Updike at Rest

In all the many elegant tributes to John Updike that appeared in the first days and weeks after his death in late January, I missed any mention of the thing that was troubling me most. Soon after he died I had said to a friend, half in jest, that I felt as if a minor god, who kept careful watch over all our doings, had gone away. That feeling, strange as it is, has only grown. It suggests, perhaps, that the role he played in our culture was not just that of a novelist who was alert to the ways and meanings of our time. Nor was he exactly, as he has been called, a man of letters, some distant figure who loomed above our cultural life, saying once and for all what’s what. No, he was someone who simply paid steady attention, and steadily shared the fruits of that attention in his sterling and generally whimsical prose and verse. Novels, yes, short stories, poems, essays, book reviews, art criticism, but also light, hard-to-classify sketches, what might be called feuilletons, when he couldn’t contain his observations in a more conventional form. One such sketch, published in The New Yorker in 1981, called “Invasion of the Book Envelopes,” is a small comic meditation on the messy packaging in which books are shipped. The last piece of any sort to appear during his lifetime, which we had the honor to publish in our most recent issue, was another one of these. Called “Nessus at Noon,” it is a brief witty dialogue between the owner of a dry cleaners and a customer who has received a puzzling note with an article of returned clothing.

Literary reputations tend to dip for a decade or two after a writer dies, and it is hard to know whether, after that, Updike’s mastery of the physical and emotional texture of life in our times will date him (Rabbit, Run felt a little faded when I reread it a few years ago) or whether he will emerge as our Anthony Trollope (a wise comparison that Verlyn Klinkenborg made in The New York Times recently). For now, it’s worth noting that Updike was unusual among our most acclaimed novelists in not retreating from the cultural scene. Name me another major writer who reviews books regularly, writes about new art exhibits, and would lightly turn an Olympian eye to book packaging or the dry cleaners. There was a generosity about this.

Brian Boyd’s cover story in this issue asks whether it is really true that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species has robbed our lives of purpose. Boyd makes a compelling case that it has not, but certainly for many of us evolution makes impossible the comforting feeling that someone out there is honoring our lives just by paying attention, one role that God or the gods have played for many centuries. It is a joke, of course, to call Updike a minor god in this regard, but the comfort of a steady and attentive gaze is real enough. I’ve probably read only a million or two of the millions of words Updike wrote during his lifetime, but the stream of words was always there for dipping into or for full immersion. It never occurred to me that it would stop.

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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