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Acclaimed American Author John Updike Dies at Age 76

January 27, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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John Updike, one of the most prolific and popular American authors of his generation who chronicled the drama of everyday suburban life, died Tuesday, his publisher said. Writer Nicholas Delbanco, a former student of Updike's, remembers his friend and mentor.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the master writer John Updike. He suffered from lung cancer and died today at age 76 in a hospice near his home in Massachusetts.

He wrote more than 50 books, including novels, short stories, essays, memoirs, criticism, and, in doing so, he won most every prize for letters there ever was. Jeffrey Brown talked with Updike in 2003 on the occasion of a new collection of his early short stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you see when you went back to look at these early stories?

JOHN UPDIKE, Author: Well, I saw a kind of vanished world, a world of relatively simple gadgets and simple innovations, technologically, a pre-electronic world, in a way.

And I also — I saw a writer who was quite new to the craft, but excited by it, and sort of experimental, and there’s a freshness to some of these stories that surprised me. I hadn’t read them again for many years, a kind of a nearly wet-paint feeling about them that I liked.

There’s a shine which I enjoyed. And occasionally I tried to polish them a little bit more, but basically they’re bright and hopeful attempts to bottle some small portion of the truth.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the forward, when you’re describing writing short stories, you write, “My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me, to give the mundane its beautiful due.” What does that mean, to give the mundane its beautiful due?

JOHN UPDIKE: You know, I worked hard at that sentence, because I was trying, you know, having challenged myself to say, “What did I think I was doing?” I then had to find the phrases for it.

But I’ve always had, I think, even before I began to publish, this notion that the ordinary middle-class life was enough to write about, that there was enough drama, interest, relevance, importance, poetry in it.

JEFFREY BROWN: You didn’t need grand, epic…

JOHN UPDIKE: I was stuck from my own limits, really, with middle-class life, or the mundane, let’s call it. And so I was just trying to, story by story, encapsulate some aspect of life as I was experiencing it or observing it.

This was a time when the American way of life was coming in for a lot of hard knocks, some of them deserved, but nevertheless I thought that somebody should be bearing witness to the kind of ordinary life that was going on.

Under the revolution, under the talk of the revolution, people were living out their lives in families, by and large, growing up with their children, all that kind of thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you a better writer now?

JOHN UPDIKE: No, I doubt it. I think I can do a few things that I couldn’t do then, but I think maybe I could do a lot of things then that I can’t do now.

JEFFREY BROWN: So not a better writer, but still writing?

JOHN UPDIKE: Still trying. It’s become a habit, of course, and it’s — there’s a kind of a bliss to writing. I was aware of that just the other day. Often it feels like a job, and why am I doing this, and who cares anymore? There are these shelves full of Updike. I’m embarrassed to look at my own works in toto.

But, nevertheless, there is a kind of a spiritual health in trying to express, like I said, reality. When you feel you’ve captured it, if only in a phrase or the correct adjective, there’s something very happy-making about it, and I’d hate to give up that kind of happiness.

Updike a 'witness to America'

Nicholas Delbanco
I don't think there's any serious doubt that what he was first and foremost was a witness to America. And he may even have been our preeminent witness in the last 50 years or so.

JIM LEHRER: And now to Nicholas Delbanco, a friend and once a student of John Updike's, himself a novelist, writer of non-fiction, professor at the University of Michigan. His most recent book is "The Count of Concord."

Nicholas Delbanco, welcome.

NICHOLAS DELBANCO, Author: Thank you, Jim. It's good, though sad to be with you.

JIM LEHRER: What's the most important thing that needs to be said about John Updike tonight, Nick?

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: Well, he was an enthusiastic traveler. And, indeed, a good number of his books take place elsewhere abroad and in South America and Africa, and his remarkable reviews encompassed really much of world literature.

But I don't think there's any serious doubt that what he was first and foremost was a witness to America. And he may even have been our preeminent witness in the last 50 years or so.

He covered an awful lot of ground, actually, from -- of the farm, with his rural upbringing to the suburbs, the tony suburbs, the cities even. He covered many generations.

He started as a chronicler of youth, then became most celebrated, I suppose, as one of marital enthusiasm and middle age, and lately -- though early on, also -- he was writing about the elderly.

I can hardly think of any topic he was afraid to tackle. And his four principal books -- I suspect they are the ones that will longest outlive him -- will live a very long time, indeed. I'm referring to the Rabbit tetralogy.

A versatile, astute writer

Nicholas Delbanco
I think a pretty good working definition of genius is someone whose ratio to the passage of time is more rapid than that of the rest of us... I always felt in John's presence that he was simply thinking faster and noticing more.

JIM LEHRER: What accounts for his amazing ability to write in so many different forms? Of course, he wrote fiction, and he wrote -- that he wrote novels. He also wrote short stories. He wrote all kinds of essays. And as you say, he also wrote literary criticism. He also wrote about art. He wrote about music, poetry. There was nothing he didn't write about.

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: You know, I think a pretty good working definition of genius is someone whose ratio to the passage of time is more rapid than that of the rest of us. And though I use the word charily and rarely, I always felt in John's presence that he was simply thinking faster and noticing more.

He was a prodigiously learned person, but he wore his learning lightly. It was mostly what he noticed. Those titles to which you refer of his art criticism, that just looking and still looking, that somehow characterizes the man best to me.

JIM LEHRER: He even wrote about baseball. Of course, one of the most marvelous things he wrote was that essay about Ted Williams' last day playing for the Boston Red Sox.

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: Absolutely. And he loved golf. There was very little in the American scene that was, as it were, alien to him. He really understood our mix of spiritual and material appetite.

JIM LEHRER: You knew him personally, as I said in the introduction. He was your student briefly, but you stayed in constant contact with him ever since. What was he like?

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: It's sweet of you to say that he was my student. The reverse is, of course, the case.

JIM LEHRER: I did say that wrong. Sorry about that.

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: That's fine. I will forgive you, and he perhaps would. I actually have the somewhat singular honor of being almost his only student, which is to say he came to teach at Harvard's summer school in 1962, I think, when I was wanting to learn some early apprentice things about the craft of fiction.

He was, I thought, a terrific teacher. But if I have any genuine claim to consequence, it's that I sent him kicking and screaming from the classroom and he never taught again. He decided after a semester that it would make sense to go back to Ipswich and earn a living by his pen, which he spectacularly well did.

He was, as I said, quick, had that noticing eye, laughter a lot, an ease, a ranginess that may seem at odds with what some people construed to be his, you know, his almost mandarin ability to phrase things and his fancy formulations. He really was someone at ease on this Earth and constantly alert to new challenge, I think.

JIM LEHRER: Was he pleasant?

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: He was a tricky man. He wasn't -- he was very affable, very courtly, but there was always a fist within that glove, I thought, and once or twice I saw him use it.

Updike wrote until the end

JIM LEHRER: What he said in that interview with Jeff about writing, that says it all, does it not? This man was writing right up to his last -- probably his last few breaths, was he not?

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: I expect so. That lovely phrase of his in the interview where he said he wanted to bottle some small portion of the truth, I really feel that it was a constant alertness, some of it retrospective in recent years.

His most recent publication, as you know, major publication was "The Widows of Eastwick," which harkened back to a novel of his, "The Witches of Eastwick," that came out 30 years back. But he had that agile ability to reconsider, to imagine what would happen next.

If I may, I thought I might celebrate and honor his memory by reading a brief poem of his, because he always wanted to be read as a poet, as well. And this -- I was looking through the work today.

JIM LEHRER: Be my guest.

A short reading

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: This seems to me a final phrase that does him honor.

"A Rescue," it's called.

"Today I wrote some words that will see print. Maybe they will last forever and that someone will read them there, ink making a light scratch on his mind or hers."

"I think back with greater satisfaction upon a yellow bird, a gold finch that had flown into the garden shed and could not get out, battering its wings on the deceptive light of the dusty, warped, shut window."

"Without much reflection for once, I stepped to where its panicked heart was making commotion, the flared wings drumming, and with clumsy, soft hands pinned it against a pane, held loosely cupped this agitated essence of the air, and through the open door released it like a self-flung ball to all that lovely, perishing outdoors."

JIM LEHRER: Nicholas Delbanco, thank you very much.