In Appreciation of John Updike

In hearing the sad news of John Updike’s passing this week I suppose I should not have been surprised to learn that E. B. and Katharine White were among his earliest fans and that, likewise, Updike was an admirer of EBW’s.

In a January 1962 letter to Updike, EBW wrote:

I would rather read an unwritten novel by you than a written one by almost anyone else. The piece in this issue is wonderfully moving, moved me wonderfully, is almost unbelievably good, except I believe it….I keep trying to discover what it is (what mysterious thing) that elevates writing to the level where combustion takes place, and I guess it it is simply that in writing there has to be an escape of gases or vapors from the center — Core Gas, that is. And even this explanation is unreliable, because God knows there was always a lot of gas escaping from Hemingway but a lot of the time it reminded me of the farting of an old horse.

Updike later acknowledged his literary debt to the Whites’ by dedicating his second book of poems Telephone Poles to the couple. EBW thanked Updike with a wry bit verse in a September 1963 letter to the younger author:

In youth, when I was the creator,
I was a lusty dedicator;
But now, the blood all drained from me,
At last I rise a dedicatee
(All thanks to thee.)

After praising several of the poems in “Poles” EBW, feeling his age at 64, closes his letter in mock reproach:

There’s only one line in the book I don’t care for. It’s on the last page. ‘John Updike was born in 1932.’ This, considering the body of your work, I thought offensive and in bad taste.

Of course, the body and breadth of Updike’s work would continue to grow prodigiously over the next four and a half decades. With Updike’s death, at a comparatively young 76 (EBW lived to 86), the supply of combustible vapors escaping from the pages of The New Yorker and his publisher (Knopf) is sure to be diminished, though he is said to have produced a book of poems and a collection of stories yet to be published. His final novel Terrorist (2006) has risen to the top of my bedside pile. Rabbit, Run remains an early and enduring favorite of mine. I may have to track down Telephone Poles.

Personal Reflections

This photo of my mother at age 45 was taken in 1962 by a reporter for The Florida Times-Union, the morning paper that era. (Every afternoon a rival paper landed in our driveway, where this photo was shot, keeping the paper boy busy on his bike.) I don’t know if the image was ever was published or intended for a feature. (On what? Tennis fashion, or suburban housewives playing dangerous games?) Discovering it recently, my brothers and I dubbed it “Mad Men Mom” and it does evoke the flavor of both the show and Updike’s early writing. I love that she is framed through the windshield of our VW convertible, my oldest brother’s first car.

Mad Men Mom

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3 Responses to “In Appreciation of John Updike”


  1. 1 ERD January 29, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    wonderful fun, again! I’m left wondering many things, all vaporous (and vapid), including what EBW might have meant by saying that he’d enjoy ‘reading an unwritten novel’ by Updike more than one written by ‘almost anyone else.’ Without context, it might mean he didn’t really enjoy reading novels at all (not just ones by Hemingway, whose early novels Updike said he regarded highly). Or, it might mean he would enjoy Updike’s written novels as little as he enjoyed others’.

  2. 2 coffee January 30, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    John Updike’s passing is sad, but he left a ton of awesome work. “Immortality is nontransferrable” he said appropriately.

  3. 3 otter042852 February 21, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    I love this piece. The coincidence that Barbara’s picture is taken the same year that Mr. and Mrs. White heavily praised John Updike is appealing and your description is intriguing; Mad Men Mom brings back black and white television days and it is funny. Why it was taken is as much a mystery as what does it mean. Yet, it is a finished photo. Is it the subtle detail of the photo that finishes it?

    As an attempt to be artistic, it is undeniable. Most obvious is the photo’s angle shot above the VW bug dashboard. Without being shot through the windscreen, it is a snapshot of a woman dressed to play tennis. It might be entitled “Woman in Tennis Ensemble”. Ho-Hum.

    There is much more. Florida’s sunlight streaks the image: Barbara’s hair glows in over exposure and the house’s edges blur in contrast to the angularity of the window frames. These effects raise it to an interesting technical photo. The art is in the details.

    Sparkling (you can’t mine those rhinestones these days) cat eye frame prescription sunglasses cover the eyes of a slender woman centered in the depth of field. She heads for her game carrying two rackets, two cans of tennis balls (Wilson, $2.75, including tax at The Racquet Club), a sweater (for god’s sake, it is Florida) and an unseen pocket book slung on her left arm. Where these just items leaning against the backdoor? I contend that these details were carefully selected and included by Barbara.

    It is evidence of your mother’s dominate “snoot” gene referred to in your entry on David Foster Wallace. Attention to detail, holding up standards and teaching principles to her offspring were one of Barbara’s strong traits. No explanation to her was so complete that it didn’t elicit some clarifying question, exception given to don’t-tell-me-events described by one of your brother’s. Barbara is both the subject and a major contributor to this bit of art.

    Postscript: In honor of your mother’s snootiness and in hopes that you will one day return this favor, I will engage in a little bit of snootiness. The Volkswagen in the picture belongs to your brother Steve; as you only have two brothers, the car belongs to your older brother.


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