An infamous, painfully piercing review by David Foster Wallace in the New York Observer ("John Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat, Drops One," Oct. 13, 1997) begins with, and runs with, a quotation from Updike's 1969 poem "Midpoint":
"Of nothing but me I sing, lacking another song."
Lavish in its praise of Updike's earlier work, the piece mainly dwells upon the profound self-absorption of Updike and other "Great Male Narcissists" such as Norman Mailer and Philip Roth. It is undeniably true that John Updike, who died on Tuesday at age 76, reflected on the problem of himself in one form or another in virtually everything he wrote. He was Rabbit Angstrom. He was Henry Bech. He lived, in a generally unhappy marital state, in New England. He was erudite, articulate, observant to a fault, and he aged with his characters. And -- whether a fiction writer, a poet, a critic, or a narrator of one of his tales -- he wrote beautiful prose, finely crafted sentences that often married feeling, understanding and descriptive power as few others could.
In many respects, he may have been typical of his generation of literary men -- the man of letters in whom the man and the letters are inextricably linked. It is our good fortune, then, that in Updike's case, the man had such remarkable reach and depth. He brought the same high level of interest, conviction and knowledge to reviews of Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying" and Amos Tutuola's "The Palm Wine Drinkard," to remarks on a J.MW. Turner exhibition and accounts of hurricane Katrina, to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman and the execution of a playwright in Iran.
He was, in short, a man of letters in the best and most interesting sense: someone whose wide-ranging literary interests shaped him, just as his own interests shaped his wide-ranging literary production. We are richer and wiser for knowing Rabbit Angstrom in the wrenching series of books from "Rabbit, Run," which established Updike's reputation, to "Rabbit at Rest," which brought him to the brink of mortality. We are lucky to have encountered the author's brilliance in "The Poorhouse Fair" or "Of the Farm" or "The Centaur." We are happier for observing the blossoming artist of "Pigeon Feathers" and the dead-end adolescence of "A & P." And we are smarter for reading Updike's seasoned, well-reasoned opinions on literature, music, art and life over half a century.
In the end, it seems unfair that Updike, whose life was so exquisitely considered, documented and annotated, cannot narrate his own last chapter. No one else can do it justice. Writing of the self-consciousness of youth, he said, "As we get older, we are exempted from more and more, and float upward in our heedlessness, singing Gratia Dei sum quod sum." That is, as he is now no doubt somewhere singing: "Thanks be to God that I am what I am."
Ellen Akins is a novelist in Wisconsin. She teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.