John Updike (1932-2009) died last week.
It is hard to imagine “The New Yorker” without him. By the magazine’s own count, he published in it 146 short stories, dozens of short essays and over 500 poems and critical reviews from about 1954 through the fall of 2008. He wrote nearly 60 books–novels and criticism–and hundreds of book reviews and essays for other periodicals. All were elegant and observant, carefully structured and insightful. He chronicled an America where its people seemed to replace values and faith with materialism and a yearning for status, yet he did it gently, with understanding, patriotism and love. Updike will be very much missed by all of us readers who anticipated regular pieces in New York literary magazines and expected a book a year. He was part of New York, yet he lived on Boston’s North Shore–a sophisticate whose roots were popular and grounded.
I cut my professional teeth as a librarian on the controversy over “Couples”, Updike’s racy 1968 novel of contemporary mores that divided library patrons in the upstate New York university town where I worked.
My public library did buy the title, but we were careful about lending it from the bookmobile when it traveled to rural areas! I read “Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories” (1962), and that began a life-long appreciation of the short story. I read the “Rabbit” novels (1970s-1980s) and saw folks I knew in the perfectly and gently captured characters and scenes. I read “The Centaur” (1963), “The Witches of Eastwick” (1984) and “Gertrude and Claudius” (2000) and was struck by the breadth of Updike’s imagination, interests and knowledge. His art criticism and baseball essays were still other facets of this complex, funny, and perceptive author. His 1965/1999 children’s book of seasonal poems ” A Children’s Calendar” was our family’s favorite. Every work surprised and delighted; I was often caught by the unexpected and immediately recognizable wisdom and truth therein.
Some humorous lines from an early poetry collection called “Telephone Poles” (1963) is my parting salute to John Updike. Many great tributes to him are pouring in, but it is in the hearts of his millions of readers that his memory lives.
“In Upperville, the upper crust
Say “Bottoms Up!” from dawn to dusk
And “Ups-a-daisy. dear!” at will–
I want to live in Upperville…
Depression never dares intrude
Upon thy sweet upswinging mood;
Downcast, long-fallen, let me go
To where the cattle never low.
I’ve always known there was a town
Just right for me; I’ll settle down
And be uplifted all day long–
Fair Upperville, accept my song.
WFPL Assistant Director