One day after what would have been John Updike’s 91st birthday, The John Updike Society acquired the Pulitzer Prizewinning author’s typewriter from his four children. The purchase was made possible by a donation from The Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation, which provided the initial funding for the society to buy and restore The John Updike Childhood Home in Shillington, Pa.
The manual typewriter—an Olivetti Linea 88—was made in Great Britain in 1968-69, the year Updike moved with his family to London following the publication of Couples. It will be displayed in a case upstairs in the house at 117 Philadelphia Ave., where Updike lived from “age zero to thirteen” and where he said his “artistic eggs were hatched.” In the front bedroom of this house, at age eight, Updike used his mother’s portable Remington to type his first story, which began, “The tribe of Bum-Bums looked very solemn as they sat around their cozy cave fire.” According to biographer Adam Begley, Updike said, “I still carry intact within me my happiness when, elevated by the thickness of some books to the level of my mother’s typewriter, I began to tap at the keyboard and saw the perfect letter-forms leap up on the paper rolled around the platen.”
When the typewriter is installed at some point in the near future, it will instantly become the most important piece in this small museum, which celebrates Updike and the affection he felt for the house, the neighborhood, and Berks County. The John Updike Childhood Home is presently open Saturdays from 12-2 p.m. See the house website for more details about Updike and the house, which officially opened on October 2, 2021. The John Updike Childhood Home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was awarded a Pennsylvania Historic Marker.
Not surprisingly, since much of John Updike’s writing dealt with aging and mortality, his works have resonated with members of AARP.
In July 2006, Updike contributed an essay on “The Writer in Winter” to AARP The Magazine, in which he began, “Young or old, a writer sends a book into the world, not himself. There is no Senior Tour for authors, with the tees shortened by 20 yards and carts allowed. No mercy is extended by the reviewers; but then it is not extended to the rookie writer, either. He or she may feel, as the gray-haired scribes of the day continue to take up space and consume oxygen in the increasingly small room of the print world, that the elderly have the edge, with their established names and already secured honors. How we did adore and envy them, the idols of our college years—Hemingway and Faulkner, Frost and Eliot, Mary McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty! We imagined them aswim in a heavenly refulgence, as joyful and immutable in their exalted condition as angels forever singing.
“Now that I am their age—indeed, older than a number of them got to be—I can appreciate the advantages, for a writer, of youth and obscurity.” (Read the whole “Life Lessons” essay)
In “Books for Grownups December 2008,”AARP The Magazine recommended The Widows of Eastwick: “Quintessential boomer author Updike checks in on the witches of Eastwick and finds them older, but no less crafty and bawdy.”
In “Books for Grownups August 2009,”The Magazine included My Father’s Tears as another example of “What Our Generation Wants to Read!”: “Updike’s final book, a collection of short stories, is heavy with mid- and late-life troubles, from the mundane to the crushing. He’s in fine form here, and reading these might have you reaching for your old copy of Rabbit, Run.”
In 2013, The Magazine published Erica Jong’s list of “10 Essential Boomer Books,” and Updike’s Couples made the cut . . . along with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Stewart Brand’s The Last Whole Earth Catalog, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood Is Powerful, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying.
Every two years, The John Updike Society holds a conference at a site with an Updike connection to celebrate the literature and legacy of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. For every conference, the society awards competitive Schiff Travel Grants to scholars to enable them to attend the conference and share their work on Updike. The grants are made possible by a generous donation from The Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation. Under-40 recipients receive $1500, while the award for Member recipients is $1000. This year’s six awardees are the most diverse that the society has sponsored to date:
Townes Fricke (U.S., under 40) is a high school senior who is applying to colleges and already looking ahead to graduate school, where he hopes to focus on how literary biography affects our cultural perceptions of writers. A writer himself, he wishes to become an academic “without being pretentious about it.” Fricke also will be a speaker at the upcoming Roth @ 90 conference and is currently working on an essay collection on the history of the “Great American Novel.” At the Updike conference in Tucson he will present his paper on “Growth is Betrayal: John Updike’s Work through the Lens of His Peers.” The title is taken from a line in Rabbit Redux, and the peers that Fricke will focus on are John Cheever, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer.
Nemanja Glintić (China, under 40) is an assistant professor of Serbian language and literature at the Faculty of European Languages and Cultures of the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies in Guangzhou, China. Currently he is a Ph.D. candidate whose dissertation focuses on the family novels of Updike and Serbian writer Danilo Kiš—two authors he deeply admires. Updike and Kiš met in Belgrade in 1978, and Kiš was the only Yugoxlav writer Updike read and publicly spoke about. The paper Glintić will present at the conference, “The Nascent Artists: John Updike’s Peter Caldwell and Danilo Kiš’ Andreas Sam,”comparatively analyzes Updike’s protagonist from The Centaur and a character from two books from Kiš’ family trilogy, The Family Circus—the novel Garden, Ashes and the short story collection Early Sorrows.
Biljana Dojčinović (Serbia, member) is a full professor at the Department for Comparative Literature and Theory of Literature, Faculty of Philology at the University of Belgrade. She has been a member of The John Updike Society since its founding and a member of The John Updike Review editorial board since its inception. A board member since 2014. Dojčinović directed the 5th Biennial John Updike Society Conference (2018) in Belgrade—the first JUS Conference outside U.S. Dojčinović has published seven academic books, among them the first and so far only monograph on Updike in Serbian, Cartographer of the Modern World (2007), as well as numerous articles on Updike, in both Serbian and English. In the paper she will present in Arizona, “Dedalus and Caldwell: Joyce in Updike’s The Centaur,” Dojčinović argues that the Joyce influence in The Centaur extended beyond Ulysses.
Carla Alexandra Ferreira (Brazil, member) is Associate Professor of American Literature at the Federal University of Sao Carlos. In 2014 she taught at the University of Iowa as a Fulbright Visiting Scholar and later earned a Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina under the supervision of Updike scholar Don Greiner. She is the author of North and South Readings: perceptions of oneself and the Other in Updike’s Work (2018) and various articles and book chapters on Updike and other writers from the U.S. and U.K. She has also advised theses and dissertations on Updike and American authors and has been a member of the society since 2014. More recently she has been working on a book about Updike’s New Yorker fiction and has an essay forthcoming in The John Updike Review. In Tucson she will present a paper on “Brazilians on Brazil (1994): the novel’s reception in the South American Country,” in which she explains why Brazilians reacted as they did and what critics could not see when they first read Updike’s novel.
Sue Norton (Ireland, member) is a lecturer of English in Technological University Dublin. With Laurence W. Mazzeno she co-edited and contributed to Contemporary American Fiction in the European Classroom: Teaching and Texts (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022) and European Perspectives on John Updike (Camden House, 2018). Her work on writing and literature has appeared in Critical Insights; The Journal of Scholarly Publishing; The Explicator; The Irish Journal of American Studies; and The John Updike Review. She has presented papers on John Updike’s work at several John Updike Society conferences and at two American Literature Association conferences. The paper she will present in Tucson is “Pruning the Self and Asserting Identity in ‘A Desert Encounter,” in which she posits that Updike’s multifaceted authorial presence—celebrated American author and affable American retiree—works to assert individual identity, a positing of authorial presence as a kind of retort to Roland Barthe’s idea of the writer as mere scripter, devoid of true essence.”
Pradipta Sengupta (India, member) is an associate professor of English at M.U.C.Women’s College, Burdwan, West Bengal. He wrote his Ph.D. on “The ‘Hawthorne Novels’ of John Updike” at the University of Burdwan and also completed a postdoctoral project on “Recasting Contemporary America: A Study of John Updike’s Rabbit Tetralogy” while a research fellow at Osmania University Center for International Programs, Hyderabad. Since then he has published on Keats, Hawthorne, Tagore, Dickens, Frost, Carey, Heller, Yeats, Emerson, and Updike, with his main areas of interest continuing to be American fiction and Indian poetics. In Tucson he will present “Yoga and Tantric Love: Inadequacy and Futility in Updike’s S.” Set against the backdrop of Arizona desert, S. details the activities of a Hindu ashram and its sham hypocritical guru, the Arhat, who expoits and uses the idiom of both Patanjali Yoga and Tantric Love to indulge in his carnal exploits wth ashram women. A close reading suggests that Updike himself abuses the principles of Pantanjali Yoga and Tantric Love, to the detriment of the novel.
On February 11, 2002, John Updike was asked to deliver remarks to commemorate the opening of the Ames Library at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. That Founders’ Day Convocation, now online, presents a view of Updike that would be repeated many times over: a much admired literary giant receiving, somewhat shyly and awkwardly, an honorary degree and delivering remarks that almost always included a reading of his own work.
On this occasion Updike read from a bound proof of his Collected Poems. But after a poem about a college appointment that “some august professor” had scheduled, then forgotten, Updike remarked, “I always had the feeling that I was somehow not, try as hard as I might, not quite pleasing to Harvard. I went there and was grateful and was stunned and I imbibed the New England magic and I met my future wife, and was president of the Harvard Lampoon, and got a good degree and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa, and yet I felt it all, in Harvard’s eyes, wasn’t quite enough. There was something un-Harvardian about me. . . . I was inexorably gauche in the eyes of Harvard.”
Updike received dozens of honorary degrees during his long writing career, but most of them seem to have vanished or were discarded, while others turned up for sale in independent bookstores—the going rate, according to a Houston Chronicle article, being $750. But the whereabouts of this particular degree is indeed known.
The tube Updike was handed containing his Illinois Wesleyan Degree is in the collection of The John Updike Childhood Home in Shillington, Pa., and will soon be added to new displays in the upstairs room that was once his maternal grandparents’. The room’s theme: The Writer’s Life.
Updike, as painted by Katz, appeared on the cover of Time after he had won the Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit Is Rich. “Speaking of Katz—the Oct. 18, 1982, cover of novelist John Updike also created an interesting pairing. Painter Alex Katz, whose work generally flattened the subject’s perspective and reduced the features, was commissioned to paint Updike, whose fans were not all pleased with the result: “What a washed-out portrait of Updike on the cover!” one reader complained. But Katz offered some advice to viewers of art: “You can wreck a painting very easily,” he noted, “if you get obsessive about likeness.”
Updike had previously appeared on the April 26, 1968 Time magazine after Couples was published and drew attention to the “post-pill paradise” of suburban America.
The new (and largest ever) Vermeer exhibition in Amsterdam is apparently as hard to get tickets for as a football championship. A World Today News columnist recently said, “I had given up all hope of a ticket for Vermeer, until an attentive, art-loving one NRC reader managed to get my wife and me in after all, even without having to smash a window of the Riijksmuseum.”
The writer lamented, in a column titled “Still Vermeer” (in apparent reference to Updike’s second published volume of art criticism, Still Looking),”If only John Updike, the American writer (1932-2009), could experience this exhibition. I mention him because of all literary writers he has been the greatest connoisseur and admirer of Vermeer. . . . Updike became interested in Vermeer as a schoolboy. He wrote a nice, autobiographical story about it: ‘The Lucid Eye in Silver Town.’ In it, a boy, together with his father, visits an older brother of that father in New York. The boy’s father is a passive man, the older brother is a successful businessman. It is the boy’s first visit to New York, where he wants to buy a ‘good book’ about Vermeer.
“The wealthy uncle listens to him skeptically and starts bragging about four paintings by Degas that he has hanging in his living room in Chicago. ‘Yes,’ says the boy, ‘but don’t Degas’ paintings remind you of colored drawings? When it comes to it to look to things in terms of paint, with a sharp eye, Degas can’t match Vermeer.’
“The uncle says nothing and the father apologizes: ‘That’s how he and his mother always talk. I can not reach it. I never understand any of it.'”
The writer talks about walking through the new exhibit and wondering what Updike had thought of his personal favorite, The soldier and the laughing girl . . . “a painting that seems made for Updike and his ‘lucid eye.'”
Shortly after John Updike died, Radio National of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation asked Updike scholars Avis Hewitt, James Plath, and James Schiff to talk about Updike’s “unparalleled legacy of writing that combined an abiding interest in sex with a profound belief in God.”
That broadcast, which aired on Sunday, March 1, 2009, is now available online. Here is the link.
John Updike made Ipswich internationally famous, and the small north shore town near Boston will acknowledge his impact on April 28, 2023 with a plaque and celebration.
When John Updike first moved to Ipswich he wrote in a home office at the Polly Dole House, but then found an office above The Dolphin restaurant. There he composed many of his acclaimed literary works, including Of the Farm, Rabbit Redux, “A & P,” “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” The Centaur, Couples, Midpoint, A Month of Sundays, and Bech: A Book.
While in Ipswich, Updike also helped write Something to Preserve: A report on Historic Preservation in America’s best-preserved Puritan town, Ipswich, Massachusetts—published in 1975 by the Ipswich Historical Commission, of which he was a member. Now that same commission will erect a plaque commemorating Updike’s literary impact and contributions to the community.
According to the Ipswich Local News story “Ipswich finally gives Updike his due” by Trevor Meek (Feb. 24, 2023), on Friday, April 28, the commission will unveil a commemorative plaque on the Caldwell Building at 15 South Main St., where Updike wrote in “the now-vacant suite #5 on the second floor” in a “smoky office.” Michael Updike told Meek, “We’d visit him often, in the days when you could still walk around town unsupervised as a six year old. A lot of times, we’d go there as he was about to have lunch at the Dolphin restaurant.”
The Dolphin closed down many years ago, but in its place is the Choate Bridge Pub, “located directly below suite #5.” The pub will host the celebratory event, which will feature a reading of “A & P” (a store no more, but a building still to be seen in Ipswich). In addition, a special menu will include Updike’s preferred lunch, which Michael said was “a pastrami sandwich with a side of pea soup.”
Rachel Meyer, treasurer of the IHC, said that there might even be an Updike cocktail available for the event, one named after Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick. But the IHC is “still negotiating the finer points of the event with the pub.”
The April 28 event will give Updike fans an excuse to travel to Ipswich and also enjoy seeing the exterior of the Polly Dole House, the old A & P, the setting for “The Hillies,” and the site of the first church in Ipswich that featured so prominently in Couples.
“Updike’s work defines this town,” Meyer said. “It’s part of a greater literary legacy too. This is one of the places that Anne Bradstreet—America’s first published poet—lived.”
Greg EplerWood reported that Rabbit Run, the section of a tiny not-quite-a-creek near Shillington named in honor of Updike’s second novel, has an uncommon resident: a yellow, freshwater sponge.
Last summer, Angelica Creek Watershed Association’s Jill and Stan Kemp sent an email to other members with news that they had discovered a strange yellow growth underneath one of the rocks. Suspecting it might be a seldom-seen freshwater sponge, they sent a sample to Carnegie Museum’s Marc Yergin, who studied it “Under the Microscope”—as Updike might have done. Yergin tentatively identified it as Eunapius fragilus.
Though Updike’s short story about microscopic life was a commentary on the New York literary scene, what the presence of a freshwater sponge in Rabbit Run means is that the association’s clean-up has already had a positive effect on the ecosystem.
“The presence of FW sponge indicates good water quality as they are extremely sensitive to any type of water pollution,” the Kemps wrote. “Sponges provide an important ecosystem service because they filter water all day, every day and help to clean things up like FW mussels or oysters in Chesapeake.”
The Kemps said they thought some of the improvements in the management of the riparian area might have helped this sponge to survive in Rabbit Run . . . a long, long ways from Bikini Bottom.
Photos are courtesy of the Kemps and Marc Yergin. The longish skeletal elements from the magnified sponge below are called “spicules.”
Biljana Dojčinović, University of Belgrade, recently published this critical notice of the most comprehensive Vermeer exhibit ever assembled, which she was kind enough to translate for us:
The largest Jan Vermeer’s exhibition has been opened in Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam on February 10, 2023:
“The 28 Vermeer paintings are presented in a spacious setting that spans all ten galleries of the museum’s Phillips Wing. In 11 thematic sections, the exhibition brings visitors closer to Vermeer and offers rich insights into the life and paintings of Vermeer, including: early ambitions, first domestic interiors, balance between the indoor and outdoor worlds, the letters, musical seduction, outlook on the world and inner values,” says Taco Dibbits, General Director of the Rijksmuseum.
This, largest ever, exhibition of Vermeer will be open until June 4th, 2023.
The “master of light” had a great impact on John Updike and his fiction, as pointed out in James Plath’s seminal article “Verbal Vermeer: Updike’s Middle-Class Portraiture.” Plath named Updike a Verbal Vermeer when exploring the visual aspects of Rabbit novels. The phrase itself is an ingenious way to describe Updike’s complete opus. The alliteration and assonance (Verbal Vermeer) point to the poetical aspects of the pun, while its meaning connects the medium Updike uses (words) with his favorite painter – Vermeer – mentioned many times especially in his early work.
Vermeer is for the first time mentioned in Updike’s fiction in the early story “Lucid Eye in Silver Town,” in which a boy travels with his father to New York hoping to buy a book on Vermeer. In Updike’s second novel, The Centaur, published in 1963, the young protagonist, Peter Caldwell, wants to become a painter, and not “just any” painter, but Vermeer himself:
“In those days the radio carried me into my future, where I was strong: my closets were full of beautiful clothes and may skin as smooth as milk as I painted, to the tune of great wealth and fame, pictures heavenly and cool, like those of Vermeer. That Vermeer himself had been obscure and poor I knew. But I reasoned that he had lived in backward times. “ (Updike 1993: 62)
In the poem “Midpoint” Vermeer is grouped with some other painters and visual artists, including Walt Disney:
Praise Disney, for dissolving Goofy’s stride Into successive stills our eyes elide; And Jan Vermeer, for salting humble bread With Dabs of light, as well as bricks and thread. (Updike 1995: 96)
In the essay “Verbal Vermeer,” Plath names domesticity – i.e., the importance of objects which are equal to humans, the usage of light and the phenomena of “dynamic stasis” – as methods that Vermeer and Updike had in common. Domesticity refers to the people Vermeer had presented at his canvases: the cozy life of middle class in the 17th century Delft, in what was later named genre painting. Plath emphasizes the importance of objects, which were not merely a background for Updike:
Because he treated objects and humans equally, the former acquired a sense of importance, and the latter a kind of memorialized stasis – each “favored” by the artist’s even, modulated light. (Plath 1998: 208)
James Plath argues that Updike makes the traditional archetypal connection of light with the truth, deliverance, knowledge, and transfiguration – in contrast to darkness and shadows. Thus the usage of light is actually a connection with the Creator: both Vermeer and Updike like to dwell at the first and most sensual level of creation, the moment closest to the birth of an object (see Plath 1998: 221). According to Plath, light also means present. Further, he de- scribes the present tense as something like “dynamic stasis.”
The similar effect is poetically presented in Wislawa Szymborka’s poem “Vermeer” :
So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum in painted quiet and concentration keeps pouring milk day after day from the pitcher to the bowl the World hasn’t earned the world’s end.
(translated from Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak)
1] Wislawa Szymborska, the Literature Nobel Prize winner for 1996, was a great friend of Blaga Dimitrova, the poet who had been the prototype for Updike’s 1965 story, “The Bulgarian Poetess.”
Plath, James. “Verbal Vermeer: Updike’s Middle-Class Portraiture.” Rabbit Tales: Poetry and Politics in John Updike’s Rabbit Novels. Ed. Lawrence R. Broer. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1998. Online at https://digitalcommons.iwu.edu/eng_scholarship/42/