Writing to Updike

Updike Cover

It could be argued that John Updike pursued his god-like literary ambition–“to leave behind a faithful record of the second half of the twentieth century” p. 394– 1.) by staying spiritually centered on the small-town child he once was, and 2.) by regarding his readers, wherever they were, as his community and as his correspondents. On the last page of his biography of Updike, Begley writes:

…he was always that little boy on the floor of the Shillington dining room, bending his attention to the paper, riding that thin pencil line into a glorious future, fulfilling the towering ambition of his grandest dreams. “I’ve remained,” he once said, “all too true to my youthful self.” p. 486.

In a 1960 New Yorker essay-Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu-about the end of Ted Williams’ career with the Red Sox, John Updike wrote,

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

Unlike the baseball god Ted Williams, the literary god John Updike acknowledged his fans and answered letters. He typed postcards. As I read Adam Begley’s fine and authoritative biography of Updike I kept wondering if he would mention anything about those postcards. Over the years, especially during the later years of Updike’s life, columnists and writers noted that they had received an Updike postcard. At last, near the end of the book, Begley is writing about a correspondence between Updike and his friend Joyce Carol Oates, after Updike won the 2006 Rea Award for the Short Story. Oates had been one of the judges, along with Richard Ford and Ann Beattie:

He told Oates…how very dear his stories had been to him, both because they earned him a living and because they recorded, in an oblique way, his life…That remark, tossed off casually at the end of one of the thousands of print-crowded three-by-five postcards he mailed out over a lifetime…

Three of those thousands of postcards were addressed to me, one in response to each of three letters I wrote to Updike about his books.

The first of those letters, written in the mid 80’s on my college electric typewriter, was a reflection on the novel Roger’s Version. The letter began with the thought that Updike might prefer that his readers would not bother to write back. The first line of the postcard sent from Updike–which landed in the general delivery box of the South Chatham Post Office and was handed across the counter to me–was,  No, letters like yours written back are always welcome.

A few years later, in response to comments I sent on his next novel S. which, like Roger’s Version, was an inspired reworking of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Updike sent a note:

Dear Mr. Johnson:
Thank you for your kind and amusing response to S. You seem more responsive to the serpentine nature of the whole enterprise than most of the reviews I have read, and I am pleased that all this registered with somebody. As a small child I was somewhat upset at the rough treatment the serpent gets in Genesis–isn’t he bruised around the head, or something? We’ll, I’m trying to think about other things, as you can imagine, but it’s good to be reminded that one writes for readers, somewhere, somehow,
best wishes,
John Updike

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