Thursday, January 29, 2009

Obit: Updike

John Updike died a few days ago. He was never a strong influence on my writing or my reading, but he was one of the pantheon of writers who seemed always to exist. Bellow, Roth, Sontag, Updike, Didion, Mailer -- & Miller & Tennessee Williams in theater -- were heavy hitters. For me, they reside in the same category as the baseball players of the post-war era: Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Willy Mays, Ted Williams. The're muscular titans whose reputations are foregone.

Updike was the one who drew that connection for me. I've read Rabbit, Run & a few late novels, & a lot of his reviews in "The New Yorker", which were invariably kindly & encouraging, like a grandfather's advice & unlike most critical voices. But the only piece that's truly moved me is his "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu".

The piece, published at the end of the 1960 season, is a look back at the career of Ted Williams, who was retiring from the Red Sox after 21 years (but fewer seasons, cuz of WW2). His longevity meant that Updike, aged 28, had literally grown up following Williams' career, & a child's sense of awe comes through in his essay. Listen to this description of Williams' final at-bat. He launches the pitch into the bullpen beyond the right-field wall; Updike says "It was in the books while it was still in the sky." Then:

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs — hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted "We want Ted" for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. 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.

Look at how respectful Updike is of Williams' behavior here. Williams was a famously private ballplayer with an antagonistic relationship to the press. So Updike never tries to crack open Williams' mind, neither at the plate nor in his private life. Instead, he admires the man's ability from the cheering crowd. He celebrates Williams' craft by matching it with his own.

For me, Updike, Williams & those writers & ballplayers of the post-war era feel remote and a little eerie. They're semi-mythical beings, maybe because I heard their names before I ever knew who they were. To me, they were the archetypes of ballplayers & of writers. Who's left -- Roth, Didion? How strange it is when archetypes go extinct.

1 comment:

jsherber said...

Single line of his that has changed how I experience life, from a 1956 story called "Snowing in Greenwich Village": "Few experiences so savor of the illicit as mounting stairs behind a woman's fanny." It's not baseball, but it's the next best thing.