John Updike:
shared recollections

A report by Tom Knapp,
February 1996

A lot of people share John Updike's fond memories.

Some of those memories, captured in a wealth of prose and verse, were shared with an overflowing crowd during the author's 1996 visit to Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. F&M's Hensel Hall, which seats close to 1,050 people, was packed with at least 100 extra people standing along the walls or sitting in the aisles. Hundreds of people were turned away at the door. (One man, barred at the front door of Hensel, identified himself as a college trustee and vented his frustrations on an exasperated security guard. Unless he was admitted immediately, the man vowed, his $1,000-a-year contributions to the college would be discontinued. He didn't get in.)

The event began promptly at 8 when Updike -- a tall, white-haired gentleman -- approached the lectern with an armload of books clutched tightly to his chest. For the next hour, the audience was absorbed by the author's expressive, genial readings, which included several poems, novel excerpts and a complete short story. Updike's deep, gravelly voice rolled through the selections, his eyes focused on his audience much more than they were on his text. The audience returned his gaze with rapt attention, some studiously taking notes or analyzing his use of the language, others sitting with their heads back, wearing relaxed smiles and absorbing Updike's memories.

Updike kept the tone conversational throughout his 75 minutes on the stage. Sometimes, at the end of a reading, he would grin, rub a hand across his brow and add a few more recollections to the written memories. Many of his writings, the poetry in particular, was "written in the voice of a rememberer," he said. And he applied a healthy dose of nostalgia to a range of topics, from the cracks in the sidewalk of his old hometown to a box turtle found on his mother's farm.

He paused midway through the poem "Ex-Basketball Player" -- a theme he further developed in his popular quartet of Rabbit novels -- to explain that Esso was the name of a gas station chain absorbed by Exxon. "One of the dangers of becoming an elder writer is that you find your works printed in anthologies with footnotes, explaining what once needed no explanation," he said ruefully.

Born in 1932 in Reading (about an hour north of Lancaster), Updike spent his early years in nearby Shillington. Now a resident New Englander, Updike said he returned often to Pennsylvania until his mother's death in 1989.

He expounded on the differences between his two homes in a poetic comparison of their climates, the seasons and their impact on nature. He also recited "Shillington," a love poem to his boyhood home with all its imperfections.

Before reading a lengthy passage on the life of James Buchanan, Pennsylvania's only contribution to the U.S. presidency, Updike recalled sneaking across a wintery lawn at the Buchanan mansion at Wheatland, which was closed for the season, to peek through a window and gain new insight into the man's life. The empty furniture and a bowl of plaster pretzels did little to expand the novel Updike was working on. (He later wrote a play instead.) But his later work, Memories of the Ford Adminstration, wove pieces of Buchanan's life into the life of a fictional historical researcher.

Updike then provided a vivid description of Lancaster in 1819, where Buchanan strolled with his fiancee, Anne Coleman. His voice softening whenever Coleman spoke, deepening for Buchanan, Updike painted a beautiful picture of the city, filling in the old-time streets and buildings.

He avoided reading passages from his new novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, which he said he is "kind of tired of reading from." Instead, he concluded with a short story, "The Orphaned Swimming Pool," which examines a divorce from the perspective of a plastic pool.

After reading until 9 p.m., Updike opened the floor to the audience. For 15 minutes he fielded questions on his faith in marriage, his views on religion and his opinion of writers Joyce Carol Oates and Jack Kerouac. Oates, who spoke at F&M in 1994, apparently complained then that Updike never responded to "Oak Crayola," a poem she dedicated to him. "I didn't really understand it," he said wryly. "It seemed to be about eating crayons, which might have meant more to Joyce than it has to me."

F&M is not the first place where someone has brought up Oates' complaint, he noted; apparently, he said, chuckling, she carries the grudge to each public appearance. Updike also admitted that Jack Kerouac's breakthrough novel, On the Road, was the impetus for his own Rabbit, Run. "I think that On the Road's success made me faintly sore," he said. "I was jealous." Where Kerouac urged a generation to "hit the road," Updike said he wanted to show with his book that, "Hey, the road has problems, too."

When one man said Updike's Christian influences don't jive well with his tales of divorce and adultery, the writer responded: "It's my task, not to preach, but to paint and portray, ... to show life as it really exists." He added: "To view anything human as beyond the pale or unsuitable for description is somehow an un-Christian thought."

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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