Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism by John Updike

When John Updike died in January 2009, obituaries covered the familiar life story his faithful readers knew well from the dust jackets of his books. Born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, attended Harvard and the Ruskin School at Oxford, worked at The New Yorker, was a cartoonist before he was a novelist. Throughout his adult life he was a professional writer who turned every day to the blank page the way a dentist turns to the next open mouth and a lawyer to the next client complaint. Out of this vocational discipline came sixty books, novels, short stories, poems, essays and criticism. Accompanying this quotidian work ethic was an understated and self-effacing, but determined, self-promotion. We listened to him as we listened to no one else. We wanted to know him, and we believed we did know him, so we waited for his next title and scanned magazine tables of content for his name.

In person one could hear that Updike was a stutter, and perhaps see that he suffered from psoriasis, so he seemed vulnerable in his shy, polite, gentleness. Unlike, for example, the combative Mailer or the wooly humorist Vonnegut, two of his peers, Updike was thin and pleasant-looking, always ready with a smile for any camera that would have him. He seemed to relish the fame he earned through his writing. His readers will miss the familiar smile of the bookish boy from a small town in Pennsylvania. Even under white hair and eyebrows grinned the straight-A student, the library-rat polymath, happy to learn everything he could and willing to tell all he knew.

Gifted as a short story writer, he told us about adult middle class American lives. Between offerings of fiction that appeared like clockwork, Updike’s name appeared wherever words were published. He was the smooth and genial oracle of American culture, and he made his readers feel that he could show us the world, if we needed to see it. If it was out there, Updike knew about it, or could learn about it, from physics and music to baseball and golf. Philip Roth said that Updike was the heir of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the great American man of letters. In addition to all his fiction and poetry, commentaries and criticism, which seemed to flow from a deep well, there were children’s books and a published play.

Always fascinated by what he called the secret things—sex, art and religion—he wrote with sensitivity, wonder and insight into all three. He said that he was equipped for a life of writing by a mother with literary inclinations and a school teacher father who brought him to church.

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