Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In Memoriam: John Updike (1932-2009)

A master has left us.

John Updike< was, for me, the great American novelist of my lifetime, and the Rabbit tetralogy is the great achievement of contemporary American fiction. No other books have depicted the realities of contemporary working-class and middle-class people (emphasis on the former) with such eloquence or grace. The United States is a country where people live on pride--pride of achievement, pride of maintaining what one has, pride in the belief that no matter low one may be, there is always someone beneath one's station--and Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom's world, seen across the decades, dramatized and interrogated that like no other work. Updike was the rightful heir of Henry Miller: the voice of the man on the street, in the factory, or at the car-salesman's desk. In the Rabbit novels, Updike wrote about how life is lived on the ground, where men were "uncomplaining with their bellies and cross-hatched red necks, embarrassed for what to talk about when the game is over, whatever the game is."

Ironically, Updike is seen by many as the epitome of the patrician, northeastern establishment novelist--he was Mr. New Yorker magazine. There is something to that, mainly in that he was the most wide-ranging major figure in American letters over the last fifty years. In addition to his novels, he was a first-rate short-story writer, a fair poet, and the preeminent "Common Reader" literary critic of the era. It left a false impression with those who don't know his work. But for those who do, it spoke to how incredibly engaged he was with all aspects of writing and literature.

His most famous line (from Rabbit Is Rich) was, "The great thing about the dead, they make space." Maybe for some, but not for all, and certainly not for John Updike. I'll probably spend the rest of my life catching up with his immense legacy of work. His departure makes space for no one.

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