John Updike, 1932–2009

IF YOU DON’T know John Updike, who passed away Tuesday, imagine Joe Biden for a minute to get a general idea of the writer. Like his fellow citizen of small-city eastern Pennsylvania, the late John Updike had a personable boyishness that lasted into old age and a fine and democratic sense of humor. In every interview, he seemed delighted to be alive.

And Updike did his part for the sexual revolution. His ability to rattle prudes lasted all the way to the end; the paperback 1960 Fawcett Crest edition of Rabbit, Run included the pulled punch of an excerpted Time magazine review: “If the power to shock may be taken as a yardstick of fiction, John Updike has written one of the year’s most important novels.”

This silly sentence—and what if it isn’t a yardstick?—was a code to the reader at the end of the Eisenhower age. The code may not be apparent to the porn-wise community of 2009: What it says is “This is a hot book. It has dirty sex scenes.” And for daring to write about sexuality—in his excellent 2004 novel Villages—Updike received some sort of British award for Most Embarrassing Sex Scene of the Year. 

As an American man of letters, John Updike had few peers; his invaluable book review collection Hugging the Shore demonstrates how varied his interests were and how unflagging his curiosity was. His novel The Witches of Eastwick was turned into a popular if slightly unfaithful film. Jack Smight’s movie adaptation of Rabbit, Run is MIA, though James Caan seems perfect casting as Rabbit Angstrom, anti-hero of five novels about the basketball star turned car salesman. 

It’s likely that Rabbit is the kind of person Updike would have been if he hadn’t been both a writer and an artist. In hindsight, it seems that no one surpassed Updike at describing the mid-20th-century American guy, obsessed with sales, sports and women. Inside, Rabbit had a sense of wonder that he’d be crazy to show to the outside world.

Rabbit Angstrom is a sensual, limited man, cherishing his childhood, getting married, cheating, settling down, working at his father-in-law’s used car lot until he moves into the Toyota business. He becomes well off, he survives the dreadful inflation of the President Ford years and he finally retires to nurture his bad heart in Florida. There was humor in naming Angstrom after the tiny particle of a millimeter. There was devotion in making him breathe, in forgiving his trespasses.

Introducing this character he was to write about for 41 years, Updike cited Pascal’s jotted-down Pensee #507 in the epigraph to Rabbit, Run: “The motions of grace, the hardness of the heart; external circumstances.” Years later, to writer James Plath, Updike elaborated: “I think what struck me was that those three things describe, in a way, our lives. The external circumstances are everywhere … family responsibilities, and financial necessities. The motions of grace represent that within us that seeks the good, our nonmaterial, nonexternal side. And the hardness of heart? … There seems to be an extent to which hardness of heart is tied in with being alive at all.”

It seems staggering that all that writing could have issued forth in only 76 years. Updike combined the sensitivity of Nabokov with the asperity of Edmund Wilson, and I don’t see anyone on the horizon who can match him. 

Here, incidentally, is Annalee Newitz critiquing Updike’s old-fashioned fear of a digitized planet (

Richard von Busack

72 comments to John Updike, 1932–2009

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  • RvB

    Well put. I can’t wait to spend some time soaking in some of the novels I haven’t read yet, like the one about Gertrude–one of he most under-written characters in Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh said–

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