In Person

John Updike, and the Curious Business of Sustaining Literary Reputations

By posted at 6:00 am on November 26, 2010 0

Toward the end of his life, John Updike was fond of musing about how little the world would note his passing.  He suspected that “a shrug and tearless eyes / will greet my overdue demise; / The wide response will be, I know, / ‘I thought he died a while ago.’”

The John Updike Society, which held its first conference last month, is dedicated to proving the author wrong.  The event, held near Updike’s hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania, started the society’s work of sustaining and growing a literary reputation. The weekend included academic readings, panels of friends and family, and tours of the author’s two boyhood homes and the environs of Shillington and Reading where much of his fiction was set. The mission of the Society — along with creating opportunities to enjoy the fellowship of Updike devotees – is “awakening and sustaining reader interest in the literature and life of John Updike.”

No detail was too small for discussion. Attendees wanted to know if Updike did the dishes at home, whether he liked Sinatra, if he was handy around the house. On bus tours, attendees pondered the department store where his mother worked, the restaurant where he’d lunched as teenager, the old movie theater featured in his non-fiction.

Much of the attendees’ interest, understandably, focused on discovering if their idol was indeed the man they knew.

During the testimony of family and friends, Updike held up pretty well. He was described by classmates as bookish, popular and enduringly responsive; by his children as a present if occasionally distracted father; and by his first wife Mary Weatherall as an author who valued his spouse’s opinion. There were a couple of surprises – he might not have written as many words each day as he claimed and according to his children, he inexplicably struggled to connect with his father, Wesley, a man Updike’s children seemed to adore.

Then of course there were the conference papers, all intended to continue the critical discussion that will be so important to sustaining the Updike reputation long-term.

“Can an author survive without authorial champions?” Society President James Plath asked when I interviewed him after the conference. “I don’t think so.”

The evidence supports his claim. In one of his last interviews, in October 2008, Updike cited the curious case of Emily Dickinson, who was not well known upon her death and who required the help of critics decades down the road to lift her to her current place in the canon. “There is a whole raft of poets contemporary with Emily Dickinson,” Updike said. “None of them would have imagined that she would have become one of the defining names of American letters.”

The most famous of the exhumed luminaries — the example often cited to convey the cruelties of literary reputation — is Herman Melville, who died at age 72 in relative anonymity after several literary disappointments and 19 years working in a customs house. His obituary in 1891 in the New York Times looked, in its entirety, like this:

Herman Melville died yesterday at his residence, 104 East 26th Street, this city, or heart disease, aged seventy-two. He was the writer of Typee, Omoo, Mobie Dick, and other sea-faring tales, written in earlier years. He leaves a wife and two daughters, Mrs. M. B. Thomas and Miss Melville.

Bummer.  Melville apparently was the deceased writer Updike worried he would become — dead before he‘d died.

It took 30 years for what is now called the Melville Revival to commence and for Melville to ascend to his rightful place in the American canon. This was accomplished by the only people capable of doing it — scholars, historians, writers, publishers. In Melville’s case, it was biographers Raymond Weaver and Carl Van Doren and author and critic D.H. Lawrence. Without them, Melville’s historical significance might have diminished beyond even the four lines devoted to him in the Times obituary.

Updike seemed to understand as much. In that late 2008 interview, he said literary reputations are “strange things,” left often to the whims and tastes of future generations. He noted that 19th century readers were often concerned with order, meter, and plots in which good triumphs over evil – qualities less important to today’s modern and postmodern readers. He lauded Norman Mailer for not pushing too hard in his lifetime on behalf of his literary reputation, since it was an issue largely beyond his control.

Society President Plath, of course, likes Updike’s odds. He suspects future scholars will be wondrous of Updike’s capacity with metaphor, happy to find his descriptions of sex, thrilled at the number of other texts that Updike works off of in his oeuvre — including three novels written in homage to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. “I think he’s in pretty good shape,” Plath says.

Updike’s sometimes editor at the New Yorker, Charles McGrath, also liked Updike’s odds of enduring. During that late interview with Updike, he said, “If those of us in this room had to bet who would last, you’d put your money on Bellow, Updike, and Roth.”

And yet Updike knew even he could be forgotten. There was the fear, very real, Updike thought, that reading of any kind might wither away, as well as the possibility that future generations will not be concerned with the perspective of a white, middle-class male from the Mid-Atlantic region who wrote primarily in a realistic mode. He said:

These piles of books that all of us writer are piling up [could] become just as burdensome as Latin writing in the Renaissance. There was a lot of that, and who reads it now except a few scholars? So, yes, it’s not something you should stay awake at night about, you should, my theory is, do your best, try to be honest, in your work, and amusing…. Beyond that it is out of your control

covercoverAnd, on a weekend devoted to John Updike, there were signs of the struggle to endure any author faces. His children, though admiring and laudatory of their father’s work, admitted to not always getting through it – daughter Miranda has tried to read Couples a few times. Daughter Elizabeth Cobblah said her father had decades ago suggested she read his African novel, The Coup, in anticipation of her marrying a man from Ghana. She hasn’t yet gotten around to it, but she plans to.

coverTrouble also lurked in the center of the Updike universe, the Shillington house where he grew up, and which he lovingly described in short stories, novels, and his memoirs, Self-Consciousness. The house is now occupied by the advertising agency Niemczyk/Hoffman, whose employees graciously allowed the Society members to tour their offices. In one room, formerly the guest bedroom where Updike watched his mother write fiction, the agency’s principal, Tracy Hoffman, was asked by a Society member if he read Updike.

“I’ve tried, but the descriptions …” Hoffman said, his voice trailing off, suggesting the descriptions were … um … too much.

“Have you tried Pigeon Feathers?” the Society member asked.

“I did,” Hoffman said, wincing.

In his memoirs, Updike said, that one of his great lifetime joys was watching the world going on without him, “ the awareness of things going by, impinging on my consciousness, and then, all beyond my control, sliding away toward their own destination and destiny.”

In that respect, too, Updike might have been gratified by this first weekend held in his honor – the world, as he suspected, will continue to roll on happily both with and without him.

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