By LAWRENCE GROBEL
—Autograph April 2009
When I heard that John Updike had died on Jan. 27, 2009, at the age of 76, a series of thoughts ran through my mind simultaneously. I’ve been reading Updike since I was in junior high school. After I had finished my homework and studied for whatever exams, I would read one of Updike’s stories, because it put me in touch with “literature” and made me think about the subtleties of life. I remember Rabbit Run (1960), the first of four Rabbit novels, and how I looked forward each night to reading another chapter about this guy named Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom who ran out on his wife and child.
My memory then jumped ahead, to how I used to promote Updike as a Nobel Prize candidate, putting him among the handful of American writers I thought worthy. I remembered what writers I had interviewed said about Updike. I also thought of Herb Yellin, the publisher of Lord John Press, who once mentioned he had every foreign and domestic edition of Updike’s. He began publishing Updike’s stories and essays as beautiful private editions in the ’60s and became a close friend of the writer.
“He was very important to me,” Yellin told me when I called to express my condolences. “It’s been 50 years of knowing somebody. We had a special connection—we weren’t brothers or related, but it felt like that. I started reading him from the beginning; his writing spoke personally to me. We had a wonderful literary correspondence over the years. Whenever he came to Los Angeles I would see him, we’d go for dinner. He knew of my collection of all his books, and he said he liked that if anything ever happened to his own collection, he had my collection on the opposite side of the country.”
I reminded Yellin that I had tried unsuccessfully to get Updike to agree to do the Playboy interview with me. Playboy rarely interviews writers, but Updike was on the short list, and try as I did, he never said yes. Not even after I told him how I had spent 10 days interviewing the reclusive Marlon Brando and had once served in the Peace Corps in West Africa, where his novel The Coup took place, and how I thought we could cover some of that ground in our conversation. He responded to my letter, but not in the affirmative.
I never gave up though. If I saw that Updike had done some publicity for his latest book, I would drop him a note and ask if he was ready to talk to me yet. In 1999, I saw that he was going to appear at the public library in downtown Los Angeles. I figured I would go, listen to what he had to say, then wait in line as he signed books, for the chance to look him in the eye, introduce myself, and see if my powers of persuasion might prevail.
I wasn’t alone in that line the night Updike made a rare appearance in Los Angeles. There were hundreds of people waiting to get his signature on some of his more than 50 published volumes. Updike was among our most prolific writers. He wrote at least a book a year. A novel every other year. He wrote essays, short stories, art criticism, book reviews. In all there were 23 novels, 14 short story collections, 10 books of poetry, and 10 collections of his nonfiction. He wrote with flair and a degree of certainty that made his work stand out. Though I, like everyone else who had come that evening, had a bag full of books for him to sign, we were told that he would sign only three items per person, so one had to be selective in what one chose to put before him. I chose his book about art, Just Looking; an early volume of poems, MidPoint; and the most prized page of my signature book, reserved for Nobel Prize winners or potential winners. But all that was secondary to my real mission: asking him in person if he would reconsider his decision not to do the Playboy interview.
What I thought I had going for me were the other interviews I had done with writers of his stature—with Oates and Mailer, Capote and Saul Bellow. Bellow was the one I thought might seal the deal, since Bellow had won the Nobel Prize in 1976 and was considered the dean of American letters. If Saul Bellow was willing to talk to me, I figured, how could Updike turn away?
Updike Refuses Again
So when I got the chance, finally, to stand before Updike and introduce myself, he looked at me and smiled. Yes, he remembered my request. Yes, he recalled writing to me.
“I’ve talked to a lot of writers,” I said. “And it’s hard to get writers into the public dialogue. You’re one of the ones editors will give space to. You know, Saul Bellow is one of the most reluctant of interviews, but he spoke to me. I don’t know if you saw that.”
“Yes,” Updike said, now staring intently at me with a wry smile, “I did see that. And that is all the more reason why I stand behind my decision not to expose myself in that way.”
Talk about a final response. A telling No. I had nothing to say after that. Bellow, I thought, was my best shot. And it turned out that it was the nail in the coffin of Updike’s rejection.
The Bellow interview had received a lot of media attention, mostly because of the things he had to say about some of his fellow writers. Like when I asked him if Mailer deserved the Nobel Prize and he said that he’d be willing to give him his, “if he had anything to trade.” Or what he said about Capote: that his early books were “just Southern faded fabrics.”
Updike didn’t want to get caught saying off-the-cuff remarks about fellow writers. That’s what I had concluded when I first told this story in the June/July 2007 issue of this magazine.
But upon further reflection, I think it might have been more personal than that. Updike suffered from a stutter, which made him self-conscious (indeed, his memoir is called Self-Consciousness). Over the years he was able to keep it mostly under control, though he’d occasionally stammer when talking to a reporter. Since the in-depth interview I was requesting would take hours, if not days, to conduct, I believe Updike didn’t want to have his voice recorded on tapes he could not control. (When I mentioned this to Herbert Yellin he said, “He stuttered when he was dealing with a publisher or a writer or someone very smart. It intimidated him to be in that kind of situation, though not so much later in his life.”)
I remembered that moment at the library, as I remembered all the other Updike moments, all at once when I heard that he had died.
Updike’s most successful novel was also his most controversial. Couples (1968), about sexual freedom in small-town New England, lasted 36 weeks on the bestsellers list of Publishers Weekly. Joyce Carol Oates later wrote that in Couples, the characters’ attempts “to spiritualize the flesh” feel familiar “since for many in our time, the ‘flesh’ may be all that remains of religious experience.”
Philip Roth considered Updike “our time’s greatest man of letters, as brilliant a literary critic and essayist as he was a novelist and short story writer. He is and always will be no less a national treasure than his 19th century precursor, Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
Novelist Lorrie Moore thought Updike was “quite possibly…American literature’s greatest short story writer, and arguably our greatest writer.”
Paul Theroux said, “His work is all of a piece, capturing the life forces of America, a half century of the social, the political, the marital; of solitude and intimacy, and passion—the human libido is often warmly throbbing in Updike’s fiction.”
One of the great characters in American literature is Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, whom Updike first introduced in his 1960 novel Rabbit, Run. Over the next 30 years, Updike would chronicle American life through Angstrom’s eyes. Rabbit Redux appeared in 1971, followed by Rabbit is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990)—the latter two both winning Pulitzer Prizes (Rabbit is Rich also won The National Book Award and the American Book Award).
Said Updike of the tetralogy, the series “to me is in the tale of a life, a life led by an American citizen who shares the national passion for youth, freedom and sex, the national openness and willingness to learn, the national habit of improvisation. He is furthermore a Protestant, haunted by God whose manifestations are elusive, yet all-important.”
Lev Grossman in Time wrote: “Rabbit, Run…kicked off one of the great American epics, the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom. Rabbit wasn’t an alter ego; Updike was an epicurean, but Rabbit is a vulgarian, a crass, priapic lower bourgeois who gobbles up whatever pleasures America puts before him—sex, sun, love, drugs, golf—in such industrial quantities that they almost (but not quite) make him happy. …Rabbit was Updike’s mole, his man on the inside, a way of getting at the spiritual and cultural crises brought on by that disastrous 20th century innovation, suburban life.”
When once asked if there was some unifying theme that bound all his books together, Updike responded, “I think I’ve tried to seek out the corners of human experience. The adventures of ordinary middle-class life. The tensions between our need for safety against our need for freedom. Outward and inward tenderness. Love, certainly…”
Updike was a golfer and wrote about it with the same exacting precision as he did about some of his other favorite subjects—sex, race, anxiety, depression, death and suburbia. In a piece about “Golf Dreams,” he wonders if some of his nightmares are “any worse than the ‘real’ drive that skips off the toe of the club, strikes the prism-shaped tee marker, and is swallowed by weeds some 20 yards behind the horrified driver?”
As a critic and book reviewer, he was like some brilliant professor, offering his profound insights into the minds of writers that intrigued him, like Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Anne Tyler, Herman Melville, Marcel Proust…even Doris Day. “Book reviews are afternoon work,” he said. “I [do them] when some author excites me and I want to share the good news, or when I want to write an essay, or when a book compels me to read and learn.”
Fifteen years ago, someone once asked him if he was slowing down or if he thought about retiring. “It’s hard to know how old one is at 61,” he answered. “Is one very old or just in the prime of old age? Should one keep going? After all, men are retired in this country at 65, and now they’re being invited to retire early. Wouldn’t it be nice if I were to make my own gesture toward the unemployment problem by getting out of the writing business and letting young people take my place? But in the writing business there’s nobody to give you the pink slip, so I will persevere.”
That perseverance led to 16 more books written after he said this, including seven novels: Brazil in 1994, In the Beauty of the Lilies in ’96, Toward the End of Time in ’97, Seek My Face in 2002, Villages in ’04, Terrorist in ’06, and The Widows of Eastwick (the sequel to The Witches of Eastwick) in 2008.
Today, pristine copies of his early signed books go for as much as $4,500 (Rabbit, Run), $1,800 (The Centaur), $875 (The Poorhouse Fair) and $350 (Pigeon Feathers), though now that he’s gone, prices will most likely rise.
At the End
“We didn’t become close until he wrote about Ted Williams [“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” in The New Yorker, 1960],” Herb Yellin told me when we spoke after Updike’s death. “I’m from Boston and Williams was one of my heroes. John was from Pennsylvania, but I think that’s one of the reasons he wound up moving to Massachusetts. That and not wanting to live in New York. But that Williams piece, though reprinted in some sports anthologies, was the first of about 15 or 20 small books of his that I published with Lord John Press. All those books I did in two editions, a Deluxe, which sold for more than $100 and a regular edition that went for $50-$75. I have a lot of them on my website [www.lordjohnpress.com] and I haven’t raised the prices, I don’t do that. [There are 26 signed Updike books or one-sheets available, ranging in price from $50-$200.]
“He had this effect on people. He was very gracious—while I’m not. When the movie of The Witches of Eastwick came out I’d get calls from all over; people who knew me thought I was the Jack Nicholson character; that John had modeled him after me. I was pretty wild in my youth. I told him what people were saying and he sent me a foreign edition of the book and wrote inside, ‘Here’s a copy of your book.’
“I always thought he’d get the Nobel Prize. He certainly was deserving. And he wanted it. Though he didn’t want to be accused of it, he was competitive. And he saw Philip Roth as his competition. Nothing to be ashamed about there—Roth is one hell of a writer. Like John was.
“Though I’m younger than he was,” Yellin reflected, “I never thought I’d outlive him. Nobody knew he had cancer, even he thought he had pneumonia. It happened so fast.”
As Time magazine said of him after his death, at his very best Updike “had the keen, steely nerve to stare straight at the wretched glory of American life and report on what he saw.” Critics pointed out that he wrote his Rabbit novels to show one man struggling to make sense of himself. But that could certainly be expanded to include all of Updike’s writing. His entire body of work—the poems, the essays, the reviews, the memoir, the novels—was his struggle to make sense of himself, as well as of his time.
“The universe is perfectly transparent,” he once wrote. “We exist as flaws in ancient glass.”