Posted by: Mark Nielsen | January 28, 2009

John Updike: A Five-Tool Player

Novelist John Updike

In baseball –one of the late John Updike’s favorite subjects– there’s this term “five-tool player” that’s used to describe the finest athletes in the game. Five-toolers hit for average, for power, run fast, handle the glove well, and throw hard and accurately.

In John Updike’s case (who died yesterday at the age of 76), as a highly-skilled and prolific “man of  letters”, the five tools refer to the five forms in which he excelled, almost equally in each area: short fiction, novels, nonfiction essays, arts & cultural criticism, and poetry.  In an age of increased specialization, John was one of the last of the “jack of all trades” writers.

Plus he was a decent public speaker, …but I’m trying to stick to my baseball 5-tool conceit here, okay? And I would be remiss in a discussion of baseball and Updike if I didn’t mention “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” , his well-known New Yorker essay on slugger Ted Williams’ last-ever plate appearance, one of the best pieces of “sportswriting” ever to see print, which has inspired hundreds of journalists ever since.

Perhaps not since T.S. Eliot (who substituted drama in the long-form slot where Updike put novels) has a writer reached so far into these various areas, and made a significant impact in all of them. Over a long career that also included frequent magazine writing and a bit of newspaper journalism, lists Updike as having generated or been included in 154 separate books (though some are translations, compilations with other writers, forewords and introductions, etc.). A much better online source for all things Updike is James Yerke’s The Centaurian, which puts the “books” number at closer to 65.

I probably first read a short story of his in some high school or college textbook. But I can’t tell you now which one, or the exact date and time. Because Updike wasn’t exactly that type of artist, at least for me. Plus he probably would have been somewhat “over my head” at age 16 anyway. He didn’t write much sweeping historical fiction or big, weird conceptual stories painted in broad strokes. Neither did he greatly expand the boundaries of  the language itself by breaking all the rules or inventing new forms. Instead, he worked a certain groove, to “give the mundane its beautiful due” (his own description of his life’s mission).

As I discovered in reading the four Rabbit Angtrom novels and his poetry and essays, Updike was a detailed and acute observer, especially but not exclusively of ordinary middle-class life in the United States during his own lifetime. He wanted to precisely document and “bottle” (his word)some deep truth about the human condition, by noticing and lovingly describing some of the very things most people take for granted. 

Therefore, as a younger man living a similar middle-class life myself and wanting to better understand the beauty of it– the God-given grace, and the brokenness, behind the reality that surrounds us– I came to greatly respect Updike.

As his NPR “This I Believe” segment a few years back clearly shows (use link to give it a listen), Updike was definitely a Christian (an Episcopalian, at the end) . Thus his way of seeing and describing our modern lives and values was very much informed by his faith. Yet he also wanted to write honest, sometimes even hilarious, scenes about “taboo” subjects like sex, drugs, and rock and roll… so he couldn’t possibly have written for the official Christian book market (which barely existed when his career began, anyway).

Updike also explored his own heart, and the warped, complex messages about masculinity that our culture tends to push on us. This meant that he got a bad rap from feminist critics early on (“he can’t write female characters well”, “he’s a misogynist”, etc.), an undeserved reputation which he never fully shook. He may have focused more on the male psyche (even the dark, ugly, “close-fisted” part of it, to use his friend Nicholas Delbanco’s term), but he clearly loved women. He focused more on what he knew directly through his own life, but I found he had great respect for women and wrote about their concerns very well when he chose to turn his lens in their direction. His novel The Witches of Eastwick (1984), according to John, was his attempt to directly address this chauvinist reputation. It didn’t dispel the public’s impression, though, so perhaps he just went on about his career from there, and let the critics say what they would. Yet I think his last novel, The Widows of Eastwick (published October, 2008) shows that he was always doing this “inner work” on issues of gender, sexuality, relationships and identity. He spent his life trying to work out some godly sense of how men, women and children ought to conduct themselves with each other. He wasn’t perfect. But he was a Man among men.

There are other poems and tributes out there on the web today, probably even better ones. But I couldn’t let one of the great ones go without a good sendoff. Go with God, John Updike. The beauty of mundane is more real to me, because of you. Mission accomplished.



  1. the loss of John Updike makes me wonder if the literary world is being replenished at the same rate that it’s losing such great writers

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