March 2016

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Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 1.00.08 PMIf you shop, you can help the John Updike Society by changing your bookmark from to so that all orders go through the “smile” url. Amazon will donate .5 percent of eligible purchases directly to the Society.

Once you designate the John Updike Society as your charity, bookmark the page and every time you buy something through Amazon you will go through the smile program and .5 percent will automatically go to our non-profit organization. The prices are no different, and it’s no more difficult to shop through the smile portal than through It’s just their way of tracking donations.

Spread the word. Point 5 percent might not sound like a lot, but it adds up, and every little bit helps when we’re in the midst of restoring The John Updike Childhood Home and turning it into a museum.

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The Buffalo News “Reporters’ Notebook” for March 17, 2016, posted by Olaf Fub,  quoted John Updike:

“A thought for this drizzly week from novelist John Updike, born on this date in 1932, ‘Rain is grace; rain is the sky descending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life.'”

Updike bibliographer sent an email saying the quote, which is from “A Soft Spring Night in Shillington,” should read, “Rain is grace; rain is the sky condescending to the earth”; but we expect to hear shortly from Updike’s biographer as well, since Updike was not born on March 17, but rather on the 18th.”


Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 5.53.59 PMKatie Roiphe has been all over the media as of late, promoting her book The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, in which she recounts the last days of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and James Salter.

The latest article is “Katie Roiphe’s 6 favorite books that deal with illness and dining,” and surprising it’s not the same six. Making the cut are:

  • The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy
  • On Being Ill, by Virginia Woolf
  • Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens
  • Illness as Metaphor, by Susan Sontag
  • This Wild Darkness, by Harold Brodkey
  • Endpoint, by John Updike

Of the latter she writes, “These poems, which Updike wrote during his last couple of years, are startling, visceral responses to his lung cancer. They have his trademark elegance and sensual beauty, but they also have the urgency of news flashes. He writes his way through the harrowing experience — analyzing, raging, consoling, creating — and in the end produces an astonishing coda to an unusually and gloriously productive life.”

EberhartThe literary world has lost another one:  John Mark Eberhart, 52, the former book review editor for The Kansas City Star and the “Book Doctor” on KCUR.

According to a KCUR obituary, Eberhart died today after a long fight with cancer. Eberhart, who earned an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a Master’s in English from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, was the book review editor at the Star from 2000 to 2009.

Like so many great and thoughtful book editors, Eberhart had his share of phone interviews and wrote about Updike a number of times. In fact, one of his pieces, “‘Rabbit’ in Retrospect,” will appear in a forthcoming collection of Updike articles and interviews, Native Son: John Updike’s Pennsylvania Interviews—a collection assembled by James Plath that will be published this year by Lehigh University Press. Some wanted money for their reprinted work; Plath said Eberhart was delighted to have one of his pieces on Updike included in a hardcover volume and got the Star to grant permission at no cost. Writing and reading mattered to him the most.

The KCUR obituary says that he took pride in the number of times his byline appeared in the newspaper, and told journalism students in a 2012 article,

“Your writing is something that is going to develop over a long period of time….I’m still learning. Writing is tough and getting better at it takes time. Your progress tends to be incremental, not dramatic. Don’t worry about that, just persevere.”

Eberhart was also a poet, whose work appeared in numerous literary magazines and in two collections, Night Watch (2005) and Broken Time (2008).

We extend our deepest sympathies to his family.

VioletHourIn a New York Times article to promote her new book The Violent Hour: Great Writers at the End, Katie Roiphe talks about the false notion that “when someone is dying, a new, honest, generous space opens up; that in the harrowing awfulness of dying there is a directness, an expansiveness, a loosening of inhibitions, the potential for things to be said that could not be said before. But if one does actually manage to pull off a last conversation, what can it be but a few words in a lifetime of talk?”

Roiphe featured John Updike in her book and includes remarks about Updike here as well:

“I talked about John Updike’s death with his ex-wife, Mary. She told me that there were questions she wanted to ask him that only he could answer. I heard this over and over. There were questions the bereaved wanted to ask. There were mysteries or confusions that could be cleared up if only they could have engineered that last conversation.

“Updike actually wrote about this. In Rabbit at Rest, as Rabbit Angstrom lies dying, he sees on his son’s face, ‘some unaskable question.’ Rabbit feels sorry for everything he has put the kid through, his various ebullient and destructive flights from the family, for instance, but he can’t quite muster that thought into words. His son looks at him expectantly. The last conversation is perhaps just the feeling that there is something more to say.”

Here’s the full article.

Roiphe was also featured on NPR, and quoted in a story titled “With Fear, Determination And Poetry: How Great Writers Face Death,” which features an audio link as well.

On John Updike, who wrote poems in the hospital after being diagnosed with lung cancer

It was amazing. He had very little time — just weeks before he was dead. I actually went up and looked at the manuscripts and you can see in his handwriting how arduous it was. At that last moment, when most people would just be watching television or railing against the universe, that was what he did and I found it very moving. …

The poems have a sort of quality of reporting — that he’s bringing news. And he talks about writing as turning pain into honey, which I find a really beautiful way to think about what writers do: taking this incredibly awful — maybe the most awful thing that can happen to you — and turning it into honey just with words.”

Updikecropped150Garrison Keillor, who will be the keynote speaker at this fall’s Fourth Biennial John Updike Society Conference at the University of South Carolina, today paid tribute to John Updike on what would have been the author’s 84th birthday.

In “Mar. 18, 2016: birthday: John Updike,” Keillor recalls Updike’s early ambitions to be a cartoonist, his love affair with Pennsylvania, and the novel that brought him national attention.

When Updike died, he was hailed as America’s last great man of letters, but did he write any books that will be considered “a classic” years from now?

In “The Disappearance of Literature,” Mark Twain lamented, “A classic is something that everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Echoing that, in Rite of Passage Alexei Panshin wrote, “Classics aren’t books that are read for pleasure. Classics are books that are imposed on unwilling students, books that are subjected to analyses of ‘levels of significance’ and other blatt, books that are dead.” That implies it’s the “academy” that confers the title of “classic,” and if such is the case, it’s worth considering how Updike fares among overlapping contemporaries when it comes to number of articles written by academics and indexed in the International MLA Bibliography. The list below isn’t all-inclusive, but it features writers who have inspired at least 500 articles:

  • Jorge Luís Borges—4,524
  • Vladimir Nabokov—3,364
  • Toni Morrison—2,397
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez—2,019
  • Saul Bellow—1,460
  • Mario Vargas Llosa—1,245
  • Richard Wright—1,202
  • Italo Calvino—1,110
  • Günter Grass—1,078
  • Graham Greene—1,038
  • Philip Roth—971
  • Zora Neale Hurston—937
  • Don DeLillo—876
  • James Baldwin—817
  • Juan Rulfo—791
  • John Updike—776
  • V.S. Naipaul—775
  • Umberto Eco—762
  • Cormac McCarthy—755
  • Norman Mailer—735
  • Alice Walker—682
  • Bernard Malamud—585

It’s still too early to tell how Updike will be remembered well into the future, but if one considers F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of a classic he certainly stands a good chance:  “A classic is a successful book that has survived the reaction of the next period or generation. Then it’s safe, like a style in architecture or furniture. It’s acquired a picturesque dignity to take the place of its fashion….” (The Beautiful and the Damned). More than any of his contemporaries, Updike was a writer who was both a popular and critical success. And as Cliff Fadiman, former head of the Book-of-the-Month Club, once explained, “When you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before.” Updike’s fiction, poetry, and non-fiction continue to touch people on a very human level. Would that he were still writing among us.

Happy 84th!

VioletHourNew from The Dial Press is The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, by Katie Roiphe, who, as a New Republic review-article notes, “explores the final days of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, and other writers at the end.”

Of the book, William Giraldi writes, “Here is a critic in supreme control of her gifts, whose gift to us is the observant rigor that refuses to flinch before the Reaper.

“Each chapter, skillfully eliding overlap, constitutes a ‘biography backward, a whole life unfurling from a death.’ In the slow fade of her five writers—cancer came for Sontag, Freud, and Updike; a stroke felled Sendak; Thomas decimated himself exuberantly with drink—Roiphe finds ‘glimpses of bravery, of beauty . . . of truly terrible behavior, of creative bursts, of superb devotion, of glitteringly accurate self-knowledge, and of magnificent delusion.'”

“Roiphe flashes her richness of mind most intently on Updike,” Giraldi writes. “In Updike’s work, ‘one is struck not by the glittering seductions of the sharp, ambitious, sexually enthralling mistresses but by the deep, agonized love the husbands feel for the first wives.’ She commands a supercharged insight into Updike’s religio-sexual realm that many critics, female and male both, are too ideological or outright painterly to muster. . . .

“Whole swaths of Updike’s work are ‘about not submitting gratefully to that eternal sleep, cheating, tricking, denouncing it, protesting it, fixating on it; so much involves the hope for more than our animal walk, an afterlife, or, better yet, more life.’ His unkillable buoyancy of language, his style that pursued every contour and lineation of living: No other major American novelist has been so downright delighted by the tensile strength of English, no one else so wedded to the notion of writing as deliverance. . . .”

Here’s the full review-article. The book is now available for pre-order from

Cancer Today, the publication of the American Association for Cancer Research, featured “A Storied Life” by writer Sue Rochman in the Winter 2015-16 issue, which is also available online. In it, Rochman details how “literary realist John Updike used the scaffold of his own life, including his lung cancer diagnosis, to explore the shared experiences of our time.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 9.43.10 PMShe writes, “Not only did he write in many forms, Updike wrote all the time, producing on average a book a year. That didn’t change after he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2008. He spent the months before he died writing poems on facing mortality, many of which were published in his collection Endpoint and Other Poems.

Lung cancer, Rochman reports, “is divided into two main types: small cell, which makes up about 15 percent of all diagnoses and non-small cell, which accounts for about 85 percent.

“It’s not widely known what type of lung cancer Updike had. It is known that he began to have some breathing problems in the summer of 2008. The initial diagnosis was bronchitis. When the cough didn’t clear, he was told it was pneumonia, a diagnosis he described as ‘oblong ghosts, one paler than the other on the doctor’s viewing screen’ in a poem dated Nov. 6. Two weeks later, as Thanksgiving approached, Updike spent five days at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, undergoing the tests that led to his lung cancer diagnosis.

“A misdiagnosis of pneumonia is ‘unfortunately, a common scenario,’ says medical oncologist Joan Schiller, deputy director of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. ‘Pneumonia is a heck of a lot more common than lung cancer, so it’s understandable that someone with a cough would be treated for pneumonia and then later find out it is lung cancer.’

“When people die so quickly from cancer, it is often assumed the disease spread quickly. That can and does happen, but another common reason for a late lung cancer diagnosis is that it can be hard to know it’s there. ‘One reason is that the lungs don’t have a lot of nerves, so it doesn’t cause pain—and you can’t see it,’ says Schiller. Still, she says, even for lung cancer, Updike’s two-month span from diagnosis to death was unusually quick.

“Updike’s cancer was treated with chemotherapy. Were he diagnosed today, says Gregory A. Masters, a medical oncologist specializing in lung cancer at Christiana Care’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center in Newark, Delaware, he might have had more options.

“‘Instead of having everyone with stage IV lung cancer get the same chemotherapy,’ says Masters, ‘we now see if the patient has one or more of the specific gene alterations that allow us to use a targeted therapy. If they do, we can give them a treatment that is more effective, less toxic and that will control the tumor for more time.'”

Here’s the complete article, which also offers a career summary of Updike and his literary importance.