Happy Birthday, John Updike

One of America’s most celebrated writers would have turned 88 today if he were still alive. His voice is missed, but his legacy goes on. With the help of family, classmates, friends, and fans, the John Updike Society is currently working  to create unique exhibits that will celebrate the author and the influence that Shillington and Berks County, Pa. had on his life and works.

Here, in remembrance of his birthday, is a photo of an early childhood book with a very young John Updike owner signature inside that will go on display in the house come October 3, when The John Updike Childhood Home, at 117 Philadelphia Ave. in Shillington, has its Grand Opening.

Also at this 1 p.m. ceremony, the plaque confirming the house as being listed on the National Register of Historic Places will be unveiled, as well as a Historic Pennsylvania Marker—both of which were approved last year.

Updike often said that his first ambition was to be a cartoonist and a Disney animator. Instead, he wound up being one of only three American writers to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice, and he wrote more than 60 books over a storied career that spanned some 60 years—enough to earn him the unofficial title of “America’s Man of Letters.”

Happy Birthday, John Updike.

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New Updike monograph by Fromer now available for pre-order

The Moderate Imagination: The Political Thought of John Updike and the Decline of New Deal Liberalism, a monograph by John Updike Society member Yoav Fromer, is now available for pre-orders at Amazon.com.

Scheduled for June 12, 2020 publication by the University Press of Kansas, the new critical work on Updike is 288 pages, hardcover, and priced at $39.95.  Here’s the description:

“In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, Americans finally faced a perplexing political reality: Democrats, purported champions of working people since the New Deal, had lost the white, working-class voters of Middle America. For answers about how this could be, Yoav Fromer turns to an unlikely source: the fiction of John Updike. Though commonly viewed as an East Coast chronicler of suburban angst, the gifted writer (in fact a native of the quintessential rust-belt state, Pennsylvania) was also an ardent man of ideas, political ideas—whose fiction, Fromer tells us, should be read not merely as a reflection of the postwar era, but rather as a critical investigation into the liberal culture that helped define it.

“Several generations of Americans since the 1960s have increasingly felt ‘left behind.’ In Updike’s early work, Fromer finds a fictional map of the failures of liberalism that might explain these grievances. The Moderate Imagination also taps previously unknown archival materials and unread works from his college years at Harvard to offer a clearer view of the author’s acute political thought and ideas. Updike’s prescient literary imagination, Fromer shows, sensed the disappointments and alienation of rural white working- and middle-class Americans decades before conservatives sought to exploit them. In his writing, he traced liberalism’s historic decline to its own philosophical contradictions rather than to only commonly cited external circumstances like the Vietnam War, racial strife, economic recession, and conservative backlash.

“A subtle reinterpretation of John Updike’s legacy, Fromer’s work complicates and enriches our understanding of one of the twentieth century’s great American writers—even as the book deftly demonstrates what literature can teach us about politics and history.”

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Ten Updike books make the Bucket List 1000

List Challenges released their “Final List of Books Recommended in ‘1000 Books to Read Before You Die’: U-Z,” and of course John Updike made that list.

Included in this Bucket List 1000 are (in order of listing):

  • The Maples Stories
  • Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism
  • Odd jobs: Essays and Criticism
  • Rabbit, Run
  • Rabbit Redux
  • Rabbit Is Rich
  • Rabbit at Rest
  • Couples
  • The Witches of Eastwick
  • The Coup



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New Yorker February podcasts start with an Updike story

Yesterday The New Yorker podcasts began the month with playwright David Rabe reading John Updike’s short story, “The Other Side of the Street,” which was published in a 1991 issue of the magazine. He was joined by Deborah Treisman for the reading and discussion.

Here’s the link.

For the book lovers out there, “The Other Side of the Street” was collected in The Afterlife, a group of short stories published by Knopf in 1994.

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Book clinic recommends romantic reads, like Updike’s Couples

The Observer‘s Book critic, Kate Kellaway, was asked to recommend “some good romantic novels that are not cliched,” and she responded,

“Your question makes me think about what it is to be cliched—if only because you might argue that love is the greatest and most necessary of cliches, and if you steer too far from the heart’s core in literature, romance sometimes retreats. . . .

“I imagine you are not insisting that ‘romantic’ involves a happy ending? John Updike’s Couples is full of torment but an addictive read—as is D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. Nabokov’s Lolita about the doomed love between an older man and a ‘nymphet’—is a sullied romance. Marguerite Duras’s The Lover is erotic (are romance and eroticism permitted, momentarily, to be interchangeable?).

“Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera is gorgeously sensual. For those seeking gay romance, André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies and What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell are winners (the last particularly elegaic and passionate). Also worth adding is Sally Rooney’s smash hit Conversations with Friends—balanced between sophistication and naivety; Colm Tóibín’s superb Brooklyn—exploring love when geography is not on its side; and Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday—a beautiful novel about a Jane who does not share Jane Eyre’s good luck.”

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Writer’s take on post-Cold War America includes Rabbit wisdom

In his book The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory (Metropolitan Books, 2020) and in excerpts and essays from the book that were published in the Sundiata Post and RealClear World, writer Andrew Bacevich assesses American history and the country’s current predicament with a little help from John Updike’s best known alter ego:

“‘Without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?’ As the long twilight struggle was finally winding down, Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, novelist John Updike’s late-twentieth-century Everyman, pondered that question. In short order, Rabbit got his answer. So too, after only perfunctory consultation, did his fellow citizens.”

Bacevich’s book takes into account the presidencies of Barack Obama, whom Updike voted for, and Donald Trump, whose rise many feel was predicted by Rabbit’s own evolving attitudes. Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University and a former career Army officer.

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Updike’s early Christmas memory recalled

Scot Lehigh began his Boston Globe opinion piece on “The bookish delights of Christmas” with a recollection of an exchange he had with John Updike about gifts. He had asked Updike and “other luminaries” to talk about “their favorite Christmas gift ever.”

“The ever-gracious Updike wrote back: ‘What the mind goes to first is a copy of a book by James Thurber called Men, Women and Dogs. This must have been in the early ’40s, so I would have been 11 or 12. It was a book of both cartoons and Thurber prose. I remember the delight with which I opened it. It had a lovely fresh smell of glue and new paper. For me, it was a connection to the wonderful world of New York sophistication.’

“The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner added, ‘The opening of the book on the floor was all mixed up with the smell of the Christmas tree and the quality of December light outside the windows and remains in my mind as an island of Christmas joy.'”

Lehigh called Updike’s response the “most evocative” of all the celebrities he contacted.

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Updike Society acquires original Updike house property

It’s official:  On Friday, Dec. 19, The John Updike Society purchased land that was originally the backyard of the John Updike Childhood Home at 117 Philadelphia Avenue—land that includes an aging structure known among Updike scholars and fans as the family “chicken coop.” The Updike property now runs all the way to Brobst St. and the length of Shilling, which was at one time an alley. Realtor Conrad Vanino, who previously received the society’s Distinguished Service Award, represented the society at closing.

The $90,000 purchase was made possible because of a generous donation from the Robert & Adele Schiff Family Foundation, which had given the society the money to buy the Updike house back in 2012. The land provides for additional parking needed to operate the house as a museum, and lawn that can be used for tented receptions.





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Updike Society receives American Family Insurance award

Because of their work preserving The John Updike Childhood Home and turning it into a museum, The John Updike Society was chosen as one of 100 nonprofit organizations to receive a $2500 donation from American Family Insurance and the American Family Insurance Dreams Foundation.

“We selected 100 organizations across the country in support of causes important to those who matter most to us—our customers,” the American Family Insurance Dreams Foundation website stated.

Nearly 10,000 nonprofit organizations were nominated by American Family Insurance customers, and the Updike Society’s work with the Childhood Home stood out as a project worthy of support. The John Updike Society was nominated by a customer of American Family insurance agent John Blumenshine. American Family Insurance is based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Here is a list of the 100 recipients for 2019.

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An insider’s thoughts on Updike and Roth

As Charles McGrath explains in an essay on “Roth/Updike” that was published in the Autumn 2019 edition of The Hudson Review, he had the privilege of knowing John Updike well enough to play golf with him and Philip Roth enough to visit him in his home. Those privileges came to him because he was a literary insider, one whose essays appeared in The New Yorker (where he was deputy editor) and The New York Times Book Review (which he formerly edited).

His thoughtful consideration and comparison is perhaps the best essay written on the topic of Updike and Roth. Reading it, you get a pretty fair summary of each writer’s career but also an assessment of their relationship:  “They weren’t enemies, but neither were they friends, exactly. They were rivals who also happened to be mutual admirers—two of America’s greatest living writers, peering over each other’s shoulders.”

McGrath doesn’t shy away from assessing Updike’s and Roth’s careers, either. “Overnight, Roth and Updike became the two dirtiest book writers in America, or the two dirtiest with serious literary credentials. Then, in mid-career, each of them wrote a four-volume masterwork about a single character—Zuckerman in Roth’s case, Rabbit in Updike’s.”

“The two men weren’t in lockstep, and they weren’t imitating each other, certainly, but each was reading the other—with interest, admiration, maybe a tinge of envy—and surely they were both aware that each of them was assembling a major body of work and that (with the possible exception of Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison) no one else in America was writing at the same level.”

Continuing with a horse race analogy, McGrath writes,”Updike shot out in front with the first two Rabbit books; then, with The Ghost Writer, Roth caught up and even edged ahead a bit, before stumbling a little in mid-career while Updike, with the second two Rabbit books, took a big lead, practically lapping Roth. Then, just when Roth seemed to be out of gas, he got a second wind—probably the greatest late-career burst in all of American literature—with Sabbath’s Theater and the American Trilogy, and now Updike was struggling to catch up.”

Those assessments are wonderful, but it’s McGrath’s insightful perceptions of the two writers that makes this essay so poignantly powerful. He misses them and their book-a-year regimen, and so do many readers.

Read the full essay


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