March 2018

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Updike scholars who know James Schiff’s John Updike Revisited (1998) will find this familiar ground. But Books Tell You Why recently published an article by Brian Hoey titled, “Hawthorne Heights: How John Updike Rewrote The Scarlet Letter, which focuses on Updike’s reimagination of Hester Prynne in his novel S.

As Hoey writes, “The novel was, in many ways, meant as a rebuttal to the critics who have questioned Updike’s ability to create well-rounded female characters.” Hoey notes that Updike strove “for a sympathetic portrait of middle-aged womanhood, while also having a little fun at the expense of enlightenment-seekers as a group.”

Hoey posits that “any criticism of [Updike’s] work gives him an opportunity to improve his craft.” The Witches of Eastwick was another attempt “to write about women who did have careers of a sort” and who were “much more dynamic than the men”—issues that remain current today.

“If the novel were reevaluated now, in an era where examinations of the ways in which society shames women seems especially urgent,” Hoey suggests, “it would be found worthy of its inspiration.” But he worries that “readers would find that beneath Updike’s trademark lyricism.”

Read the full article here

The New York Times just published a review of Lorrie Moore’s collection of essays and reviews, See What Can Be Done, which included the acclaimed author’s review for John Updike’s early short stories.

As Dwight Garner writes, “Reviewing a collection of John Updike’s early short stories (she deeply admires them), Moore recalls that Updike said he left New York City because it was ‘overrun with agents and wisenheimers.’ She ushers in ‘a literary friend of mine’ to catch the vague aroma of anti-Semitism there. ‘Agents and wisenheimers,’ the friend asks. ‘Is that Shillington, Pennsylvania, for ‘Hymietown?’”

Moore’s “great feelers” for fictional works allow her to notice “the way ordinary friendship is largely missing from Updike’s work.” She also recalled Updike leaving New York because it was “overrun with agents and wisenheimers,” which her “literary friend” noted as emitting “the vague aroma of anti-Semitism.”

Updike’s name comes up more than once. In another reference, Garner writes, “Three panegyrics to Alice Munro are two too many. Upon arriving at the third, I thought of the older editor at The New York Times Book Review who said to me early in my tenure there: ‘If I have to read another thousand words about John Updike, I am going to hurl myself out that goddamn window.’”

He notes as well, “In her reviews of fiction (by Margaret Atwood, Joan Silber, Bobbie Ann Mason, Philip Roth, Stanley Elkin and Richard Ford, among many others), she has great feelers. She notices the way ordinary friendship is largely missing from Updike’s work.”

Read the full article here

Somewhere in a Guardian article about a recent auction of Sylvia Plath miscellany there’s a comparative mention of the value of author typewriters, and Updike’s name comes up:

“. . . a proof of The Bell Jar, complete with her corrections, sold for £60,000; her own first edition of the novel, poignantly signed and dated “Christmas 1962”, a few weeks before her death, went for £70,000; and the typewriter on which she wrote it, a mint green Hermes 3000, for £26,000. This puts Plath’s typewriter comfortably above Jack Kerouac’s, also a green Hermes, which pulled in $22,500 (£16,000), and John Updike’s $4,375 (£3,110) — but below the £56,250 paid for Ian Fleming’s gold-plated Royal and the stunning $254,500 (£181,000) for Cormac McCarthy’s humdrum Olivetti.”

According to the unsigned Books Blog article, Plath is so hot right now that “Even Wordsworth and Napoleon couldn’t compete with Plathinalia going under the hammer this week—including clothes, a typewriter and her thesaurus.”

The positive takeaway for Updike collectors and, more importantly, those inclined to purchase and donate items to The John Updike Childhood Home, John Updike items remain affordable.

Today John Hoyer Updike would have marked his 86th birthday, and in recent days several articles have surfaced that would have pleased him enough to seem like thoughtful presents.

Yesterday, we heard from a former fact-checker for The New Yorker, where Updike enjoyed working as “Talk of the Town” reporter. In “These Days I Miss John Updike, a Remote and Noble Male Mentor,”written for The New York Times, Caitlin Shetterfly writes about her “literary hero”  whose Maples stories she had addressed in her college thesis. She talks about Updike’s kind mentoring and a letter she received from him that she still keeps by her desk. And she talks, by contrast, about another man at The New Yorker, a married man from whom she received  “inappropriate attentions” and who one day “leaned in, suddenly, and kissed” her. The difference was striking.

She writes, “I’ll be the first to admit that the themes of adultery and overt and detailed sexuality in Updike’s stories sometimes made me slightly queasy. But there was nothing in them that ever smacked of the predatory; on the contrary, it was his fastidious honesty, his euphoric interest in sexuality, that rattled and embarrassed me.” Updike seemed a gentleman to her, both in his fiction and his personal life.

A day earlier, in “Why time isn’t up for Updike,” Diana Evans, writing for the Financial Times, noted that while the writer’s stock has slumped in the #MeToo era, she still finds inspiration in Updike’s acute depictions of domestic life. She also drew a distinction between Updike’s treatment of sexuality in his fiction and the kind of one-sided, predatory sexuality that women are saying “Times Up” to.

Two women in two days, writing about Updike’s fictional male-female sexuality, have concluded essentially the same thing:  that there was mutual interest and consent, and that Updike was a master at describing the complicated and curious force that pulls people toward each other’s flesh.

If there was a more thoughtful gift to be given in this age of justifiable women’s outrage, we’re not sure what it would be.

Happy 86th.



When the John Updike Society holds its first conference outside the United States, hosted by the Faculty of Philology at the University of Belgrade in Serbia, June 1-5, it will be the largest-ever international gathering devoted to Updike studies.

Here are brief bios of the speakers, presenters, and moderators, who come from 14 different countries:

JUS5 program participants

Lehigh University Press will re-release John Updike’s Pennsylvania Interviews, edited by James Plath, in paperback on March 15, 2018. That’s good news for individuals who didn’t want to put out $105.00 for the hardcover version that was published in 2016. The paperback price at is $49.99.

As James Schiff, editor of The John Updike Review, writes in a descriptive blurb, “Once again, Jim Plath delivers a deeply engaging and important collection of Updike interviews. Stitching together 44 profiles and interviews conducted by a range of figures–-Terry Gross, local journalists from the Reading Eagle, a high school student–-Plath, who adds his own introductory and concluding observations, proves a knowledgeable and emotionally invested guide. John Updike’s Pennsylvania Interviews will appeal not only to general readers, academics, and students, but to those interested in listening to a writer who could string together sentences as beautifully as any figure from American literature. In taking its author back to the state he left in 1950, John Updike’s Pennsylvania Interviews is a homecoming story that casts a spell and radiates with Updike’s life-long affection for Pennsylvania. Plath has been a major player in Updike studies, and his latest effort should be required reading for those wishing to know more about the wunderkind from Shillington.”

The cover photo of Updike at the Plowville farmhouse is by David Updike.

Amazon link

The obituary for Mary Pennington (Updike) Weatherall published by the Local reports that a celebration of her life will be held at First Church in Ipswich, UCC, One Meetinghouse Green, on Saturday, May 5 at 2 p.m. And there is much to celebrate. John Updike Society members know only that she was an artist and a supporter of her first husband, John Updike, who read his drafts and gave him advice, and that she continued to support him after he died by graciously backing the society by contributing to the restoration of The John Updike Childhood Home, participating in two conferences (shown in photo below at the Plowville home with scholar Don Greiner and husband Robert Weatherall), and assisting scholars with their projects.

But there was much more to Mary, as the obituary notes:

In addition to raising her four children and continuing to paint, Mary served on Ipswich’s Fair Housing Committee, “working to ensure that all who wanted to move to, and purchase property in Ipswich, were welcome to do so. She was active in the civil rights movement and, in 1965, flew to Alabama with fellow Ipswich residents, the late Rev. Goldthwaite Sherrill, William Wasserman, and the late Sally Landis Wasserman, to participate in one of the three Selma to Montgomery marches.”

Mary was a local activist as well, working in the 1990s with second husband Robert Weatherall and “the town, the Greenbelt Association, the Nichols family of Essex, and with a substantial monetary contribution of their own, helped make it possible to purchase 10 acres of open meadow above their house. Now known as The Nichols Field, it is an invaluable addition to the open spaces of Ipswich, enjoyed by joggers, dog walkers, fishermen, and romantically inclined teenagers, who walk the mile down Labor-in-Vain Road to enjoy the field overlooking the Ipswich River.”

Mary’s “landscapes of Ipswich, the obituary reports, “were avidly purchased and collected, and a large retrospective of her work was held at the Schlsingler Library at Radcliffe College [her alma mater] in the year 2000.”

Mary, the daughter of Rev. Leslie Talbot Pennington and Elizabeth Entwistle Daniels, a teacher of Latin, was born in Braintree, Mass. on Jan. 26, 1930, and “raised in Cambridge and Chicago,” according to the obituary. “She married John Hoyer Updike on June 26, 1953, and they spent their honeymoon in a small cottage behind the Goodale Apple Orchard on Argilla Road, loaned to them by a family friend.” After living in New York City they moved to Ipswich in 1957 and spent nearly two decades on the North Shore together. Their marriage, which was famously chronicled in The Maples Stories, ended with a “no-fault” divorce in March 1976.

According to the obituary, weeks after celebrating her 88th birthday Mary “caught a bad cold, which in turn led to pneumonia. When they learned of her illness, all seven of her grandsons and a wife, Anoff and Jaime Cobblah, Kwame Cobblah, Wesley Updike, Trevor Updike, Sawyer Updike, Kai Freyleue, and Seneca Freyleue, arrived from various corners of New England to be with her. Her great grandson, Weston Scott Kofi Cobblah, was also there with his parents.

“She is survived by her four children, Elizabeth Cobblah, David Updike, Michael Updike, and Miranda Updike; their spouses, Tete Cobblah, Wambui Githiora Updike, Jeffrey Kern; her three step-children, Robert, Alexander, and Helen Weatherall and their spouses.”

Condolences may be sent by visiting In lieu of flowers, contributions in her memory may be made to the Ipswich Refugee Program, P.O. Box 285, Ipswich, MA  01938-9998.

“Mary Pennington Updike Weatherall, 88, an artist and first wife of John Updike” (Boston Globe)