2006 Lifetime Achievement Award
Text of Citation of Award Given in
to John Updike
Commending the work of John Updike is a bit like praising democracy or defending the value of freedom. You don’t know where to start, and you feel embarrassed to be stating the obvious. Yet it is always right and proper to celebrate the highest standards of beauty and truth. Even so, Updike’s productivity has been so constant for so many years that it is hard to know by what standard his achievement should be measured. He has mastered so many literary forms—memoirs, poems, novels, short stories, and even a play!—that few scholars have the requisite breadth of learning to assess his impact on the American imagination. Updike’s accomplishment, as Nicholson Baker underscores in U and I (1991), leaves the best hyperboles ineffectual. No wonder that Baker confesses in that book to spending more time thinking about the ‘idea of Updike’ than reading him. We know a writer this good exists, but in this day and age, how could that be possible?
The wonder of his prose lies in not just the impression made by the accumulation of so many artful pieces but also the gracefulness by which individual sentences make a claim to perfection. His sentences serpentine their way to a delayed satisfaction, prolonging our desire for reality redeemed by description, yet they look relaxed and natural, stretched out on the page. For all of his inspired literary play, Updike remains a respondent to an order that humans have not created. For Updike, the miracle of the world resides in its God-given objectivity, not licentious human creativity, which is why his prose, even at its most bounteous, is never imprecise.
Celebrating Updike is, to a great extent, celebrating America as well. Though known as a stylist, history is his métier. His stories, from autobiographical recreations of rural Pennsylvania to the epic Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy, provide an exhaustive map of the transformations of American society after the Second World War. More than maps, these stores are the territory itself—the place where Americans visit in order to discover who they are. Updike’s imagination is almost capacious enough to contain the idea of America, which has to do, as he suggests in his poem “Americana” (2001), with a beauty that is “left / to make it on its own, with no directives / from kings or cultural commissars on high.” Though no cultural commissar, Updike is frequently called the last American man of letters for the care he gives the public discussion of literature and art in his many essays and reviews.
His intention, as he explains in the foreword to The Early Stories, 1953-1975, has always been “to give the mundane its beautiful due.” Submission of any form in America today is seen as an insult against individualism, just as the payment of a debt in the age of consumerism is an onerous duty. Yet Updike manages to make the obligation we owe our creator in the realm of art an act of joy, even when he devotes himself to the painstaking particulars of the ordinary and the everyday. Updike has been accused of believing in a cheerful God, as if no writer should place happiness at the heart of human meaning. A lifelong reader of Karl Barth, Updike is nonetheless not a strict Barthian as much as he is an explorer of Barth’s limits, and so he should not be expected to give Christian readers a literary equivalent of Barth’s theology. Whether Updike’s God is more cheerful than Barth’s, there is something cheerful in his prose, which surely arises from his sustained sense of gratitude for the world we have been given. Gratitude is his prose’s labor, but the graceful way that Updike writes reveals that labor to be unforced and, yes, cheerful, a debt that rewards us the more we pay it.
Among theologians, Updike’s work has incited spirited conversations about the staples of church doctrine, which is, in these days, a singular feat. That a writer of this stature should be a man of faith is a gift that the church hardly seems to deserve, which is not to say that Updike is an apologist in literary guise. His imagination is at home in the cultural wasteland of suburban America, where men in all of their fallen and failing manliness continue to act like men even as the world around them is forever changed. Who can forget the lonely figure of “The Deacon,” unable to explain why he feels at home in a “threadbare and scrawny church,” attending a meeting where no one else comes. Or “The Lifeguard,” high on his perch, simultaneously theologizing and desiring the varieties of sun worshipping flesh spread out beneath him. If sexual liberation and all of its consequences is the great social fact of our day, then Updike is the one writer who has bravely and persistently stared into that glaring reality. Some might think he has stared more with the eyes of a voyeur than a moralist. Perhaps he has not passed a final verdict on America’s elevation of human flesh to a substance with supernatural power, but arguably that is the job of theologians, not writers. Still, the hope of his prose seems to be that God’s omniscience is no less sympathetic to us than Updike is to his characters. The result is a cheerfulness that, far from being cheap, has been earned by the kind of knowledge that is surely only possible in the greatest achievements of art. It is knowledge, as Updike writes in Gertrude and Claudius, of “a beauty that puts our thoughts of good and evil at the mercy of the real.”
Stephen H. Webb, Wabash College
presenter of award from CCL