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John Updike, who died on Tuesday at 76, was our Trollope and our Proust both. Though a brilliant man, he was not a novelist of ideas. His best character, Rabbit Angstrom, had trouble making sense of his own life, let alone the lives of those around him. Nor did Mr. Updike have a reformer’s zeal or a dreamer’s vision. His gifts were his eye and his sensibility, which enabled him to describe, with an exactitude bordering on love, how the world looked and what it felt like to make your way in it.

He was the great chronicler of middle-class America, and hundreds of years from now, if people still read, they will read the Rabbit books to learn what that perplexing age, the 20th century, was really like.

Mr. Updike was also America’s last true man of letters, an all-purpose writer and a custodian of literary culture. He wrote more, and in more different genres — stories, novels, poems, essays, reviews, occasional journalism — than anyone since Henry James, and it’s hard to imagine how he can be replaced. Who has the energy, or the eyeballs, for that much reading?

In many ways, though, Mr. Updike was an unlikely man of letters. He lived a quiet, burgherly life in a seaside Boston suburb and seldom went to literary parties. He dropped by New York now and then to visit museums and see relatives, but he never stayed long. He didn’t teach; he almost never gave blurbs; he belonged to no literary school or faction. His idea of a reward after a morning’s work was not lunch ordrinks with other writers but a round of golf with his buddies.

Mr. Updike kept in touch with the literary world mostly by mail. He was a regular at the post office and eagerly awaited the arrival every day of the FedEx truck. He was old-fashioned in promptly and politely answering letters, and his correspondence was like the man himself: stylish, charming, gently self-deprecatory. Starting when he was in his late 50’s, it sometimes amused him to pretend to be a fogey and a valetudinarian. His submissions to The New Yorker, where I used to edit him sometimes, were often accompanied by a little note declaring that the enclosed was not very good and would probably be his last, because the well was going dry, the tank was empty, the field was fallow. In fact, until the very end of his life Mr. Updike was remarkably youthful, and he filed his last piece with the magazine just weeks before he died.


Charles McGrath
New York Times