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Remembering John Updike, Literary Legend

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Updike died of lung cancer on Jan. 27. Fresh Air remembers the writer with archival interviews from 1988, 1989 and 1997.



Fresh Air
3:00-4:00 PM
Remembering John Updike, Literary Legend


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Today our show is all about John Updike, the writer Philip Roth described as our time's greatest man of letters. Updike died yesterday at the age of 76 of lung cancer. It was a shock to us, his readers who loved his books, and were always expecting another one to be published soon. Updike and I had little in common in terms of our age and background, yet reading him I often felt like he was describing one of my own thoughts or feelings with a precision I'd be incapable of myself. But of course, Updike put it much better than I ever could. When he talked about his job as novelist, he said by describing as best you can the fantasies of your own life, you're showing other people what their lives are like. You're clarifying their lives for them.

In the introduction to his memoir "Self-Consciousness" he said he was offering his life as a specimen life, representative in its odd uniqueness of all the oddly unique lives in this world. When I read that, it helped clarify my idea of what a biographical interview should offer - a specimen life, an example of what it's like to be human. I also loved Updike because he was funny. How's this - in a sentence about the first time you're intimate with someone, he wrote, what is the etiquette? Do you offer a condom? Do you suggest a trip to the bathroom like before a long car trip?

Before our first interview, I was kind of intimidated by the thought of speaking with Updike, especially after reading a quote in which he described interviews as a form to be loathed. Yikes. But he was always a gracious and an astoundingly eloquent interviewee. As the writer Nicholson Baker put it, somewhat jealously, Updike was so naturally verbal, he could write his memoirs on a bleeping ladder.

Updike won every big literary award with the exception of the Nobel. His best-known novels include "Rabbit, Run," "Beck: A Book," and "The Witches of Eastwick." He was also an important literary critic, short story writer, an essayist on subjects ranging from golf and art to chores and the minutia of life.

We're going to hear excerpts of three of his Fresh Air interviews starting with our first recorded in 1988.

(Soundbite of Fresh Air interview - March 17, 1988)

GROSS: You grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania where I'm sure there wasn't a big writers' community.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHN UPDIKE (Author, Essayist): To say the least.

GROSS: Did writers seem somewhat magical to you growing up away from writers and away from the publishing world?

Mr. UPDIKE: Yes, the whole world seemed magical. There was, however, my mother who was trying to be a writer. So that the basic tools of writing - that is the typewriter and the paper and the manila envelopes were all in the house, and I used to watch her type, and used to watch her send the things off and hope for the best. And actually she did get published, although perhaps never as much as her gifts deserved, so that there was my mother. There was some literary activity in the nearby city of Reading, and we're talking about an eastern area, basically, which was only a train ride from New York City. So, although it seemed quite magical and distant, it was not as distant and magical as it might have seemed to a boy, say, from Alaska or Nevada.

GROSS: In the mid '60s, you said that your subject was the American Protestant small town middle-class, and that middles really interested you. Do you think that's changed much since then?

Mr. UPDIKE: Well, like many things that you've said and had quoted back at you, you sort of wish - you wish to move on in a way, and I wouldn't quite phrase it that way, but as a matter of fact, yes, I do still live in a smallish town, and I do still seem to write about people who are somewhat in the middle. But I don't feel it as a cause quite the way I did. I write about, more or less, everything I can think of, that is I stretch my imagination as far as it'll go. I'm kind of stuck in the middle as far as my life goes, and hence my imagination tends to zero in on things which are indeed in the middle. That is, I don't write about the very rich, who I scarcely know, or the very poor who I don't know very well either.

GROSS: You know, you - most of your novels have been about people from the middle class, but I think there's something in your life that you've never done in a way that's always a part of the middle class, and that is reporting to work, reporting for a job. You worked at the New Yorker for a couple of years back in the mid-'50s, but you've been a writer all your life and have been able to make a living from it, which meant that, you know, you never had to go to work. (Laughing)

Mr. UPDIKE: I've never…

GROSS: Out at a job, out at an office or a plant or something like that.

Mr. UPDIKE: No, no exactly. So and I think it's an area of American experience which most people have and I have, by my own early and lucky success, have somewhat skipped. And I'm sorry, in a way, you know. I'm sorry I did not, unlike Joseph Conrad, ship out and be a marine captain for many years, because it gave him a lot of things to write about. He never was in danger of running out of material. I did have a number of jobs as a teenager, and I did watch my father go off to work every day. And I've lived among commuters for much of my life so I don't feel entirely locked out. But you're right, I began to write quite early and to get published early and to some extent, it's made me an oddball and a bit to one side of the mainstream of American experience.

GROSS: You've extolled accuracy in writing, accuracy in describing the details of objects and settings, and of people and their lives. Why is that kind of detail so important?

Mr. UPDIKE: Well, I find that the main charge, let's call it that, I get out of writing is when I feel I've gotten something down accurately. And the main bliss, whether I read Henry Green or Nabokov or Proust or Tolstoy, it is the sense that they've described precisely a certain level of experience whether it's a dress or a chair, how a person's face looks, that really - the literary art is a parasitic one in that its energy comes from the energy of the real and so accuracy is one way of describing the close approximation to the real that we all sort of live for. There's other kinds of accuracy, of course. There is the larger attempt to - in the shape of your novels to give something of the texture and the ambiguity of life itself, which makes perhaps for novels that don't end as conclusively and as satisfyingly as 19th century novels did, but I think it's our fate as 20th century people to live with ambiguity, and so I've tried to make my books, in some sense, reflect - yeah, the ambiguity as it exists.

GROSS: Do you think that great novels have more to do with perfect pitch than they do with great stories or themes?

Mr. UPDIKE: I think the storytelling instinct has to be part of the writers equipment in that, in the end, the novels that we treasure as classics are those which tell a pretty solid story. I mean, The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn, to name three American classics, all have a strong storyline that you can retain in your mind. So I would say that this is one piece, and maybe the main piece, of the puzzle. But having the story in your mind - and I think it's the sentence to sentence, the pleasures, the little surprises of a surprising style of an acute style, and also the way things happen one after the other, that makes a book interesting to read page to page. So that - you try to do both things. You try to have the page-to-page interestingness, the - that any page of a novel could be ripped out and read as kind of a poem. That, plus the fact that when the book is closed, some kind of whole image will be in your mind and please you or at least, you know, that in some way some - your mind will have been changed by the book.

GROSS: You review a lot of books and you once wrote that when you review a book you should review the book and not the writer's reputation. With the reputation that you have as a great American writer, do you find that it's frequently your reputation and not your latest book that gets reviewed?

Mr. UPDIKE: I feel that less lately than formerly. I did feel as though a number of critics had appointed themselves when they sat down with a new book of mine, to rectify what they felt to be was my inflated reputation. And so that the book in hand was not really given a chance, but made a kind of weapon in the general attempt to bring me down to size. I've tried to avoid doing that to other writers. And I must say, and maybe I should knock on wood, is that the last couple books of mine have been viewed, in, I think, a basically fair and attentive way. And all a writer can ask, really, is that the reviewer read the book and say what he thinks about it, instead of trying to readjust the American literary scene by means of this book review.

GROSS: Does the critic in you ever threaten to stifle the novelist in you?

Mr. UPDIKE: Yes, all the time he threatens to do that. And I kind of sidled into reviewing. I never really set out to be a critic and my mother didn't raise me to be a critic, but in the '60s it seemed a convenient and nice thing to do. I had a number of authors who I was enthusiastic about and I wanted to share my enthusiasm with the reader. And so it's gone now for 30 years. But yeah, it's not good to think very critically when you're trying to write because...

GROSS: Well, I should think you'd be afraid to write.

Mr. UPDIKE: Yes, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, what I mean? You sit there saying, this could be better. There must be a better word than this.

Mr. UPDIKE: Any sentence could be stifled by the critic in one, if you allow him to get the upper hand. But, by in large, and keeping in mind that I am a little wary of the critic in me, I think once you start to try to put images and words of dialogue together, that in some way the imaginary world takes over and mercifully shuts out all these harassing critical thought that you might otherwise entertain.

GROSS: We're listening back to our 1988 interview with John Updike. He died yesterday. We'll hear more highlights of our interviews with Updike after a break. This is Fresh Air.

John Updike died yesterday at the age of 76. It was lung cancer. We're listening back to excerpts of his Fresh Air interviews. Let's get back to our first, recorded in 1988.

You wrote a satire of the literary life called "Bech: A Book," one of your novels. And the literary figure who you write about in there is a Jewish novelist. And I wonder if you felt that when you were coming of age, that many of your peers, who were coming of age as writers, were Jewish?

Mr. UPDIKE: They were, and they are collectively and one by one, the chief glory of post-war American literature. It has been a Jewish and urban. I'm a Protestant and kind of a country boy, so I did feel that occasionally I was chastised for writing out of such an unfashionable corner of the American experience. But I persevered because it was the only corner I had, and who knows what went into the creation of Henry Bech? For one thing, a writer, especially as he ages and if he has some success, has experiences which only a writer could have. So, it was helpful for me to invent a fictional writer and I tried to make him as unlike myself as I could. Instead of a father of four, he's an unwed, and bachelor, and he is Jewish and urban. Which is, in a way, something I would like to be.

GROSS: Jewish and urban?

Mr. UPDIKE: Yes, I think I'd be nice and kind of lively and a lot of fun as I imagined it, really, although Bech's life isn't all fun. It's been fun for me to try to imagine myself into the skin and the mind of Henry Bech.

GROSS: You feel that you missed out on something because you don't have, you know, a kind of obvious ethnic heritage, because WASPS in this country are not assumed to have, you know, the kind of ethnic sense of past, that say, Jews do. Do you know what I'm talking about?

Mr. UPDIKE: You don't have a subject quite in the way that the Jewish writers of a certain transitional generation did. It's true. And I was raised in a town that did not have much ethnic self-awareness because, basically, it was all Protestant, all white, all gentile. On the other hand, it was in Pennsylvania. We had a sharp sense of ourselves as Pennsylvanians, and there was a feeling that there was something here, that we did have an identity. I don't feel exactly, that, you know, it's like water, it's more like milk. That is, there is a color, even if it's white, and even if the milk is a little stale now in the glass. So, you know, I think any life has in it, enough material, enough points of departure, to fuel a writer's career. And that we shouldn't worry about what we're not, but to try to focus on what we are, and what we do know.

GROSS: Your father was a math teacher in your high school, and I believe you even had classes with him. You know, most of us don't get to see - most of us as children never got to judge our fathers at the work that they did because the work that they did was far away from where we were, and what did we know about it? But all students evaluate their teachers, so you knew your father in a kind of different level, than most of us know ours?

Mr. UPDIKE: It was a strange exposure. Yeah, my father taught junior high math and I was his student for not one, but three years. All those junior high years. Indeed he was my homeroom teacher for one of those years. And, what can I say, except that he made it kind of painless. I was not pressured to behave better than the other children, and he somehow continued to express paternal feelings toward me when I was not in class, and luckily I was a good student and liked math, so there wasn't really any basic conflict. But yes, it is a strange thing to see your father at work, as it were, and what I got out of it was mostly, well two things really. A sense of pride, seeing him perform because I saw him in high school assemblies, and he was the funniest of the teachers and would say things which make the whole auditorium roar with laughter. And I thought in my - crouching down in my seat, that that's my dad, and was kind of amazed. On the other hand, I did see, especially as he got older, the real struggle that teaching is, and keeping discipline and saying the same things for the 15th year in a row. And so a curious sense of his agony, that is, the agony of the working teacher, was born in upon me also.

GROSS: Well you must have been known, at least partially in school, as your father's son, since everyone knew who he was and who you were. Was it a relief when you left home to just, not be known as your father's son?

Mr. UPDIKE: I think the pressure on teachers' children, and there were a number in my class, and on ministers' children, in a small town, there is a certain pressure, expectation that you would be good. And since I was basically kind of timid and good, it wasn't an inordinate pressure on me, but I both enjoyed the role, kind of. It did give me a tiny bit of celebrity in this small town. And in a way I was happy to get out of Shillington into an area where nobody knew me or my father or my grandfather.

GROSS: You know, for years I'd really hoped that I'd someday have the opportunity to do an interview with you, but I was very scared of it as well, because you really dislike being interviewed and you dislike the form, you've called interviews a form to be loathed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I think, of all the people I've ever met, you really have the strongest anti-interview feelings.

Mr. UPDIKE: And yet, I've given my share of interviews...

GROSS: I know, I know.

Mr. UPDIKE: As you may notice. And....

GROSS: Absolutely

Mr. UPDIKE: I seem to be giving more and more too, which just goes to show that these high principles. But I think what I was objecting to mostly, when I made the remark about them being a half-form like maggots, and a form to be loathed...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: Is that once you've put yourself on record in an interview, and you're sort of thinking fast and saying the first thing that pops into your mind, basically, anything to fill up the air time or the reporter's time - it's a little disconcerting when you're younger than I, to realize that these remarks that you toss off, once they're in print, have an equal weight with all the words that you've labored to polish and make come out exactly right. So, in some sense, I do resist and resent the tendency of our age, to milk people through interviews, to get them to betray or to reveal the real whoever - John Updike, let's say - when John Updike has been trying to show the real John Updike in his writing all these years. However, it's like traffic jams and flying in jet planes, it's a part of our...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: Penance of living in the 21st century.

GROSS: Well listen, thanks for doing the interview. I have a couple of more questions for you. Do you mind if I quote you one more time?

Mr. UPDIKE: No, no, it's fun to hear it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You said that an artist of any sort in our society and most others, is a privileged person, allowed to stand apart from some of the daily grind And supposed to be closer to the gods and have access to the divine sources of tribal well-being. What's this, quite a responsibility. And I'm not sure if you think that's an appropriate way of seeing an artist, or if you think that is an absurd way to see artists?

Mr. UPDIKE: There's been quite a lot said by the classic modernists Wallace Stevens and James Joyce and others and Proust also about the sacred importance of the writer and about their sense, that the God being either dead or asleep, that the writer has inherited what once was the priest's function. And this certainly enabled the modernists, that is, this high concept of their importance to write marvelous stuff, that is to do anything well, you have to believe in it, and such a creed enabled them to believe enough to devote their lives to writing well. I don't know as I quite subscribe to this elevated notion of the writers role. But I think even, yes, I think people do look to us to tell the truth in a way that nobody else quite will. Not politicians or ministers or sociologists - a writer's job, is to, by way of fiction, somehow describe the way we live. And to me, this seems an important task, very worth doing, and I think also, to the reading public, it seems, even though they might not articulate it, it seems to them something worth doing also. In a way, what you are doing, is you are giving, Pascal said this somewhere, you're giving back people themselves. You are, by describing as best you can, the fantasies of your own life, you are showing other people what their lives are like. And in a way, you are giving people life, you are clarifying their life for them, and so this is not an insignificant task, is it?

GROSS: No and that's a great way of looking at it, too. Just one last thing. Did people still say run rabbit run when they see you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: A little less than they used. And it was mostly in Pennsylvania that people used to say run rabbit run at me. I guess though, he is my most famous character, and I meet people now and then who ask about the fourth book, if any, and say how much it's meant to them. That rabbit has been their life. They are rabbit. They tell me, they don't look like rabbit, but that's what they say. So, I've kind of, become a little more mellow toward me and Harry Angstrom, and, you know, I don't mind people saying that or whatever. It's funny, you know as a child you sort of hope for, what? Fame, of a kind. And when you get it, you find that it has its thorny side as well as its roses, so - but I think, you know, thorns and roses go together, and so you must take the sour with the sweet.

GROSS: John Updike recorded in 1988. We'll hear excerpts of two other Updike interviews in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air.

We're remembering one of the greatest writers of our time, John Updike. He died of lung cancer yesterday at the age of 76. I had the privilege of interviewing him several times of the years. We're listening back to excerpts from three of those interviews. This next one was recorded in 1989, after the publication of his memoir "Self-Consciousness." In the past he'd be reluctant to reveal much about his personal life to his readers. I asked to read the opening paragraph of "Self-Consciousness" in which he described why he uncharacteristically chose himself as the subject of a book.

Mr. UPDIKE: Shortly before the first of these personal essays was composed but several years after the soft spring night in Shillington that it describes, I was told perhaps in jest of someone wanting to write my biography, to take my life, my load of ore and heap of memories from me. The idea seemed so repulsive that I've assimilated to put down - always with some natural hesitation and distaste these elements of an autobiography. They record what seems to me important about my own life and try and cheat this life, this massive datum which happens to be mine, as a specimen life representative in its odd uniqueness of all the oddly unique lives in this world. A mode of impersonal egoism was my aim in attempt to touch honestly upon the central veins with a scientific dispassion and curiosity.

GROSS: Can you explain that fear of somebody taking your memories from you to write a biography?

Mr. UPDIKE: Well, a writer's life isn't quite like a statesman's life, you know, it's what you write out of. And I just didn't want to be and don't want to be intruded upon in that way. So as a defense against intrusion I decided to invade my own privacy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: With these essays. At least I would know how to do it and would do it with good taste and delicately. And had nowhere to go. And if, my life is of any intrinsic interest and I'm not sure it is of much, I'm the one who's lived it. And the kind of things that I write about in this book are certainly things that a biographer would not fasten upon.

GROSS: Well, the poetic device you seem to use is your body, the revelations in the central part of - you know, of the middle part of your memoirs come not from your career as a writer but from your body, from physical ailments - from psoriasis, from a stutter, from asthma.

Mr. UPDIKE: Yes, well they're what seen as come to my attention of those moments of discomfort. And remember the title of the book is "Self-Consciousness" so I fastened upon those things which either made me self-conscious, like the psoriasis, or which showed self-consciousness, like the stuttering. And psoriasis is rather rarely written about, we're all shy about it, those of us who have it wish we didn't and don't want to talk about it much, so it took a long time for me to confess to it. I feel it's some, you know it's the sin of some kind. Its a dermal sin, and it took me a long time to believe that it wasn't really my fault, then I could talk about it more or less freely.

GROSS: Were you worried about calling attention to it, though?

Mr. UPDIKE: No, not really. A writer is somebody who tries to tell the truth, right? And your value to your society is a certain willingness to risk being honest, and so to be honest about this was part of the general job as I see it.

GROSS: I think you found a lot universals in the particulars of your experience with psoriasis. And I'd like to ask you to read a excerpt of your chapter on psoriasis, and I guess as John Updike, and this is a reading from his new book "Self-Consciousness."

Mr. UPDIKE: (Reading) Psoriasis keeps you thinking, strategies of concealment ramify and self examination is endless. You are forced to the mirror, again and again. Psoriasis compels narcissism, if we can suppose a narcissist who did not like what he saw. In certain lights your face looks passable. In slightly different other lights, not. Shaving mirrors and rear view mirrors in automobiles are merciless, for as the smoky mirrors in airplane bathrooms are especially flattering and soothing. Ones face looks as tawny as a movie star's. Flying back from the Caribbean I used to admire my improved looks, years went by before I noticed that I looked equally good in a lavatory glow on the flight down. I cannot pass a reflecting surface on the street without glancing in, in hopes that I have somehow changed. Nature and the self, the great moieties of earthly existence, are each cloven in two by a fascinated ambivalence. One hates ones abnormal erupting skin but is lead into a brooding solicitous attention toward it. One hates the nature that has imposed this affliction, but only this same nature can be appealed to for erasure, for cure. Only nature can forgive psoriasis, the sufferer in his self-contempt does not grant to other people this power.

GROSS: There's a sentence in there that I think probably a lot of people really see themselves in, and that is I cannot pass reflecting surface on the street without glancing in, in hopes that I have somehow changed. I really think you put your finger on something there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: Well, I'm happy to hear it, because I've always thought nobody except me was annoyed with the way they looked or self conscious to this degree. But I guess we all are. It's a strange thing, isn't it, to be born into a certain body instead of an ideal body? And all of our faces - the whole idea of a face is some slightly funny, isn't it? If you can put yourself outside of the species a moment, these faces we carry around with the holes in them and the shining holes, and the dark holes, and then the one that show a lot of teeth. It's all odd beyond belief, really.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, you feel like, well it's my face, but my face isn't my fault.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: Right. It's not your fault, but it is what you're stuck with.

GROSS: Well, you seem to think that it's some of your weaknesses that have made you what you are. Some of your defects like psoriasis. You think you became the person who you are and the writer who you are because of it.

Mr. UPDIKE: Well, I think it forced my attention away from any very public career, like being an actor or a school teacher, which is kind of an actor, and what my father did, and - that was the profession society had more or less laid out for me. And I think my determination to avoid teaching is in part a shyness of any kind of public performance daily, putting yourself there trying to look good. So, I've been extra serious about making it as a freelance writer where I don't really have to come out of the closet where I can do the whole thing at a distance and in a room by myself via the mails. So yes in that extent. Also, psoriasis has made me be a little bolder than I might have ordinarily have been, and it certainly got me to the Caribbean. I've seen a lot of lovely Islands that I wouldn't have seen if I didn't have psoriasis.

GROSS: At the end of your chapter about your skin, it's pretty well cleared up because of some experimental treatments you were getting. Did you have any problems after writing about this? You know, a lot of people believe that psoriasis has a component of psychology behind it?

Mr. UPDIKE: It has a psychosomatic component.

GROSS: Thank you. That's the word I was looking for. So, I was wondering if really thinking about it a lot and writing about it made you any more symptomatic.

Mr. UPDIKE: I didn't have a flare, we call that a flare in the trade when psoriasis suddenly goes bad again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And I do say in the piece that it really resists all these treatments, that when I was young a few days in the sun would do marvels and the older I got the longer it took and the tougher the skin and psoriasis became. And so would the artificial light treatment, which for 10 years - gave me 10 years of feeling pretty good about myself and my skin. Now I'm on a pill, which also has done a pretty good job. So, I'm not at a very dermally stressed moment in my life, and I wasn't aware of - in a way it's a relief to have it all out there. And I put it out there not to say, poor old me, but lucky me. Lucky me that I had this affliction which made me be a little original, and which forced me as it were into the artist's isolation, which gave me the courage to try and be an artist.

GROSS: John Updike recorded in 1989, after the publication of his memoir, "Self-Consciousness." Updike died of lung cancer yesterday. We'll listen back to an excerpt of our 1997 interview after a break. This is Fresh Air.

We're remembering one of the greatest writers of our time, John Updike. He died yesterday at the age of 76. The final interview we'll feature today was recorded in 1997 before a live audience at the Free Library of Philadelphia, after the publication of his novel "Toward the End of Time," which was set in the future. But in spite of the futuristic setting I thought it was a novel about aging, the main character had just turned 66. I asked Updike if, in a way, he found getting older interesting because it offered new territory to write about.

Mr. UPDIKE: It's true, everyday you're older than you've ever been before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: And in sense you are blazing a trail, really. And sending back news to the younger of what it's like, but you - others have gone before you. And the older I get the more I think of my parents. My father lived to be 72, and my mother lived to quite a good age - 85, although that was not as old as her father had lived. He lived with us, we lived with him, and he lived to be 90. So, I - yes, I'm aware of aging but don't do it in the - I do it in a kind of a hopeful spirit because with any kind of luck I've fairly long-live genes, and see this as a territory with some advantages. It's certainly more peaceful than your middle years and certainly your sense of yourself is more solid than it was when you were an adolescent. Many of the questions you ask of life have been answered, it's a nice time to try to appreciate the weather, the stars. ..

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: And the things that come up in toward the end of time.

GROSS: Are there things that you feel haven't been said about aging that you are trying to explore now in your writing?

Mr. UPDIKE: One's witness is in individual, and in a way I've had a unique take on all these life stages, from childhood on. I don't know as I have any special news about aging. America and the world are - being old, getting old, is more and more the usual thing. An old person used to be survivor and was kind of heroic for having survived. And in Africa and China they would look to their old people for wisdom because they really - to have lived a long time was a great accomplishment.

Now, I don't know what I have to say. In this book - what do I say about aging? I say that the sex instinct does not die, that it remains, inconvenient as it sometimes is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: And this fellow, this hero of mine who's not exactly me and does not entirely express my views, is kind of tough - Tough in a way that may be that only the old can be, because they've seen a lot and in a way have less stake in the global game than the young.

GROSS: You know, "Rabbit," the first "Rabbit" novel was published I think in 1960, about three years after Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." Now, in the beginning of the "Rabbit" novel, Rabbit leaves his wife. He's really restless. He's really unhappy, frustrated, and he takes off in his car and he drives south. He has no idea where the hell he's going. And so he can't tell if he's gotten there yet, because he has no destination. And he ends up just turning around and going back home. It's a really interesting counterpoint "On the Road," which is about the fun and the adventure and the excitement of being on the road. This was about the not being able to go any place, not being able to really get away. And I'm wondering if you ever felt that you were missing out on this adventure that other people in your - other writers of your generation were having, the sense that the road is filled with mystical adventures, and lots of sex and drugs and freedom and exciting things to write about. And at the same time too, they were writing about the stuff and this kind of jazz improvisation kind of way, and you were creating this beautifully crafted intricate prose - also a direct counterpoint to what the beat writers of your generation were doing.

Mr. UPDIKE: They didn't feel like my generation, they felt like a slightly older generation. I was sort of jealous of Kerouac. I did think he was having more fun than I.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: And I resented the book to the extent that I didn't read it for years after it came out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: But my Pennsylvania, small-town farm boy mentality argued against this vision of being on the road, it seemed we all couldn't be on the road all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: Nothing would get done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: And the reality - the reality surely was is that we're all a party, one way or another to a social contract, and when one unit in the social web takes off, there are tugs and bricks he leaves behind him. So, the "Rabbit Run" was, in some sense, kind of an anti-on the road. Yes, he breaks away, and there is that within us that cries out for freedom, more freedom, utter freedom, which rebels against the constraints.

Rabbit is faced with a alcoholic and pregnant wife and a dead-end job of no great charm, a glorious past as a high school athletic hero, and a general sense of being caught. He is a caught rabbit, a rabbit in a trap. So, he, yes, breaks out, but then I thought it was more realistic to think that such a person would then have nowhere to go, get lost on the road after the one glorious burst of freedom and return - return to where he came from, which is what he does.

GROSS: Well, when we're writing about the middle-class, the middle-class went crazy. I mean, this was a period when marriages were breaking up, people in the middle-class, when in another era, might have had a very stable nuclear family, they were doing drugs and drinking a lot - not all of them, but some of them, and some of them that you wrote about. You know, marriages are breaking up, new relationships forming, there were affairs on the side. Was this a very interesting time to be writing about the middle-class?

Mr. UPDIKE: It turned out to be...

(Soundbite of laughter)

I didn't plan these events.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I was, like many in the 50's, I married young. It was really - the most feasible way of getting a woman to go to bed with you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Was to marry her. And the Eisenhower - what is the word, not mystique but the mood was certainly to create a little nuclear household of happy children and humming appliances and a collie dog in the station wagon. And I acquired all that - all that, even - not the collie, it was a golden retriever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Which seemed close enough. And then, as Terry says, the revolution of the 60's. That world really came apart, not in 1960, I think, but in 1963 when we woke up and were told that John Kennedy - we didn't wake up, we learned it in the middle of the day - when John Kennedy was shot, somehow that let loose a lot of demons and the discontent that the 50's conformity had imperfectly masked, really let loose. But, yes, it turned - so I wrote anyway.

Yeah, I wrote couples, basically, trying to describe this phenomenon of a generation for which the various faiths, patriotic and religious, had faded. And for whom, unlike today, to whom their professions offered no real deep diversion, they went - the men went and did jobs, but they only worked nine to five. There wasn't this passionate fright to work endless hours that there is now. A job is for, by no means, as consuming. You kind of did them on the side, almost like your private functions. One of them was to have a job...

(Soundbite of laughter)

But, your real life was the social life - was the parties where you'd take your wife and look at the other wives. And it was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

It was a world in which - and my theory was at the time, people tried, in the absence of another compelling religion, to make a religion of each other. A kind of a cult intermingling. It was the heyday of the Julia Child dinner party. And it was the heyday of the Sunday afternoon volleyball game. It was a lot of rubbing elbows, my father used to call it.

GROSS: You write in your memoir, my success was based, I felt, on a certain calculated modesty, on my cultivated fondness for exploring corners. The space beneath the Shillington dining table, where the nap of the rug was still thick. The back stairs where the vacuum cleaner and rubber goulashes lived. I had left the heavily trafficked literary turfs to others and stayed in my corner of New England to give its domestic news.

Now, what occurs to me domestic news has traditionally been the territory of women writers. Where as men traditionally wrote more about, like you were saying, adventure, war, the big issues of the day - politics or, you know, whatever. Do you feel that you brought a kind of male point of view to a territory that had, for the most part, previously been women's territory in fiction?

Mr. UPDIKE: It hadn't especially occurred to me. My concrete objective was to get enough stories in the New Yorker that I could support my own domestic scene.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Which rapidly, as I said, became four children. And the New Yorker ran, almost entirely, stories about domestic situations. So, I was just really one of the crowd. I mean, Shirov(ph) was also writing about domestic situations and in some way the home - The American home was where it was at in those years. Everybody, more or less, except for Jack Kerouac, was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: And he, funnily enough, I happen to know a little bit about Kerouac because he came from Lowell, fairly near to where I live. And he kept coming back to his mother. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Neal Cassidy and Ginsberg were fine for a while, but he'd come back to Mamma Kerouac and eat her home cooking for months at a time. So, so much for you, Jack Kerouac.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: In writing about domestic life, you, of course, also wrote about sex, which is an important part of married life and domestic life. And now I have to quote Nicholson Baker, if you haven't read his book, "U and I" -the U being for Updike and the I being for Nicholson Baker - Read it. It's a memoir about Nicholson Baker's obsessive relationship, as a reader and as a writer, with John Updike. Nicholson Baker writes, Updike was the first to take the penile sensorium under the wing of elaborate metaphorical prose. And he says, Updike brought a serious, morally sensitive, national book award winning prose style, to bear on the micro-mechanics of physical lovemaking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What do you think of that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: Micro-mechanics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

They don't feel micro when you're doing it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: His idea of the national book award winning literary style applied to love-making.

Mr. UPDIKE: It's a very jaunty piece of criticism...

(Soundbite of laughter)

And not untrue. But, I saw it - I would have seen it in a slightly grander terms.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Seemed to me important in writing about people to be able to describe the sexual transactions between them. It's - For many people it's the height of, what they see, of ecstasy and poetry is in their sexual encounters. And furthermore, personality - human personality does not end in the bedroom, but persists.

Not all lovemaking is alike. Anyway, it seemed a writer should clearly be free to describe it. And one didn't entirely lack models for sexual realism, even in the late 50's and early 60's. D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was certainly around. First as a rumor, then as an actual book...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Which we could read. Certain 18th-century fiction writers described things, more of less, as they were. Somebody like - a book like Moll Flanders. So, you know, it wasn't entirely new in this. What may have been new in what Baker highlights is that I tried to - my prose style was heavily influenced by Proust, who I read in my early twenties, and maybe I did try to bring to certain couplings a Proustian eloquence. Just as I would bring that same eloquence to anything I was describing.

GROSS: You've described yourself as shy and priggish as a young man. Was it, hard being shy, to write pretty sexually explicit material?

Mr. UPDIKE: No, it's just what a shy and priggish person would do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

The - writing is a kind of act of aggression, and a person who is not aggressive in his normal, may I say, intercourse with humanity might well be an aggressive writer. And it - I felt - I couldn't have done it, but I had the courage of my convictions, and the conviction was that this was worth doing, and that it certainly existed, and that after Freud no one needed argue the importance of sex in our lives.

Those passages where Rabbit and Ruth explore each other, discover each other, whatever, were very crucial, I thought, to a book about a man's quest. Certainly, here was the peek of a certain kind of quest and as far as ecstasy and purity and light, he wasn't going to find it much of anywhere else. So, I thought it was very worth trying to describe that.

GROSS: John Updike, recorded before a live audience at the Free Library of Philidelphia in 1997. He died yesterday of lung cancer at the age of 76. He left us two more books to look forward to, a collection of short stories in June and a book of new poems in the fall. We're grateful for the many books he's left us with.

GROSS: You can download pod casts of our show on our Web site,

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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