June 2014

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In the letters section of the London Review of Books, Jeremy Bernstein responds to a Christian Lorentzen article that mentions Updike and the New Yorker‘s “bank” for manuscripts that were waiting for the right space or time to be published in the magazine:

In the Bank
Christian Lorentzen mentions that John Updike ‘took the precaution of having the New Yorker hold his stories for months and years if the episodes he was treating were still too raw’ (LRB, 5 June). Like all magazines the New Yorker had a ‘bank’ in which William Shawn deposited articles of all kinds until he could or could not find a spot in the magazine. It drove the writers crazy. We were consoled by a story about Updike. He joined the magazine in 1955 and began writing ‘Talk of the Town’. An early piece was called ‘Time on Fifth Avenue’ in which he looks for a clock. It was probably written around 1957. It was put in the bank and not published until 1963.

Jeremy Bernstein
New York

Christian Lorentzen writes: In his biography Adam Begley discusses the New Yorker’s bank, but also mentions that there was a ‘shadow bank’ for stories of Updike’s that veered too close to recent personal events. At the LRB, we have a ‘box’. I’m not aware of a ‘shadow box’.

Here’s the full Letters section for July 2014.

UPDATE:  Another LRB letter writer offers a correction:

In the Bank

Jeremy Bernstein refers to articles by John Updike and others being put ‘in’ a bank by theNew Yorker editor William Shawn until a spot could be found for their publication (Letters, 3 July). In My Mistake, a memoir of his time at the New Yorker, Dan Menaker refers instead to such articles being ‘on’ the bank. At first he thinks it’s a riverine metaphor: articles waiting to be pushed into the stream that will take them to publication. He later realises that the ‘bank’ referred to a compositor’s cabinet with a sloping top on which galleys were rested.

Anthony O’Donnell
Northcote, Victoria, Australia

Here’s the link.


Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 7.00.01 PMTom Shone, whose blog, These Violent Delights, is read on both sides of the Atlantic, has released his “Best of 2014 So Far” lists of films, books, music, television, and performances, and Adam Begley’s Updike tops the list of best reads.

Behind it is Mark Harris’s Five Came Back, The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz, Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, and Bark, from Lorrie Moore.

Shone’s top films, for the sake of comparison, are Under the Skin, Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood, We’re the Best! and Edge of Tomorrow.

Here’s the full article.

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 11.55.24 AMWillard Spiegelman, in “Proust Goes to the Country Club,” an essay published in the Summer 2014 issue of The American Scholar, contemplates remembrances of things past after attending “a largely forgettable class reunion”—with the late John Updike’s help.

“As he lay dying of cancer in a Boston hospital,” Spiegelman begins, “John Updike composed a sonnet sequence, ‘Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth 12/13/08’ that ranks with his best work in verse and even prose. Clear-sighted, sober, but witty, unlike many deathbed works, the poems acknowledge feelings of wonder and gratitude. The poet looks at his surround—the equipment, the noise, and the doctors and nurses—and he also takes a backward glance at his early years as a schoolboy in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He thanks his classmates, childhood friends, a mere hundred, because they showed him, in miniature, all the human types he would make use of later on: ‘beauty, / bully, hanger-on, natural, / twin, and fatso.’

“And he continues, more self-consciously, to consider the possibility that ‘we meet our heaven at the start and not the end of life.’ He knew the town; the town knew him and it stayed with him forever, especially after he left it: ‘I had to move / to beautiful New England—it’s triple /deckers, whited churches, unplowed streets—/ to learn how drear and deadly life can be.’ Shillington gave Updike all he needed as an artist, nurturing him as a young man. And like Joyce, who fled Dublin but never truly escaped it, Updike had to get away to realize what he had been given.”

Later in the essay, which requires a login to access, Spiegelman anticipates his 50th high school reunion and writes, “Like Updike, I had always thought long and hard about classmates from early childhood and adolescence. I remembered most of them fondly, even the ones who may have been irksome at the time when I was a know-it-all baby Beatnik, a pesky intellectual who resisted football games, pep rallies, anything that smacked of mindless conformity.”

But, he learns, “not everyone shared my genial fondness for the whole, imagined group of us. I had hoped that some people who loomed large in my memory, the way Updike’s Shillington schoolmates did in his, would take a personal invitation from me as an occasion to demonstrate fellow feeling. Apparently I did not mean as much to them as they did to me. Or at least they didn’t want to meet and greet me at a big party. They maintained sangfroid invisibility. Did the objects of my affections feel the same about me? I’ll never know.”

He concludes, after noting that his reunion “flew by quickly . . . pleasant as it was brief, if nothing special,””Life eventually becomes for everyone ‘drear and deadly,’ as Updike put it, but for some—most? the lucky few?—it offers gratification as well. Looking back becomes itself a source of such pleasure, even as looking forward, as the end of life approaches, becomes the opposite.”

Spiegelman’s most recent book is Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness.



The New Yorker & Me, a blog by a man who calls himself Capedrifter, yesterday posted an entry titled “John Updike’s Secular Vision (Contra Christian Lorentzen),” in which he challenges Lorentz’s characterization of Updike’s art criticism.

“John Updike’s art essays are among the glories of modern literature,” he writes, noting that “Updike’s moments of art religiosity seem to have been most intense when he visited MoMA.”

But he adds, “To say, as Lorentzen says, that Updike ‘never tired of writing about painting and sculpture in religious terms’ is a shade misleading. Only in ‘What MoMA Done Tole Me’ and ‘Invisible Cathedral’ did he do so expressly. Perhaps he sublimated his religious feeling towards art in his other pieces. That may account, in part, for their greatness. But Updike’s sensual apprehension of life (‘Flesh is delicious,’ he says, eyeing Lucas Cranach’s Eve) is also a key ingredient of his criticism—one that’s totally secular.”

The American International Journal of Contemporary Research (Vol. 4, No 3; March 2014) recently published a paper on John Updike and Lorraine Adams written by three international scholars.

“Islamophobic Irony in American Fiction: a Critical Analysis of Lorraine Adams’ Harbor and John Updike’s Terrorist was written by Riyad Abdurahman Manqoush (Asst. Prof. of English Literature, Hadhramout University, Yemen), Noraini Md. Yusof (Assoc. Prof. of English Literature, National University of Malaysia), and Ruzy Suliza Hashim (Prof. of English Literature, National University of Malaysia).

Microsoft Word – 9.doc

In this paper, we intend to examine two contemporary American novels, Lorraine Adams’ Harbor (2004) and John Updike’s Terrorist (2006) with the aim of investigating the Islamophobic irony in their descriptions of characters, views and incidents that are relevant to the Middle East. Our analysis of these novels is framed based on the modes of irony as discussed by Edwin Barton, Glenda Hudson, Claire Colebrook, Ellen O’Gorman, J. Jorgensen, Herbert Colston, Henry Conserva, Ross Murfin and Supriyia Ray. Through our discussions of the employment of verbal irony, situational irony and dramatic irony, we conclude that the two writers make fun of the Muslim fanatics who view the wearer of hijab as a good Muslim. They also imply that the Muslim worldview is one-dimensional. In addition to that, they criticise the US employment of Muslim minorities in places which require high security because the loyalty of these workers, according to those authors, are questionable. In the same vein, they ridicule the voices that relate all the problems of the Middle East to the USA. In general, the different types of irony uncover the Islamophobic traits that pervade the two novels.

Here’s a link to the entire paper.


More and more scholarship is making its way online, and another thesis on Updike has come to our attention:  “The Cultural Consciousness of John Updike: Rhetorical Spaces as Representations of Americana through the ‘Rabbit’ Series,” by Michael Bonifacio (Governors State University, Spring 2012).

This thesis is a scholarly examination of John Updike’s first two novels of the Rabbit saga: Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux. The discussion is centered on the cultural artifacts and geographic spaces that populate the novels and how they are a reflection of popular cultural and contemporary sociological, economic, and political climates. These items are also closely considered with respect to their rhetorical significance and how Updike makes use of rhetorical spaces to influence his readers. What may seem like ordinary places are, through Updike’s writing, imbued with rhetorical significance that sheds light on his contemporary culture and that of his readers. Updike’s writing over the span of two decades readers provides readers an opportunity to experience culture of two important but seemingly antipodal decades: the 1950s and 60s. Furthermore, by choosing characters that reflect “Middle America” for the first novel and by then integrating characters from the fringes of society in the second novel, Updike shows that he is keenly aware of his changing society.

Here’s a link to download the entire thesis.

In an essay written for The Millions, Charles Finch considers the “genius of James Wood, the literary critic at The New Yorker, and how it influenced the novel I’m about to publish.” But he also references John Updike in praising Wood’s ability to closely read a text and to “re-describe” what he reads.

0312428472.01.MZZZZZZZ“In the last ten or fifteen years precision of language has become the password that marks out serious writers of fiction. (In this respect, though in fewer and fewer others, John Updike’s influence remains enormous.) There aren’t many literary novelists at the moment who are content to be plainspoken, and those who are, Kazuo Ishiguro for instance, have clear narrative motives for the choice. Instead, when you open almost any well-regarded novel today it will have long passages of precisely poetic prose, full of surprising and carefully curated language.”

Finch later writes, “Of John Updike, whom I mentioned earlier, Wood has written’he is not, I think, a great writer, and the lacuna is not in the quality of his prose but in the risk of the thought.’

The risk of the thought. That phrase has settled in my brain. The Last Enchantments [Finch’s own novel] is a relatively conventional story about an American abroad at Oxford, where he makes a break with his past life, meets new people, and falls in love. These could be the elements of a radical book or a safe one, a good one or a terrible one. I don’t personally think it’s terrible, but it may be safe. . . .”

Here’s the full article:  “Winning Over James Wood”

9780061896453.jpgThe Amazon.com book editors have released their list of Top 10 Books of the Year So Far, and topping it is Updike, by Adam Begley.

“This biography of the American master goes far beyond simple chronology of this complex (and often paradoxical) character, layering on the lit crit where his real life bled into novels. Detailed and compulsively readable, Updike is essential for admirers, and illuminating for anyone with an interest in literature.”

Digital Book World has the full story and full list, and they quote Sara Nelson, Editorial Director of Print and Kindle Books at Amazon:  “Updike may seem like an unusual choice for our number one pick, but it’s poised to be one of the best biographies of 2014. It’s a candid, enthralling book that readers won’t be able to put down.”

If you’re curious about where Updike ranks in sales, at Amazon it’s currently number 3,209 in books and number 26 in the category of biographies and memoirs.

Wilde - The Young King - 001Yesterday blogger Ariel S. Winter (We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie) posted an item titled “John Updike on Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Stories,” with illustrations of The Young King and Other Fairy Tales by Oscar Wilde, which was introduced by John Updike.

Winter offers a summary and assessment of Updike’s remarks.

“In the modern age, fairy stories become necessary, Updike says, ‘For if men do not keep on speaking terms with children they cease to be men, and become merely machines for eating and for earning money. This danger was not so clear until machines entered the world in force and began to make men resemble them.'”

Here’s the link.

The Ontario Review, edited from 1974-2008 by the late Raymond J. Smith, husband to Joyce Carol Oates, has archived its journal and among the publications is John Updike’s poem “In the Cemetery High Above Shillington,” which appeared in the Spring/Summer 1994 issue. You can download the poem and read it here.

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