From Soren Kierkegaard to dinosaurs, from Albert Einstein to the mechanics of golf, "Higher Gossip" is a delightful posthumous collection of the late writings of John Updike.
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 â€śRabbitâ€ť 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. â€śDue Considerationsâ€ť appeared in 2007, and Updikeâ€™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 toÂ assemble the material, which follows the scheme of previous books in drawing on Updikeâ€™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 Updikeâ€™s definition of the ideal review as â€śgossip of a higher sortâ€ť â€“ something elegant, but also charged with the subtle spark of news.
This chatty ideal of prose suited Updikeâ€™s emphasis on fresh expression in his writing, a philosophy perhaps best encapsulated in a 1984 speech included here, â€śIn Defense of the Amateur Reader.â€ť Updike suggests that for the scholar or professional reviewer, literary commentary can easily succumb to the sameness of the assembly line â€“ literature as the next dreary assignment. Such dangers, in Updikeâ€™s view, argue for the virtue of the more occasional reviewer, a person who can feed our desire â€śto be astonished and startled and at some deep level refreshed.â€ť
Like his other collections, â€śHigher Gossipâ€ť is an answer to that call, drawing upon what Updike considers the freelance criticâ€™s most important resources: â€śa rusty liberal-arts education, an average citizenâ€™s spotty knowledge of contemporary issues, and a fiction writerâ€™s childish willingness to immerse himself in make-believe.â€ť
Notice the self-deprecation in Updikeâ€™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 Updikeâ€™s interests, which range from Soren Kierkegaard to dinosaurs, Albert Einstein to the mechanics of golf, â€śPeanutsâ€ť cartoons to Ernest Hemingway.
Updike proves learned and lightly cosmopolitan whatever his topic, but heâ€™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: â€śa 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.â€ť
The Sissman elegy dates back to 1976, and itâ€™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, â€śHigher Gossipâ€ť makes a more comprehensive sweep of Updikeâ€™s files, resurrecting a number of items that didnâ€™t make the cut in earlier anthologies.
Most of this vintage stuff has the welcome shimmer of archaeological treasure, but Carduffâ€™s zeal for completeness also indulges a few bits of marginalia, such as the original ending of Updikeâ€™s memoir, â€śSelf-Consciousness.â€ť The excerpt raises self-consciousness to self-absorption, and itâ€™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, â€śHigher Gossipâ€ť doesnâ€™t fit in everything. The book contains a smattering of Updikeâ€™s art reviews, but still more uncollected art pieces will be published in yet another Updike collection. Thatâ€™s good news, since the art reviews assembled in â€śHigher Gossipâ€ť leave the reader blissfully hungering for more. In his gallery reviews as in his other commentaries, Updikeâ€™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 artistâ€™s alienation was not only a plague, but a resource: â€śThere is some artistic advantage in feeling like a stranger on earth.â€ť
â€śHigher Gossipâ€ť also includes a handful of personal essays that display a touching sense of valediction, such as â€śThe Writer in Winter,â€ť in which Updike confesses that even in old age, an author harbors â€śthe irrational hope that the last book might be the best.â€ť
â€śHigher Gossipâ€ť isnâ€™t Updikeâ€™s best book, but itâ€™s a timely reminder of the graceful companionship that Updike offered to his readers â€“ a presence that will be sorely missed.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of â€śA Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.â€ť