Millions of admiring and appreciative words have already appeared in newspapers, magazines, and the blogosphere celebrating the life and work of John Updike, the prolific author who died January 27 at the age of seventy-six. Grace, charm, generosity, and erudition are the words most often being used to describe both his personality and his writing--an astonishing body of work that ranged from novels, short stories, and poetry to literary and art criticism. Philip Roth, his fellow novelist and contemporary, simply called him "our time's greatest man of letters."
Updike, raised a Lutheran, considered himself a Christian believer, if a conflicted and fitful one. Still, he often wrote exuberantly about the possibilities of faith (see his early short story "The Lifeguard"). He once told an interviewer that he had never been able to do without religion, and that for him the world was too lonely without God.
For many, the world seems a lonelier place now that Updike's unmistakable voice has been stilled. Commonweal has devoted a good deal of critical attention to Updike's work, right up to William Pritchard's sympathetic review of his last novel, The Widows of Eastwick, in our December 19, 2008, issue. Over a five-year period beginning in 1957, Commonweal was also lucky enough to publish four of Updike's poems. After the publication of Rabbit at Rest, the last volume in Updike's epic four-novel chronicle of the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a very fallible American everyman, we published a review-essay on the series by Rand Richards Cooper ("Rabbit Loses the Race," May 17, 1991). Cooper noted that Rabbit ends his life in a Florida hospital unable to pray and seemingly "without benefit of faith. …