John Updike: Ted Williams of Our Prose

updike lateJohn Updike had every kind of grace about him, including for me an aura of divine blessing. I liked his religious inquiries better than the Rabbit books — novels like A Month of Sundays, Roger’s Version and The Beauty of the Lilies, and of course stories like “Pigeon Feathers” about a boy’s crisis of faith, which ends in his famous meditation on the pigeons he’s shot, on orders, in his mother’s barn, and the irresistible beauty of the blue and gray patterns in their dull coloring. “He was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”

Updike had a good priest’s devotion to his writing vocation. And for all the sex, laughter and inspired mischief we remember him for (“The Disposable Rocket,” for example), he had also an air almost of sanctity.

ted for lifeI loved him in something like the way he loved Ted Williams. We were looking once together at Arthur Griffin’s rediscovered color plates of the formally flawless boy-wonder Ted Williams when he first wore a Red Sox uniform in 1939 — photographs like the one on Ben Bradlee’s book cover that had languished in a file drawer for 50 years. “More god than man!” I gasped, and Updike laughed in assent. Of course, my exclamation was about Updike, too. People have quoted an Updike interview in the Guardian in which he explained that he moved to the North Shore of Boston in the 1950s to get closer to the New England vibrations of Melville and Hawthorne. He told me something else: that after a young life of listening to Red Sox night games on the radio, he wanted to get closer to where Ted Williams played ball. I have another strange memory in the Updike-Williams connection — strange because it was something John told me and later said he forgot. What I remember clearly is asking him if he ever heard from Williams about the great ““Hub Fans…” piece. Updike said he met Ted Williams in person a few years later and that Williams admired him profusely. “Real talent,” Ted said in effect. “With that sort of gift you could actually be doing something useful…”

“Like what?” Updike asked the Splinter.

“Like save the Atlantic salmon!” Ted roared, again like a god, but angry this time.

Updike was generous with his postcards and ever game for conversation — as in the Open Source file on his Terrorist and his second volume of art criticism, Still Looking. Maybe the best fun I had in many TV and radio conversations with our prince of letters was spotting, in the last posthumous novella on Rabbit Angstrom (“Rabbit Remembered” in Licks of Love) an uncanny pattern in the talk between Rabbit’s son Nelson and the out-of-wedlock daughter, Annabelle, who pops up, unheralded, at age 39. Searching her memories of the late Rabbit, Annabelle refers with Nelson to “our father” — not once, I noticed, but four times in the short book.

CL: You can’t say “our father” — certainly John Updike can’t — without conjuring “Our father who are in heaven…”

JU: That’s very ingenious and good of you, and I think it takes the book in the correct spirit. I don’t know as I was aware of the Lord’s Prayer as I was writing it, but it’s hard not to be. The whole concept of fatherhood is all tied in with the Christian god, who is “Our father who art in heaven.” And Harry Angstrom would seem to be in heaven — he’s not on earth, quite, in much of this book. There isn’t too much religion in this book, certainly compared to the first one, where Harry is haunted by God, haunted by the church fronts and the morality of Diamond County back in the Eisenhower era. But I guess insofar as I remain a Christian and haunted by those images, this book too has “our father” in it. I saw it as an attempt of Nelson and Annabelle, who are new to eachother — he’s in his early 40s, she’s about to turn 40 — to [see] that the one link they have is “our father.” And in some sense Harry is meant to be felt in the book, as having brought them together — as having himself in his lifetime, failed to discover Annabelle or to get Ruth to admit that Annabelle existed. But now he wants to get them together and wants it to work out, you know, well!

CL: I just beg to differ, in the sense that I think there’s a lot of religion in this book — not a lot of churchgoing. Annabelle, though, says explicitly — she’s a licensed practical nurse in the care mostly of Alzheimer’s patients; Nelson also is in mental health care — at one point she says: “You can’t feel casually about these people. I go on these teams Hospice sends around. Even at the very end there’s something in there. A soul, or whatever, you have to love.” The immortality of the soul, it seems to me, runs through the whole book, as people talk about death, as they worry about death. Nelson has a funny line. He says: “it’s like a nap, except you don’t have to get up and put your shoes back on.” They’re thinking about the other side all the time.

John Updike in conversation with Chris Lydon on NPR’s “The Connection,” December 4, 2000.

I took John Updike’s free, odd, stuttering, then neighing laughter in that interview as his affirmation in the moment — a token of his blessed assurance of his own immortality and ours, too.

Afterthought on Saturday, January 31: It’s striking that some of the best of the Updike appreciations are from abroad — like these on the Guardian page:

Updike on himself

John Banville, Zadie Smith, Ian McEwen et al on Updike

Updike remembered by Xan Brooks

From Lorrie Moore

Related Content

  • mattheww

    First, Hats off to Mr. Updike, now and then. And to Christopher Lydon for a solid conversation with one of our best. Thank God that part of JU’s legacy is in writing.

    Second, Thank you (WBUR: is that where the gratitude should be directed?) for liberating this _gem_.

    Christopher Lydon, I was hooked from the beginning. Years of fond memories. Killed part of me when The Connection with _CL_ went off air.

    What are the chances that the entire Lydon-collection of TC would be/could be moved to iTunes: I’ll gladly pay for the privilege of reliving the less temporal conversations.

  • hurley

    Thanks for posting this conversation. I had my quibbles with Updike here and there (he said ever so pompously), but he was part of the grain of my youth, and an everlasting affection –and occassional irritant — no matter that I stopped reading him some years ago as closely as I did then. With a few exceptions I favor his japes — the Bech books, The Witches of Eastwick, The Coup above all — to the rest. Had he restricted himself to that sort of thing he would nevertheless be remembered as an exceptional comic writer. His politcs sometimes to his discredit: his support for the Vietnam War more an objection to the style of those that opposed it than anything else. But then we have that posthumous note of support for Obama. I’m not religious, but my favorite phrase of Updike’s among the many I’ve read was something in an interview to the effect that the only reason he went to church was because it was the only place where he could sing in public, which brings me around, just a bit. I would have been honoured to sing with him, as well might we all.

  • shaman

    Chris: Excellent! Thank you so very much for this re-connection. It is a conversation I remember vividly and it is classic Lydon as well as it is classic Updike (which is quite a combination).

    What is striking, Chris, is the wonderful depth and breadth that a conversation takes when you are at the helm. Unlike some interviewers who will take a conversation to a few predictable bullet points but go no farther or those who will take a conversation into dull tangents you find fresh notions to explore and you bring out the best in those guests who are willing to go there with you.

    Often your talks give us listeners a chance to hear the thinking of a guest and share subtle insights we (and sometimes even your guests) had not considered. An example of this happens in this conversation with Updike when you bring to his attention your awareness of the frequency of “Our Father” in his work of the moment. Momentarily surprised, he concurs and elaborates interestingly. Which other interviewer in American media would have gone there?

    I can’t think of another one (cuz there are none).

    I think your conversations with Updike are a great record because of the respect he seems to have for your appreciation, familiarity and understanding of his vast body of work.

    I also believe that conversation, both the art of it as well as the extraordinary power it can have on a willing listener, is simply one of the most underappreciated things in our society. Nothing of the Bush era so infuriated me as much as the president’s transcendent ignorance of language and its purpose.

    Mr. Updike may have been the Ted Williams of writing, as you say. But I prefer a jazz metaphor – Updike was Charlie Parker, Lydon is Duke Ellington.

    Again, with appreciation,

    Mark Shasha

  • Yes, thank you, Chris. I’ve been listening the past few days to the Updike reminiscences on NPR and yours is the best. I’m sure he appreciated your close reading … just wish I had been able to ask him if he ever laughed out loud when he had finished writing a passage which made this reader laugh out loud. I’d like to think of him this way.

  • nother

    “You know, it’s one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach, where what with the glare nobody can look at each other much anyway, and another thing in the cool of the A & P, under the fluorescent lights, against all those stacked packages, with her feet paddling along naked over our checkerboard green-and-cream rubber-tile floor.”

    My John Updike happened when I was in Guam during the Navy. I took an English Lit 101 class through the University of Maryland and I pretty much planned to sleep through it. A few days in, the prof has us all read John Updike’s short story A & P. It was an intellectual wake up call for me – for the first time, I felt connected to literature. The hero was a young man working in a supermarket in some suburb outside of Boston – that was me just a year earlier!

    In one story John Updike conveyed to me that an inner-self such as mine, was worthy of great literature. The ennui, lust, and gallantry, that swirled in my measly mind, was related – even in the smallest way – to the human conflicts in the characters of Shakespeare. And I felt connected not just to his protagonist, but to minimalism and sparseness of his writing, which invited me in and gave me room stretch out my senses (the generic supermarket aisles are a metaphor for a gentrified and Puritan America).

    With A & P, Updike does in short order, what Salinger does in the whole novel Catch in the Rye. Holden Caulfield talks about the phonies and that’s great, but Holden always seemed like a pain in the ass to me, someone I might want to bully myself (not really). Whereas Sammy in A & P is so earnest and discerning, so horny and heroic, that it feels like it might be a young Updike – and me (like I want to be).

    After Sammy defends the pretty girl’s honor (unbeknownst to the pretty girl):

    “Sammy, you don’t want to do this to your Mom and Dad,” he tells me. It’s true, I don’t. But it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it. I fold the apron, “Sammy” stitched in red on the pocket, and put it on the counter, and drop the bow tie on top of it. The bow tie is theirs, if you’ve ever wondered. “You’ll feel this for the rest of your life,” Lengel says, and I know that’s true, too, but remembering how he made that pretty girl blush makes me so scrunchy inside.

    Sammy has given him middle finger to the phonies, and defended a pretty girls honor in the process.

    But standing outside alone and looking back in:

    “my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.”

  • nother

    Updike’s A & P:

    Thank you, Chris for getting Mr. Updike to open up and letting us hear your friendship with him on the air. One has the feeling that the conversation might well have gone on in the same vain for an hour more.

    And Thank you, Mr. Updike. The world is not as hard as it might have been, if not for light you shed.

  • potter

    Will listen- thanks- the NYtimes had a very long obituary which I have not read- not yet but although I know I have heard this before,listening again would be a way of saying good bye. FYI- Bernard Avishai, whose blog I have been reading (b/c I have my head occupied with this Gaza War and am headed to Israel soon, to see friend and family, no touring) gave you quite a plug for this Updike entry and so sent me here for it.

    I am glad that you are still with us too.

  • potter

    I posted something similar to this on the “Terrorist” show comments thread:

    John Updike spoke at my son’s graduation years ago and I remember that he was uplifting. I loved his poetry so much that I bought the collection “Tossing and Turning” when it came out which has the delightful poem “Dutch Cleanser”. I still buy Dutch Cleanser (if I see it) just because of that poem which begins:

    My grandmother used it, Dutch Cleanser,

    in the dark Shillington house,

    in the kitchen darkened by the grape arbor,

    and I was frightened of the lady on the can.

    Why was she carrying a stick?

    Why couldn’t we see her face?


    I clipped “Granite” from the New Yorker in 1990 and tucked it in that book:

    (first two stanzas)

    New England doesn’t kid around;

    it wears its bones outside.

    Quartz-freckled, time rumpled granite

    your tombstone everywhere.

    At night I wake and warily gaze

    at outcroppings on my lawn.

    These moonlit humpbacks, do they sleep

    or do their blanched surfaces sense my eyes?

  • shaman

    Wow, potter. Thanks for posting those Updike poems.