By the time of his death at age 76 in 2009, John Updike had secured his place as a master of American fiction, a reputation based largely on the “Rabbit” novels following his fictional protagonist, Harry Rabbit Angstrom.
But Updike was also a exemplary craftsman of nonfiction, publishing collections of his essays and reviews about once every eight years. “Due Considerations” appeared in 2007, and Updike’s inoperable lung cancer forced him to accelerate his typical production schedule, beginning the book that could be his final major nonfiction collection, Higher Gossip.
Updike could not, alas, complete the project, so editor Christopher Carduff stepped in to assemble the material, which follows the scheme of previous books in drawing on Updike’s previously published articles for The New Yorker and a few other national journals, as well as some speeches and assorted prose oddments.
Carduff also provided the title, which refers to Updike’s definition of the ideal review as “gossip of a higher sort” – something elegant, but also charged with the subtle spark of news.
This chatty ideal of prose suited Updike’s emphasis on fresh expression in his writing, a philosophy perhaps best encapsulated in a 1984 speech included here, “In Defense of the Amateur Reader.” Updike suggests that for the scholar or professional reviewer, literary commentary can easily succumb to the sameness of the assembly line – literature as the next dreary assignment. Such dangers, in Updike’s view, argue for the virtue of the more occasional reviewer, a person who can feed our desire “to be astonished and startled and at some deep level refreshed.”
Like his other collections, “Higher Gossip” is an answer to that call, drawing upon what Updike considers the freelance critic’s most important resources: “a rusty liberal-arts education, an average citizen’s spotty knowledge of contemporary issues, and a fiction writer’s childish willingness to immerse himself in make-believe.”
Notice the self-deprecation in Updike’s description of his technique, which belies the depth of his intellect and the breadth of his curiosity. The table of contents offers an alternately exhilarating and mildly exhausting survey of Updike’s interests, which range from Soren Kierkegaard to dinosaurs, Albert Einstein to the mechanics of golf, “Peanuts” cartoons to Ernest Hemingway.
Updike proves learned and lightly cosmopolitan whatever his topic, but he’s never jaded. A remembrance of the late poet and essayist L.E. Sissman included here contains a passage that could just as easily be an epitaph for Updike: “a poet of the brightest plumage, one whose stream of fancy and verve of phrase could only be termed luxuriant. His reviews and essays showed wide reading, a crisp fund of unexpected information, an avidity for the mundane, an even temper, and a truly benevolent nature.”
The Sissman elegy dates back to 1976, and it’s but one example of the archival feel of some of the selections here. While previous Updike collections thrived on topical immediacy, recycling journalism of the near past, “Higher Gossip” makes a more comprehensive sweep of Updike’s files, resurrecting a number of items that didn’t make the cut in earlier anthologies.
Most of this vintage stuff has the welcome shimmer of archaeological treasure, but Carduff’s zeal for completeness also indulges a few bits of marginalia, such as the original ending of Updike’s memoir, “Self-Consciousness.” The excerpt raises self-consciousness to self-absorption, and it’s easy to see why Updike thought better of this draft and left it on the cutting-room floor.
Although sometimes inclusive to a fault, “Higher Gossip” doesn’t fit in everything. The book contains a smattering of Updike’s art reviews, but still more uncollected art pieces will be published in yet another Updike collection. That’s good news, since the art reviews assembled in “Higher Gossip” leave the reader blissfully hungering for more. In his gallery reviews as in his other commentaries, Updike’s strength is an alertness to the bracing insight in a well-trod topic, as in his treatment of the iconic genius Van Gogh, where he suggests that the artist’s alienation was not only a plague, but a resource: “There is some artistic advantage in feeling like a stranger on earth.”
“Higher Gossip” also includes a handful of personal essays that display a touching sense of valediction, such as “The Writer in Winter,” in which Updike confesses that even in old age, an author harbors “the irrational hope that the last book might be the best.”
“Higher Gossip” isn’t Updike’s best book, but it’s a timely reminder of the graceful companionship that Updike offered to his readers – a presence that will be sorely missed.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”