Updike and the New Yorker

gopnikIn the February 9 New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes a beautiful appreciation/tribute to John Updike, one of the magazine’s anchor tenants for more than half a century. With insight and care, Gopnik describes what Updike gave, and also what he recognized and appropriated from the DNA of an incomparable publication:

If he gave so much to the magazine, he took something from it, too. He took, and kept, a tone. Updike the humorist is probably the least known or recognizable Updike of them all, but something of the White-cum-Thurber sound of the New Yorker that he joined—that bemused, ironically smiling but resolutely well-wishing, anti-malicious comic tone—lingered in his work till the very end. In the last year of his life, he wrote to an admirer that “humor is my default mode,” and that he still dreamed of being the new Benchley, the next Perelman. He flourished in his early years here, writing Talk pieces and casuals … and the material of comedy remained implicit in almost every sentence he wrote: the dancing recognition of the likeness of the unlike, the will to treat the organic mechanically—his sexual congresses are blissful but funny, never “transcendent,” because they are so entirely acts of organic machinery, wise souls made into copulating clockwork. The common sense that regularly inflected his judgments of big writers and dubious ideas had its origins in a humorous tradition, too; in his criticism he caught the notes of Wolcott Gibbs and Brendan Gill as much as those of Edmund Wilson.

And the comic current ran deeper even than that. Despite the lyrical surface of his prose, Updike was a realist, as comedians must be, and never even marginally a romantic. He was genuinely unseduced by all the myths of American romanticism: gorgeous Daisys and vast sinister Western landscapes are equally absent from his books. His girls and women are real, with scratchy pubic hair, and his American landscape of car dealerships and fast-food retreats held no place for doomed, exciting, existential gunmen. He was, for all those perfect shining sentences, a realist; the sentences sing, but they don’t ennoble.

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