This week America lost one of its last great writers. John Updike was born and raised in Pennsylvania during the Depression. His parents were white and middle-class. His father was a middle-school math teacher, and John was good at math. He once remarked in an interview that he admired his father for being the funniest faculty member at school. He said being the son of a school teacher brought some degree of small-town celebrity, which he relished as a child.
When I heard Tuesday he died of lung cancer, I was on the way to church for evening prayers. Traffic was slow and NPR was blathering on as usual about the tanking economy. Then they surprised me with his death. He was 76. I wanted to pull over and cry, but the best I could do was cross myself and pray for him as my heart sank.
I’m not even that familiar with his works. In fact, I tried to nurse a grudge against him in undergrad after I read his Gertrude and Claudius for having the audacity to move in on Shakespeare. But I didn’t know anything about writing then. I didn’t understand that the process of good writing is all about audacity, about believing that someone actually cares enough to read this, or rather that you have something important enough to say to make people care. Or maybe they won’t care at all, but you have to say it all the same.
Gradually the effects of my misguided grudge wore away as I touched samples of his work elsewhere over the years. I was slowly growing to love him from afar, without even having read any major work. I encountered him in various book reviews in the New Yorker, and heard him on occasion on the radio, remarking sagaciously on something in a way only an old man of letters – a man who’s read books and written them all his life – can manage to articulate.
I was looking forward to learning him better, to taking him on as a mentor, if only by proxy and fantasy. But now he’s gone, like all the rest of them have gone. Perhaps I shouldn’t even give it a voice, but I wondered even if Wendell Berry would be next. John Updike’s death stole some hope I had left for our culture, which is quickly being subsumed in rapine and soda pop. Yet I did not weep as those who have no hope. I’m grateful that God grants us the mercy of prayer for the dead.