Book Essay - Summer 2009

Remembering John Updike

A critic and his decades-long correspondence with one of America's best "freelance writers"

By William H. Pritchard | June 1, 2009

John Updike’s death in January prompted me to review our correspondence over the past 36 years. I ini­tiated it by bothering him with a couple of things I had written, and was emboldened to continue bothering him when he responded—and continued to respond, unfailingly, with a brief letter or a packed postcard. So I pretended that he found it salutary to begin his morning by clearing the correspondence from his desk before settling in with the novel, story, poem, or review he was then at work on. Of the two items I sent him in that first missive, one consisted of paragraphs from a fiction chronicle about his 1972 story collection, Museums and Women, paragraphs ending with a rather pompous-sounding prediction that he was “putting together a body of work which in substantial, intelligent creation will eventually be seen as second to none in our time.” (For some reason he liked the ring of my praise enough to use it on the back of one or another of his books.) I also sent him a talk I’d given on nostalgia, which quoted a question he raised in one of his writings: “What is nostalgia but love for that part of ourselves which is in Heaven, forever removed from change and corruption?” In his letter back he surprised me by claiming a “waning of even the ability to feel nostalgia,” which, he said, “maybe is freshest when we are in our twenties and for the first time faced with a great block of subjective time forever set aside.”

When I reviewed Rabbit Is Rich in 1981, The New Republic sent the review to him, and he made my day with a postcard announcing that I had given “a passable impersonation of that favorite ghost of mine, the Ideal Reader.” Meanwhile I had asked him whether, if it were offered, he would accept an honorary degree from Amherst College. He said he would be willing, “providing no speaking (speechifying, I mean to say) is involved,” and suggested further that “just as a nation should conserve its fossil fuel, a writer should try to conserve his face and voice.” In 1983 the invitation came through, and although there was no speechifying required, he had to deal with two verbal challenges, both of which he met fully and gracefully. The first occurred as we ascended steps to the college president’s garden where drinks would be served. At the top stood a friend, the wife of a faculty colleague, whom I introduced to Updike and his wife, Martha. Without a pause, the friend informed the novelist that her mother had very much disliked Rabbit Is Rich (doubtless for its sex). A smile, a twinkle, and “I trust she won’t be here tonight?” asked Updike. A few minutes later as the party began, he encountered a thick-headed trustee whose business success had left small time for literary matters. He gave his name and number, then asked Updike, “And what do you do?” “Oh, I’m a freelance writer,” was the mock-modest reply. The trustee appeared satisfied. Later that evening we had a small party at our house, and among those in attendance were two novelists—Alan Lelchuk, then teaching at the college, and Maureen Howard, whose daughter was among the graduates. When Updike wrote to thank me for looking after him, he noted:

Your post-dinner party was a lot of fun. Maureen Howard had panned Marry Me, I had called Lelchuk’s American Mischief “more trash than truth,” and God knows what other slights had been perpetrated, but we sat down cozy as kindergartners on their first day, determined to be good. A study in craft loyalty.

In anticipation, he had pictured the commencement ceremony itself, held outdoors, as “sun-drenched and laced with chamber music”; alas, the only music consisted of two hymns to Amherst, and soon after things commenced, a steady rain began to fall.

It would be wrong to reduce him to the polite, charming, obliging man with only good will in his heart. I had a glimpse of an Updike different from the genial host of my solicitations when, overly eager, I sent him a letter I’d written to The New York Review of Books, attempting to rebut some negative aspersions cast on his work by Frederick Crews. In the midst of an otherwise friendly reply, Updike suddenly (I had to look twice before it registered) wrote apropos of the letter: “It’s really your friends that hurt you. You credit me with ‘a couple of dozen engaging, sometimes moving short stories,’ when I’ve published well more than a hundred that I hoped were rather more than engaging.” Never had the word engaging looked shabbier to me, but it was too late to substitute a better one. Although he never reprimanded me (as I felt it) in this way again, he more than once reminded me of the difference between being a writer of fiction and a teacher of, among other things, fiction. When I published a book about my life as a student and teacher, mostly conducted at the same institution, he reminded me that he was not a teacher:

I found your gracious memoir about all those Amherst years slightly harrowing, in the way that I find colleges anywhere harrowing. Why, I wonder? Everything is so dear—the neo-Gothic buildings, and the intelligent and witty faculty, and the shiny-eyed students looking up and being fed.

All celebrants of the golden haze of college days ought to take his point. He was careful not to sentimentalize his own not-unhappy years as a Harvard undergraduate.

If not a teacher, he was willing to read, with good grace, so it seemed, the occasional exemplary student paper about his work. One of them, directed at the Maples stories collected in Too Far to Go, received his comment, “Yes indeed, I could hardly have said it better myself,” and he went on to say that he “certainly could not have written a paper so sensitive and free (bringing in her own parents, divorce, etc.) when I was her age.” When I taught a seminar divided equally between his works and those of Philip Roth, he professed to be made nervous by the syllabus:

Just looking at it aroused flutters in my stomach, suspecting that I wouldn’t do very well in it—better, perhaps, on the Roth half than the Updike—and thinking of all that reading. I picture you and your 21 students a bit like those people in Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, gesturing and staring in different anguished directions while the damn thing sinks under you.

He also delivered a question that caused a slight flutter in me: “I keep wondering, if I were an Amherst student, would I sign up for your course in Roth and Updike? . . . I would learn a lot, no doubt.” No doubt, but just a smidgen of doubt surfaced. What was I doing, harrowing him with a course syllabus from one of those “dear” American colleges with “shiny-eyed students looking up and being fed”? Maybe I should have been giving them Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

When in the middle 1990s I determined to write a book about him, I asked if he had any objections to the enterprise: no, he said, blessings on me as long as it wasn’t a biography. As the book went along (I did not provide him with progress reports or questions), he professed concern for my situation: “The thought of you conscientiously trudging through my oeuvre, making sharp, fair adjudications, haunts me to the point that paralysis has at last afflicted my pen.” Had I really done that to this unstoppable producer? Hardly, since the next sentence was “Well, not total, I have cooked up one more book on the misadventures of Henry Bech.” So I was spared any guilt about gumming up the wheels of creativity. His response to the finished book was full and generous. Referring to his picture on the jacket he began, “Well, there I am, thanks to you—my name 2½ inches high and my youthful self posed in hip-high marsh grass.” He guessed that perhaps he was more heroic back then, “burdened with sharp angst but sufficiently far from death to give the question an abstract gloss, and making . . . some music that hadn’t quite been heard before in American letters.” Later on, he suspected he might have stayed “too long, and too garrulously, at the party.” Five years after my book was published, it was reprinted with a brief introduction in which I commented on the books he had written since my first account. Rather pointedly, though as always humorously, he noted that as I “whisked” through the last five years, he “got the reluctant impression that I had become a burden to you, a task that never ends, a kind of hectoring taskmaster like the schoolmaster who awaits Shakespeare’s ‘school-boy with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like snail / Unwillingly to school.’”

We saw each other in Cincinnati in 2001 at a symposium in his honor. He gave a public interview, two readings, signed books endlessly, talked to graduate students, and endured 20-minute talks on his work by me and the critic Donald Greiner—all while giving at least 108 percent effort. I heard from him last in June 2008 when he wrote that he was pleased to have delivered a book of stories for publication a year later.

Like others who cared, I was stunned at the beginning of this year to learn that he was seriously ill. I had recently sent him something I’d written on V. S. Naipaul, and he never acknowledged it—which should have told me something. When a few years ago I had mentioned to him my sadness at the death at 81 of the poet Anthony Hecht, he replied that he was sorry to hear of Hecht’s death. But given the poet’s age, “how bad are we supposed to feel? Somewhat bad, I think.” About his own death, coming a couple of months before his 77th birthday, we may be justified in feeling more than somewhat bad. But the books are there.

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