November 2017

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If you haven’t already pre-ordered a copy, you can go to Amazon right now and get a copy of John Updike Remembered: Friends, Family and Colleagues Reflect on the Writer and the Man, edited by Jack A. De Bellis.

The Amazon “Look inside” link gives a full rundown on the contents. The book features 19 interviews with Updike’s classmates (from kindergarten through high school), four essays on Updike’s time at Harvard and his early years as a writer, two essays on Updike in Ipswich, 25 personal reminiscences from “writers, fans, friends,” three reminiscences from Updike’s children, and a reprinted transcript of the Updike Family Panel from The John Updike Society’s first conference at Alvernia University in Reading, Pa.

De Bellis (pictured) is best known in Updike studies for writing The John Updike Encyclopedia and for compiling, with Michael Broomfield, the definitive Updike bibliography.

The county alms house was located just a few blocks from The John Updike Childhood Home, and it famously provided the inspiration for Updike’s first published novel. In a review of it, published in Commentary on March 1, 1959, David Fitelson wasted no time in pronouncing it a failure. His review begins,

“John Updike, one of the more talented of the New Yorker‘s resident storytellers, has had a hearty but not very successful try at a first novel. The failure of The Poorhouse Fair lies largely in its adherence to established New Yorker conventions regarded in many quarters as rather OK. One does not mind the OK archness and urbanity that occasionally creeps into Updike’s prose. He has a genuine way with words and usually rises above that. Other OK things, however, are more disturbing: in particular, a rather mannered way of exploring character, and a distaste-for-the-sight-of-blood daintiness that he shares with certain other New Yorker contributors (e.g., John Cheever and Harold Brodkey). Most disturbing is that New Yorker-like critical remoteness which enables one to be awfully aware of, say, the ‘ridiculous’ build-up in nuclear armaments, and then (having exercised one’s social conscience) to go on to chuckle at the ‘ridiculous’ oversight of an Iowa proofreader. In being aware of impending perils, one is relieved of responsibility for heading them off: in being aware of the existence of ideas, one is absolved from thinking about them.”

Here’s the full hatchet job.

In an article titled “In search of the neutrino, ghost particle of the universe,” The Guardian turned to John Updike again.

“Every second,” Robin McKie writes, “billions of neutrinos pass through our bodies. The sun sends trillions streaming across space every minute. Uncountable numbers have been left over from the Big Bang birth of the cosmos 13.8 billion years ago.

“In fact, there are more neutrinos in the universe than any other type of particle of matter, though hardly anything can stop these cosmological lightweights in their paths. And this inability to interact with other matter has made them a source of considerable frustration for scientists who believe neutrinos could bring new understandings to major cosmological problems, including the nature of dark matter and the fate of our expanding universe. Unfortunately, the unbearable lightness of their being makes them very difficult to study.”

The article notes, “Three different forms of the particle are now known to exist: the electron neutrino, the muon neutrino and the tau neutrino and until relatively recently it was thought that none of them had any mass at all. They were the ultimate in ephemeral ghostliness, a bizarre situation that was celebrated by John Updike in his poem, ‘Cosmic Gall.'”

Neutrinos, they are very small.
They have no charge and have no mass
And do not interact at all.
The earth is just a silly ball
To them, through which they simply pass,
Like dustmaids down a drafty hall

A blogger on The Nature of Things posted an entry titled “Houston, we have a World Series champion! in celebration of the team’s (and city’s) first World Series championship.

“Baseball is a game that will break your heart two times out of three,” Dorothy Borders writes. “But, oh, that third time is worth waiting for.

“John Updike knew and loved the game and explained it best of all. Let’s give him the last word and then, let the off-season begin!”

Baseball

by John Updike
It looks easy from a distance,
easy and lazy, even,
until you stand up to the plate
and see the fastball sailing inside,
an inch from your chin,
or circle in the outfield
straining to get a bead
on a small black dot
a city block or more high,
a dark star that could fall
on your head like a leaden meteor.

The grass, the dirt, the deadly hops
between your feet and overeager glove:
football can be learned,
and basketball finessed, but
there is no hiding from baseball
the fact that some are chosen
and some are not—those whose mitts
feel too left-handed,
who are scared at third base
of the pulled line drive,
and at first base are scared
of the shortstop’s wild throw
that stretches you out like a gutted deer.

There is nowhere to hide when the ball’s
spotlight swivels your way,
and the chatter around you falls still,
and the mothers on the sidelines,
your own among them, hold their breaths,
and you whiff on a terrible pitch
or in the infield achieve
something with the ball so
ridiculous you blush for years.
It’s easy to do. Baseball was
invented in America, where beneath
the good cheer and sly jazz the chance
of failure is everybody’s right,
beginning with baseball.

Writers write. And the great ones were often great at correspondence. Like Ernest Hemingway, John Updike wrote for popular publications of his day, and like Hemingway he was a proliferate letter-writer. How MUCH of a letter-writer is now coming to light, as people have begun to respond to scholar James Schiff‘s call for Updike letters.

As Schiff told The Guardian, “While it is hardly surprising that he carried on a correspondence with editors, translators, publicists, critics, journalists and fellow writers, what is remarkable is how often and generously he responded to letters from readers, fans and complete strangers.”

Schiff said Updike even responded to “a stranger who asked him to write a note of encouragement to his nine-year-old son who suffered from psoriasis,” a condition Updike shared and wrote about in his essay “At War with My Skin.” Schiff speculates that Updike’s experience as a teenager requesting samples of work from his favorite cartoonists might help to explain his own “pay it forward” attitude toward correspondence.

“Though some of his letters and postcards are perfunctory and mundane, the large majority reveal his attempt to say something witty, funny, or clever,” The Guardian article notes.

Schiff is still gathering letters for a volume of collected letters to be published in 2021. If you have any, send a scan or photocopy to updikeletters@gmail.com.