More Matter: Essays and CriticismBy John UpdikeAlfred A. Knopf, $35ISBN 0375406301Review by Roger Bishop John Updike is one of our most respected and honored, as well as prolific, novelists and short story writers. He also has published several volumes of poetry. But, he says, I set out to be a magazine writer, a wordsmith as the profession was understood in the industrial first half of the century, and I like seeing my name in what they used to call Ôhard type.' He fell in love with the New Yorker when he was a child and, for over 40 years, has been a frequent contributor. Appearing under the same Rea Irvin-designed title-type and department logos as White and Thurber and Cheever and those magical cartoons was for me a dream come true. It still is. Though he has also written for other publications, most of Updike's nonfiction has appeared in that magazine. Every eight years or so he gathers together his periodical pieces and other occasional writings and publishes them in a book. The fifth collection, More Matter: Essays and Criticism, is, like the earlier ones, a diverse cornucopia of riches. In this, his 50th book, Updike's wide-ranging, intellectual curiosity matched with his lucid and graceful prose make a potent combination. (An earlier such collection, Hugging the Shore, received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.) A few of the many subjects discussed are: New York as reflected in American writing since 1920; the adventure of installing a burglar alarm; haircuts of different kinds (a piece that attracted more mail than any magazine writing he has ever published); the lives of Isaac Newton, Helen Keller, and Abraham Lincoln; Mickey Mouse; the art of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol; and appreciations of three New Yorker stalwarts who were paternally kind to me : William Shawn, Brendan Gill, and William Maxwell.
Of particular interest are Updike's observations on writers and writing. He notes the competitive nature of the literary life, where writers eye each other with a vigorous jealousy and suspicion. They are swift to condemn and dismiss, as a means of keeping the field from getting too crowded. It does not surprise us, then, when he says: A writer, I have found, takes less comfort in being praised than in a colleague's being panned. In reviewing a biography of Graham Greene, he generalizes: The trouble with literary biographies, perhaps, is that they mainly testify to the long worldly corruption of a life, as documented deeds and days and disappointments pile up, and cannot convey the unearthly human innocence that attends, in the perpetual present tense of living, the self that seems the real one. Whether the literary work under consideration is by a contemporary U.
S. or a European or South American author, or an author who wrote decades ago, Updike's criticism is often astute and compelling. He wears his learning lightly, but he is familiar with the author's other writings and her or his life. Although often generous with his praise, Updike can offer devastating criticism. Writing about a late work of Edith Wharton: Comedy is, perhaps, a natural mode for aged authors. The momentousness of being alive the majestic awfulness is felt most keenly by the young, and human existence comes to seem, as death nears and perspective lengthens, gossamer-light, such stuff as dreams are made on. On Edmund Wilson's journals: The journals are not quite literature, yet they have an unpreening frankness and an energetic curiosity that stimulates our appetite for literature. ÊÊAgain showing keen insight into the work of American writers, Updike says, . . . Faulkner, at his most eccentric and willfully windy, thought he knew what he was doing. Dreiser will never be, so muddied is his prose at the source, a model of stylistic integrity. John Updike is indeed a thoughtful wordsmith, a literary craftsman worthy to walk in the footsteps of those illustrious New Yorker writers he admired from afar many years ago. ¦Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.