Artists in Later Life, Part 2: Updike Inspired, Too

John Updike’s work in later life is the focus of this chapter of Nicholas Decarlos’ Lastingness: The Creative Art of Growing Old — a book the author says focuses on the “tribal elders of art.”  In the first part of this series, we looked at how Claude Monet worked through near blindness at the end of his life, melding his notion of impressionism with what he was actually able to see through the cloudiness of cataracts. The author, a former student of Updike’s at Harvard and a life-long friend thereafter, was able to ask the writer about the process of his art over time. Here is a brief introduction by Decarlos followed by the interview.

When John Updike died at age seventy-six, on January 27, 2009, it was with work still to be published and some sixty volumes in print. He was my teacher at Harvard in the summer of 1962 — the only time, to my knowledge, he taught. (He did once substitute for the indisposed John Cheever, but ours was a course he had signed on to offer; thereafter he removed himself from academe.) Updike lived on in Massachusetts as a private though increasingly public citizen, and we stayed in touch. I continued to admire him, to solicit his opinions, and therefore asked him the following questions on the topic of this text:

  1. How have your work habits changed at present from the days when you were an apprentice to the trade?
  2. How have your aspirations changed; do you think of a day’s work as “more of the same” or have you set yourself different goals?
  3. Can you point me to a passage — or passages — in your own writing which deals with these issues, either head-on or obliquely?

From a letter dated August 26, 2007, these are John’s replies:

  1. When I was still a college student and then an employee for the New Yorker for twenty months, I of course fit my poetry and fiction into what gaps the traffic allowed, evenings or weekends. But once I left New York, in 1957, and set up shop as a free-lance writer in Massachusetts, with no other job, I tried to work faithfully, from breakfast to a late lunch, producing at least three pages a day, with whatever afternoon labors needed to be added. Fifty years later I am on the same schedule. In fact I seem to work longer hours, perhaps because I am slower and/or more careful now, or more is asked of me — certainly book reviews did not take much of my time or energy until the 1960’s. I don’t have much advice to offer to younger writers, but when asked I do suggest setting a regular schedule and a modest daily quota, even if the day is low on inspiration. Make it a habit. The pages do accumulate.
  2. The aspirations have not been dulled, but after years in the mines I am aware that my major veins have probably been dug out, and the urgency of my youthful “news” presses less groaningly. In the beginning, you are full, as they say, of yourself, and when elderly somewhat less so, having dispensed yourself through so many books. Still, each day slightly changes your angle on life, and the blank page remains a site of hopeful possibility. Some sentences as they take form still give me a frisson of pleasure. When the words quicken into what seems to be life, the writer is doing useful work. The little inspirations that used to feed poems and short stories don’t come as often as they used to; I tend now to think in terms of books, each one possibly my last. The image at the end of all those hours with pen and pencil/typewriter/word processor is that of a finished book, with its beautiful trimmed edges and scent of fresh paper and binding glue.
  3. The long essay on “Late Works” . . . dealt with the issues of longevity if not with lastingness. The way the individual investment in entertainment shapes up these days, the author does best who travels light — The Great Gatsby over Dos Passos’s USA. But then you don’t want to cater to a high-school reading level, and a certain capaciousness, involving the passage of time in its fabric, seems intrinsic to the novel. By and large what lasts best is the most concrete, the most actual, delivering to the reader a piece of earth and humanity. Aesthetic flourishes fade and wrinkle, though they may get attention when new. A blunt sincerity outlasts finely honed irony, I would think. An ability to see over the heads of important contemporary issues into the simple truth of daily life is what we can respond to a century later. . .. My own continuing to write at the age of three score and fifteen is a matter of genetics, long habit, and concrete aspirations. I set out to make a living with my pen, in privacy, in the commercial literary world as it existed, and am grateful that I managed. It’s been a privilege and a pleasure, and it goes without saying that I’ve been lucky. No impairing disease. No war I was asked to help fight. No stupefying poverty yet no family wealth or business to limit my freedom. No appetite for fine living and racing sloops to assuage. Lovely bright loving parents, then good loyal women and healthy children living with me. The New Yorker when it still published many pages of fiction and Alfred A. Knopf Inc. when publishing was still a gambit for sensible gentlemen who trusted their own taste. A world where books were a common currency of an enlightened citizenry. Who wouldn’t, thus conditioned, want to keep writing forever, and try to make books that deserve to last?

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