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John Updike, 1932 - 2009

January 29, 2009 | 14 Comments

We received an overwhelming response to GK's readings on the January 31st show. The text and books from which the readings were taken are now posted, as is the audio in both MP3 and Real Audio formats. You might also enjoy reading our collection of John Updike's poems on The Writer's Almanac


JOHN UPDIKE, 1932-2009

Post to the Host:
Hope your show will do a tribute to one of America's greatest writers, John Updike.

Kathleen L.


I'm working on it, Kathleen. I had invited John Updike to read on the show and he demurred at first and then seemed interested and I thought we were going to be able to get him for Tanglewood this year, but no. I didn't know him but I've admired him since I was in college and he was just getting attention with his stories. I first met him in the 19th floor hallway of The New Yorker in 1989 or so. He'd been such a hero of mine that it was like running into Ted Williams or Cary Grant — what can you say? nothing. You just stand there and make yourself not say things, like "For me, you are the greatest living, you embody what I hope for in American literature" — so we just nodded and smiled at each other. And then a few years ago, we did a promotional interview together for an anthology that included something of his and something of mine, a collegial moment. He was a beaming man in his later years; his eyes glittered, he had a generous smile. When I last saw him, a year ago, we were at a literary function in far uptown Manhattan where he'd read a moving tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. He walked with me and my wife to the subway and I got to compliment him on Gertrude and Claudius which I had just read. We rode downtown together, and a band of seminary students boarded our car and recognized him and said all the things I'd made myself not say years ago. He was very gracious with them, jokey and off-hand. He was a great man, and when he wrote me a note saying he liked a story of mine, I treasured that more than one should. He was an uncomplaining writer, a genius but also a workman, and he seemed to pick up energy in his last decade, which is encouraging to the rest of us. The Centaur is still my favorite of his books, a work of filial devotion, with the Olinger stories a close second. God bless his memory. I'll try to find a few things of his to read, just to put him in mind and maybe some people will go look him up in the library. Thanks to his enormous ambitions and good habits, he left us plenty to read.


Yo -

I,too, have enjoyed the work of Mr. Updike for years, and will continue to, I'm sure. I also appreciate your decision not to "gush" in his presence at first meeting, Garrison. I recently felt the same way when you spoke at mpls public library ( sorry for my lazy caps and abbrv words - I'm pecking with one hand having broken my right wrist). Authors. When I get to heaven I hope I can hang with Kurt Vonnegut, David F. Wallace, E.L. Doktorow, Saul Bellow, Richard Brautigan, Walker Percy, T.C. Boyle, John Steinbeck, Tom Robbins (he responded to a ltr I wrote to him- so cool!), Ernest Hemingway, Russell Banks, James Baldwin...

Dear Garrison,

I want to tell you that, even as an old English Lit. Major, I did not wince at your use of "my wife and I" in this week's column. It simply makes you all that more human to I and that is a comfort to I in these days of very "in-human" folks... So, as they say here in Texas, "Bless your heart!"

Additionally, I enjoyed your post about Mr. Updike. He is one of those people I could only refer to as a Mister. Anything more familiar seems inappropriate.

Please know, too, how much I love and appreciate Mrs. Sundberg and her musings. I think of her as a trusted and beloved friend and those kinds of friends are found few and far between. She makes me laugh out loud, think, feel long-forgotten feelings, remember long-forgotten memories, test new and interesting recipes, and resurrect tried-and true comfort foods, too. She understands the genteel days when we dressed up to go to church and shop downtown, and that a real, community-oriented, wife, mother, and caregiver kind of woman always tries, whenever humanly possible, to take a nourishing hotdish to potlucks to avoid appearing rude and ill-bred.

Mrs. Sundberg is aware of important things like baking Snickerdoodles and uses words like humdinger. And, by the by, our family is having "Dad's Old Time Hotbeefs" on Super Bowl Sunday this year. If you haven't put that recipe in your recipe box already, it was printed in Mrs. Sundberg's column on October 2, 2006. Well worth the printing and preparing!

I think Mrs. Sundberg would find me funny and would have loved my late Mother - even though we are Presbyterians and not Lutherans. A meeting of the minds can take place between denominations! And writing is definitely a passion of mine, too.

Someday, I am coming to Minnesota to see the show. The one time I saw it live was at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville some 13 or 14 years ago. I am one of the finest gospel harmony singers I know. I realize I could be teetering on the edge of the Firey Pit by admitting to having one of the "Seven Deadlys" in terms of my pride regarding that fact, but at 51, why not? Anyway, one of my biggest dreams is to sing on the stage with you - doing harmony with the Hopeful Gospel Quartet. It is a fine dream to ponder on a cold, foggy, Gulf Coast Texas evening - like those Nanci Griffith understands and lovingly sings about on your show now and then. Of course, that might make it a one-time performance of the Hopeful Gospel QUINTET!

Thank you for being who you is. (I hope ending a sentence with a preposition does not make anyone wince...)

Ditto to all of the adoring comments about JU. He's been my favorite American author, living or dead, since growing up with The New Yorker and parents brought a hot-off-the-press copy of Couples into the house when I was just a kid in high school -- learned lots from that summer read! Will miss him, and anything you can say in remembrance, GK, will be most appreciated. (Also ditto to the comment re: "with my wife and I" -- JU would not approve!)

I have to tell you that your words about John Updike have inspired me to purchase a book, albeit a bit belatedly, and see if I can add him to my list of Authors whose books I keep on my shelves. Most go to friends or the second hand store so others can enjoy them, but I just ordered The Centaur and I have a feeling it'll stay at home with me.

Thank you

Can anyone point me towards the source of the wonderful excerpt Garrison read by Mister Updike, about church going and it's many merits. I believe it started approximately, "There was time when I wondered my more people didn't go to church..."

I'm not religious, not a churchgoer, but this passage made such a wonderful argument for it, I'd love to read it again. And again.

Thank you.

I found the poem Perfection Wasted by John Updike. Lovely!
Now I need to find the other piece Garrison read, I loved it! MUST have it!

I wanted to second Barry Levine's request for the source of those passages of John Updike's read by Garrison, regarding church going. I couldn't imagine anyone ever expressing that particular experience so well as he certainly did.

Also, if I may ask, from where did the quote regarding his target for his writing (the little library, east of Kansas) also from John Updike.

Thank you so much for reading these things on the air!

May this be the third in a trinity of requests for a link or reference for Mr. Updike's church passage.

Thank you!


Fr. John, resplendently vested but not, of course, underpaid

I very much enjoyed reading about your run-ins with Mr. Updike. I encountered his works when I was a sophomore in college, and again when I saw the film "The Witches of Eastwick". The information that the film was based on a John Updike novel made me seek out that work, which I found to be far superior to the movie. I have enjoyed reading and re-reading the few of his novels I own.

I too enjoyed the Updike readings. Lovely.

I'd love to know where they came from--about the beauty of going to church, about the school at which his father taught, and the poem about loved ones dying & leaving a spot that cannot be filled.

I've searched the internet to find the sources with no luck yet. Can anyone help?

I, too would like the names or sources of the readings you did. I happened to be driving home from church, in fact, when I heard that reading. But the best was the poem about death especially the line about not being able to imitate the "star". It struck home because I was on my way to a play, "My Way"--a tribute to Sinatra. I was afraid the cast would try to imitate someone who can't be imitated. To my joy, it was just a rendition of many of his songs sung by some very fine, albeit un-Sinatraish voices.

Churchgoing comes from the New Yorker Magazine, 1961 December 16, p. 59. The article is entitled "Packed Dirt, churchgoing, A dying Cat and a ? car"

The Churchgoing passage was also reprinted, I've learned, in Updike's "Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories," Knopf, 1962.

Ah, Garrison. May I call you Garrison?

You did not disappoint. You did a fine tribute to John Updike. I listened to Sunday's "almost live" performance and was thrilled.

However (Why is there always a however?)I was saddened just a little to hear you describe a nauseated person as "nauseous." A common mistake. It won't keep me away, though.

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