This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for March 18, 2017: Girdle

Mar. 18, 2017: birthday: John Updike

It’s the birthday of novelist John Updike (books by this author), born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1932). He went to Harvard, where he majored in English and drew cartoons for the Harvard Lampoon (he also wrote the majority of each issue). After graduation, he got married, sold his first short story to The New Yorker, and headed off to England with his new wife. In England, Updike studied painting at Oxford University and continued to send poems and stories to The New Yorker. His work impressed E.B. and Katharine White — E.B. wrote for The New Yorker and Katharine was its fiction editor. While they were vacationing in England they visited Updike and offered him a job writing the magazine’s “Talk of the Town” column. The Updikes moved back to America with their daughter, and he went to work.

His first “Talk of the Town” column was so good that the editor immediately promoted him. After that, his pieces were published verbatim instead of edited, and he earned $200 per story instead of $100. He wrote a faux-academic piece about Manhattanites’ faces, another about pigeons, and for another he eavesdropped from the corner of the Biltmore Hotel’s bar during college spring break. For one column, Updike walked from the Empire State Building to the Rockefeller Center without walking on Fifth or Sixth Avenue — a task that involved climbing through a basement window and squeezing underneath fences. He described his work: “The New Yorker paid me to gad about, to interview tertiary celebrities, to peek into armories, and to write accounts of my mild adventures.”

After two years at The New Yorker, Updike and his wife had another child, and they decided to leave the city for a 17th-century house in the small town of Ipswich, Massachusetts. He wrote: “The decade was the sixties, my wife and I were youngish, and the house suited us just fine. […] A previous owner had put a pipe and a pole in a small upstairs room to make a walk-in closet; fair weather or foul, I would hike from our bedroom to my clothes every morning. I find I have no memory at all of where my wife kept hers. Perhaps, it being the sixties, she only needed a miniskirt and a lumberjack shirt. Our children, four of them, slept in four little rooms in a row above the long kitchen, which for a time had been two kitchens, a partition intervening. There had been only two children when we moved in, and if there had been six little rooms, we might have felt obliged to fill them up.”

By 1959, Updike was just five years out of Harvard, but already he had published more than a hundred pieces in The New Yorker and finished three books: a novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959); a book of poetry, The Carpentered Hen (1958); and a book of stories, The Same Door (1959). That same year, he began the novel Rabbit, Run (1960), which he followed with the sequels Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990). Those novels, the best-known of his books, tell the life story of Harry Angstrom, nicknamed “Rabbit,” a former high school basketball star living in suburban Pennsylvania. Updike said: “I could observe, looking around me at American society in 1959, a number of scared and dodgy men — and I felt a certain fright and dodginess within myself. This kind of man who won’t hold still, who won’t make a commitment, who won’t quite pull his load in society, became Harry Angstrom. […] He accumulated characteristics — even his nickname, ‘Rabbit.’ Rabbits are dodgy, rabbits are sexy, rabbits are nervous, rabbits like grass and vegetables.”

Updike wrote more than 50 books, including 22 novels. His books include Couples (1968), Too Far to Go (1979), The Witches of Eastwick (1984), In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), and Terrorist (2006).

He said, “No amount of learned skills can substitute for the feeling of having a lot to say, of bringing news. Memories, impressions, and emotions from your first 20 years on earth are most writers’ main material; little that comes afterward is quite so rich and resonant. By the age of 40, you have probably mined the purest veins of this precious lode; after that, continued creativity is a matter of sifting the leavings.”