December 2009

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In the upcoming Person of the Year 2009 issue of Time magazine, John Updike received a “fond farewell” from Charles McGrath, a former deputy editor of The New Yorker and current writer-at-large for The New York Times.  Updike was one of 45 people no longer with us that Time decided to honor.

The John Updike Society now has a Facebook page, and there are two photo galleries so far and a discussion board where members can start topics and engage each other and Updike fans in discussions ranging from teaching Updike and interpreting texts to collecting Updike. The link is on the left column menu. Let us know what we can do to improve the Facebook page and this one. The photo here is from one of the galleries. It’s John at age 7, taken by his mother, Linda. Courtesy of Jack De Bellis.

So visit the John Updike Society Facebook page and become a “fan.” And don’t forget to send me your news to post on the Society’s website!

Today, Alvernia University and The John Updike Society announced that Alvernia will host the Society’s very first conference October 1-3, 2010. The conference will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rabbit, Run, and it’s appropriate that Alvernia is hosting. The University was founded in 1958, the very same year that Updike saw publication of his first book, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures. A Call for Papers will be issued soon, and information on the program, hotels, tours, etc., will be posted on the Conference Information page on the Society website left menu as details become available. They will also be posted on the Official Conference Web Page. The full press release is on the Conference Information page.

The conference will include the usual offering of panels featuring papers presented by Updike scholars and aficionados, along with panels with Updike’s Shillington High School classmates. It’s expected that at least some Updike family members will attend, and that the keynote speaker will be a writer who knew Updike. But for members of The John Updike Society, the real treat will be seeing Updike’s childhood home in Shillington, as well as remnants of the old poorhouse wall, sites mentioned in Rabbit, Run, and the farmhouse in Plowville. The owners of Updike’s childhood home and the Plowville farm are members of the Society, and they’ve graciously offered to open their doors to members for a tour. Visitors can also see the Reading Eagle where Updike worked summers as a copy boy, and eat at the Peanut Bar across the street where Updike and journalists hung out. And of course there’s the famed Pagoda rising above Reading, which Updike renamed the Pinnacle in Rabbit, Run, and the Reading Public Library, whose balconies Updike deemed “cosmically mysterious.”

The directors for the First Biennial John Updike Society Conference are Society co-founders Jack De Bellis, who will assemble the program, and Updike’s Shillington contact, Dave Silcox, who will serve as site director. So members, put October 1-3 2010 on your calendars and start saving for a trip to Pennsylvania for this doubly historic conference: the first for the Society, and a 50th anniversary celebration of Rabbit, Run.

Pictured: The Quad at Alvernia University; a young John Updike reading on the front porch of his home in Shillington; and the house as it looked in May 2009, when the Reading Public Library hosted a tribute to the author.

Though The John Updike Society was formed fewer than seven months ago and launched with only 35 members, we’ve hit the 100 mark with the addition of Liliana Naydan, a doctoral candidate at SUNY-Stony Brook.

“I became interested in Updike a few years ago,” Naydan writes, “after studying his work with my now dissertation director, Prof. Stacey Olster (editor of The Cambridge Companion to John Updike). My dissertation, titled Fictions of Faith: American Literature, Religion, and the Millenium, includes a chapter on Updike (as well as Philip Roth and Don DeLillo).”

Her chapter on Updike considers “how Updike’s understanding of faith transforms on the eve of the second millennium. I argue that in In the Beauty of the Lillies Updike attempts to bridge apparent divide that fanatical believers, especially early fundamentalists, created between believing in God and embracing the developments of the 20th century as fruitful, not mere signs that an increasingly immoral American nation is rapidly devolving in the face of a fast-approaching, apocalyptic end.  I consider Updike’s earlier works, especially the Rabbit tetralogy, proposing that Updike’s focus in it is on the distinction between faith and good works as means by which to attain salvation.  In the Rabbit novels, only true faith appears to have the power to redeem man.  But in In the Beauty of the Lilies, Updike comes to distinguish between different kinds of faith, and he critiques religious fanaticism, specifically as it has emerged in the latter part of the 20th century.  Even though a fanatic’s faith is true, the intensity of that true belief creates the potential to transcend the bounds of what Updike views as characteristically good. Ultimately, I suggest that Updike comes to advocate for justification through temperance by way of his allusions to biblical and cinematic narratives.  He makes reference to the biblical Book of Esther, which suggests that God exists in the world even in the absence of clear evidence of His existence.  More to the point, he turns to Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937) for his key message of temperance in all things.”