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This article written by Joan Crespi was published in U.S. 1
Newspaper on April 21, 1999. All rights reserved.
Updike, at Rabbit’s Pace
On any short list of living major American writers
you will find him. "This man is one of our two or three finest
living talents," says Clifton Fadiman. A world-renowned writer,
he is the author of 49 books. His 50th book, "More Matter,"
a collection of essays, is scheduled for fall publication. Among the
prizes his novels have won are the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book
Award, the American Book Award, and the National Critics Circle Award.
He has lectured in Venezuela, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia.
And on Thursday, April 22, 1999, at 8 p.m., you will find him reading at
the College of New Jersey Writers’ Conference. He is, of course, John
Born and raised in eastern Pennsylvania, Updike still considers the
area his emotional and literary home. He’s from around these parts,
he told conference director Jean Hollander, on a postcard, the first
time she invited him to appear.
Novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, critic, writer of children’s
books, editor, and designer, Updike has also written two plays and
two librettos. His novels and stories have won just about every major
literary award in this country. In 1964, at age 32, Updike was the
youngest person ever elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters;
in 1998 he received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished
Contribution to American Letters.
He is best known for his portrayals of the angst and tensions of suburban
life, for his four "Rabbit" novels chronicling the life path
of former star athlete Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom (two of which
won Pulitzers), and for his lyrical, poetic prose style, catching
the special look and feel of the physical world. One critic in the
1960s remarked on how, "he perceives the magic in ordinary things."
His fiction is crammed with vivid details. And he is noted for his
epiphanies that reveal hidden states of being. "My subject,"
he said a quarter century ago, "is the American small-town middle
class." White and Protestant.
Many of his writing peers were urban and Jewish. Individually and
collectively, Updike says, they were "the chief glory of postwar
American literature." (And such has been said about him.) Updike
thought it would be fun to imagine himself in such a skin. So he created
a fictional alter ego, Bech, a writer who is a New York Jew living
the New York literary life. Updike, the small town farm boy, told
National Public Radio’s Terry Gross in a 1988 interview that he tried
to make Bech as unlike himself as possible. Not only does Bech provide
a vehicle for Updike to use his experiences as a writer, but with
Bech Updike comments on and spoofs his own writing. Here’s Updike,
angst-less, having fun (with Updike). Since Updike has not yet won
the Nobel Prize, he took care of that in his fiction: he awarded it
The first thing one notices when writing about Updike
is the huge blizzard of material. In a 1997 interview in Philadelphia,
Gross cited his prodigious output. "I write less than Joyce Carol
Oates," he gently quipped. Many of his works are children’s books
and collections of verse or short stories. His longest novel, he said,
was about 500 pages. "I know I’ve written now more than anyone
wants to read," he added. The second thing one notices is the
longevity of his fame. Part of this he attributes to "early and
His first book, "The Carpentered Hen" (1958), was a collection
of verse on the absurdities of modern life; his first novel, "The
Poorhouse Fair," about elderly residents of a local poorhouse,
was published 40 years ago, in 1959. It met with mixed critical response:
some reviewers admired the lapidary prose; others faulted him for
a preoccupation with style over substance. Yet the book brought him
considerable attention and won an award from the National Institute
of Arts and Letters when Updike was still in his mid-twenties. Since
then he’s published a book every year or two, with sometimes two in
a single year.
Prolific? Although 1999 is not yet four months old, its days have
already seen a Bech short story, "His Oeuvre" in the New Yorker
(January 25); the pompous Bech’s delightful tongue-in cheek "interview"
with Updike, "Questions of Character: There’s No Ego as Wounded
Alter Ego," in the New York Times (March 1); his criticism of
Frost’s life and work, "To Lodge a Few Poems," in The New
Yorker (March 15). And in between, on March 8, the New Yorker published
the esteemed Updike’s ditty poem about, yes, Monica Lewinsky.
Updike has been the object both of encomiums and literary vinegar.
As early as 1961 a reviewer called him "minor cult" figure
who "combines a startling literacy, stylistic virtuosity, wit,
and a profound melancholy in a way that is almost Joycean." While
several critics of the 1960s charged him with banality, and one charged
that his vision was small, and some later said his work was all surface
dazzle without substance; others agreed that his "people are so
ordinary and . . . the situations described so commonplace that much
of his narrative success must rest on . . . his stylistic ability."
The critics have disappeared; Updike now survives with the reputation
of an icon. Joyce Carol Oates, while noting Updike’s sense of humor,
likens him to Flaubert. "Updike, with his precision’s prose and
his intimately attentive yet cold eye, is a master, like Flaubert,
of mesmerizing us with his narrative voice even as he might repel
us with the vanities of human desire his scalpel exposes."
He is also noted for his descriptions of sexual grapplings.
Updike has said he finds models for his explicit handling of sex in
James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Proust.
Major authors are often chosen to review his work. Joyce Carol Oates
reviewed "Rabbit at Rest" (1990), Martin Amis reviewed "Odd
Jobs: Essays and Criticism" (1991), "Brazil" was reviewed
by Barbara Kinsolver (1994), "In the Beauty of the Lilies"
(1996), by Julian Barnes, and Margaret Atwood reviewed "Toward
the End of Time" (1997). Although the subject matter and the setting
of this latter novel — post-nuclear-war America — is a departure
for Updike, the style is not: here’s "another excellently written
novel by an excellent novelist," Atwood wrote. Gore Vidal wrote
a recent acid commentary on "In the Beauty of the Lilies"
(1976) in the Times Literary Supplement, saying Updike was everything
he hated about America. Updike fans were furious.
If some critics disliked Updike’s early work for its banality, more
recently he has been criticized for his antifeminist stance, which
many see in his 1984 novel "The Witches of Eastwick;" made
more accessible by the movie that followed in 1987. Many under-40
females — undoubtedly influenced by the women’s movement of the
1970s — don’t like him, and reported comments include: "Just
a penis with a thesaurus;" "He makes misogyny seem literary
the same way Limbaugh makes fascism seem funny."
As critic and essayist, Updike has written on a host of writers and
published books on Whitman, Hawthorne, Emerson. And he is up for pranks:
on the Amazon.com website he wrote a beginning and an ending for a
story. But he was widely criticized for doing so.
Updike has become so famous that he finds his way into others’ fictions,
sometimes as the object of thinly disguised criticism or jealousy.
The novelist David Foster Wallace has one of his female characters
ask, "Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?"
But elsewhere he’s an icon that moves the plot. In a new ABC sitcom,
"It’s Like…You Know," which aired this month, Updike is
a male character’s favorite writer.
As an editor, Updike has selected the 55 short stories
for the just-appeared "The Best Short Stories of the Century"
1999. And for "The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1998" he
chose the top 10 literary works of the millennium.
Updike has a devoted and loyal following and a website, not of his
doing. Now nearly 2-1/2 years old and boasting over 50,000 hits, it
was started, with others’ help, by James Yerkes, professor of religion
and philosophy at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The
page is named "The Centaurian," after Updike’s 1963 novel,
"The Centaur," in which he interweaves characters from Greek
legend with the story of a relationship between a Pennsylvania schoolteacher
and his adolescent son.
A creature half man, half beast, the centaur represents the ambiguity
of human existence. Yerkes told U.S. 1 that "the novel’s mythological
theme seems to me to represent the paradoxical pressures of flesh
and spirit which humans face." Thorough and accurate (Updike himself
edited its "Brief Biographical and Literary Chronology"),
the page is designed to provide information — biography, bibliography,
news — and to promote discussion and commentary about Updike.
In the hyperlink section "What’s new in Updikiana" it carries
the most recent literary information about Updike.
Yerkes, who continues to monitor the page, (http://www.users.fast.net/~joyerkes),
says it gets nearly 150 hits a day, many from high school and college
students. The page has numerous international contributors and readers
and in one recent week received comments and contacts from Korea,
Yemen, Romania, and Australia.
John Hoyer Updike, now 67, was born in Shillington, Pennsylvania,
a small town near Reading, the only child of a mother (nee Hoyer),
who wrote and who published a novel, and a father who, after losing
his job in the Depression, was a junior high school math teacher.
As a child Updike suffered from hay fever, a stammer, and psoriasis.
But he had a rich fantasy life. His mother sent her stories off so
typewriter, paper, and envelopes were all in the house. He had his
father for math for three years, but that didn’t cause problems because,
Updike has said, he was pretty good in math, "and it gave me a
tiny bit of celebrity in this small town." In elementary school
Updike says he got into fist fights and was "thought to be on
the verge of rowdy."
He was brought up in a Lutheran home whose occupants laughed a lot
and, he says, liked to "examine everything for God’s fingerprints."
His paternal grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. He has described
his parents as "loving and encouraging." He didn’t go away
to summer camp and spent the first 18 years of his life in Shillington
and on his maternal grandparents’ farm, 11 miles away, near Plowville,
where the family had moved. But when he left for Harvard University,
he never came back. (His early ambition was to be a cartoonist for
the New Yorker; at Harvard he headed the staff of the Lampoon.) He
majored in English, took a few art courses, and graduated summa cum
laude from Harvard in 1954, then attended the Ruskin School of Drawing
and Fine Art in Oxford, England for a year. In England he met E.B.
and Katharine White — she was a New Yorker editor — and in
1955 he joined the staff of the New Yorker, where he wrote "Talk
of the Town" pieces and published short stories and verse. He
left in 1957 to freelance and write full-time and moved to the small
town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, for the space and isolation he lacked
in New York.
He had married in 1953 (in those days "the way to
get a woman to go to bed with you was to marry her," he told an
interviewer), and had four children. The Updikes separated in 1975,
and he moved in with the woman who was to become his second wife in
1977. He is an Episcopalian and a Democrat. Like several other writers
— Nabokov, Ellison, Farrell, Steinbeck, and Dos Passos — he
supported the Vietnam war. For over four decades he has lived in Massachusetts.
Still, Updike’s modesty aside, there’s no overlooking his prodigious
output. Giving public readings, traveling — on April 12 he was
in Los Angeles for an award honoring him and gave a reading —
how does he do it? Updike told Gross in 1997 that he tries to work
every day and to produce three pages a day. Once he typed his stories
and wrote his novels in longhand. Now he owns a PC.
What does Updike say about writing? "The main charge I get out
of writing," he told Gross in 1988, "is when I feel I’ve got
something down accurately." Updike says he aims to "give something
of the texture and ambiguity of life itself, which makes for novels
that don’t end as conclusively and satisfyingly as 19th-century novels,
but it’s our fate as 20th-century people to live with ambiguity."
What does a writer need? "The storytelling instinct has to be
part of the writer’s equipment. . . When the book is closed, you have
to have some kind of whole image," Updike has said. Classics all
have a strong story line, he noted. But "it’s the sentence to
sentence pleasures, the little surprises that makes a book interesting
to read, page to page." As he has often said, "A writer’s
job is to tell the truth." Ministers don’t, politicians don’t,
sociologists don’t, he adds. He told an Los Angeles audience earlier
this month that the purpose of fiction is "to give us back some
sense of our lives as we lead them."
— Joan Crespi
Student Center, Ewing, 609-771-3254. The 18th annual conference features
panels on publishing fiction and nonfiction, writing, screenwriting,
and poetry workshops, and readings. Preregister. $40; plus $10 per
workshop. Thursday, April 22, 9 a.m to 4 p.m.
Brower Student Center, 609-771-3254. The author reads from his work.
$8. Thursday, April 22, 8 p.m.
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