John Updike's Descriptive Narrative

Passage from John Updike's 'Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu'

John Updike (1932-2009). (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

In novels, essays, short stories, and poems, John Updike wrote with a painter's eye for detail. And for this reason, you don't have to be a baseball fan to appreciate the stylistic richness of his essay "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu"* (originally published in The New Yorker, October 22, 1960). In these four paragraphs from his report on the final game played by Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams, Updike demonstrates his mastery of narrative and descriptive prose.

from "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu"

by John Updike

The afternoon grew so glowering that in the sixth inning the arc lights were turned on--always a wan sight in the daytime, like the burning headlights of a funeral procession. Aided by the gloom, Fisher was slicing through the Sox rookies, and Williams did not come to bat in the seventh. He was second up in the eighth. This was almost certainly his last time to come to the plate in Fenway Park, and instead of merely cheering, as we had at his three previous appearances, we stood, all of us, and applauded. I had never before heard pure applause in a ballpark. No calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a sombre and considered tumult. There was not a boo in it. It seemed to renew itself out of a shifting set of memories as the Kid, the Marine, the veteran of feuds and failures and injuries, the friend of children, and the enduring old pro evolved down the bright tunnel of twenty-two summers toward this moment.

At last, the umpire signalled for Fisher to pitch; with the other players, he had been frozen in position. Only Williams had moved during the ovation, switching his bat impatiently, ignoring everything except his cherished task. Fisher wound up, and the applause sank into a hush.

Understand that we were a crowd of rational people.

We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will; the right pitch must be perfectly met and luck must ride with the ball. Three innings before, we had seen a brave effort fail. The air was soggy, the season was exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around the corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.

Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass, the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and vanished.

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs--hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted "We want Ted" for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he refused. Gods do not answer letters.

Also see:
John Updike’s Glorious Descriptions

Works of Nonfiction by John Updike:

  • Assorted Prose, Knopf, 1965
  • Picked-Up Pieces, Knopf, 1975
  • Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism, Knopf, 1983
  • Self-Consciousness: Memoirs, Andre Deutsch, 1989
  • Just Looking: Essays on Art, Knopf, 1989
  • Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism, Knopf, 1991
  • Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf, Knopf, 1996
  • More Matter: Essays and Criticism, Knopf, 1999
  • Still Looking: Essays on American Art, Knopf, 2005
  • Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism, Knopf, 2007
  • Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism, Knopf, 2011)

*"Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" first appeared in The New Yorker magazine in October 22, 1960. A revised version of the essay was included in Assorted Prose by John Updike, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1965.