He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the air-ports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
O all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
So W.H. Auden wrote in his "In Memory of W.B. Yeats." Now, in another bleak January, exactly 70 years later, we mourn the death of John Updike.
The death of a famous writer touches us all, members of an extended family of readership. In the passing of a major figure like Updike, we find a touchstone of our own mortality, our own regrets at not accomplishing what we wanted to, our own joys and satisfactions at our best times. For years, he was part of our intellectual world. We looked forward to a new book, reading the reviews, going to the bookstore or library to hold it in our hands for the first time, or searching the table of contents in The New Yorker or New York Review of Books, happy to find an Updike piece or story or poem listed there.
With his astounding productivity, his brave tackling of a range of subjects and characters, Updike was at the center of an entire weather system of criticism. I was fondest of his Rabbit Angstrom saga (apparently like a majority of readers), his short stories, and his literary criticism. While turning out such a variety of work, he also apparently found time to read a range of European and Asian writers, while keeping up with the art world. He believed he could create the mind of an American teenage terrorist, an African warlord, an American car dealer, a Jewish novelist, a Boston Red Sox slugger and on and on. Often, he brought it off with his deep resources of language.
While he created work at a high level, he shunned the tormented genius model, which is why some critics enjoyed dismissing him as too glib, too "suburban." Like the Victorian writer Trollope, he considered himself a utilitarian literary craftsman, who sat down everyday in his workshop and turned out the words. Unlike J.D. Salinger, he relished a public role, frequently giving interviews and speaking at conferences. In his celebrated essay on Ted Williams' last day, and last home run, he famously said "Gods don't answer letters." Yet, he was a God who might answer a letter. Like Philip Roth and Norman Mailer, he did his work, creating a considerable canon. If there are readers in the future, or humans for that matter, they will need to read Updike's work to gain an essential understanding of the American consciousness in the late 20th century and early 21st century.
Some thought his writing too fluid, too descriptive. But I loved his voice, his metaphoric richness. I'll always remember the inner mind of Rabbit Angstrom, jogging in "Rabbit Is Rich." Of course, Rabbit would have lacked the powers of observation and the depths of language to so vividly describe the forest, the light, the shadows. Still, we believed that Rabbit, beneath his greed, crudeness and animal vitality, was capable of higher thoughts, of feeling, of possessing a soul. While showing our baser instincts, our crazy strategems for sex and money, our destructive gender wars, Updike also affirmed human warmth, humor, compassion, our need for art and language and tradition and religious solace. These lines from Auden's eulogy to Yeats match my feelings over Updike's death. Perhaps morbidly, I've always been struck by how such a fertile mind, full of ideas and words, can suddenly fall into silence
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed: he became his admirers.
You were silly like us: your gift survived it all;
The parish of rich women, physical decay.
Yourself; mad (America) hurt you into poetry.
Now America has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to happen; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs.
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives.
A way of happening, a mouth.
And, I'll close with the end of Auden's great poem, so appropriate to the great life of John Updike. The hope that Auden sought in the bleak year of 1939 we again look for in our own troubled time. The work of writers like Updike keep that hope alive.
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days,
Teach the free man how to praise.