Shortly before The John Updike Society convened in Reading, Pa. for their 6th Biennial Conference, Jonathan Clarke published a piece in City Journal titled “John Updike and the Politics of Literary Reputation.” In it, he assesses the current problem: Updike’s fall from literary grace during a time of “cancel culture” and the #metoo movement.
“His is a striking case study in the politics of literary reputation in a time of generational upheaval,” Clarke writes. “Updike has not been a victim of cancel culture. He merely represents the ancien regime.”
Clarke suggests that “Updike’s self-effacing public manner now looks like a tactical error in the long game of literary reputation. Philip Roth and Toni Morrison never tired of singing the song of themselves—and why not, in the end, when the world is so crowded and busy? It’s not that Updike was modest about his talent; it’s simply that he embodied the cultural style we associate with American Protestantism. The vanquishing of that once-dominant mode has contributed to a growing incomprehension of Updike’s work.”
Of course, questioning Updike’s status as a writer of stature is nothing new. Those who have followed the critical response to Updike’s work will think immediately of John Aldridge’s early claim that Updike might be a great stylist but that he “has nothing to say.”
In 2014, The New Republic took up the issue again in a debate between English comedian, novelist, and TV personality David Baddiel and literary critic-biographer Jeffrey Meyers: “John Updike: Tedious Suburbanite, Literary Great.” Prompting the debate was the release of the Adam Begley biography, Updike.
Baddiel argues on the “for” side. He begins, “Let’s begin by making one thing clear. John Updike was the greatest writer in English of the last century. Unquestionably, he was the best short story writer; I would argue the best novelist, certainly of the postwar years; one of the very best essayists and in the top 20 poets.” On the negative side, Meyers calls Updike’s New Yorker contributions “made-to-order” and dismisses the magazine entirely as a group of editors and contributors who engaged in “mutual admiration” and “quarrelled over a semicolon but encouraged facile content and ironed out all traces of distinctive style.” Meyers concludes, “Updike, cherishing every scrap of his personal life and striving for mythical significance in his daily doings, fell back on the trivial and tedious details of his small-town childhood.” Ironically, in his biography of Hemingway, Meyers doesn’t take that author to task for mining his own adolescence to create a series of stories set in Michigan, or later stories and novels that also reflect Hemingway’s lived experiences. So maybe it all comes down to a long-debated aesthetic question: what is a suitable subject for art?
Traditionally, the John Updike Society announces the site of their next biennial conference at the closing membership meeting of the current conference, and that “reveal” is done with a PowerPoint presentation. And here it is:
At the 6th Biennial John Updike Society Conference in Reading and Shillington, Pa., four members were surprised with awards in appreciation for their longtime service.
The board members for this 501c3 nonprofit organization voted unanimously to honor David W. Ruoff and Dave Silcox for their invaluable service. Society members often remarked about the “two Daves” that do so much for The John Updike Childhood Home, and with great enthusiasm and energy, so the awards were “a no brainer,” according to society president Jim Plath.
The first distinguished service award was presented back in 2010, and the sixth Distinguished Service Award was given to Ruoff at the Friday, Oct. 1, 2021 conference dinner. The plaque he received praised Ruoff for “extraordinary docent work and other services to The John Updike Childhood Home.” Plath told the audience that from Day 1, when Ruoff began renting the single-story annex to the house that was built by Dr. John Hunter for his practice, he has been giving tours of the house to people who emailed, phoned, or just knocked on his door. Instead of just admitting them in and showing them around, Ruoff would tell them stories of growing up on that same street and having Updike’s father for a teacher. Some he would drive to other Updike sites in Shillington . . . and even Plowville. And for international pilgrims on the Updike trail, Ruoff would often surprise them with local delicacies like ring bologna and Tom Sturgis pretzels—Updike’s favorite.
Numerous people over the years have made donations to the society based on their interaction with Ruoff, who makes no secret of his love for John Updike, the Updike house, and the society dedicated to preserving Updike’s legacy. Of the 1001 things he does for the society, perhaps most appreciated are the many times he’s had to go down to the house in the middle of the night to check to make sure everything was okay. The building has a sensitive alarm system that can be triggered by very little movement, and it sometimes requires someone to interact with police. Ruoff has done all of that and more for too many years to count, Plath said.
The other “Dave” honored with a Distinguished Service Award—Dave Silcox—has an even longer history with the society. In fact, the details of launching the society were “hatched” in his dining room when he hosted Plath, Jim Schiff, and Jack De Bellis after they all spoke at a Reading Library tribute to John Updike. Silcox, who was Updike’s Shillington contact for roughly 10 years, helped Updike with all things, large and small. He’s done the same for the society, including recommending the right people for the right jobs. But perhaps his greatest contribution comes as a result of his being an avid collector. Silcox has been instrumental in developing the museum’s collection of artifacts and letters, acting as a go-between in many cases. Many of the exhibits currently on display would not have been possible without him. Silcox couldn’t attend the dinner, but Plath presented him his plaque at his Shillington home.
The surprises continued on Saturday night, when Michael Updike and Updike Society board members Sylvie Mathé, Biljana Dojčinović, and Marshall Boswell announced that they had a presentation to make. They told people in attendance that they wanted to recognize the “two Jims” that have done so much to move the society forward: President Jim Plath, for his work coordinating the house restoration and creation of a museum, and Vice-President Jim Schiff, for ten years of service through his editorship of The John Updike Review and the role that he played in securing support from his family foundation to purchase and fund the house.
The awards were framed, commissioned chalkboard slate carvings from sculptor Michael Updike, whose works both Jims have long admired. Plath appropriately received a carving of the Updike house, under which is an Updike quote, taken from the last line of “Grandparenting,” the final story in The Maples Stories: “Nobody belongs to us, except in memory.”
Schiff, who had been tapped by the Updike Literary Trust to edit a volume of selected letters, has spent the past five years elbow-deep in letters. For him, Michael Updike carved a letter slot with letters coming through it, featuring another Updike quote: “Once each day this broad mouth spews Love letters, bills, ads, pleas, and news.”
Forty-seven members donned masks to see each other again at the 6th John Updike Society Conference in Reading and Shillington, Pa. from Sept. 30-Oct. 3—a conference that had been scheduled for 2020 but postponed because of COVID-19. With pandemic numbers still high, all attendees were required to submit proof of vaccination with their registration materials and urged to wear masks indoors.
The event was COVID-free, but the pandemic still cast a large shadow. More registrants and speakers than usual were forced to cancel, and any conference hiccups or glitches could be directly traced to COVID. But attendees looked past all that and reveled in each other’s company, happy to witness the dedication of the Pennsylvania Historic Marker and unveiling of the National Registry of Historic Places plaque at the John Updike Childhood Home, 117 Philadelphia Ave., in Shillington. In the end, the consensus was that the conference—the second directed by Alvernia communications professor Sue Guay—was another memorable experience.
Because of COVID, organizers sought to “go small” and decided to spread things out over three locations. Alvernia University hosted the conference for Oct. 1 events and provided all bus transportation. New partner Governor Mifflin School District hosted sessions at the high school just blocks from the Updike house on Oct. 2, and the society stayed at the Courtyard Marriott Reading for morning sessions on Oct. 3. The “vibe” was good, and members who had been eager to attend the grand opening of the John Updike Childhood Home immediately after the marker dedication ceremony were impressed by what they saw . . . and later enjoyed a side-porch reception at the house.
Member Greg EplerWood and local historian George Meiser teamed on Friday to handle the microphone for a bus tour of Berks County Updike sites. At a stop at Weaver’s Orchards and the Plowville farmhouse, Ed Weaver talked about living in the farmhouse now and his memories of growing up with Updike children visiting the area. At a stop at the Plowville church and cemetery, Michael Updike led a group to the Hoyer and Updike family headstones and talked about the marker he made for his father. At a stop at the cemetery high above Shillington, described in an Updike poem, members walked to find some of the headstones mentioned. And of course the bus drove past the new “Rabbit Run” signs posted along the nearby highway.
On Saturday, an estimated 200 people turned out for the marker dedication ceremony and grand opening tours of the house. William Lewis spoke as a representative of the Pennsylvania Museum & Historical Commission, telling the crowd that getting “one of these” is no small feat.
Honored guests included State Senator Judy Schwank, Berks County Commissioner Michael Rivera, Shillington Councilman Alec Ernest, Shillington Mayor Andrew Hivner, Shillington Chief of Police Brett Hivner, Gov. Mifflin School District Superintendent Bill McKay and Asst. Superintendent Lisa Templin Hess, local historians Meiser and Myrtle Council, Updike house restoration expert Bob Doerr, former Updike classmates and neighbors Barbara Hartz and Joan Youngerman, and all four of Updike’s children: Elizabeth, David, Michael, and Miranda. As the line formed to have a first look inside the house, member volunteers answered questions and kept the crowd moving along, while remaining members followed John Updike Childhood Home education director Maria Lester on a walking tour of 5-Corners Updike-related sites—including Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, where the Updikes attended. Pastor Colleen Cox, of Grace Evangelical, offered the marker dedication invocation.
James Schiff, tapped by the Updike Literary Trust to edit a “selected letters” collection, delivered the opening keynote, while award-winning writer Max Apple was the closing keynote speaker.
For more photos, go to the John Updike Society and John Updike Childhood Home Facebook pages.
It’s only a tiny stream that begins in Shillington, cuts through Cumru Township for a short piece, then continues through adjacent Kenhorst. There it empties into the Angelica Creek. But now that tiny stream has a name and a sign that local environmentalists hope will discourage people from dumping trash there: Rabbit Run.
The name was chosen from 20 suggested for an Earth Day contest, and the idea to name the stream was born in 2016 through conversations between founding members of the newly formed Angelica Creek Watershed Association and Governor Mifflin High School biology teacher Jennifer Stinson, who was faculty advisor to the student environmental club.
The ACWA is a program of Berks Nature (BerksNature.org), a non-profit organization devoted to land preservation, water protection, community gardens, education programs, and partnerships that connect people to nature and maintain the natural beauty of Berks County. The ACWA, which has removed over 120 tires and tons of trash from the creek’s edge, has found that naming creeks can make a difference—even with tiny watershed runs like this section that parallels John Glenn Ave. to the south and continues past Highway 625 to New Holland Road.
Once the name “Rabbit Run” was selected, in order to get it officially named by the U.S. Government, the ACWA had to obtain permission and support letters from the three municipalities involved. The association also sought and received a similar letter of support from the Berks Planning Commission. All of this documentation was submitted to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, an office in the U.S. Geological Survey, which approved the naming in May 2018.
When the sign erection comes just one week from another Updike-related sign unveiling. The John Updike Childhood Home will host a Pennsylvania Museum & Historical Commission Marker Dedication Ceremony at 1 p.m. on Saturday, October 2, to which the public is invited. At that event, a National Registry of Historic Places plaque also will be unveiled at the house on 117 Philadelphia Ave. in Shillington. Here is the story that appeared in the Reading Eagle:
John Updike Society members who attended the second biennial conference in Boston got to tour Updike’s Labor-in-Vain house and see the tennis court that John and Mary Updike used for recreation. The recently published John Updike Review (Vol. 8, No. 2) features an essay on that court—”A Short History of a Tennis Court”—and photos (including the cover) by David Updike.
Also in this issue is an essay by Cornelius Dieckmann, “Too Old to Be Educated: John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom Tetralogy as Post-Bildungsroman,” which won the Fifth Emerging Writers Prize from the John Updike Review.
Other essays are from James Plath and Thushara Perera (“A Scientific Explanation: The Physics of Marriage and Divorce in Updike’s ‘Here Come the Maples'”), Peter J. Bailey (“Suzie Creamcheese, Alma DeMott, and the Untranscendent Stardom of In the Beauty of the Lilies“), and Donald J. Greiner (“John Updike’s Blurbs: The Art of Promoting a Writer”). Perera is a physicist now working for NASA in Washington.
This issue, “Harv Is Plowing Now” is the subject of the “three writers on” feature that’s unique to the review, with Updike’s reprinted short story followed by contributions from James Schiff, David Lerner Schwartz, and Jason Namey.”
The John Updike Review is published twice yearly by the University of Cincinnati and The John Updike Society and is included with membership in the society (print copy for U.S. members, digital copy for international members). It is also available electronically and, for institutional subscriptions, through EBSCO. The journal is produced by editor James Schiff and managing editor Nicola Mason at the University of Cincinnati.
COVID-19 scuttled the 2020 conference, but while the situation remains fluid the John Updike Society board has decided to move forward with the conference, which will be scaled back to a 2.5 day event with no long day trip, held Oct. 1-3 with most people arriving the day before the conference begins. The conference is hosted by Alvernia University in Reading, Pa., with Sue Guay serving as conference director. Please note that the society board decided the responsible thing to do was to require all conference registrants to be fully vaccinated; Masks will also be required for indoor sessions except when eating or at the microphone (See registration packet at the end of this post).
The conference celebrates the Grand Opening of The John Updike Childhood Home, with its 10 rooms of wall hangings, furniture, and 10 cases of unique exhibits that people can peruse for the first time. The conference also coincides with a 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 2, Pennsylvania Historic Marker Dedication Ceremony and the unveiling of the National Historic Registry Plaque.
OTHER CONFERENCE HIGHLIGHTS:
James Schiff will deliver a Friday evening keynote on the Updike letters project, with slides of some of his “finds” and a walk-through of the challenges that the massive undertaking posed.
The closing keynote will be by Max Apple, an award-winning writer whose works include The Oranging of America, Free Agents, and The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories. Apple frequently turns up in the same anthologies and “Best of” collections as Updike, and, in fact, the Jewish Journal wrote, “Max Apple’s people are the folks you might see having lunch at a local diner . . . a John Updike without Protestants.”
Elizabeth Updike Cobblah, David Updike, Michael Updike, and Miranda Updike will appear on a panel, “The Truth Behind The Maples Stories Fictions”; Updike society member and Updike family friend Carole Sherr will talk about “Remembering John & Linda Updike”; and a session on “Updike’s First Wife” will feature Updike classmate Mary Ann Moyer, who was Updike’s “stage wife” in two plays at Shillington High School. Moderator: James Plath.
The conference also will feature walking tours of Shillington Updike sites and a bus tour of the area, with stops at the Pagoda, Robeson Evangelical Lutheran (Plow) Church and Cemetery, and Weaver’s Orchards to see the Plowville farmhouse.
Unique to this conference is that Friday will be spent at host Alvernia University, Saturday at the John Updike Childhood Home and Governor Mifflin Schools just across the street from the house, and Sunday at the conference hotel, the Couryard Marriott Reading.
August 12—Last day that academic proposals, Schiff Travel Grant applications, and requests to moderate a session will be accepted. See registration packet below for details.
September 2—Last day to book a hotel reservation and to register for the conference without a late fee. Again, see registration packet below for details.
In recent years, males who have taken advantage of women have been toppled amid cries of “toxic masculinity,” and Confederate statues and monuments have been removed because of “cancel culture.” But in his Spectator essay “Read Ray Bradbury before he’s canceled,” associate editor Ron Liddle questions whether the backlash against writers for alleged sexism or racism isn’t somewhat like pushes from the other side of the political arena to ban books from school libraries. His essay raises other questions: Should writing about a fictional man who abuses women or spouts racist things be treated the same as a flesh-and-blood man who abuses women or says racist things? Can a male write about a misbehaving male protagonist? Should a writer be held accountable for a character’s behavior? When it comes to art, is censorship ever justifiable? If so, when, and under what circumstances? And what about inconsistencies? Why are older novels that feature sexist male protagonists not held in the same contempt as those from a more recent past? Is “cancel culture” driven by personal crusades?
Although Liddle focuses on Bradbury, Updike also factors into the discussion. “Frankly, it’s a wonder we are allowed to read [Bradbury] at all. But that’s where Fahrenheit 451 got it right. After reading Bradbury I moved on to Henry Miller, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and John Updike — especially Updike, another small-town writer. These people seemed to me giants of literature and yet I suspect you will have to search high and low to find them on a university syllabus, so comprehensively have their reputations been trashed for political reasons.
“Updike, an almost lifelong registered Democrat, is loathed for his supposed misogyny and racism,” Liddle writes. “I read an academic article recently supposedly in support of Updike: it said he should be read because we needed to know what a vile bastard he really was. Saul Bellow is canceled because he became a bit gamy about the neighborhood gangs in Chicago, and also for Henderson the Rain King and Mr Sammler’s Planet, which are considered terribly racist. And Philip Roth? Hell, even his biographer has been canceled. Maybe we ought to memorize a book or two from each of these wonderful writers, in order to keep the memories alive. I’ll take Updike’s Couples, if that’s OK — I already know most of it by heart. It’s late now. There’s a wind whipping up and the distant sound of thunder carrying the whiff of autumn. I am no longer 15 years old. But I might still hunker down between my sheets with Bradbury, comforted by the tales of the weird and ominous stuff going on just outside.”
In a Husteust.com article that begins with a quote from Game of Thrones‘ Tyrion Lannister (“A mind needs books as a sword needs a sharpening stone”), “Five books you should read this year” are recommended:
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy Life of Pi, by Yann Martel The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss Beloved, by Toni Morrison Rabbit, Run, by John Updike
Of the Updike selection, the site says, “In terms of sheer skill, Updike is the ultimate master of the late 20th century. His sentences are astonishingly brilliant and his command of the language is almost nil.”
Clearly, the last part of that compliment doesn’t express what the author thinks it might. Which reminds us: the actual quote from Tyrion Lannister is, “My brother has his sword, King Robert has his warhammer, and I have my mind . . . and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge. That’s why I read so much. . . .”