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October 20, 2019

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Encounter with John Updike in Las Vegas

John Updike


In this May 20, 2006 file photo, author John Updike takes part in a panel discussion at BookExpo America 2006 in Washington. Updike, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, prolific man of letters and erudite chronicler of sex, divorce and other adventures in the postwar prime of the American empire, died Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009, of lung cancer, according to a statement from his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. He was 76.

Through an entire journalism career from the 1960s to the present, author John Updike's novels and essays in The New Yorker often nudged me into deeper reading than newspapers and news magazines.

After Updike published "Hugging the Shore" in 1983, a collection of essays filled with wit and sparkling language, I re-read most of 19th century author Nathaniel Hawthorne's work, re-connecting to family roots set in puritanical New England and especially Massachusetts, my native state.

Must admit, hadn't read Hawthorne since an American lit course while earning an English literature degree in 1970, but I spent that summer of 1983 re-reading everything from "The Scarlet Letter" to "The Blithedale Romance."

Then one Sunday afternoon while wandering the halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center covering a conference, I spied Updike, taller than I had imagined him, hustling along surrounded by a coterie of men, like a president surrounded by Secret Service agents. I smiled. He smiled, almost a grimace, and I offered "Hugging the Shore" in silence, since his smile had faded in an instant.

Throwing caution to the wind, I began to tell Updike about the influence of his essays on me and how it compelled me to go back and re-read Hawthorne. He stood, gazing down at me, turning his head as if he were some mythical bird, or a bird of prey. Perhaps he was surprised that a blond, blue-eyed woman in Las Vegas could read, he took the book and signed his name.

As I read his obituaries today, learning he had died of cancer at age 76, the world seems a little less inquisitive, as if the final chapter had been written for a literary wit that spanned both the 20th and 21st centuries.

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