Remembering John Updike: a critic and his decades-long correspondence with one of America's best 'freelance writers'.

Author:Pritchard, William H.

John Updike's death in January prompted me to review our correspondence over the past 36 years. I initiated it by bothering him with a couple of things I had written, and was emboldened to continue bothering him when he responded--and continued to respond, unfailingly, with a brief letter or a packed postcard. So I pretended that he found it salutary to begin his morning by clearing the correspondence from his desk before settling in with the novel, story, poem, or review he was then at work on. Of the two items I sent him in that first missive, one consisted of paragraphs from a fiction chronicle about his 1972 story collection, Museums and Women, paragraphs ending with a rather pompous-sounding prediction that he was "putting together a body of work which in substantial, intelligent creation will eventually be seen as second to none in our time." (For some reason he liked the ring of my praise enough to use it on the back of one or another of his books.) I also sent him a talk I'd given on nostalgia, which quoted a question he raised in one of his writings: "What is nostalgia but love for that part of ourselves which is in Heaven, forever removed from change and corruption?" In his letter back he surprised me by claiming a "waning of even the ability to feel nostalgia," which, he said, "maybe is freshest when we are in our twenties and for the first time faced with a great block of subjective time forever set aside."


When I reviewed Rabbit Is Rich in 1981, The New Republic sent the review to him, and he made my day with a postcard announcing that I had given "a passable impersonation of that favorite ghost of mine, the Ideal Reader." Meanwhile I had asked him whether, if it were offered, he would accept an honorary degree from Amherst College. He said he would be willing, "providing no speaking (speechifying, I mean to say) is involved," and suggested further that 'just as a nation should conserve its fossil fuel, a writer should try to conserve his face and voice." In 1983 the invitation came through, and although there was no speechifying required, he had to deal with two verbal challenges, both of which he met fully and gracefully. The first occurred as we ascended steps to the college president's garden where drinks would be served. At the top stood a friend, the wife of a faculty colleague, whom I introduced to Updike and his wife, Martha. Without a pause, the friend informed the novelist that her mother had...

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