The death of John Updike yesterday had book lovers buzzing. Updike's work was so vast and varied that it's unlikely there's an adult out there that hasn't read something written by him. He wrote novels -- the Rabbit series by far the most popular -- and poetry and essays and literary criticism.
I asked my predecessor, novelist Henry Kisor, who was literary editor here at the Sun-Times for 30-plus years, for his thoughts on Updike as a writer:
"For my generation, his Rabbit novels were a beacon into our striving souls. He got us right. He told us more about ourselves than we ever knew was there. He was probably the finest 'man of letters' of his time, being not only a prolific -- and first-rate -- novelist but also a thoughtful critic, accomplished poet and all-around writer on an enormous range of subjects. I don't think anyone has ever written a better baseball essay than his 'Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu' piece on the retirement of Ted Williams."
Here are some more thoughts from local literati:
"I was a passionate Updike fan, especially of the four Rabbit novels, which I thought offered an unequaled portrait of the way the mind meets the present and rivaled Tolstoy in their breadth and their unsparing lack of sentimentality about a man who had grace within his grasp and repeatedly fumbled it away. When the last of the Rabbit books
appeared I wrote Updike a euphoric letter, which he was kind enough to answer. I met him once after that. He was kindly but remarkably aloof. A mutual friend talked about setting up a golf date for the three of us, but I never got to Massachusetts with my clubs. I made the mistake of thinking there was time. He was our greatest living man of letters and should have won the Nobel Prize long ago. As a novelist, he was like the girl with a
curl -- but his greatest work stands beside the very best books of the twentieth century." --Scott Turow
"His novels never really spoke to me, but I very much admired him as a
critic and an essayist and I thought more than almost any other person in
the world of letters he understood the interplay between fiction and culture
in the way that he wrote about it. It feels like a real loss, even though I
never knew him personally." --Sara Paretsky
"[Updike] has this great sense of humor; he never takes himself too seriously that he can't discuss issues of sexuality really frankly. That is part of his legacy as well. So much of his work deals with male sexuality. He was a pioneer in some ways." --Joe Meno
To write a single book is like climbing a steep mountain. A writer needs courage, discipline and devotion to one's craft. John Updike mustered these qualities fifty times, a feat few other writers will ever manage to accomplish. --Harry Mark Petrakis
I remember when I first read Rabbit Run, at the time a very searing indictment of the suburban landscape. Updike's ability to get under the surface of things, to get at the nub of frustration of middle class life was something I aspired too. I think he gave permission to writers to take on the suburbs and look for meaning. He is certainly one of our greats in that line of Mailer and Bellow. We are slowly losing a rich literary heritage. --William Elliott Hazelgrove