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.
Every sentence was a gem and instantly publishable, word perfect. There was not an "uhm" or "you know." Language poured forth like brandy. I asked if most constant protagonist, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, would outlive him. He looked horrified, laughed and then said "I'll have to do something about that." In Rabbit at Rest (1990), Updike did.
Since then, I've been fortunate enough to interview many great authors. Updike was the only one who spoke as beautifully as he wrote. It was as though the English language was something he had mastered better than anyone else, though he didn't pull any airs as other masters would.
He revealed a generosity toward living authors and none of the literary pugilism that can stain even the most accomplished sort. Updike worried that he published too often -- though he didn't think the same of Joyce Carol Oates -- and remarked that Saul Bellow, then very much alive and working, did "it just right." By the time one of Bellow's books appeared, Updike noted, the reader was waiting to devour.
A few weeks later, Updike sent a postcard saying the article pleased him,. "It sounds very much like me." He thanked me for his time, when I was the one who was honored.
The truth was all I had done was transcribed the tape recording. The beauty of his words, pure music, had done the rest.