Wall Street Journal recommends Updike house museum

On Sept. 4, 2023, Philadelphia-based cultural reporter and critic Julia Klein’s review of The John Updike Childhood Home was published in The Wall Street Journal. Klein, an expert on museums, spent three hours walking through the house and taking notes on the 10 rooms of exhibits.

“For such a clear-eyed chronicler of America’s angst-ridden middle class, John Updike was surprisingly sentimental about his Pennsylvania roots. Here, one of his narrators declared, ‘the basic treasure of his life was buried,’” Klein wrote.

“In the short story ‘The Brown Chest,’ Updike’s narrator recalls ‘the house that he inhabited as if he would never live in any other’ and the ‘strange, and ancient, and almost frightening’ wooden chest that served as a repository of family memories.

“Both its hold on the author and the allure of its intimate artifacts, from that chest to Updike’s earliest drawings, make the John Updike Childhood Home a worthy site of literary pilgrimage.

“The house museum, opened in October 2021, recently added seven vitrines, with artifacts including the Remington rifle of Updike’s short story ‘Pigeon Feathers’ and the Olivetti manual typewriter he used for four decades.”

The John Updike Society purchased The John Updike Childhood Home in 2012 with the intent of turning it into a literary site and museum to celebrate one of America’s greatest writers. The purchase was made possible by a grant from The Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation, which also supported every year of the meticulous restoration so that the house would look, inside and out, as it did during Updike’s time there. That foundation and others—most notably The PECO Foundation and The John and Gaye Patton Charitable Foundation—enabled the society to complete work and acquire many exhibits, while Elizabeth Updike Cobblah, David Updike, Michael Updike, and Miranda Updike contributed a great many family treasures. But donations also came from society members, Updike’s childhood friends, and members of the community who have embraced the museum as their own.

“Curated by James Plath, an Illinois Wesleyan University professor and president of the Updike Society, the museum celebrates Updike’s career, emphasizing how Shillington formed him as a writer,” Klein wrote, adding that the museum’s thematic approach “pays off particularly well in his mother’s writing room,” where images and artifacts suggest the complicated mother-son relationship with each other and their shared goal of becoming a writer. “The relationship seems to have been at once close and embattled, with the son vaulting to the literary success his mother craved.”

Updike Society members can be proud that the nine-year project has been positively received. It’s been a long journey that began with Habitat for Humanity of Berks County volunteers stripping wallpaper and tile flooring and knocking out walls that had been added after the Updikes moved out. Then restoration expert Bob Doerr and his crew carefully researched the details of the house during Updike’s time and restored it so meticulously that an older couple who had visited the house when the Updikes lived there said it was just as they remembered it.

Society community members donated Updike and Shillington artifacts and books, while Dave Silcox helped to find local treasures for the museum.  John Updike Childhood Home director Maria Lester, and before her Sue Guay, worked with Plath to move the project forward, while property manager John Trimble arranged all of the objects that had been selected for display in cases and took care of printing all the IDs that were provided and hanging all of the wall art and artifacts. And more than a dozen docents, Dave Ruoff the most senior among them, volunteered their time to staff the museum. Many more people were involved, of course—too many to name—because it truly takes a borough to create and sustain a museum like this.

If you would like to become involved in the Updike society, email jplath@iwu.edu; if you live in the area and would like to volunteer as a docent, contact Maria Lester, johnupdikeeducation@gmail.com.

In Memoriam: Christopher Carduff

Christopher Carduff, Books Editor of The Wall Street Journal, died unexpectedly on August 14, 2023. He was 66. According to his obituary, “The cause was complications related to a sudden brain bleed and blood clot. An extremely talented editor, he left a large literary legacy and made an enormous contribution to the canon of American letters.”

As an expert on John Updike, he was asked to serve as a trustee for the John H. Updike Literary Trust, and in his capacity as publishing consultant to the Trust he edited the posthumously published Updike volumes Higher Gossip, Always Looking, Collected Stories, Selected Poems, and multiple collections of Updike’s novels. Recently he oversaw publication of a forthcoming collection of selected letters compiled by Updike scholar and John Updike Society vice-president James Schiff—a volume now expected to be released sometime in 2024-25.

As his obituary notes, “In addition to Updike, Chris was the estate-appointed editor of posthumous works by Maeve Brennan, Penelope Fitzgerald, Daniel Fuchs, and William Maxwell. From 2006 to 2017, he was an editor and publishing consultant at The Library of America, overseeing the publication of American classics. He conceived and supervised multivolume editions of the collected works of many writers, including Carson McCullers, Katherine Anne Porter, Virgil Thomson, Kurt Vonnegut, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.” Carduff has been the Books Editor at The Wall Street Journal since 2017.

Chris was also an occasional but valued advisor to the Updike Society, president James Plath said. “He was a resource whose opinions I trusted and appreciated, whether they were about our work on an Updike museum-in-progress or, more recently, concerning a campaign the society plans to mount to get Updike on a U.S. postage stamp,” Plath said. “He will be missed, and his passing leaves a void on the John H. Updike Literary Trust that has yet to be filled.”

In “A friend’s passing reminds me that life is precious,” Danny Heitman wrote, “Among his favorite writers was John Updike, whom Chris admired for describing everyday experience in a way that makes it seem worthy of respect. That ideal, which Updike called giving ‘the mundane its beautiful due,’ is something that Chris seemed to regard as a kind of prayer.”

The society sends its condolences to Chris’s wife, Elizabeth Skinner Carduff, his two sisters, a brother, and nieces and nephews. See his obituary for details on how to donate to the Christopher Carduff Scholarship fund at The Columbia University Publishing Course.



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.”

Read the rest of the column.

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.

Updike’s phrase ‘post-pill paradise’ still resonates

The average writer isn’t typically mentioned in an article about pharmaceuticals, but of course Updike isn’t typical. Neither was Couples, his 1968 novel that explored the social and sexual consequences of the birth control pill—a free-love era medical advancement that nonetheless required a doctor’s prescription.

Now a birth control pill is being marketed as an over-the-counter drug, and a Flagler Live article about it uses Updike’s novel as an illustration, along with this caption:

Welcome, she said, to the post-pill paradise, a light-hearted blasphemy that immensely relieved him,” Piet Hanema, the central character in John Updike’s Couples narrates as he is about to begin his affair with Georgene early in the 1968 novel that made Updike, and the pill, household items. (The italics are in the original text.) Updike loved the post-pill paradise phrase so much, he used it twice more and referred to it in subsequent interviews. But the true paradise may only be beginning.”

That this quote and the cover of Couples is employed in an article that’s not about the socio-sexual ramifications, but rather “the move toward over-the-counter birth control as an important step toward accessible and equitable reproductive health care for all Americans,” illustrates how that well-turned phrase—”post-pill paradise”—still captures the imagination.

Read the whole 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.

1, 2, 3 books and you’re out at the old ball game

Writing for the Vancouver Is Awesome website, Ryan Beil suggested “3 books about baseball to put on your summer reading list . . . and no, they aren’t Shoeless Joe or Moneyball.”

“Generally speaking, in the summer months when I’m not watching baseball, I enjoy lazing about and cracking a good book. And believe it or not, those books often feature baseball itself or baseball-adjacent ideas and themes. My obsession never takes a break,” Beil wrote.

He named “a couple of baseball books that I’ve enjoyed to add to your summer reading lists”:

The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team, by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller (about running a minor league baseball team)

Winning Fixes Everything, by Evan Drellich (a book about the Astros cheating scandal that the journalist bought but has yet to read)

Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, by John Updike.

“This one isn’t even a book. It’s an essay. But it does come in book form. I know because I’ve acquired it. And this time, I’ve even read it! On Sept.28, 1960, Ted Williams played his last game of baseball at the legendary Fenway Park. John Updike, then 28, was watching that day and he penned this famous essay about the experience and Ted Williams rocky life in Baseball. It’s capital “R” Romantic about baseball, just a beautiful piece of writing. I think you could even read it online. Go ahead. Google it. I dare you.