John Updike Again: The Magic of Sentences

Some of you readers are doubtless aware of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the informal title for what is formally known as “The Program in Creative Writing” at the University of Iowa.  It culminates in the awarding of a Master of Fine Arts in English.

Although the threads of its history at Iowa go back as far as 1897, in its full-fledged status as a true Workshop it dates to 1936 and reached its earliest heyday under the directorship of Paul Engle (from 1941 to 1966).  It is still divided into two sections: poetry and fiction. The alumni of the Workshop have won numerous Pulitzer Prizers, and four U.S. Poet Laureates are graduates.

One of the emphases of the Workshop is the writing of structurally sound and rhythmically pleasing sentences. 

An advertisement that appeared in a recent issue of a magazine I subscribe to offered,   in 24 thirty-minute lectures on DVDs,  to teach its students that “great writing begins–and ends–with the sentence.”  Just to give you a clear idea of the diversity of these lectures,  here are the topics,  all taught by Professor Brooks Landon of the University of Iowa,   of the first ten lectures:

         1.  A Sequence of Words

         2.  Grammar and Rhetoric

         3. Propositions and Meaning

         4.  How Sentences Grow

          5.  Adjectival Steps

          6.  The Rhythm of Cumulative Syntax

         7.   Direction of Modification

         8.  Coordinate,  Subordinate, and Mixed Patterns

         9.  Coordinate Cumulative Sentences

        10. Subordinate and Mixed Cumulatives

It is easy,  but maybe also necessary,  to compare John Updike to Joseph Mitchell as incomparable stylists within the constraints of the sentence.

Calvin Trillin once told Mitchell, whom he admired immensely, that a CCNY teacher (most likely Trillin’s wife Alice)  had told her students that he (Mitchell) was the “greatest living master of the English declarative sentence.”

Verlyn Klinkenborg,  who writes for both “The New York Times” and “National Geographic” and whom I admire greatly (he wrote a 1992 review of “Up in the Old Hotel”  in “The New York Times Book Review”),  said in his appreciation of Updike in yesterday’s “New York Times,” this:   “No matter what Updike’s books accomplished, he was, above all, a maker of sentences, one of the very best.  You can read him for his books, but it’s better to read him for his sentences, any one of which–anywhere–can rise up to startle you with its wry perfection.”

Joe Posnanski,   a sports writer for “The Kansas City Star” (my “hometown newspaper”),  in his appreciative essay on Updike at his passing reminded readers of Mr. Updike’s great essay on Ted Williams as he played his last game for the Boston Red Sox.  That essay was titled  “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”   Posnanski recalls from memory one of Updike’s memorable sentences in that newspaper story:   “‘For me,’ Updike wrote, ‘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.'”  No wonder, say I, that Mr. Updike was so taken by the game of golf.



27 Responses to “John Updike Again: The Magic of Sentences”

  1. Forest Crump Says:

    An unlikely source for appreciation of a well-crafted sentence can be found in the Amendments to the Constitution, all of the first ten, aka, the Bill of Rights, are each one sentence long.

    Amendment V
    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise
    infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of
    a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval
    forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War
    or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same
    offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be
    compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself,
    nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process
    of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without
    just compensation.

    I am enjoying, My Ears Are Bent, and I have placed my order for your book Joseph Mitchell: A Reader’s and Writer’s Guide by Raymond J. Rundus.

    Just a little side note here because I am philosophical by nature, the so called Patriot Act nullifies much of the protections guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. For example, if you are accused of terrorism the government doesn’t need an indictment from a grand jury to arrest you or obtain a warrant to search you or your belongings or your dwelling, the government can also suspend your writ of habeas corpus and confine you indefinitely without charging you with a crime, which deprives you of life, liberty and property without due process of law.

    I’m just sayin 🙂

  2. Raymond Rundus Says:


    This is a great comment. It had never sunk in that each of these parts of the “Bill of Rights” is only one sentence. Goes to show you, you open a box of chocolates and you find all sorts of flavors and shapes, but you can only eat one at a time.
    I feel I should bring this observation of yours to the attention of the professor who took my place at UNCP. In charge of adding books and such to the University Library, he asks each of the recommenders to limit their justification for the choice to one sentence. I need to tell him, “Mark, you would do better to ask that the recommendation be limited to X-number of words! Somebody might write a 300-word sentence, and then where’d you be?”
    Surely did enjoy getting reacquainted with you last Friday. . . .


  3. Xfriend Says:


    Help! They got me tied up over here at the Xcave. You blew my cover my blogging brother. How could you? Ransom is $13,500,000. Just enough to pay for the dam and a second cleanup of Hope Mills Lake.

    You should know better than eXpose blogging villians to the public. They have to have cash in small bills by midnight on Friday or they are going to get Frank and Marshall too. Help!

  4. Raymond Rundus Says:

    Hmmmm. That’s a little more than I expected.
    How about $5? How about cash? How about soon?

    Keep up the good work, Mike.


  5. Tammy Stephens Says:

    How much can I get for bringing Frank and Marshall to them?

  6. Xfriend Says:


    Frank – $200

    Marshall – $500


    Marshall is worth slightly more for being a commissioner, lol.

  7. Marshall Faircloth Says:


  8. Xfriend Says:


    Don’t be a sellout, stay strong my blogging brother and commissioner.


  9. Tammy Stephens Says:

    Marshall, I missed this auction! Had to go out for errands. How could you over bid me? I wanted to sell you out, lol! I could have made $500! Hmmmm. There’s still Frank. I guess I can still make $200.

  10. Xfriend Says:


    Why didn’t you pay the ransom?

    Now I have some concrete shoes and they are throwing me into Hope Mills Lake.

    Blupe blupe blupe.


    Blupe blupe blupe.


    Blupe blupe blupe.

    Oh, never mind, it’s not deep enough for anybody to drown.

    Somebody help me get these concrete shoes off, whew!

  11. Xfriend Says:

    Anybody seen Frank and Marshall?

    I think they are both shorter than Xfriend.


  12. Tammy Stephens Says:

    Xfriend, I am severely vertically challenged. The water just might be over my head, lol. I might not be that much help, but I’ll try!
    I think Frank and Marshall may have went back to Beijing.

  13. Tammy Stephens Says:

    Ok, Marshall is getting concrete shoes too! I need helping making them, any volunteers, lol? 🙂

  14. Tammy Stephens Says:

    Well he’s spared for now, lol. But I will need help reserved, just in case, lol. 🙂

  15. Xfriend Says:

    Hurry, I’m having trouble staying afloat on three different blogs.

    Blupe, blupe, blupe.

  16. Tammy Stephens Says:

    Me too! LOL!

  17. Tammy Stephens Says:

    Mr. Rundus has been quiet, could he be hiding with Frank? Has someone kidnapped him?

  18. Tammy Stephens Says:

    I have heard from Mr. Rundus, and I’m happy to report that he was not kidnapped. 🙂

  19. Raymond Rundus Says:

    Acknowledge all and all appreciated.

    As I wrote Tammy earlier today, I have been too busy resting.

    Or as I caught myself saying a few months ago, when Wifey’s health was notsohotso and I was doing dis ‘n dis and dat ‘n dat and throwing some of my priorities under the bus, “I’ve got to find some time to get busy.”
    Sound familiar?


  20. Mirabal Says:

    cool pics

  21. Metheny Says:

    The success of your wordpress comment campaign increases significantly if you write comments that will not be seen as spam or are very on-topic! Be Creative? Free Stuff!

  22. Vitela Says:

    First reaction when i saw the before and after: awesome.

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  24. Schiffman Says:

    First reaction when i saw the before and after: awesome.

  25. Blancas Says:

    cool pics

  26. Bauza Says:

    First reaction when i saw the before and after: awesome.

  27. Matsunaga Says:

    Great post! Thanks…

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