On February 11, 2002, John Updike was asked to deliver remarks to commemorate the opening of the Ames Library at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. That Founders’ Day Convocation, now online, presents a view of Updike that would be repeated many times over: a much admired literary giant receiving, somewhat shyly and awkwardly, an honorary degree and delivering remarks that almost always included a reading of his own work.
On this occasion Updike read from a bound proof of his Collected Poems. But after a poem about a college appointment that “some august professor” had scheduled, then forgotten, Updike remarked, “I always had the feeling that I was somehow not, try as hard as I might, not quite pleasing to Harvard. I went there and was grateful and was stunned and I imbibed the New England magic and I met my future wife, and was president of the Harvard Lampoon, and got a good degree and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa, and yet I felt it all, in Harvard’s eyes, wasn’t quite enough. There was something un-Harvardian about me. . . . I was inexorably gauche in the eyes of Harvard.”
Updike received dozens of honorary degrees during his long writing career, but most of them seem to have vanished or were discarded, while others turned up for sale in independent bookstores—the going rate, according to a Houston Chronicle article, being $750. But the whereabouts of this particular degree is indeed known.
The tube Updike was handed containing his Illinois Wesleyan Degree is in the collection of The John Updike Childhood Home in Shillington, Pa., and will soon be added to new displays in the upstairs room that was once his maternal grandparents’. The room’s theme: The Writer’s Life.