John Updike, the great writer who died of lung cancer last week at age 76, was a living link between two eras of American literature.
For traditional, straitlaced readers of the "Greatest Generation," Updike was often seen as a literary subversive, a clean, well-scrubbed WASP who insisted on irritating them by portraying "common" people (which usually meant non-wealthy and/or non-academic folks) in his fiction -- and whose role as a popularizer of explicit sex in mainstream, best-selling fiction made them feel "icky."
It was Updike's unapologetic WASP identity, however, on top of his decades of success and his mastery of traditional literary roles (last week, the New York Times called him "arguably America's one true all-around man of letters") which made him seem suspect to many of today's young literary lions of the David Foster Wallace generation.
In fact, in recent years, it could be a little risky to praise Updike while talking to younger readers and writers. On more than one occasion, when putting in a positive word for Updike while talking to, say, under-35 Dave Eggers fans, I've elicited reactions ranging from sarcastic chuckling and snarky comments to looks of disbelief that screamed, "You pathetic geezer."
Oh, the irony! Updike may have been a stuffy dinosaur to some literary hipsters, but when he appeared on the U.S. literary scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was the epitome of an exciting breath of fresh air: a young writer who skimmed over the new shiny surfaces of postwar commercial America while plumbing the depths of his subjects' inner lives without making them seem crazed. A J.D. Salinger who didn't frown on his own characters.
Suddenly, with Updike, here was someone erudite, practically a classicist, who had the nerve to take ordinary middle-class life seriously as a topic for literature. The fact that his writing was so lyrical and, well, beautiful, just made him that much more of an unexpected treat. In his early short story collections The Same Door and Pigeon Feathers, as well as the 1960 novel which made his reputation, Rabbit Run, Updike probed the lives of regular schmoes, ennobled their struggles and aspirations -- even tied them to mythology -- and generally approached members of the then-surging American middle class as worthy subjects of serious literature.
In a 1966 Life magazine interview, Updike explained, "My subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class. I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules."
Later, the limited social range of his characters would trigger claims that he was irrelevant in a multicultural society, not to mention that he was a sexist. I find the claim of Updike's sexism hard to swallow. Sex-captivated, maybe, at various times in his career -- the uproar over his best-selling novel Couples in 1968 was a cultural fistfight for the ages -- but sexist? Not unless you think that a description of sexist behavior in a character denotes the author's feelings. Even then, Updike still deserves credit for creating a variety of very strong female characters, as in Alexandra, Sukie and Jane in the freewheeling The Witches of Eastwick and its recent sequel, which turned out to be Updike's last novel, The Widows of Eastwick.
It's true that Updike could be a bit tightly wound, but so what? That was his way -- a disciplined, hard-working writer who took his craft very seriously. That's a plus, in my book. No one is claiming that Updike's work was uniformly wonderful. He wrote several masterpieces (some of which are listed below), as well as several serious creative flops (do not -- repeat, do not -- bother reading Gertrude and Claudius or Seek My Face). In between, he created handfuls of interesting, entertaining and intelligent novels, which he pumped out at a phenomenal rate (and that doesn't count his lifetime output of short stories, criticism and poetry).
Throughout his career, Updike produced intensely observed descriptions of life's mundane facets, observations that seemed to lift the veil of ordinariness from their subjects, whether they be a high school pep rally, a woman's necklace, a deflated tire, or a cup of coffee. Yes, he could be a tight-butt at times, but oh, that penetrating vision, that craftsmanship. He is already missed.
If you're not all that familiar with Updike's work and you've read this far, you may appreciate some recommendations, so here goes:
• Pigeon Feathers, a 1962 short story collection that was many readers' introduction to Updike's fluid, penetrating observations.
• Rabbit, Run (1960) and Rabbit Is Rich (1981), two of the four novels about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, Updike's American 20th century Everyman.
• The Centaur (1963), a dense, uber-lyrical mix of modern angst, familial love and mythology that, frankly, made my head feel as if it was exploding, in a good way, when I read it in the 9th grade.
• In the Beauty of the Lilies, a masterpiece from 1996 that's somehow still underrated. In it, Updike jumps outside his usual settings to take a broad view of 80 years of history, and posits that Americans replaced religion's importance with the movies.