March 2015

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tulanelitstarTulane professor and writer Zachary Lazar was announced as the winner of the John Updike Award, a $20,000 prize administered by the Academy of Arts and Letters.

As an article in The Times-Picayune notes, “Lazar is the third writer to win the biennial Updike award, which recognizes mid-career authors who have demonstrated consistent excellence. Martha Updike established the award in memory of her husband, the writer John Updike (1932-2009). Past winners of the Updike award include Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan and the poet and dramatist Tom Sleigh.

“The Updike award caps a grand year for Lazar, whose third novel, I Pity the Poor Immigrant, (Little, Brown, $25) earned critical raves when it appeared in April 2014. The New York Times added an additional feather in December, when it put the novel on its list of “100 Notable Books of 2014.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 8.00.38 AMIn a Reading Eagle column titled “My 2 cents: ‘Rabbit’ series a four-part bummer,” columnist Andrew Wagaman makes it clear that he’s no fan of the tetralogy. But he also clears up some matters that have had locals festering for decades now.

“Updike created a crude, misogynistic narcissist whose belief in his own immortality gradually sours. The downfall is at times hilarious but also excruciating. Any hope for redemption—a son, a bank account—serves only as a prop for more pratfalls. His dying words, ‘It isn’t so bad.'”

“After my first column, I heard from some that I should quit the series because Updike basically spits on Berks County, where he was born. While Updike sets most of the series in Berks and describes it vividly, he’s really skewering the entire nation, at least its hubris and excess.

“Thought-provoking? Yes. A four-part bummer? Absolutely. Finishing it isn’t so bad.”


Addendum:  Society member and John Updike Childhood Home patron Bruce Moyer submitted the following humorous pastiche in response:

Bouvier sickened by Updike book!



After his first bite, he heard from some that he should quit because Updike’s books
are less than tasteful. As he continued to devour it, against all those “learned” men
who had advised against doing so, he did become sickened. However, his opinion,
as noted was, “Finishing it isn’t so bad.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-21 at 7.19.49 PMAn Ipswich blog recently posted a Gordon Harris story about the Polly Dole House at 26 East St. in Ipswich, Mass., where Updike once lived. The post quotes an article that Updike had written about the house for Architectural Digest that was reprinted in Picked-Up Pieces.

“The house I and my wife and four children lived in was called, on a plaque beside the front door, the Polly Dole House and given a date of 1686, though one expert sneeringly opined that dating it prior to 1725 would compromise his integrity.

“A seventeenth-century house can be recognized by its steep roof, massive central chimney and utter porchlessness. Some of those houses have a second-story overhang, emphasizing their medieval look. The gables are on the sides. The windows were originally small, with fixed casements and leaded diamond panes. The basic plan called for two rooms over two, the fireplace opening into each room; a later plan added half-rooms behind, creating the traditional saltbox shape. Inside the front door—at least our front door—a shallow front hall gave onto an exiguous staircase squeezed into the space left by the great brick core at the heart of the house. The fireplace, with its cast-iron spits and bake ovens, had been the kitchen. The virgin forests of the New World had contributed massive timbers, adzed into shape and mortise-and-tenoned together, and floorboards up to a foot wide.

“The Polly Dole House had a living room so large that people supposed the house had originally been an inn, on the winding old road to Newburyport, which ran close by. Polly Dole was a shadowy lady who may have waited on tables; we never found out much about her, though local eyebrows still lifted at her name. The big room, with its gorgeous floorboards, was one you sailed through, and the furniture never stayed in any one place. The walk-in fireplace, when the three-foot logs in it got going, singed your eyebrows and dried out the joints of any chair drawn up too cozily close. In the middle of the summer beam, a huge nut and washer terminated a long steel rod that went up to a triangular arrangement of timbers in the attic; at one point the house had been lifted by its own bootstraps. I used to tell my children that if we turned the nut the whole house would fall down. We never tried it.

“The decade was the sixties, my wife and I were youngish, and the house suited us just fine. It was Puritan; it was back-to-nature; it was less is more.”

Harris clears up the date:  “This salt box house was built in 1720 and has elements from a previous house built in 1687. It has a large front living room with a low ceiling, wide board floors and a ‘walk-in’ fireplace.

“The long ‘summer beam’ in the middle of this room is suspended by a cable to the peak of the roof. The left side is smaller than the right, suggesting that it may have been originally built as a ‘half house’ with the right side and the left addition added later.

“The house was built for Deacon John Staniford (1648-1730) and his wife Margaret, the daughter of Thomas and Martha (Lake) Harris. John Staniford bears the title of Mr. in his young life, and Deacon in his old age. He was said to be a man of intellectual qualities and ‘much occupied with duties which require legal knowledge.’

“Thomas Franklin Waters writes in Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, ‘Capt. Jeremiah Staniford inherited the homestead of his father, Capt. John Staniford. Daniel Staniford received the homestead and sold to Nathaniel Lord 3d, March 5, 1811. Nathaniel Lord sold to two women, whose names are well remembered, Lucy Fuller and Polly Dole, April 29, 1837. The administrator of Lucy Fuller’s estate sold to Daniel S. Burnham, Aug. 23, 1865.’”

Stories From Ipswich and the North Shore

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photoU.R. Bowie, who taught Russian literature for 30 years at Miami University and now writes a blog, recently shared a response from Updike to his questions about Charles D’Ambrosio (Up North), Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts (Closer), Woody Allen (Match Point), literary fiction, fluency in Russian, Philip Roth, Zuckerman, Zuckerman’s prostate gland, “etc.”

Here is Updike’s response to his 2006 letter:

Danny Heitman wrote a piece for The Magazine of The Weekly Standard about “Darkness Visible: L.E. Sissman, poet in a gray flannel suit” in which Updike is mentioned. The news “peg” is the final season of Mad Men, and Sissman is evoked as an example of “a real-life advertising executive in the 1960s, who appeared to survive the experience with his soul intact—even deepened.

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 7.06.49 AM“Along with his advertising career in Boston, where, over the years, he worked as a creative vice president at two leading firms, Sissman built a national reputation as a man of letters, penning book reviews for The New Yorker, a regular first-person column for The Atlantic, and several books of poetry. John Updike was a big fan, admiring Sissman’s literary work as an expression of ‘amiable, attentive intelligence.’ Other contemporary admirers included fellow poets Anthony Hecht, Richard Howard, and Howard Moss. The writer behind Sissman’s poems and essays seemed centered, charming, humane. ‘A sensible, decent man: that is the voice,’ Updike said of his friend.”

“Sissman reflexively avoided the bland generality in favor of the telling particular, which is why Updike, another master of precise observation, liked him so much. ‘When he evokes a city, it is Detroit or New York or Boston; there is no confusing the tint of the pavements,’ Updike wrote. ‘When he recalls a day from his life, though it comes from as far away as November 1944, it arrives not only with all its solid furniture but with its own weather—in this case, ‘thin, slate-colored clouds sometimes letting through flat blades of sun.’ '”

Although The Writer’s Almanac featured a poem by Tom Hennen yesterday, unabashed Updike fan Garrison Keillor still remembered the author’s birthday with a nice long biographical summary, lest anyone forget:

“It’s the birthday of writer John Updike (books by this author), born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1932). His father was a high school teacher, and his mother aspired to be a writer; Updike said: ‘One of my earliest memories is of seeing her at her desk. I admired the writer’s equipment, the typewriter eraser, the boxes of clean paper. And I remember the brown envelopes that stories would go off in — and come back in.’ As a boy, Updike wanted to be a cartoonist, not a writer. He cut out comic strips and sent fan letters to cartoonists, drew caricatures of classmates, made posters, and tried to draw cartoons like the ones he saw in his family’s copy of The New Yorker. As a teenager, he sent his cartoons to major magazines, including The New Yorker, and although he didn’t publish any there, he did earn five dollars selling a cartoon to a dairy journal. He went to Harvard, where he joined the staff of The Harvard Lampoon as a cartoonist, but ended up writing too. By graduation, he was fairly certain that he would become a writer instead of an artist. He said of writing: ‘It took fewer ideas, and I seemed to be better at it. There is less danger of smearing the ink.’

“Despite his intentions to become a writer, he got an art scholarship to study at Oxford. He was newly married, and he and his wife moved to England, where their first daughter was born. While he was at Oxford, he met E.B. and Katherine White, who were vacationing in England. They convinced him to apply for a job at The New Yorker, so after his time at Oxford, he moved to Manhattan to work as a staff writer for the magazine, writing the ‘Talk of the Town’ column. He was not a big fan of life in the city — he said, ‘The place proved to be other than the Fred Astaire movies had led me to expect.’ Two years later, the Updikes had a second child and decided to leave New York and move toIpswich, Massachusetts. Updike had just turned 25 years old.

“Soon after his move, he published his first books: a book of poems, The Carpentered Hen (1958); a novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959); and a book of short stories, The Same Door (1959). Another son was born in 1959, and a daughter 19 months later. Despite the success of those early years — in 1960 he published Rabbit, Run, the first of his great books featuring Rabbit Angstrom — he underwent a spiritual crisis. He said, ‘These remembered gray moments, in which my spirit could scarcely breathe, are scattered over a period of years; to give myself brightness and air I read Karl Barth and fell in love with other men’s wives.’

“After the birth of his third child, he had rented an office above a restaurant in Ipswich, and spent several hours each morning writing there. Throughout his 50-year career, he remained devoted to that schedule, writing about three pages every morning after breakfast, sometimes more if things were going well. He said: ‘Back when I started, our best writers spent long periods brooding in silence. Then they’d publish a big book and go quiet again for another five years. I decided to run a different kind of shop.’ He wanted to publish about one book a year, and took Sundays off for church, although later in his career he sometimes worked on Sundays too. In 2008, he said, ‘I’ve become a beast of the written word, a monster of a kind, in that it’s all I can do.’

“Updike published more than 60 books in his lifetime, including 28 novels. His books include Couples (1968), Rabbit is Rich (1981), The Witches of Eastwick (1984), and The Complete Henry Bech (2001).

“He said: ‘At the point where you get your writerly vocation you diminish your receptivity to experience. Being able to write becomes a kind of shield, a way of hiding, a way of too instantly transforming pain into honey.'”

They say there’s a blog about everything, and yesterday at The Home of Schlemiel Theory a writer going by the user name mfeuer2012 published a piece “On Cynthia Ozick’s Denunciation of Henry Bech: John Updike’s Literary Portrayal of the Jew as Schlemiel,” the title of which may go a long ways toward explaining.

images-3Ozick called Bech “theologically hollow” and according to the author “her reasons for choosing such a term and making such a trenchant criticism of Updike’s attempt to represent a Jew are noteworthy. They give us a sense of how Ozick—and others—might criticize many of the schlemiels we see in literature and film today. It also gives us a glimpse of her criterion for what makes for a plausible Jewish character in Jewish American fiction.”

Citing other novels as well, the author writes, “Ozick’s gloss on these ‘de-Judaicized Jewish novelists’ foreshadows her rant on what is missing not just in Bech but in most Jewish writing today: knowledge of Jewish history. But this omission is not done out of neglect so much as what Ozick calls ‘autolobotomy.’ Wondering at this caricature of the Jew, Ozick suggests we think about how this would sound if this kind of portrayal were done with respect to real African-Americans.”

Later: “Updike, argues Ozick, loves Bech most when he is ‘thoroughly de-Beched’—when ‘Bech is most openly, most shrewdly, most strategically, most lyrically Updike’ (119). And this happens when the ‘Appropriate Reference Machine’ (ARM from here on) breaks down. At these moments of failure, Updike the theologian takes over.

“And in these moments, when the ARM breaks, there is a brief exposure to a Christeological kind of epiphany. However, this doesn’t transform Beck. Rather he returns to a kind of state that is . . . comical.”

Read the entire article.

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 6.50.09 AMAdam Gopnik‘s latest essay for The New Yorker on American norms, “Iran, Inequality, and the Battle of American Norms,” references John Updike:

“The play between norms and laws is one of the great subjects of literature. Should Achilles give back Hector’s body to the Trojans? It’s only a battlefield norm, but the Iliad turns on it. The great novels of norms—American norms, at least—are the four books in John Updike’s Rabbit series, which are, exactly, all about the price of accepting the norms that a middle-class society imposes on the average sensual male (or female) citizen. Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom marries his pregnant girlfriend, stays with her dutifully after various failed attempts at escape to a life of more immediate gratifications, and then has the ironic sense, as the books go on, that he is the only one in America still sticking to the old self-imprisoning norms. Group sex comes in the door, and the inhibitions go right out the window. Is it an entrapping net or a reassuring pattern of premade choices? It depends on which side of the norm you’re sitting.”

On March 12, PEN America announced the “longlists” (i.e., nominees) for the 2015 PEN Literary Awards in fiction, nonfiction, biography, essays, and translation, and Adam Begley’s Updike made the longlist for biography.

Also making the longlist in that category: Isabella, by Kirstin Downey; Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, by S.C. Gwynne; The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs; John Quincy Adams, by Fred Kaplan; Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Charles Marsh; Becoming Richard Pryor, by Scott Saul; The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court, by Anna Whitelock; Victoria, by A.N. Wilson; and Piero’s Light, by Larry Witham.

“Longlists Announced for the 2015 PEN Literary Awards”

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 6.47.28 AMBrian Hoey
, a self-described “book nerd,” yesterday uploaded a piece for titled “Sex, Trash, and Eminem: Five Interesting Facts About John Updike,” one of which—that he couldn’t write sex scenes—is debatable.

But one “fact” may be new to the larger community of Updike readers and scholars:

4) His influence extends beyond Literature and into Rap Music.

“Or, at least, Eminem has read the firRabbitIsRichst installment in Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ tetrology, Rabbit, Run (1960). The noted rapper was, apparently, so moved as to nickname the protagonist in his 2002 film 8 Mile ‘Rabbit,’ laying claim to a revitalization of the white-American-everyman archetype that Updike so forcefully established five decades ago. The film’s soundtrack, too, referenced Updike’s contribution to the canon with a track entitled ‘Rabbit Run,’ for those who might have missed the first reference.”

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