Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Updike on Ted Williams

As I'm sure most everyone has heard by now, John Updike died today at the age of 76. It seems like we're losing our best writers.

Truthfully, I've had very little exposure to Updike. I've never read--let alone seen--any of his 60 or so published books, and I'm fairly certain that I've never read any of his short fiction. But he has published dozens of articles of criticism in The New Yorker in the thirty months I've been a subscriber, and I've been wise enough to occasionally read what he had to say. His literary criticism is what you would expect: beautifully composed and thoughtful in a way which always managed to further the conversation. I don't have particular memories of any one of these pieces, but I always felt an acute sense of excitement when I saw Updike's name in The NYer's table of contents. His presence in the magazine felt like an event. And in certain ways, Updike had as much to do with defining what The New Yorker has been about over the course of the last 50 years as anyone.

Here is one of Updike's most famous pieces, a profile of Ted Williams written during the ballplayer's last season in the majors. Just to offer a taste, here is one master of his craft describing another:
For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill. Baseball is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out. Irrelevance—since the reference point of most individual games is remote and statistical—always threatens its interest, which can be maintained not by the occasional heroics that sportswriters feed upon but by players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art. Insofar as the clutch hitter is not a sportswriter’s myth, he is a vulgarity, like a writer who writes only for money. It may be that, compared to managers’ dreams such as Joe DiMaggio and the always helpful Stan Musial, Williams is an icy star. But of all team sports, baseball, with its graceful intermittences of action, its immense and tranquil field sparsely settled with poised men in white, its dispassionate mathematics, seems to me best suited to accommodate, and be ornamented by, a loner. It is an essentially lonely game. No other player visible to my generation has concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance, has so assiduously refined his natural skills, has so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.

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