In Praise of John Updike (1932-2009)

By Webb, Stephen H. | Christianity and Literature, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

In Praise of John Updike (1932-2009)


Webb, Stephen H., Christianity and Literature


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

When we praise someone in their presence, there is always the suspicion that we are trying to win their favor or influence their reception by others. This is especially true when we try to honor those who are already copiously acclaimed. Fortunately, in situations where only the highest praise will do, there are rituals that relieve us of the hazard of making a spectacle of ourselves. Nobody minds, for example, if you bow low before a king or queen; decorum demands nothing less. You are likewise excused for a mawkish wedding toast, especially if you have had a couple of drinks beforehand. In some social situations, the unwritten rules of small talk practically require you to defend the superiority of the local athletic team or your favorite sports star. If you are a literary critic, however, praising a writer to the hilt will strike many readers as an abandonment of your vocation, if not your senses. Going beyond appreciation tempered by criticism will make you sound perilously sentimental.

Why is encomium for writers such a disrespected art form? Why is it so awkward to praise the words that best honor the shared substance of our lives? There might be many reasons why we hesitate to acknowledge the beautiful in linguistic form. Maybe our polemical and polarized culture has hardened us to the suppleness of handcrafted sentences, or maybe, from a less elevated vantage, too many of us who write about writing are frustrated writers ourselves, unable or unwilling to acknowledge the wedge that great writing cleaves between the pleasant and the perfect. Writers or not, the fact that the core of much secondary education in America consists of English classes cannot fail to shape even the most erudite literary interpretation. Schools drill into us from a young age the idea that a clever interpretation of a writer's limitations is the most minimal index of sophistication. In any case, our days are so saturated in words that, thanks to the web, words count less than ever before. The writers of the world post their messages because they are aggrieved or are grieving, not because they want to say something in just the right words. Writers who write beautifully can never be given the last word.

All of this is just to say that offering John Updike the praise he deserved while he was still alive was rhetorically challenging. He was such a good writer that anything shy of shooting over the mark sounded petty when coming from academics or envious when coming from fellow writers. Praise from academic quarters was especially stingy, which made following Updike's career as a professor a mark of both distinction and eccentricity. Updike had doubters rather than critics, disbelievers who, like disbelievers of every kind of miracle, refused to investigate what they were certain could not be true.

His death has brought his admirers out of the closet and has given hyperbolic assessments their due. It has also forced his most devoted followers to relinquish their exclusive hold on him, as if now a collective sigh must be uttered over his name. Updike was our happy Proust, infinitely observant but not self-indulgently tortured, at home with the bourgeoisie rather than ambivalent about the aristocracy, perhaps because he was in love more with things than the memory of things. Now that we cannot look forward to the steady flow of his new work, we are left to pay the homage to him that he paid to our world.

Yet even in death Updike continues to deliver, at least in The New Yorker, which is understandably reluctant to let its union with him be parted. It was jolting to read his review of a biography of his friend John Cheever just as I was settling into the thought that he would write no more. Perhaps this was Updike's way of mocking as premature any attempt to foreclose on his productivity. At one point in the article, Updike voices his annoyance of the biographer's observation that Cheever is unfashionable in the college classroom. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

In Praise of John Updike (1932-2009)
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.