John Updike died yesterday, at the age of 76. I met him once, in April of 2001, at the University of Cincinnati where I was a Master’s student in the English department. I would have at one point greeted the prospect of meeting a writer of Updike’s caliber with terror, but I was oddly and uncharacteristically calm when we sat for lunch. The previous evening, I’d had my first glimpse of him, when he had given a reading in UC’s packed Zimmer Auditorium. I was astonished by his height—somehow I thought he’d be shorter. Had I been thinking about basketball—and I never think about basketball—and his own fondness for it, I might have been less surprised. What was not surprising was his verbal deftness. Updike spoke in eloquent, fully-formed paragraphs, marred, if that’s the word, only occasionally by the remnant of the stammer he writes about so gorgeously in his memoir Self-Consciousness (1989). For a self-proclaimed country boy from Shillington, Pennsylvania, Updike was the most urbane, most charming, most gracious man I’d ever met. At lunch the following day, he gamely sat at one end of the table with three graduate students, including myself, while the rest of the faculty sat in a sort of exile at the other end. It quickly became clear to me that the two other students in attendance were tongue-tied—there was pitiful silence in our vicinity. Thinking—quite rightly, as it turned out—that this was an encounter that would not be repeated, I launched in. I remember only one question from that lunch: I asked whether or not he felt any qualms, in Rabbit Redux (1970), in attempting to depict a woman’s thoughts as she’s masturbating. Updike inhaled slowly, got a look of mock horror on his face, and said, “Did I actually have Jan masturbate in Rabbit Redux?” When the lunch was over, we crossed campus to the College Conservatory of Music’s auditorium, where Updike was to be interviewed, by way of the football field. I can no longer look at the field without thinking of Updike’s tall and lanky frame in a business suit, striding purposefully across it, continuing to chat about books and films. He needed to use the bathroom before the interview, and we continued talking as we stood side-by-side at the urinals. Given the many accusations of the scatological in Updike’s work, I thought the scene was appropriate. At the end of the day, he shook my hand, pulled me close, and said softly, “You’re a man of letters.” I can think of nothing more dizzying and delighting for a young writer to hear.
In the intervening years, I didn’t keep up with his work quite as I’d used to—my interests shifted from contemporary American literature to British Modernism, which I teach today. But there are few who can match Updike’s prose. He and I are not a match in many ways: he was New England Protestant, tall, athletic, exuberantly heterosexual, happily suburban (the fact that someone would willingly leave New York City is still bewildering to me), rooted in a time and place and tradition, and privileged by that status. And yet he possesses that trait that weds me to certain writers: his own fictional terrain. Doris Lessing is at her best when she deals with Communism and Africa; Virginia Woolf when she memorializes her Victorian past. Updike is most at home in suburban New England, and though he’s ventured off into other areas, he grabs us most when he opens the suburban bedroom door, and writes with grace about what’s going on in there. He is a writer I cannot read without smiling, for his sentences are delicious—you want to spoon them up into your brain.
He probably wrote nothing better than the Rabbit books, about the washed-up high school basketball star Harry Angstrom, who navigates decades of American life and is a sort of working-class stand-in for Updike himself. The ending of Rabbit, Run (1960) is, to my mind, almost unsurpassed in its simplicity and loveliness:
"Rabbit comes to the curb but instead of going to his right and around the block he steps down, with as big a feeling as if this little side-street is a wide river, and crosses. He wants to travel to the next patch of snow. Although this block of brick three-stories is just like the one he left, something in it makes him happy; the steps and window sills seem to twitch and shift in the corner of his eye, alive. This illusion trips him. His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter he runs. Ah: runs. Runs."
He was possibly the last of his kind, the true American man of letters. Philip Roth might like to lay claim to the title, but he lacks Updike’s calm, steady productivity. I refuse to buy the claims of racism and sexism in Updike’s work—no, Updike was not always politically correct, but as the film director John Schlesinger once said, political correctness is a very dangerous maxim. Part of the function of art is to offend, is to challenge. And while Updike’s women are not often the independent individuals one might like to see, nor are they the whores depicted by writers like Mailer and Roth. I remember a grad student at the time of Updike’s visit becoming enraged by a scene in which Rabbit urinates on a woman, with her willing participation. “No woman would ever want such a thing!” she shrieked. I replied, “How can you be so sure? It’s naïve to think that just because you don’t want something done to you that other people might not enjoy it.”
Above all, I see Updike as a model of how a writer should conduct his or her life. He was unfailingly generous, gentlemanly, and kind; he was a model of productivity—his three-page-a-day rule should be branded on every writer’s forehead; he knew what he was best at and kept on doing it. That’s perhaps what struck me the most about him. If anyone could have had a monstrous ego, it was John Updike. But he didn’t—at least not in my interactions with him. I met many lesser writers in my years at UC, and many had vile temperaments. Updike distinguished himself with a modesty that was surprising and welcome.
It sounds trite, but I don’t think American literature is the same, after his death. I feel about it the same way T. S. Eliot felt about the death of Virginia Woolf, that “a whole pattern of culture is broken.” May he rest in peace.