John Updike: RIP, and a Memory

John Updike, one of the great American writers, has died at the age of 76.  Besides two Pulitzer Prizes and countless other awards, Mr. Updike also received the St. Edmund Campion Award from America’s editorial board, for achievement in Christian letters, in 1997.

One of my fondest memories from my years at America was attending the ceremony at which Mr. Updike received his Campion medal.  As a young(er) Jesuit, I had worked for a year as an associate editor at the magazine, in 1995, before beginning my theology studies in Cambridge, Mass.  One day, Father George Hunt, S.J., then the editor in chief  called to invite me to the award ceremony for Mr. Updike.  (George, a friend of Updike’s was also the author of the wonderful study John Updike and the Three Great Things: Sex, Religion and Art.) America would even pay for my train fare, he said graciously. I demurred, saying that I was too busy with studies.  But when I told a friend of my decision on the way home from school the next day, he literally stopped in his tracks. 

“Are you out of your mind?  Don’t tell me you’re going to turn down an opportunity to meet one of the greatest American writers of all time!  If you don’t go, I will!"  He was absolutely right: I called Father Hunt and told him I would be there.

After Father Hunt presented Mr. Updike with the Campion medal at a modest ceremony at America House, Mr. Updike reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a few sheets of paper and read aloud a short essay on faith and the fiction writer which, I recall, stunned everyone by its elegance.  “Get that essay!” I said to Father Hunt as soon as he finished.  Somewhat more diplomatically, Father Hunt asked Mr. Updike if we could print his remarks, which later appeared in the magazine as “A Disconcerting Thing,” and has appeared subsequently in collections of his writings.  You can find it on America’s site here.

Later, at dinner, I was seated next to Mrs. Updike, a warm and refined woman who mentioned how much she missed living in New York City.  (At the time she and her husband lived not far from a Jesuit retreat house in New England, and so we had something to chat about.)  Sitting next to her, I suddenly remembered, from many years before, a wonderful comment from a clever writer, who said, “The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.”  It was one of my favorite quotes about New York and its solipsistic citizens, and the words slowly started to form on my lips.  Just as suddenly I decided not to repeat it, for I realized that she had probably heard it before.  For I remembered the source: John Updike.

James Martin, SJ

8 years 4 months ago
People who love and are familiar with Mozart's music would understand John Updike's forward to theologian Karl Barth's book 'Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart': 'Above all, it is the dialectical character of Mozart's music that Barth admires. In this music, everything comes to expression: 'heaven and earth, nature and man, comedy and tragedy, the Virgin Mary and the demons'. Mozart simply contains and includes all this within his music in perfect harmony. This harmony is not a matter of 'balance' or 'indifference' – it is 'a glorious upsetting of the balance, a turning in which the light rises and the shadows fall …,in which the Yes rings louder than the ever-present No.' '

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