Tuesday, January 27, 2009

R.I.P. - John Updike

I was saddened today to learn of the death of that masterful man of letters, John Updike. As was the case with Norman Mailer, who preceded him in death, Updike richly deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature that never came his way. I will leave it to the New York Times obituary to recap his long, varied, and illustrious career, and instead say a few words about what the man gave to me personally.

The occasion of Updike’s passing provides me with an opportunity to remember that “one teacher” whom every enthusiastic student has on the way up—the teacher who makes the difference that changes the course of his student’s intellectual development. For me, that was my ninth-grade English teacher, Mr. Johnston.

Mr. Johnston was a twitchy, nervous little guy. Looking back on it, he reminds me a bit of Dustin Hoffman, playing Ratso Rizzo. He suffered greatly, I think, from nicotine withdrawal as he taught his classes. Nonetheless, he taught me to write so well as a fourteen-year-old that I rarely ever got a grade less than A-minus on any writing assignment that I turned in subsequently, through both high school and college. Mr. Johnston went to the administration on my behalf to obtain permission for me to give an oral book report on J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye. (One didn’t routinely allow discussion in a junior high school English class of a book containing the word “fuck” in 1961.) Mr. Johnston also obtained clearance to teach our class Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel controversial for its racially-charged plot in those pre-civil rights days. He treated his students like young men and women, and thus encouraged us all to live up to the respect that he showed us.

Because of my interest in Salinger, Mr. Johnston took it upon himself to recommend another contemporary novelist to me; a man younger than Salinger, still under the age of thirty, who had already demonstrated a major talent. The novel was Rabbit, Run. The author was John Updike. I loved Rabbitt, and quickly obtained a copy of his earlier novel, The Centaur.

I have continued to read Updike throughout my life. I asked for and received a volume of his early stories for Christmas just last year. I loved his late-nineties novel In the Beauty of the Lilies so well that I gave it to my dad for Father’s Day some years ago.

I don’t feel that John Updike ever received his full due from the literary establishment. Most likely Mr. Johnston never got the kudos he deserved either. I can only express my gratitude to both of these great men for what they contributed to my life. And remember.
Update: Speaking of remembering, the information in the NPR article linked by reader Anonymous in the comments section has corrected my memory. The novel that I read next after Rabbit, Run must have been The Poorhouse Fair, since The Centaur came after Rabbit.