November 21, 2003

Small-Town Musings

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John Updike, despite his confessed dislike of interviews, consented to a conversation with The Sun during his recent visit to Cornell. For 30 minutes on Wednesday morning, Updike informally related memories of his undergraduate years, his earliest writings and observations about literature’s evolution over the past half-century.

As Updike spoke, he fidgeted constantly: his eyes darted around the Statler Hotel’s lobby, he rubbed and twisted at his eyebrows and he recurrently tugged at his socks. Despite his visible anxiety, his responses demonstrated the unparalleled wit and mastery of language for which he is well known.

Updike began by summarizing his educational career. He first published his now-famous light verse and less-renowned cartoons in the Shillington High School Chatterbox. It was, he said, “an excuse to write.” At the beginning of his senior year, Updike’s mother flipped through a copy of This Is My Best, editor Whit Burnett’s compendium of critically regarded fiction, and made an observation: many of the book’s “93 greatest living authors” were once students at Harvard College. With his mother’s encouragement, Updike applied to the Cambridge university and later accepted its offer of admission.

Updike was quick to emphasize that Cornell, from which his mother had earned a master’s degree, had offered him a superior scholarship offer. He confessed that he was drawn to Harvard by its venerable satirical magazine, the Lampoon. There, like luminaries Robert Benchley and George Santayana before him, Updike began to work on his satire and verse. He rose through the editorial ranks and eventually became the magazine’s president during his senior year.

Harvard, Cambridge and Boston were new and different places, Updike stressed; they were far cries from his Reading, Penn., hometown. Writing was to be his niche in college, however. He took a variety of writing classes during his tenure as an English major at Harvard, the most influential of which was taught by Albert Guerard, who, Updike mentioned, was an intense teacher who was later mentor to surrealist writer John Hawkes.

Throughout the interview, Updike alluded to encounters with literati, places where he had lived and the diversity of books he has read.

After graduating from Harvard, Updike accepted a fellowship at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in Oxford. It was to be his last hurrah as a cartoonist; upon his return, he pursued writing as a career. The New Yorker, to which Updike had submitted cartoons and verse since he was 15, began to accept his fiction.

Two years (and two children) later, Updike and his family moved from metropolitan New York to Ipswich, Mass. The town was attractively isolated: he could “more easily spy on American life” and “work on two novels I wanted to write.”

Updike does not find life in his small town limiting: “It is wrong to think that small-town people live in a bubble.” Stories, he said, require research; as such, he spends a lot of time in the library and reading.

“Being a writer is like being a student all of your life,” Updike said.

Commenting on the changes in the literary world he has observed since he began writing professionally in the ’50s, Updike said that “books were once supposed to market themselves.” Authors are now “walking advertisements” who must endure “mega book tours” that take them to 33 cities, Updike lamented.

“Identity doesn’t make the book any better,” he said.

Updike, brought to Cornell by the Atkinson Forum in American Studies and the Department of English Program in Creative Writing, read in the Statler Auditorium on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he took part in a question-and-answer session entitled “The Craft of Fiction: A Conversation with John Updike.”

Archived article by David Gura