John Updike, born and raised in Shillington, PA and the Reading area, left the Commonwealth for good when he went off to Harvard but continued to mine it, throughout his rich and productive career. His Rabbit quartet, his most read and honored works, were set in Pennsylvania, the life of a man who stayed put. Updike died yesterday at age 76, leaving a literary legacy that is dazzling in its output, breadth and grace.
He was an elegant writer, but no snob. He could shock. Updike was capable of writing about life's most intimate moments. He once published a poem about the beauty of a a bowel movement, penned another one for Playboy about a specific woman's body part using an unprintable name here, and wrote about his skin issues in the New Yorker, his constant literary home. Yet, for such candor, Updike remained a literary gentleman, his flawless gift for the language was his great art.
Updike was the first famous author I ever interviewed, a fluke of sorts. He came to Rochester, N.Y., where I was then working, for a library lecture that was a test, of sorts, for a New Yorker essay he was writing on Melville. This was another one of Updike's lasting legacies, a protean talent for criticism. For most of his career, he largely wrote coruscating appreciations of other writers, rarely applying darts toward craftsmen he believed fell short.
He hardly needed the publicity but agreed to speak with a local reporter to support the library. What impressed was not only his graciousness -- that gentleman quality that impressed everyone, a gentility harkening to an earlier era -- but the way he spoke.