Mark Harris
February 06, 2009 AT 05:00 AM EST

The appearance of the phrase ”man of letters” in virtually every obituary of John Updike, who died of lung cancer at 76 on Jan. 27, was not only a tribute to his multifarious gifts, but a recognition that his passing probably marked one of the rare times the designation could be honestly applied. The ”by the author” page in 2008’s The Widows of Eastwick includes the two dozen majestic novels that built his reputation as the great chronicler of American marital discontent, brutality, and rue. But it also includes headings for poetry, short stories, essays, and criticism, as well as a memoir, a play, and some children’s books. The harrowing quartet of novels featuring Rabbit Angstrom, in which Updike unsparingly observes a restless salesman as he sprints from youth to the finish line, won him two Pulitzer Prizes and stands as his benchmark achievement. But because Updike found different avenues of literary expression, there are other portals into his work that are just as rewarding.

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