Remembering John Updike 

It's odd that John Updike chose to give his literary alter-ego, Harry Angstrom, the nickname "Rabbit." Updike did not look like a rabbit. He looked and moved like a bird — his shoulders pulled back, his chest pushed like a robin's breast, his head bobbing and his eyes constantly in motion.

The traits Updike shared with a rabbit were the ones a bird shares with a bunny — a kind of restless wariness and an inability to find peace in motionlessness.

In the early 1990s, when I worked at The Indianapolis News, I interviewed Updike a couple times.

In those conversations, he denied — as most writers of fiction would — that the Rabbit novels were in any literal sense autobiographical, but acknowledged he and his most famous literary creation had much in common.

They were roughly the same age and both from Pennsylvania towns. Both struggled in their relationships with the women in their lives. Both were prodigies of a sort — Rabbit as a high school basketball player and Updike as an artist.

And both saw their gifts as a way to break out of a life that often seemed mundane and unsatisfying. One of the most moving passages Updike ever wrote came in his first novel about Harry, Rabbit, Run.

In it, Harry has left his wife and is involved with another woman. The minister in their church attempts to restore the marriage. As a means of counseling, the minister takes Rabbit golfing. While they're teeing up, the minister asks Harry what he really wants out of life.

Harry hits a gorgeous, sailing drive, a perfect union of moment and motion. Before the ball even lands, he turns to the minister and says, in effect, that that is what he wants from life — episodes of grace and elemental beauty.

In another early novel, 1963's The Centaur, Updike expressed a similar yearning:

"It came upon me that I must go to Nature disarmed of perspective and stretch myself like a large transparent canvas upon her in the hope that, my submission being perfect, the imprint of a beautiful and useful truth would be taken."

When I asked Updike about that sentence, he said it was a credo of his.

"I'm pretty much the same writer who wrote that and pretty much the same boy who thought that."

I found it revealing that he chose the word "boy" in his late 50s.

At the time, I thought Updike wrote the Rabbit novels as a way of exploring the life he escaped, the path he was lucky not to have to tread. In all four Rabbit novels, Rabbit searches for a way to break free and never makes it. Updike found critical success in his 20s and his writing made him wealthy and famous by the time he was in his mid-30s.

Now, though, at a time when I'm not far from the age Updike was when we talked, I see it differently.

Updike respected Rabbit's determination, however wavering and flawed, to try to lead a life on his own terms. When it came time for Harry to meet his end, Updike created a scene that merged comedy and tragedy and came up with something resembling dignity.

In it, Harry has fled from his life in Pennsylvania and completed a journey he started but failed to finish in the first novel by finally getting to Florida. He goes to an outdoor basketball court and gets into a game of one-on-one with an African-American teen-ager. As Rabbit struggles to recover the grace on the court he knew 40 years earlier, he suffers a heart attack and dies.

Updike gave his creation a cleaner death than he himself got. Updike's end came Tuesday morning, when he died of lung cancer. He was 76.

It always struck me as strange that Updike had Harry's heart go out on him, because that always was the critical knock on Updike. Almost everyone lauded his skill as a stylist, but many disparaged his near condescension to his characters — almost as if he lacked heart.

Perhaps that is why he often was called one of America's great writers, but rarely was considered America's greatest writer.

Like Harry, though, he kept plugging, churning out a book a year for more than 50 years. His most recent novel, "The Widows of Eastwick," hit bookstores just three months ago.

When I asked him, all those years ago, why he felt compelled to keep working so hard, his answer started out high-flown and then, as if he were embarrassed, came back to earth.

He said he wanted to give his talent as much opportunity to reveal itself and break through as he could.

Then he shook his head and said that it just came down to the fact that he liked to write and continued to be amazed that he'd found an audience.

"What do people expect from a storyteller?" Updike said. "Basically, they expect another story."

John Krull is director of Franklin College's Pulliam School of Journalism.

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John Krull

John Krull

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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