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John Updike Dies

Patricia Sullivan

John Updike, 76, a leading American writer of post-World War II suburbia, died of lung cancer Tuesday, Jan. 27. He lived in Beverly Farms, Mass.

Audio of Updike in October 2008.

In an autobiographical essay, Updike famously identified sex, art, and religion as "the three great secret things" in human experience. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards and almost every other literary prize available. Although himself deprived of a Nobel, he did bestow it upon one of his fictional characters, Henry Bech, the womanizing, egotistical Jewish novelist who collected the literature prize in 1999.

Some critics, like John Cheever, consider Updike "the most brilliant and versatile writer of his generation." He was called America's greatest poetic novelist, who skillfully wove metaphor, lyricism and detail into his narratives. Others say that his prose is superficial and overly descriptive to hide the fact that his work is about nothing.

He captured, and sometimes embodied, a generation's confusion over the civil rights and women's movements, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Updike was called a misogynist, a racist and an apologist for the establishment. On purely literary grounds, he was attacked by Norman Mailer as the kind of author appreciated by readers who knew nothing about writing.

But more often he was praised for his flowing, poetic writing style. Describing a man's interrupted quest to make love, Updike likened it "to a small angel to which all afternoon tiny lead weights are attached."

Nothing was too great or too small for Updike to poeticize. He might rhapsodize over the film projector's "chuckling whir" or look to the stars and observe that "the universe is perfectly transparent: we exist as flaws in ancient glass."

He disliked interviews, but sat for a 2000 interview with Salon and one with the Washington Post last year (see video/audio file above). He also wrote for AARP, The Magazine, a meditation on aging:

With ominous frequency, I can't think of the right word. I know there is a word; I can visualize the exact shape it occupies in the jigsaw puzzle of the English language. But the word itself, with its precise edges and unique tint of meaning, hangs on the misty rim of consciousness. Eventually, with shamefaced recourse to my well-thumbed thesaurus or to a germane encyclopedia article, I may pin the word down, only to discover that it unfortunately rhymes with the adjoining word of the sentence. Meanwhile, I have lost the rhythm and syntax of the thought I was shaping up, and the paragraph has skidded off (like this one) in an unforeseen direction.

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By Patricia Sullivan |  January 27, 2009; 1:27 PM ET  | Category:  Patricia Sullivan
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Very sad news. I feel that I knew him personally.

Posted by: mckearney | January 27, 2009 2:03 PM

I thought he'd always be around; coming out with a new novel, an essay in NYRB or a review in the New Yorker. Maybe heaven can make a special dispensation so that can happen.

Posted by: luftloft | January 27, 2009 2:41 PM

I figured he's be around forever. His writing could be misogynist, but I think he tended to reflect on racism more than demonstrate it himself. He was at his best in describing people and situations. The plotting of his books was often hamfisted and and/or clumsy (esp. his work from the 70s), but he really stretched himself in terms of subject matter. He was a literary writer who also was engaged with many of the struggles of his middle class contemporaries which may explain his appeal.

Posted by: thebuckguy | January 27, 2009 3:07 PM

A truly sad day for lovers of the written word. No one in the latter part of the 20th Century was more successful than Mr. Updike when it came to chronicling the aspirations, disappointments and paradoxes of middle-class Americans living in suburbia. Rabbit is now fully at rest.

Posted by: jameswjd | January 27, 2009 3:29 PM

He was a wonderful writer and craftsman with a unique American voice. I will miss him terribly. I'm glad that The Widows of Eastwick made it to the publisher and he has a new book of short stories coming out in June.

Posted by: DorothyfromColumbus | January 27, 2009 3:59 PM

"With ominous frequency"....well who could have said anything more poetic, real, and touching about his circumstances than this man in this statement? I think he would have found his immortality strange and would have written, with great amusement, about how he, and all the rest of us, just COULD NOT exactly have "gotten it." But, somehow, just like him, "get it" we do.
We will always remember him and always miss him.

Posted by: cms1 | January 27, 2009 4:00 PM

I never read any of his books. Should I have? If so, what is a representative work?

Posted by: jethro1 | January 27, 2009 5:07 PM

Terrible, terrible loss. I never thought of his works as misogynistic but rather raw mirrors of the time in which he lived.

Thank you and fare thee well, Mr. Updike, Sir.

Posted by: TheMagwitch | January 27, 2009 6:55 PM

Jethro1 asked:
I never read any of his books. Should I have? If so, what is a representative work?

In my opinion, the Rabbit tetralogy, 1500 pages of four novels chronicling an everyman's struggle with real life, spiritual life and himself, is the best American literature of the 20th century. If you can't real all four Rabbit novels, at least read "Rabbit, Run."

Posted by: flarrfan | January 27, 2009 8:05 PM

On second thought, if you can only read one Rabbit novel, choose based on your age. If in your 20's, "Rabbit, Run"...if in your 30's, go for "Rabbit Redux" and get a feel for what the 1960's was all about...if in your 40's, go with "Rabbit Is Rich"...and if you're over 50, "Rabbit at Rest" will resonate.

Posted by: flarrfan | January 27, 2009 8:31 PM

Oddly, considering everything by Updike I've read over the years, the item that stays with me and which I frequently quote is an interview he gave to a food writer at The New York Times in late 1982 or early 1983. I was amused that he said he enjoyed McDonald's, not for the food but because he enjoyed "watching the little kids hang out." And he admitted he didn't like his food to "look like animals." Give him a meatloaf, sausage, bologna, or got dog over a pig roasting on a spit or a leg of lamb any day.

Posted by: bucinka8 | January 28, 2009 12:20 PM

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