Observer reader writes Updike was ‘no monk’

One of the March 10, 2024 letters to The Observer (U.K.), The Guardian‘s Sunday magazine, writes in a letter given the headline “Updike was no monk”:

“Tomiwa Owolade writes persuasively about the rewards of ritual in a simple life, but he might want to think again about describing John Updike as a “happy monk” (“Make coffee. Shower. Clean the loo. In an age of choice, rituals are the key to happiness”).

The great writer was serially unfaithful, seeking comfort in religious faith and sexual adventure. As Updike explained it: ‘If you have a secret, submerged, second life, you have somehow transcended or outwitted the confines of a single life.’ That’s one way of excusing infidelity.”
Suzy Powling
Leiston, Suffolk

Journalist recalls being Updike’s muse, returns to Shillington

Not everyone who recognizes themselves in a writer’s fiction or poetry is pleased, but William Ecenbarger took delight in recalling his 1983 interview with John Updike that inspired Updike to write “One More Interview.” Then a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Ecenbarger managed to score his interview with Updike through the writer’s mother, Linda. It was no ordinary interview.

For this one, Updike got in a car with Ecenbarger and gave him a personally narrated tour of “Updike country”: Shillington, Plowville, and Reading-area boyhood haunts that factored into his fiction and poetry. That interview was partially quoted in the first chapter of Adam Begley’s biography of Updike and included in complete form in John Updike’s Pennsylvania Interviews.

Ecenbarger recalled that 1983 interview and a more recent trip he made to The John Updike Childhood Home in “John Updike’s Muse,” published on the InTheKnow Traveler.

Here’s the link.


Eat My News: Rabbit Recapped

The global media platform Eat My News published a primer on “Exploring John Updike’s Iconic ‘Rabbit’ Series” on October 26, 2023. For what is apparently the first installment of a series, contributor Anushka Dabhade began,

“In the realm of American literature, few authors have left as indelible a mark as John Updike. His ‘Rabbit’ series, comprising four novels that span several decades, offers readers a profound exploration of the human condition and the evolution of a character named Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. As we embark on this literary journey, we’ll unravel the complexities of these novels, their impact on readers, and the enduring legacy of John Updike.”

Dabhade ended this segment with this summary: “John Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ series is a literary journey that transcends time and place. Through the eyes of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, readers are invited to ponder the complexities of human existence and the ever-changing landscape of American life. As you embark on this literary voyage, you’ll discover why Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ series continues to be a source of fascination and contemplation for generations of readers.”

Read what’s in-between, and apparently stay tuned.


Imaginative Conservative writer contemplates ‘wokeness’ and Updike

In “John Updike’s ‘In the Beauty of the Lilies’: The Children” (The Imaginative Conservative, Aug. 19, 2023), Daniel J. Sundahl began with two quotes from Updike:

“As to critics, it seems to be my fate to disappoint my theological friends by not being Christian enough, while I’m too Christian for Harold Bloom’s blessing. So be it,” and “The mature and well-balanced man, standing firmly with both feet on the earth, who has never been blamed and broken and half-blinded by the scandal of life, is such the existentially godless man.”

Mid-way through his essay, Sundahl remarked, “Of course there’s religion and then there’s religion and there are books and there are dirty books. . . which raises the question: Can one write about life, even life’s carnality and concupiscence, while maintaining Christian aspects?” He also, of course, attempted to answer his own question in a classical, meandering way, prompted by the last words (“the children”) of Updike’s novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies.

“I became fond over the years of the many contradictions regarding parents’ expectations about religion and literature, which included a smallish broo ha ha with a fundamentalist father when he learned his daughter would be reading a John Updike novel in an upper division American Literature course devoted to American Contemporary Fiction—the father arguing that although he had never read Updike he believed him scandalous and a writer of titillating, stylized pornography. Those are my words not his . . . which was singular: ‘dirty.’

“And he has a point and a good one, and I am not without empathy. As with many writers whose personal life and writings own a certain kind of ‘smudginess,’ greasy fingers on the pages, Updike is no exception. His embrace of realism as an artistic criterion (often concerning the breakdown of a marriage) is often passé these days and with gray humor. One question that emerges is whether a narrative Updike presents to his readers is a full and authentic report of human experience, which includes the particulars of the times and places of the narrative’s action, which would argue that Updike is a formal realist. Like his characters, he also put himself through many personal hardships. He had faults, and they were ‘smudgy’ and blurred.”

Read the whole essay.

Keillor on leaving home, mementos, and Updike

Keillor at the 2016 Updike conference with society president James Plath

The New Hampshire Union Leader recently published “Garrison Keillor: The art of leaving home.” Keillor, who was the keynote speaker at the 4th Biennial John Updike Society Conference in Columbia, S.C., wrote, “The pleasure of moving is the excavation of the past. I open a box and here’s a photo of my fifth-grade class, the eager neatly-combed-and-dressed boy with glassing sitting behind John Poate is me. I am still that eager boy, heavier but anxious to do well.”

Keillor wrote that he kept “artifacts of a long life. . . . I kept all these and other souvenirs. I never listened to the show [A Prairie Home Companion] myself and I have no memorabilia from it. It would only give me remorse that the show wasn’t better than it was. John Updike told me once that he rather enjoyed reading his early work but then he was a naturally cheerful man, rare for an author. Critics resented him for that and gave him grudging reviews; they preferred writers who had suffered, been imprisoned, exiled, or at least had abusive fathers. John was too American. There wasn’t much Russian or Spanish about him. He wrote because he was good at it and he knew it.

“And now in my old age I’ve found useful work as a stand-up cheerleader for adult cheerfulness, the basic goodness of life, a counter-voice to the diversity cops and agony aunts who’ve taken over publishing, journalism, public radio and TV, and much of academia. DeSantis’s anti-woke campaign is stupidity on toast; the real problem with MacWoke is its penchant for dismal pessimism, its humorlessness. I grew up with fundamentalists who looked forward to the end of the world and now progressives do too.”

In a March 13, 2024 column for the New Hampshire Union Leader, “Mature man available for speaking, easy terms,” Keillor cited Updike again:  “And my hero John Updike, back in the days of White Male Authorship, got me into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, one of only three humorists in the club, which looks darned good on my résumé. People from my hometown of Anoka, Minnesota, look at that and think, ‘Him? He didn’t even make National Honor Society in high school. He got a B minus in English and even that was generous.'”

Blogger considers Vonnegut-Updike ‘feud’

Writing for FN: Really Fucking Good Coffee, an author using a pseudonym reminiscent of Ben Franklin’s Silence Dogood (Albert Goodcoffee) explored the arguments for realism versus satire in describing a Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. / John Updike “feud” that wasn’t enough of a blip on biographer Adam Begley’s screen to make it into the book. In fact, Begley reports that Updike and Vonnegut were friends and socialized when each had second wives.

That said, “Famous Literary Feuds Through History: Vonnegut vs. Updike — Satire vs. Realism” is a good read because of the literary style undercard and the arguments for and against.

“Kurt Vonnegut was a master of satire, known for his innovative and darkly humorous writing style. His novels, such as Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, challenged societal norms and explored the absurdity of the human condition. Vonnegut’s wit and playful approach made him a favorite among readers who enjoyed a fresh perspective on life.

“In his work, Vonnegut blended science fiction with social commentary, creating a unique narrative style that often left readers questioning the status quo. His sharp criticism of war, bureaucracy, and the dehumanization of society struck a chord with many, earning him a loyal fan base. Vonnegut’s writing was like a rebellious teenager, refusing to conform to traditional literary norms and embracing the power of satire to expose the flaws of society.”

“On the other side of the literary spectrum, we find John Updike—a champion of realism. Updike’s writing delved into the intricacies of human relationships and the everyday struggles of ordinary individuals. He was known for his elegant prose, meticulous attention to detail, and the ability to capture the essence of human emotions.

“Updike’s celebrated Rabbit tetralogy, which explores the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, garnered critical acclaim for its realism and relatability. Through his works, Updike painted vivid pictures of suburban life in America, with all its triumphs and disappointments. His writing, often described as soul-stirring, dealt with the universal themes of love, marriage, and mortality, touching the hearts of many readers.”

Now that the “fighters” have been introduced, you can catch the rest of the bout here. Given the graphic, website name, and Franklinesque pseudonym, you can probably guess who the author is rooting for.

Poet considers Updike, her father, and truth in fiction (and vice versa)

Poet Molly Fisk published an essay on “John Updike, His Stories, and Me” in the Oct. 25, 2021 issue of Harper’s Bazaar that shares some Updike family history and confronts the issues of truth in fiction . . . and fiction in truth.

“Almost exactly three years after my dad’s death, a short story by Uncle John appeared in The New Yorker called “Brother Grasshopper.” Everyone who knew me and my family knew that my uncle was John Updike. He married my mother’s older sister, Mary, when they were in college, and we Fisks spent every summer back East in Ipswich or Vermont or on Martha’s Vineyard with the Updikes. Each couple produced four children at regular intervals, so we had nearly parallel cousins. If you’ve read Couples or The Maples Stories, you know the general scene: beaches, chaos, shucking corn, tennis and cocktails, adultery. There were the usual family spats now and then, but as a child, I always thought of the four adults as good friends.”

But after “Brother Grasshopper” was published, Fisk’s answering machine blew up with messages asking if she’d seen the story and if she was “okay.” So she went out and bought a copy of the magazine to read Updike’s latest.

“There were all our family stories: driving home from Crane Beach jammed into the Ford Falcon with dripping ice cream cones that Irving cheerfully told us to throw out the window, so we did. There was the one wild one about Irving going missing just before my parents’ wedding and John finding him taking a bath in the brook. There was even the terrible saga of my dad’s climb on Mont Blanc when he was 20, where two of his friends died. John reset the event in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and killed only one.”

What shocked Fisk was that Updike had “written an essentially nonfictional story about my dad, changing only his name (to Carlyle), and then made him a producer of pornography. I was mortified.”

Read the rest of the article.

Ipswich humorist shares his Updike dream

Updike had his Golf Dreams, and Bob Waite, who writes for The Local News in the North Shore area, had his own Updike dream to share with readers on July 13, 2023.

“In the dream, I discovered an unpublished John Updike manuscript titled Threesomes in his old office above the Choate Bridge Pub.

“My excitement was palpable. Could this be the long-awaited sequel to Couples, Updike’s 1968 novel chronicling the intertwining of 10 couples in a town called Tarbox? A town that bore a striking resemblance to Ipswich?

Couples also bore a passing resemblance to another New England-set potboiler, Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, which came out when Mia Farrow was as pre-teen and Woody Allen was still funny. Except Couples was better written and more explicit.”

Read the full article.

Washington Post reviewer considers Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe alongside Updike’s Harry Angstrom

The Washington Post has a paywall, but if you’re a subscriber you might want to read John Williams’ thoughtful extended review of Richard Ford’s newest book, Be Mine: “A Eulogy for everymen: Updike’s Rabbit and Ford’s Frank Bascombe.”

Calling the two fictional characters “quintessentially 20th-century protagonists,” Williams began by establishing a relationship between the two:

“Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom and Frank Bascombe have been mentioned together quite often for two men who don’t have all that much in common. John Updike introduced Angstrom in 1960 in Rabbit, Run, the first book in his vaunted series about a suburban salesman. Richard Ford, who was only 16 in 1960, has just published Be Mine, the fifth book featuring his garrulous, uncannily even-tempered narrator Bascombe, who first appeared in The Sportswriter.

“In 2014, Ford told the New Yorker that the relationship between his books and Updike’s was “complicated,” elaborating: “I have to say, with no reluctance, that if John hadn’t written the Rabbit books I might not have thought (as his contemporary) that three, then four, books about a real-estate salesman in New Jersey could be plausible.” He went on to highly praise Updike but also noted that he had read only one of the four Rabbit novels all the way through.

“Aside from the obvious fact that they are protagonists of multivolume series by popular and acclaimed writers, Rabbit and Frank have been linked throughout the years by what they’ve been taken to represent: Each has been called an ‘everyman’ too many times to count. It’s a word — and a projection — redolent of the 20th century. We’re too culturally atomized now to expect even broadly drawn individuals to reflect our collective life in any meaningful way, and of course those labeled ‘everyman’ have nearly always been White suburban males, whose relevance as cultural avatars (much less weathervanes) has been in steep decline. This all leaves aside the fact that Ford and Updike have both written eloquently to say that these characters are not meant to represent anything but themselves.”

Read the whole article.