Reissue of Updike’s early novels provokes mixed reactions

Library of America published John Updike: Novels 1959-1965 last November in what amounted to a quiet reissue of the author’s first four novels: The Poorhouse Fair; Rabbit, Run; The Centaur; and Of the Farm. What few reviews that emerged have been almost as ambivalent as those from when Updike first began publishing. Only the “charge” is different. Then it was “He writes like an angel but has nothing to say”; now it’s “Misogynist!”

In his PopMatters review, “Approach ‘John Updike: Novels 1959-1965’ with Indulgence, Patience, and Caution,” Christopher John Stephens acknowledges that Updike was “a formalist, a structuralist, a fantabulist, a writer as steeped in Nathaniel Hawthorne as he was in the pleasures of golfing and the baseball majesty of Ted Williams.” Then the ambivalence starts to seep in: “He wrote some of the most stilted and painfully clumsy bad sex in his ’60s novels and some of the more stunning evocations of longing and regret ever seen in the mid-20th century American white male.” The Poorhouse Fair, he writes, is an “impressive debut. It’s also a hard novel to enter or even like,” while he calls The Centaur “another novel burdened by the yoke of significance”—that “Updike knows his Greek myths, and reading this carefully balanced story is less enjoyable than admirable.”

Later in his review Stephens assesses Updike’s prose style: “Nothing is inherently wrong with these passages. They’re just too precise, too tightly wound.” And regarding Rabbit’s behavior in the first book of the tetralogy, he says, “Updike can’t have it both ways. He can’t be condemning a heartless misogynist while primarily entertaining us by making Rabbit the ping pong ball bouncing between his ‘virgin’ wife mother of his child (Janice) and ex-prostitute girlfriend (Ruth).”

Stephens concludes, “Overall, the reader should approach this volume with equal parts indulgence, patience, and caution. The first should be applied to Updike’s youthful flowery prose and apparent need to impress with each line. The second should be applied to Updike’s tendency to painfully stretch out descriptions in clinical ways. As for the third application, caution, that applies to the carefree racism and horribly misogynistic undertone to the sex scenes and ongoing gender war. Caution can be easily applied, but forgiveness might take more time from even the most patient reader.” Yet he gives the book a 7 on a 10-point scale.

In an assessment written for National Review, “John Updike saw the World as It Was,” Peter Tonguette considers those same four early novels and concludes, “As this collection of his early novels emphatically establishes, Updike was that rare writer whose strength was not in allowing his imagination to wander hither and yon, but in keeping his eyes fixed on what was right in front of him.”

Although Tonguette praises Updike’s “level-headed precision” and calls Rabbit, Run a “dazzling opening book of what evolved into a much-honored tetralogy,” he does write that “stunts mar more than one early Updike work. The Poorhouse Fair–a well-crafted novel that revolves around the denizens of a poorhouse–unaccountably takes place not in or around the year it was written but decades down the line. . . . More unsatisfying still is The Centaur,” with its contemporary story of a father and son “augmented by references to Greek mythology, notably the half-human, half-horse title creature, written in a windy, pretentious style.” Not surprisingly, he calls Of the Farm “the most satisfying offering included here” because of its “careful account of sights and sounds and smells” and concludes, “In the years to come, the Library of America plans to release the balance of Updike’s novels. The best of them are more akin to the earthbound Of the Farm than to The Poorhouse Fair or The Centaur, with their strained, fantastical conceits.


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Updike’s translation of Borges poem now online

Last month The Atlantic delved into their archives and pulled out “The Labyrinth,” a poem by Jorge Luis Borges that was translated by John Updike and published in their April 1969 issue. Even the most ardent fans might find themselves thinking, on top of everything else, Updike was also a translator?

“From the Archives: ‘The Labyrinth,’ a Poem by Jorge Luis Borges”

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Literary Hub lists Which Writers Have Won the Most Prizes?

Emily Temple compiled a “Ranking by the Most Absurd Metric” that she says was limited because she “couldn’t track every single prize available to writers” and therefore “stuck to the biggest and most prestigious prizes in fiction.”

The “absurd” part of this metric comes from trying to define what’s major. Isn’t the O. Henry Award pretty major? Or the Rea Award for the Short Story? Or the PEN/Malamud Award? Updike won several major short story prizes. Then too, while Temple lists the MacArthur Genius Grant, she doesn’t list the Guggenheim, which, though not as much money, still seems pretty major. Updike received one to help him finish Rabbit, Run. The American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal is listed for Updike, but not the two medals he received from two different presidents in White House ceremonies: The National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal.

Nonetheless, Temple’s metric puts Philip Roth on top with nine prizes, with John Updike at eight, with Updike’s prizes listed as:

National Book Award for The Centaur (1964); National Book Critics Circle Award for Rabbit Is Rich (1981); Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit Is Rich (1982); National Book Award for Rabbit Is Rich (1982); National Book Critics Circle Award for Rabbit at Rest (1990);

Rounding out Temple’s list, E.L. Doctorow and Colson Whitehead have seven major awards; Saul Bellow, Lois McMaster Bujold, William Faulkner, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Marilynne Robinson have six; Jim Crace, Joe Haldeman, Edward P. Jones, and Connie Willis have five; and Orson Scott Card, John Cheever, Arthur C. Clarke, Junot Diaz, Jennifer Egan, Louise Erdrich, Ben Fountain, Robert A. Heinlein, N.K. Jemisin, Ha Jin, Bernard Malamud, Hilary Mantel, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, China Miéville, Viet Thanh Nguyen, E. Annie Proulx, Kim Stanley Robinson, and John Edgar Wideman have four prizes.

Fans of genre fiction may wonder why only sci-fi/fantasy awards are “major,” and that’s a legitimate question to ask. Meanwhile, Hemingway aficionados will cry, “Where’s Ernest???” But the fact is, many of these prizes were created after he had already killed himself. And for that matter, where’s fellow Nobel laureate Toni Morrison? Are all “major” prizes equal? Maybe that’s the most absurd assumption underlying this metric.

“Which Writers Have Won the Most Major Prizes?”


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Reading Eagle shares 50-year old call for Rabbit, Run auditions

As part of Bill Uhrich’s “Flashback Friday,” the Reading Eagle yesterday published an article from May 17, 1969, announcing “‘Rabbit Run’ Auditions To Begin Here.”

“Bert Remsen, executive assistant to the producer and director of the Warner Bros. production of “Rabbit Run,” announced today that auditions for supporting roles in the film will be held here Monday through Wednesday.

“Remsen, who is in charge of casting said that he will begin auditioning Monday at 10:30 a.m. in the Reading Motor Inn.

“The filming of John Updike’s novel is presently under way at Warner Bros. Burbank, Calif., studios and the company will move to Reading on June 25 to begin location shooting.”



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Writer Jill McCorkle picks Updike story for Why I Like This Story

Jackson R. Bryer has edited a fun collection of essays by contemporary short story writers who pick a favorite story and explain why. Jill McCorkle chose John Updike’s short story “Flight.”

Here is the Boydell and Brewer catalog description for the volume, which will be published in June 2019:

Presents essays by leading short-story writers on their favorite American short stories and why they like them. It will send readers to the library or bookstore to read – or re-read – the stories selected.

On the assumption that John Updike was correct when he asserted, in a 1978 letter to Joyce Carol Oates, that “Nobody can read like a writer,” Why I Like This Story presents brief essays by forty-eight leading American writers on their favorite American short stories, explaining why they like them. The essays, which are personal, not scholarly, not only tell us much about the story selected, they also tell us a good deal about the author of the essay, about what elements of fiction he or she values.

Among the writers whose stories are discussed are such American masters as James, Melville, Hemingway, O’Connor, Fitzgerald, Porter, Carver, Wright, Updike, Bellow, Salinger, Malamud, and Welty; but the book also includes pieces on stories by canonical but lesser-known practitioners such as Andre Dubus, Ellen Glasgow, Kay Boyle, Delmore Schwartz, George Garrett, Elizabeth Tallent, William Goyen, Jerome Weidman, Peter Matthiessen, Grace Paley, William H. Gass, and Jamaica Kincaid, and relative newcomers such as Lorrie Moore, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Phil Klay, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Edward P. Jones. Why I Like This Story will send readers to the library or bookstore to read or re-read the stories selected.

Among the contributors to the book are Julia Alvarez, Andrea Barrett, Richard Bausch, Ann Beattie, Andre Dubus, George Garrett, William H. Gass, Julia Glass, Doris Grumbach, Jane Hamilton, Jill McCorkle, Alice McDermott, Clarence Major, Howard Norman, Annie Proulx, Joan Silber, Elizabeth Spencer, and Mako Yoshikawa.

Editor Jackson R. Bryer is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Maryland.


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Literary America website includes John Updike Childhood Home

Listed among entries in the “Literary Destinations” category, John Updike appears on the Literary America website, which lists the three Pennsylvania locales (Shillington/Olinger, Plowville/Firetown, and Reading/Brewer) associated with him. The website, which promotes the book A Journey Through Literary America, is a good one to browse through and ultimately use as inspiration for literary pilgrimages.

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Michael Updike’s newest gravestone honors slave

Michael Updike posted on Facebook that it was a “great morning installing Lucy Foster’s gravestone. This project was initiated by Dr. Linda Meditz and her students at the Academy of Penguin Hall. They found, researched Lucy and designed her stone. I had the honor of interpreting their design and carving it. Many of the design elements are from shards of pottery found during an archaeological dig of her home. The epitaph reads “Born into slavery in Boston ~ Came to her freedom in Andover ~ Known by God and her community.”

“Students erect headstone in memory of freed Andover slave”

“All invited to remembrance for Andover slave Lucy Foster”

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Writer says Rabbit at Rest shows American life has slowed down

Writing for the Times Union (“Rabbit had quite the run”), Casey Seiler shares with readers his thoughts after reading Rabbit at Rest again. And his first paragraph summation of just a few of the topics Updike covers in the 1990 novel—Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, sexual misconduct, substance abuse, junk food—seem proof enough of the novel’s continued relevancy.

Seiler adds, “For Updike’s Rabbit, 1989 is a year of entropy in which his lifetime of unquenchable appetites presents him with a past-due bill. Reading it today, you get the strange sense that American life has slowed down in its own entropic way. Rabbit’s attitude toward women and racial minorities aren’t uniformly toxic, but they’re in no way woke—put him in a time machine and he’ll feel right at home on the average barstool in 2019. His feckless son grapples with a cocaine problem, but it could just as easily be opioids that help him escape his own early-midlife ennui. The sitcoms and politicians have different titles, but the push and pul among family, career, and the individual remain the same.

“For any reader who was alive and relatively adult [in 1989, the year the novel was set], the book is a remarkable catalog of life month-to-month, including everything from the aftermath of the Pan Am 107 bombing over Lockerbie to the opera buffa fall of televangelist Jim Bakker. As in the previous Rabbit books, Angstrom is a voracious consumer of the news, though his reflections on the meaning of daily events frequently spiral back to his own fascinations: that old standby sex, and the looming specter of his own mortality.

“All four books are written in the present tense, which adds wattage to the tiny electric charge delivered to the contemporary reader every time Updike mentions a cultural figure—like Trump or Oprah—who remain at or near the center of the national stage today. you feel like you’re in a time machine, which is of course what the best literature is.”

“There’s a certain comfort in this, of course: We tend to imagine that the present moment is either the summit or the pits, when in reality we occupy space that was previously occupied by some other striver, and will someday be taken up by another person trying to make it through the day and scrape up some grace. . . . The greatest thing separating Rabbit’s final months from today is the presence of the smartphone, which would no doubt have wrecked many of his most mesmerizing observations of the people and nature around our hero. The book contains some of the greatest descriptions of walks in American literature.”

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Papers on Updike presented at Russia conference

Two papers on John Updike were presented at the Fourth International Conference on “National Myth in Literature and Culture” hosted by Kazan Federal University in Russia, May 6-7.

Professor Olga Karasik’s paper, “Russia through the Eyes of American Author: John Updike’s ‘Rich in Russia,'” focused on the mythologizing of the image of the Soviet Union, and Ph.D. student Olga Shalagina’s paper, “The Image of Terrorist in John Updike’s Terrorist,” was devoted to the image of the terrorist as “other.”

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Participants sought for New Orleans panel on Updike short fiction

John Updike Society board member Robert Luscher is looking for Updike enthusiasts to participate in a panel at a September 5-7, 2019 symposium in New Orleans hosted by The Society for the Study of the American Short Story. Proposals are due by June 15, 2019. If interested, send a short abstract (100-200 words) on proposed topics to Robert Luscher (luscherr@unk) no later than June 7.

Further information on the conference, “The American Short Story: New Considerations” can be found in the official Call for Papers. The symposium will be held at the Hotel Monteleone, a historic 1886 hotel in the heart of the French Quarter located within a short walk of virtually all the literary locations. It’s one of the last great family-owned and operated hotels in New Orleans, now operated by a fifth generation. Some of the famous writers who stayed there include Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Anne Rice, Stephen Ambrose, and John Grisham.

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