Updike: Man of Letters

Reviewed by Benjamin Schwarz

December 2000 ATLANTIC

Updike: America’s Man of Letters, by William H. Pritchard (Steerforth)

pic0305-updike004This study of John Updike’s body of work can’t match Nicholson Baker’s brilliant, eccentric meditation on Updike, U and I. But although William H. Pritchard’s chronological approach can be plodding and his prose pedestrian, his is nevertheless a valuable, quietly passionate work. By examining every genre of Updike’s writing — fiction, criticism, memoirs, poetry — comprehensively, keenly, in a style free of academic jargon, Pritchard amply demonstrates Updike’s “fearsome articulateness, at all moments, on all subjects, in all forms”; his extraordinary writerly gift of transforming “homely” materials (what Updike characterized as “the whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled America”) “into radiance”; and his place beside William Dean Howells and Edmund Wilson as a critic “committed to speaking with conviction, wit, and authority about the intellectual and moral condition of his native land,” who relies on “nothing more than a cultivated intelligence and assiduous reading.” Pritchard is a perceptive critic in large ways (he judges Updike’s greatest strength as lying in “his capacity for admiration”) and in small (he effectively uses Updike’s hilariously subtle depiction of the junk food that the incorrigible Harry Angstrom unhedonically ingests in Rabbit at Rest to illuminate what he calls that novel’s “metaphorical, figural density”). Unsurprisingly, Updike’s more than fifty books are of uneven quality, but Pritchard’s measured examination of them justifies applying Updike’s judgment of Nabokov to Updike himself: “the best writer of English prose at present holding American citizenship, the only writer … whose books, considered as a whole, give the happy impression of an oeuvre, of a continuous task carried forward variously, of a solid personality, of a plenitude of gifts exploited knowingly.”



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