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Acclaimed American Author John Updike Dies at Age 76

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.

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    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.


    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.


    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?


    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.


    You didn't need grand, epic…


    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.


    Are you a better writer now?


    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.


    So not a better writer, but still writing?


    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.