Three years after John Updike’s death, his reputation appears to be on the wane. But who else can match his deftness and grace?
By Sarah Crown
Happy news from across the water. 117 Philadelphia Ave, Shillington, childhood home of John Updike, has been bought by the Updike Society for what seems, to one humbled by the London property market, a snip at $200000. Their plan is to run the house as an “historic site” – restored, presumably, to something like the condition it would have been in when Updike was in residence, and open by appointment to visiting “writers and scholars”.
All well and good – and unquestionably the Updike Society has done a fine thing in saving the home of Pennsylvania’s most famous son for the nation, particularly given the traces this early environment would leave on his work down the line (Shillington is a suburb of Reading, PA, the city which Updike makes over into Brewer, PA; its landmarks are also scattered through his early novels and his short fiction). But reading about the plans in the wake of a roadtrip round New England’s college towns and their bookshops, during which we were lucky to come across the odd copy of Rabbit, Run or Couples tucked between the serried ranks of Bellow, Vonnegut and Morrison, I find myself wondering whether, in fact, it’s enough.
This is hopelessly subjective, of course, but for me, Updike is THE American novelist of the late 20th century, picking up where Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck left off. Through his Rabbit novels alone, which follow the fluctuating fortunes of high school basketball ace Harry Angstrom from 1960-2001, Updike furnished us with a roadmap of his country’s postwar progress, from 50s smalltown conservatism through the upheaval of Vietnam and race relations to complacent and bloated late capitalism, all inked in prose whose airy loveliness consistently astonishes. When his death was announced in early 2009, panegyrics piled rapidly upon encomia – but in the years since, his reputation appears to have suffered a gradual but definite slump.
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