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.

Updike typewriter now at the Childhood Home museum

John Updike’s Olivetti Linea 88—”the only manual typewriter he used regularly from 1969-2009,” according to his son, David Updike—is now on display at The John Updike Childhood Home, 117 Philadelphia Ave., Shillington, Pa.

The Childhood Home museum is owned by The John Updike Society, a 501c3 organization devoted to promoting Updike’s works. With Dr. Maria Lester as director, the museum is staffed by dedicated Updike lovers who live in the area.

The typewriter, acquired from Elizabeth Updike Cobblah and David, Michael and Miranda Updike, instantly became the crown jewel of the museum’s holdings. According to David, his father had bought/brought a white Adler typewriter to London in September 1968, but it “seemed inadequate—not sturdy enough. . . . A typewriter salesman came to the house, sold him on this Olivetti Linea 88, which he then bought and used for the rest of the year there.”

“It was big and heavy,” David said. “At the end of the school year, the green Citroen was being shipped across the ocean to us, and he had the idea to put the typewriter in the car too: thus, it made the voyage back to America, and my father used it for the rest of his life: Ipswich, Georgetown, Beverly Farms, and typed tens of thousands (I would guess) poems, short stories, letters, postcards, notes, many of which will soon be in the collection edited by Jim Schiff.

“At some point, he started to write longer letters on a word processor, but continued to use this one for shorter communications, all the way until January, 2009. It was in fine working order, and as you see it was serviced by a fellow in Beverly, Mass.”

Next to the typewriter is Updike’s dictionary, which he kept near his typewriter—a habit, no doubt, picked up from his mother. Linda Updike’s dictionary is also on display at the house.

Updike event in Ipswich features a plaque and “tats”

It was a long time coming, and Linda George Grimes, the woman who spearheaded the campaign to honor John Updike with a plaque, was not there to see the fruits of her labors. She passed away in March at age 66. But the Ipswich Historical Commission took over and Ipswich finally recognized its most famous resident on April 28, 2023.

The plaque, which was mounted next to the Caldwell Building entrance that Updike took to reach his second-floor office, reads: “From 1960 to 1974, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Updike had an office in the Caldwell Building, where he wrote many acclaimed literary works, including ‘A&P,’ Bech: A Book, The Centaur, Couples, ‘Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,’ Midpoint, A Month of Sundays, Of the Farm and Rabbit Redux.”

Couples, a 1968 novel, caused a stir in Ipswich because of its scandalous content: wife swapping. Some locals recognized themselves in the book, and the Updike family decided to spend the next year in London. Fittingly, there was just the slightest hint of scandalous behavior at the plaque unveiling, as grandchildren Trevor and Sawyer Updike proudly posed alongside the plaque to show matching tattoos of the self-portrait caricature their grandfather had drawn to accompany his Paris Review interview. The tattoos were on their thighs, which, of course, required that their trousers be dropped in order to show them off.

Trevor Meek covered the event for The Local News. Read the full story and see photos of the event.

Updike Society acquires author’s typewriter

One day after what would have been John Updike’s 91st birthday, The John Updike Society acquired the Pulitzer Prizewinning author’s typewriter from his four children. The purchase was made possible by a donation from The Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation, which provided the initial funding for the society to buy and restore The John Updike Childhood Home in Shillington, Pa.

The manual typewriter—an Olivetti Linea 88—was made in Great Britain in 1968-69, the year Updike moved with his family to London following the publication of Couples. It will be displayed in a case upstairs in the house at 117 Philadelphia Ave., where Updike lived from “age zero to thirteen” and where he said his “artistic eggs were hatched.” In the front bedroom of this house, at age eight, Updike used his mother’s portable Remington to type his first story, which began, “The tribe of Bum-Bums looked very solemn as they sat around their cozy cave fire.” According to biographer Adam Begley, Updike said, “I still carry intact within me my happiness when, elevated by the thickness of some books to the level of my mother’s typewriter, I began to tap at the keyboard and saw the perfect letter-forms leap up on the paper rolled around the platen.”

When the typewriter is installed at some point in the near future, it will instantly become the most important piece in this small museum, which celebrates Updike and the affection he felt for the house, the neighborhood, and Berks County. The John Updike Childhood Home is presently open Saturdays from 12-2 p.m. See the house website for more details about Updike and the house, which officially opened on October 2, 2021. The John Updike Childhood Home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was awarded a Pennsylvania Historic Marker.

The flock, you say – Mr. Updike’s Penguins

Sculptor Michael Updike loves a good joke, and so, apparently, does Newbury, Mass., where John Updike’s son makes his home. The Newburyport News posted a piece titled “Joppa’s penguins go into hibernation”—about four “beloved and iconic penguins that have shown up at Joppa Flats during the summer months” and “make their way ‘south’ to Updike’s home, for the winter.”

Reporter Ashlyn Giroux asked Updike about the penguins, and got the full story.

“The kids were sort of middle childhood, like 8 and 10, and we were coming back from a soccer game in Lynn or Revere, one of those places, and we stopped at Newbury Comics and somehow, probably as an impulse buy, I thought we’d buy the penguin along with the Yugioh cards, and so we had this penguin and I said ‘Oh, I really should put it on an iceberg and put it out there,’ said Updike. The kids didn’t really respond much, and then I thought, ‘I don’t wanna be that dad who makes a promise or says something and doesn’t follow through.’ So, I went and got three more penguins and built the iceberg out of styrofoam and then put it out there, and the kids sort of looked at it for three seconds and went back to what they were doing.”

After moving to Newbury, Giroux said Updike put the penguins out on the marsh behind his home to the amusement of a few neighbors.

“When I moved down here to Newbury, I brought the penguins and said ‘OK that’s the end of that.’ But, all my former neighbors on Water Street kept saying ‘where are the penguins? We want the penguins back!’ So I just started putting it in in the spring and taking them out every fall, and it’s something that just I do,” he said.

Read the full story.

Plowville spotlighted in Reading Eagle history feature

“Plowville” to an Updike fan calls to mind the image of 13-year-old John in the back of the family Buick looking out of the rear window at his beloved dogwood tree and house at 117 Philadelphia Avenue receding into the distance, both spatially and temporally.

Plowville is big part of the Updike story, and readers might want to check out the historical feature on Plowville that Susan Miers Smith wrote for the Reading Eagle in January 2022: “Berks Place: Plowville a slice of Americana in Robeson Township; The village grew up around a well-known hotel on Route 10.”

Smith writes, “The cemetery is also the final resting spot of Linda Grace Hoyer Updike and Wesley Russell Updike, the parents of author John Updike. Linda Updike was born in and died in a Plowville farmhouse nearby.” That farmhouse was prominently featured in Updike’s early novel Of the Farm, in which a writer returns to visit his parents and introduce to them his second wife—with tensions between wife and mother creating much of the drama.

Interview with Michael Updike spotlights Plowville gravestone

If you haven’t been to Plow Church cemetery to see John Updike’s gravestone carved by son Michael, there’s a large photo of it accompanying a Northshore Magazine story about how Updike’s sculptor son changed his artistic course after that gravestone.

In “Artist Michael Updike Creates Works of Art in Stone,” Robert G. Pushkar (who also took the photos) writes, “After the death of his father, writer John Updike, in 2009, Michael experienced a tectonic shift in his artistic awareness. He set out to commemorate his father’s life in a meaningful and also aesthetically unique way. But first he had to learn the intricacies of gravestone art. Already he had experience carving in granite and marble, but slate required another skill set. He explains, ‘You have to carve in a totally different way.'”

Michael told Pushkar, “In my art I do make death heads and winged skulls as a nod and recognition to the early folk artists of New England . . . . I can tell a carver’s style and feel. We won the American Revolution but looked back toward the neoclassical influence in creating gravestones, instead of the pagan skulls and wings with so much personality. Now you have urns and weeping willows, which are stagnant.”

Since the one he carved for his father, Michael has done a number of gravestones.

“It’s very exciting to me. . . . It takes me to a wide-range gamut of emotion, because I can suddenly be working with a parent who lost a child, or I can be working with very ironic people who want to do their own gravestone before they die. A lot of jokes and humor could be built into it. . . . The journey of getting the stone is what helps them recover and heal. . . . Not completely, but to a certain level where they can move on. There’s a little bit of being a psychoanalyst, a little bit of being a pastor or minister, or just sometimes being a friend realizing their vision.”