964, he was admitted to the National Institute of Arts and Letters; he remains the youngest person ever to have received this honor. His 1968 novel Couples inspired a Time cover story on the novelist. The 1970s witnessed both the creation of a new recurring protagonist, Henry Bech - in Bech: A Book (1970) - and the reappearance of Harry Angstrom in Rabbit Redux (1971). In 1974, Updike, long an activist on causes involving the Soviet Union, joined Arthur Miller, Richard Wilbur, and John Cheever in demanding that the Soviet government stop persecuting Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He divorced his wife Mary in 1976, and married Martha Ruggles Bernhard the following year.

Subsequent works include Rabbit is Rich (1981), for which Updike won the Pulitzer Prize, Bech is Back (1982), The Witches of Eastwick (1984), Rabbit at Rest (1991), for which he received a second Pulitzer, and Gertrude and Claudius (2000), a prequel to Hamlet. His last novel, Terrorist, was published in 2006. He passed away on January 27th, 2009.

Higher Gossip, edited by Christopher Carduff, is a posthumous selection of John Updike's prodigious output, matching six substantial previous volumes mainly of critical or personal prose. The set amounts to seven pillars, if not of wisdom then something not far off, of warm scrupulous attentiveness. To salute Updike's professionalism, though, is to insult something more important, as he pointed out when accepting an award for a previous selection (Hugging the Shore) in 1984: "to be professional is to be dependable, to be dependable is to be predictable, and predictability is aesthetically boring – an anti-virtue where we hope to be astonished and startled and at some deep level refreshed."

Once or twice in the book Updike excels himself, once or twice he falls short of his own standards, and once or twice he produces work which stands at an odd angle to his usual preoccupations. One example is The Beloved, a story accepted by the New Yorker in 1971 but then withdrawn after the editor, William Shawn, expressed "qualms", as Updike puts it, "about the theatrical background I had concocted". Shawn wasn't the most confrontational of editors (his successor, Bob Gottlieb, referred to him as "the White Rabbit"), and it may have been something not exactly theatrical that bothered him.

The story, about an actor who can't escape from the spell he casts on others, is unusual for Updike in the negativism of its sexual psychology. The hero, Francis, has dealings with both sexes and feels a certain amount of disgust for each. Leaving one woman, he realises that "in some way, physically, she had always repelled him. There had always been in the texture of her buttocks a faint and disturbing grittiness, like sand on a damp day at the beach, and a panicky sweatiness in the yellow soles of her little high-arched feet." Updike's gaze is never exactly gallant, but it's usually more forgiving than this.

With men, Francis enjoys the sex but dislikes the people ("They dominated the company, and aspired to the dignity of a culture"). Even after he has returned to heterosexuality he is "inwardly bent" by remembered details, "the fleshy freedoms, amid a rub of planes satisfyingly solid and flat and rank, that, carried to the porch of pain, could never be reestablished on the body of a woman, however corrupt". His final verdict on the world he has been exploring is that "there was a sourness here Francis could not help relating to the sourness of the male rectum". You might think that the rectum was not strongly gendered in its attributes, but this is a world away from the rapt descriptions of women's bathroom smells in Memories of the Ford Administration (1992).

In one of his finest late novels, Seek My Face (2002), Updike's refusal to enter the gay world imaginatively compromised his achievement – you can't write seriously about the post-war New York art scene while neglecting this constituency. His conflicts are nearer the surface in The Beloved, and it's clear that his attitude was closer to a willed withholding of interest than an untroubled dismissal.

Few people want to read about gay sex but even fewer, surely, want to read about golf. Yet the pages on this subject provide some of the book's high points. The friend or functionary who approached Updike for a contribution to a centennial volume (celebrating the Massachusetts Golf Association) must have been incredulous at the richness of what he turned in, not a thin sketch or slack reminiscence but something packed with social texture and novelistic detail. He describes, for instance, his move from public golf courses to private ones: "Gradually I acquired a country-club manner, at ease with chits and caddie tips, and an expectation of lush green spaces populated by discreetly scattered golfers, of three- or even four-level tees and carts equipped with grass-seed ladles that make replacing divots a faux pas, of clubhouses whose walls shone like those of Byzantine churches with gold-lettered walnut plaques proclaiming tournament results from bygone ages and with silvered clubs and balls of intense historic interest, and of pro shops stocked as densely as flower shops with bouquets of high-tech multi-metal clubs…" This is an America not much written about in the last half-century, not even by Updike.

With another golf piece, written for the Talk of the Town section in 2000, the New Yorker for once received short measure from a favoured son. Its conceit of falling in love with golf, personified as a femme fatale, has run out of steam even before the passage about her liking guys "(gals too – she's through with gender hang-ups)" who keep it simple. A little later Updike comes up with one of the few cloth-eared sentences he ever wrote: "When you connect, it's the whistle of a quail, it's the soar of a hawk, it's the sighting of a planet hitherto unseen; it's mathematical perfection wrested from a half-buried lie; it's absolute."

This would be embarrassing even if there wasn't a loving discussion earlier in the book of You're The Top, exactly the Cole Porter lyric that is getting such a catastrophic makeover here, and in which (as Updike puts it) "something tender, solemn, nonsensical and absolute seems to be being said". If Updike himself had been compiling the volume, rather than Carduff, it's hard to imagine In Love With a Wanton making the cut.

There's one piece with obvious formal problems, The Football Factory, which still earns its place in the book. It's neither quite article nor quite story, describing the visit of a "dignitary" to, yes, a football factory (the one Updike visited was the Wilson Sporting Goods factory in Ada, Ohio). The dignitary isn't characterised but is given a full page of romantic fantasy in which he imagines settling down ("Their first years, he sat home with the babies…") with one of the women who work the die-cutting machines. The piece is described by Carduff as antedating and "perhaps" inspiring Rita Cohen's visit to the Swede's glove factory in Philip Roth's American Pastoral, though it would be nice to have some evidence beyond the theoretical possibility.

Updike describes the face of the factory's floor manager as "slightly plump, with a disagreeable deep dimple in the center of his chin, and an asymmetry to the eyes that would have led an inspector to toss his head into the reject barrel". The narrator knows, though, that rejected footballs aren't thrown away but marketed cheaply to relatively undemanding customers. He imagines these as "old-fashioned poor boys in patched knickers" or "inner-city high schools on slashed budgets".

Updike acted as his own agent, and presumably made his own choice of journalistic placement for this not-quite-reject of his own making. Let's hope he didn't think his marvellous imperfect product had come down too far in the world, consorting with ragamuffins or sink schools, when it appeared in the Observer magazine in 1989.

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