“A fervent relation with the world”--I have always loved it that John Updike once identified this as his critical touchstone--“with its old-fashioned savor of reverence and Creation and the truth that shall make you free.” So much of Updike is there--the outward orientation, the native religiosity, the bemused observation of that native religiosity (gently mocked but not repudiated). Is he right, though, in his use of this as a touchstone? I don’t know, but I will confess that I have worried this question more than once as a result of a strange occurrence: In 1999, when a British publication, The Times Magazine, decided to do a millennial special on 20th century figures “preeminent in their fields” and their chosen successors, Updike, for reasons I have never understood--please don’t laugh--chose me.
It was an out-of-body experience. I met up with him on a late fall day in Harvard Yard, by the statue of John Harvard. He recognized me and I, less surprisingly, him, though his first words--“You must be Gish”--emanated, to my astonishment, from a face half-powdered from a sugar donut he was in the process of scarfing down. He was even rangier than I expected and, well, bigger of nose, but far easier to talk to, also: full of reminiscences about his years at Harvard and open about what he was working on, which was Melville’s later years--the long silence before “Billy Budd”-- and “what went wrong.” I remember wondering as he told me that whether he felt something had gone wrong for him, too, but no--no one, at least on the surface, could have seemed less late-Melvillean than Updike. We sat for our portrait on a couch in the Faculty Club--the idea being that the difference in our heights might prove less striking if we were seated, though even with our difference halved, we presented a challenge for our sandal-shod French photographer. She took what seemed to be miles of film, as a fine result of which I look, in the final shot, distinctly sick of sitting up straight; an ever-game Updike, meanwhile, genially tilts my way. He was gracious and charmingly observant through it all--commenting, for example, on how the photographer’s finger must tire, after a while, from all that trigger-pressing. Then suddenly, we were done and saying goodbye without my ever asking him the one question that had, of course, knocked maniacally on my consciousness the whole time: Why me?
I did see him several times after that. Once, he commented on how little space our picture was allotted in the issue (we were about the size of a largish refrigerator magnet); Twiggy and Kate Moss, can you imagine, were given much more. On other occasions, we have chatted about all sorts of things, but never about why he singled me out; nor why, since 1999, he has supported me with a generosity that has seemed more like something out of Dickens than out of real life. I am sick to realize that I will never have a chance to thank him properly now.
All I can do is pay, here, my heartfelt homage to him, a great writer--protean, as many have noted, and spectacularly, tentacularly gifted--a prolific, old-fashioned man of letters, yes, but finally, I think, a writer without whom the necklace of 20th century American literature could not be judged complete. Crack chronicler of America that he was, he reminded us of the role literature has always played in our national self-fashioning even as he showed us that that role could be played aesthetically: with gorgeous writing and a cool intimacy that in his best work keeps the reader on the cusp of moral judgment. His ideas about writing have shaped a generation of writers. No one has been untouched by his advocacy of the “accumulation of detail” as one of the chief means by which fiction accrues its power, and many are still mulling over his desire to “give the mundane its beautiful due” and his admiration for the “groping” quality of his beloved Henry Green’s work.
I salute him, too, as a genuinely kind and generous human being. My editor, Ann Close, recently told me that for most of his career, Updike refused to take an advance from Knopf. He did everything in his power to help the house, and literary organizers of every stripe will attest to the time and effort he has poured into supporting literary culture. His death is All Wrong; no one would accept this in a novel; everything about it says, Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite! That end must be redone! But all has been put to bed; it is, in fact, in galleys. As for the reviews, the just ones say he was a rarity--a great writer and a great man.
Gish Jen is the author of the novels Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land, The Love Wife, and Who’s Irish?, a book of stories.
By Gish Jen