It sounds strange to say it now, but the first major English translations of Søren Kierkegaard’s work weren’t published until almost a century after his death. The Walter Lowrie translations of the late 1940s, however, were a major influence on a number of American thinkers and writers of the mid-twentieth-century. John Updike, for example, fictionalizes his first encounters with Kierkegaard in his 1961 story “The Astronomer”:
I was twenty-four, and the religious revival within myself was at its height. Earlier that summer, I had discovered Kierkegaard, and each week I brought back to the apartment one more of the Princeton University Press’s elegant and expensive editions of his works. They were beautiful books, sometimes very thick, sometimes very thin, always typographically exhilarating, with their welter of title pages, subheads, epigraphs, emphatic italics, italicized catchwords taken from German philosophy and too subtle for translation, translator’s prefaces and footnotes, and Kierkegaard’s own endless footnotes, blanketing pages as a time as, crippled, agonized by distinctions, he scribbled on and on, heaping irony on irony, curse on curse, gnashing, sneering, praising Jehovah in the privacy of his empty home in Copenhagen. The demons with which he wrestled—Hegel and his avatars—were unknown to me, so Kierkegaard at his desk seemed to me to be writhing in the clutch of phantoms, slapping at silent mosquitoes, twisting furiously to confront presences that were not there. It was a spectacle unlike any I had ever seen in print before, and it brought me much comfort during those August and September evenings, while the traffic on the West Side Highway swished tirelessly and my wife tinkled the supper dishes in our tiny kitchenette.
Kierkegaard remained one of Updike’s most important theological influences throughout his five-decade career, to the point where he once said that he intended his fiction to be object lessons from Kierkegaard and Karl Barth. Our guest today on Christian Humanist Profiles is David Crowe, professor of English at Augustana College. Professor Crowe has taken the time to go systematically through all of Updike’s writings on Kierkegaard, and the result is his book Cosmic Defiance: Updike’s Kierkegaard and the Maples Stories.