Updike: Why He Wrote, Who He Wrote For

To my surprise there is such a thing as a John Updike Encyclopedia, but I don’t own a copy so I’m unable to track down, right now, some of the Updike gems that drew  me to him decades ago when I was in college.  

 But here are two. The first explains why he wrote and kept writing, crafting almost a book a year for 50 years:

“There’s a kind of confessional impulse that not every literate, intelligent person has,  a crazy belief that you have some exciting news about being alive, and I guess that, more than talent, is what separates those who do it from those who think they’d like to do it. That your witness to the universe can’t be duplicated, that only you can provide it, and that it’s worth providing.”

And here’s Updike’s idea of his audience and how he hoped his books would live on:  

“When I write, I aim in my mind not towards New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a country-ish teen-aged boy finding them and having them speak to him.”

 Thinking of those lines as a kind of epitaph brought to mind W. H. Auden’s great elegy on the death of William Butler Yeats.

I don’t know that I’d put Updike (or anyone else)  in Yeats’ company, but what Auden says about the death of a great writer applies to Updike, I hope. The whole long poem is here, but these lines in particular speak to the relationship of the writer and his audience:

 

 By mourning tongues, the death of the poet is kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,

An afternoon of nurses and rumors;

The provinces of his body revolted,

The squares of his mind were empty,

Silence invaded the suburbs.

The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

“He became his admirers.” Perhaps that’s the definition of literary immortality.

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