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John Updike gave voice to a generation and its sex, sin and salvation

John Updike | 1932-2009

John Updike, who brought his exuberant, elegant imagination to novels, short stories, poetry and criticism, died Tuesday at age 76, of lung cancer, at a hospice near his home in Marblehead, Mass.

It's hard to imagine his mind being stilled.

In 60 books and countless articles, that lion of American letters wrote with beauty, insight and sly wit of love and sex, sin and salvation, art and baseball, witches and presidents, writing itself.

Updike had cut short a round of interviews and appearances in November to promote his most recent novel, The Widows of Eastwick, after falling ill.

I was one of the scheduled interviewers who didn't get to talk to him then. I suspected something was seriously wrong a few weeks later, when the Literary Review in London awarded him a Bad Sex in Fiction lifetime achievement award — and he made no public response.

Updike pass up the chance for a finely honed riposte? About sex? He had to be in bad shape.

Nicholas Latimer, the publicity director of his longtime publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, on Tuesday issued a statement announcing Updike's death.

Born in 1932, Updike was raised in Shillington, Pa., a bookish only child in a household with his parents and grandparents. He earned a scholarship to Harvard and graduated summa cum laude, studied art for a year in England and then was offered a job at the New Yorker by E.B. White in 1954.

The rest is literary history. He became the voice of his generation, one "too young to be warriors, too old to be rebels," as he wrote in the introduction to his wonderful 2005 collection The Early Stories, 1953-1975.

They were children in the Depression, parents of the baby boom, pioneers of suburban living. Updike wrote about them knowingly, unflinchingly, humorously.

Best known, and among the best, of his books about that generation were his four novels about small-town has-been athlete Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom: Rabbit Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), with a coda, the novella Rabbit Remembered, in 2001. Together, they are the story not just of restless Rabbit but of America in the second half of the 20th century.

The Rabbit books won Updike two Pulitzer Prizes; he also received two National Book Awards, four National Book Critics Circle Awards, and dozens of other awards and honors in a career spanning more than half a century.

He has been such a presence for so long in the literary world, and such an endless fountain of writing, that it seemed he might never stop. One of the first books I remember lighting up my brain was his story collection Pigeon Feathers, which I read as a high school sophomore in 1967.

His writing could provoke controversy. Some of Updike's contemporaries, such as Norman Mailer, brushed him off as lightweight and self-absorbed (although being brushed off by Mailer was practically a rite of passage for writers of a certain age). Updike was indeed absorbed with the world he wrote about, and it was usually the kind of world he lived in himself. But it was the artist's absorption, the devotion to capturing the very detail that makes the beauty in the quotidian pierce us like an arrow.

Updike was sometimes accused of misogyny, a charge that always baffled me. He wrote about women as well as any male writer I can think of, and better than most. He did not idealize women, but made them real, just as complex and particular, lusty, wise and clueless, as his men.

He was an incisive, bracing critic, as in this evaluation of the often romanticized On Walden Pond: "Thoreau's purpose is to reconcile us, after centuries of hazy anthropocentrism, to Nature as it is, relentless and remorseless. We need to be called out from the shared comforts and illusions of village life."

He wrote beautifully crafted poetry, not always in poems. In a wonderful New Yorker piece on Ted Williams' last game in 1960, he called Fenway "a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark."

As terrific as his novels are, he was even better at short stories. His A&P is one of the best (and one of the most anthologized) ever written, a pitch-perfect tale of knight-errantry in a grocery store, told in the wisecracking voice of a hormonal, tender-hearted teenage boy.

A trio of girls comes into the store wearing bathing suits, and the pretty one hands him a single jar at the cash register. "Now her hands are empty, not a ring or a bracelet, bare as God made them, and I wonder where the money's coming from. Still with that prim look she lifts a folded dollar bill out of the hollow at the center of her nubbled pink top. The jar went heavy in my hand."

If you are an Updike fan, you probably have already gone back to your bookshelf for a favorite. But his cataract of words is not quite done: Knopf will publish My Father's Tears and Other Stories in June.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727)893-8435.

John Updike gave voice to a generation and its sex, sin and salvation 01/28/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 5:40pm]
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