“As for John [Updike], he was a man I so esteemed as a colleague and so loved as a friend that his loss is indescribable. He was a prince….I think him peerless as a writer of his generation; and his gift of communicating—to millions of strangers—his most exalted and desperate emotions was, in his case, fortified by immense and uncommon intelligence and erudition. John, quite alone in the field of aesthetics, remained shrewd….One misses his brightness—one misses it painfully—but one remembers that his life was dedicated to the description of enduring—and I definitely do not mean immortal—to enduring strains of sensuality and spiritual revelations.”—John Cheever, The Journals of John Cheever (1991)
For me, this 1976 entry from John Cheever’s journals was more startling than his battles with the bottle, his wife or his bisexuality. Someone identifying himself as “C.B.C.” called him requesting a comment on “a fatal automobile accident” involving Updike. The fraudulent report—perhaps, Cheever’s daughter Susan suggested, started by an overambitious stringer, “who saw the name on a police blotter and decided to cash in”—sent the older novelist on a crying fit until he learned the truth later in the day.
John Updike, of course, lived for another three decades, much honored—including two Pulitzers and two National Book Awards—before dying of lung cancer in a hospice in Massachusetts this past Tuesday, at age 76. Cheever’s premature retrospective has been echoed in the obituaries and appraisals that have flooded the conventional media and the blogosphere these last couple of days.
Elsewhere in his journals, Cheever admitted to envying Updike—and who can blame him? Leave aside the latter’s unbelievable productivity, a roughly book-a-year pace that served as an inspiration and rebuke to other published writers, not to mention poor bloggers like myself.
Something more territorial, though, probably nagged at Cheever: Updike was exploring much of the same turf that Cheever had claimed as his own—suburbia, depicted with a similar lyrical sensibility even as it looked askance at its desires. When they don’t obsess over every line, writers worry incessantly about their reputations, wishing success for their friends but not too much, if that means that their own worth is overshadowed in the process.
Neither writer needed to worry. Following his novel Falconer, his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, and the journals that divulged his private torment in exquisite detail, Cheever’s place in the mid-century American pantheon, as a successor to F. Scott Fitzgerald in his quest for elusive grace, is secure.
Likewise Updike’s, in a different way: as a man of letters on more of a European model. Imagine Edmund Wilson, only with somewhat less focus on nonfiction—and considerably more success with fiction.
I can’t think of another major American author who worked in so many different genres—the novel, short short, poetry, drama, literary and art criticism—or on so many different subjects: the small town, suburbia, baseball, golf, art. Few were ready to dare more, whether through a fictional trilogy inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, another novel suggested by Hamlet, a late-Seventies satire on an African dictator (The Coup), or a first-person narrative of a 21st-century American who becomes hooked by Islamic fundamentalism (Terrorist).
And I haven’t all touched on the decades-long tetralogy that is probably his best-known work, on Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, which won him his two Pulitzers.
Not that Updike didn’t misfire occasionally. You would, too, if you put out so much work. For me, at least, his sentences sometimes went over the line from baroque to rococo. As for his sex scenes: As recently as this past fall, he won Britain’s Lifetime Achievement for Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. I think that should be renamed in his honor, in much the same way that the winner of America’s Super Bowl now receives the Lombardi Trophy
When all is said and done, though, I suspect that his reputation will rest most securely on his massive output of short stories. Most of it sticks to the milieu of his own life, which he knew intimately. As a massive record of American life, they will be ranked along with Cheever’s. The high quality of the prose exceeds that of another great New Yorker short-story master, John O’Hara, though not his range in characters.
In particular, I think his fictional couple Richard and Joan Maple, whose marriage he charted from its hopeful beginning to painful end over two decades—roughly the period of his own first marriage. Those stories formed the basis of a fine TV film, Too Far to Go, starring Michael Moriarty and Blythe Danner, with Glenn Close in an early, supporting role.
Back to Updike and Cheever. They resembled each other in one other way: Their belief, increasingly unfashionable in an age hailing “The Death of God,” in their sense of the powerful, immanent presence of God. No matter how guilt-ridden Cheever felt over his addiction to drink and lust, he seldom if ever felt separated from God. Particularly at an Episcopolian service, he felt God almost as a physical presence, as real as the sunlight coming through the windows of his church.
By the end of his life, Updike had upset certain elements of the liberal community as much for his belief in God as he had others in the Sixties with his reluctant backing of the Vietnam War and feminists in the Seventies and Eighties in what was deemed sexist treatment of his female characters. (The earlier criticisms had a good deal more justice than the later ones.) James Wood, whose atheism sometimes warps his critical faculties (sample essay titles: “Sir Thomas More: A Man for One Season" and "Knut Hamsun’s Christian Perversions”), took off after “John Updike’s Complacent God,” attacking in particular the novelist’s belief, influenced by theologian Karl Barth, that God confers grace through the gift of creation.
Contra Wood, Updike’s belief in the world’s governing divinity is anything but “complacent.” Particularly in his early years, he had a real affinity for the Christian existentialism of Soren Kierkegaard. A terror more powerful than that afflicting the physically tormented Cheever lay not far beneath the surface of Updike’s sex-and-death-drenched world. In his poem “Religious Consolation,” originally published in The New Republic and reprinted in Best Spiritual Writing 2000, Updike notes:
“One size fits all. The shape or coloration
Of the god or high heaven matters less
Than that there is one, somehow, somewhere…”
Why do we need more worlds? he asks rhetorically. The answer: because “This one will fail.”
Far more precisely than Wood, who fixated on Updike's almost sensual delight in the sentence, Cheever identified the best elements of his younger friend's work: the connection to "his most exalted and desperate emotions" that alike informed his faith in God and his understanding of weak but striving humanity.
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