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Best of the 02.09-16.09 Issue: Updike, and Then Some

Filed under: Pick of the Issue   Tagged: , , ,

Martin Schneider writes:

This issue had a familiar fop on the cover. Candidates include Evan Osnos on African merchants in China, John McPhee on fact-checking, and George Packer on land values in Florida. Of course, one might execute an end-run around the whole question by selecting the Updike retrospective. As always—more to come.


I know this isn’t part of the current discussion, but I was doing some thinking about Joseph Mitchell today and I’m wondering what is someone to make of this man’s mysterious life? Why did he show
up every day for work and what did he do in his office all that time?

The best I can do to answer your question, Alan Scheer, is refer you to Mark Singer’s wonderful piece, “Joe Mitchell’s Secret,” published in the February 22 & March 1, 1999 issue of The New Yorker. If you read Singer’s article, you will see that it’s not precisely accurate to say, as apparently it is stated at the end of the movie version of “Joe Gould’s Secret,” that for the next thirty-two years after the publication of “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 1964, Mitchell “went to his office everyday and never published another written word.” By the way, the focus on Joseph Mitchell’s so-called writer’s block strikes me as totally wrong-headed. Rather than talk about why he didn’t write in his later years, let’s celebrate the great works he did produce.

“Picked-Up Pieces” – the magazine’s Updike tribute – is a beautiful collection of quotes. Whoever did the selecting did a great job! (Based on the length of the baseball quote – the longest in the selection – I’d guess it was Angell.) I notice that the excerpt from “Museums and Women” – one of my favorite Updike stories – omits Updike’s poetic final sentence: “Yet the spell was imperfectly broken, like the door of a chamber which, once unsealed, can never be closed quite tight.” Gopnik’s TOTT piece is the most eloquent Updike tribute I’ve read. When I came to the part where Gopnik says, “… he was one of the greatest of all modern writers …,” I felt like shouting, “Yes! Finally, someone has said it!” Angell’s piece afforded a fascinating glimpse of Updike’s interaction with The New Yorker’s editorial process. Accordingly, I award POTI to all three pieces, with an honorable mention to George Packer for his excellent “The Ponzi State” – a classic example of New Yorker journalism at its very best. I’ll just quickly add that I also enjoyed John McPhee’s “Checkpoints.” The February 9 & 16, 2009 issue is a rich one!

Thank you, driedchar, for that fabulous summary. One question, though: while agreeing that Updike was not the most fashionable postwar novelist for younger colleagues to champion — a lot of people drew attention to that dynamic — did you really find such praise of Updike so wanting? Wasn’t his status as one of the best postwar writers an accepted premise — both stated and unstated — of the wave of memorials and so forth? If someone refers to the first rank of postwar novelists, a group defined by, say, Mailer, Bellow, Roth, and Updike, isn’t this a way of saying that Updike was one of the very best writers in America for the 1960-2000 period or so?

Martin, I guess what I’m seeking is confirmation of my own assessment, which is that Updike is the greatest. I find many of the tributes to him constrained. For example, in the New York Times, Charles McGrath says, Updike “was our Trollope and our Proust both.” Yes, exactly! But then in the next sentence, McGrath says, “Though a brilliant man, he was not a novelist of ideas.” What the hell does he mean by that? Even if it’s true, which it most definitely isn’t, why is it necessary to mention it in a tribute? Another example, also from the Times: Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote that Updike was in “the first rank of American authors.” Well, that’s true, he was; although it would’ve been truer to say he was in the first rank of authors in the world, not just the U.S.A. But then Lehmann-Haupt goes on to quote James Wood’s verdict of a few years ago: “He is a prose writer of great beauty, but that prose confronts one with the question of whether beauty is enough, and whether beauty always conveys all that a novelist must convey.” Is it for balance that such a crabbed, contentious quote needs to be included in a tribute? I don’t see any need for it at this time. So I applaud Gopnik for not holding back in his praise and for voicing it so freshly and energetically, just as Updike himself would have done.

Driedchar, thank you for that uncommonly well-reasoned and eloquent post. A lot to chew on there; I find myself, impossibly, in full agreement with both you and the writers you cite. I have to ponder; more to come.

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