John Updike dies, and Gods still don’t answer letters


“In 1976, Cheever received a false report that Updike had died and was moved to record the following tribute in his journal.” [From the New Yorker]

The telephone rings at four. “This is C.B.C. John Updike has been in a fatal automobile accident. Do you care to comment?” I am crying. I cannot sleep again. I think of joining Mary in bed, but I am afraid she will send me away. I think I am right. When there is a little light I feed the dogs. “I hope they don’t expect to be fed this early every morning,” she says. I do not point out that John will not die every morning, and that in any case it is I who feed them. This restraint costs me nothing. When I go into the kitchen for another cup of coffee, she empties the pot into my cup and says, “I was just about to have some myself.” When I insist on sharing the coffee I am unsuccessful. I do not say that the pain of death is nothing compared to the pain of sharing a coffeepot with a peevish woman. This, again, costs me nothing. And I see that what she seeks, much more than a cup of coffee, is the gratification of a sense of denial and neglect—and that we so often, all of us, put our cranky and emotional demands so far ahead of our hunger and thirst. As for John, he was a man I so esteemed as a colleague and so loved as a friend that his loss is indescribable. He was a prince. I think it not difficult to kiss him goodbye—I can think of no other way of parting from him, although he would, in my case, have been embarrassed. I think him peerless as a writer of his generation; and his gift of communicating—to millions of strangers—his most exalted and desperate emotions was, in his case, fortified by immense and uncommon intelligence and erudition. John, quite alone in the field of aesthetics, remained shrewd. Mercifully, there is no consolation in thinking that his extraordinary brilliance presaged a cruel, untimely, and unnatural death. His common sense would have dismissed that as repulsive and vulgar. One misses his brightness—one misses it painfully—but one remembers that his life was dedicated to the description of enduring—and I definitely do not mean immortal—to enduring strains of sensuality and spiritual revelations. So the call about John’s untimely death was a fraud. I have decided, says my daughter, that it was an overambitious stringer, who saw the name on a police blotter and tried to cash in. This is a wish founded on the desirable simplicity of being charitable; one of her best characteristics. I am distempered, forlorn, and idle.

Then there is Updike’s sportswriting. The Red Sox publicly mourned the loss of their most literary fan (apologies to Stephen King). “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” opened with this:

Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man’s Euclidean determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities.

Explaining with Teddy Ballgame wouldn’t tip his cap on his last game to a Boston crowd (he hadn’t done so since 1940, apparently), Updike wrote:

But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

2 thoughts on “John Updike dies, and Gods still don’t answer letters

  1. Nice post. I’ve always loved Updike’s line “Gods don’t answer letters.” He was a man of letters.

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

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