Anderson: John Updike, Essayist

In 1955.

It’s hard to know exactly how to approach the monumental edifice of John Updike. He filled his 50 years of writing with probably seven or eight normal writing careers, mastering along the way basically every genre humans have invented. (This includes such comparatively rare forms as the “self-interview via a fictional alter-ego” and the “sonnet about one’s own feces.”) His body of work is so large and thoroughly lauded, his achievements by now so familiar — the casual erudition, the inhuman rate of production, the pioneering application of top-flight, literary-descriptive prose to vaginas, breasts, penises, and bodily excretions — that it’s hard to see any of it fresh. It can be intimidating. Dipping into his work sometimes feels like going for a day hike on Mt. Everest. What’s the point?

In fact, Updike is the perfect author to dip into. He showed, with the Rabbit quartet, that he could go big, but his talent could also be very small, in the best possible way. I always go back, first, to his essays, which strike me as the purest expression of his personality: easy, sociable, curious, smart, funny, generous, and almost pathologically cheerful. He was, for my money, one of the greatest belletrists of all time — a master of the short, casual, elegant, whimsical, roving piece about absolutely anything. (It’s a skill that sometimes gets undervalued in a culture that fetishizes giant novels, political crises, and the news cycle.) He could take the fruits of high culture — obscure philosophy, art history, sociological scraps — and translate it, for a wide audience, into little miracles of focused thought, all written in an elegant verbal music.

It was a tone Updike inherited from E.B. White and the other golden-era New Yorker writers, and he mastered it so thoroughly, so young, that the magazine hired him right out of college. (In the same way Susan Sontag made critical theory hip and young, Updike refreshed dusty urbanity.) He had the prose equivalent of a perfect baseball swing: effortless, smooth, and with a very high rate of success. In his first “Talk of the Town” pieces, written when he was in his twenties, Updike attacked the city like an anthropologist. Once, as a kind of urban thought experiment, he set himself the ridiculous goal of walking from the Empire State Building all the way to Rockefeller Center without ever setting foot on Fifth or Sixth Avenues. He had to go directly up the middle of the blocks, sneaking through parking lots, crawling under fences, climbing through a basement window. (He wanted to avoid the avenues’ crowds.) Another time, he wrote a mock-scholarly analysis of pedestrians’ faces, the “one feature of the Manhattan landscape that we have never analytically described”:

They occur, with rare exceptions, in a narrow belt of space between four and six feet above the pavement. … One’s first impression, in scanning the faces, is of a sameness as striking as that of pigeons, wavelets, or bricks. Attentive examination, however, yields a multitude of distinctions. Not only do the faces of Manhattan vary in color and size but they differ even in individual expression. Some float with eyelids lowered; some stare straight ahead while the lips move rhythmically, producing a small snapping noise, possibly of chewing gum or sassafras bark, deep in the molars; some glance now and then nervously sidewise at a second face while the lips move spasmodically, forming words.

Updike’s essays — my favorite collection is Picked-Up Pieces (1975) — are as smart, funny, genial, and stylistically bulletproof as any essays have ever been. They’re so abundant, in fact, so springy and alive, that, reading them, it’s impossible to accept that he’s gone.

Related: Updike: Unpublished Thoughts on the Great Depression and Barack Obama

Anderson: John Updike, Essayist