John Updike's Archive: A Great Writer at Work





When John Updike died of lung cancer in January 2009, at 76, there seemed little left to learn about him. Not only was he among the most prolific writers of his time, but he was also among the most autobiographical, recasting the details of his life in an outpouring of fiction, poetry, essays and criticism that appeared with metronomic regularity in the pages of The New Yorker and in books published at a rate of almost one a year for more than half a century.

Yet Updike was a private man, if not a recluse like J. D. Salinger or a phantom like Thomas Pynchon, then a one-man gated community, visible from afar but firmly sealed off, with a No Trespassing sign posted in front.

Updike cultivated his embowered solitude early. At 25, with no books yet published, he fled New York (and a writing job at The New Yorker) and moved to the Massachusetts shore, an hour north of Boston, where he remained for the next five decades, perching eventually on an 11-acre estate he shared with his second wife, Martha Updike, in Beverly Farms. There he assumed the remote aspect of a literary squire, ensconced in a nest of second-floor offices overlooking the Atlantic and descending twice a week for rounds of golf at the exclusive Myopia Hunt Club. He surfaced intermittently for interviews or readings, invariably presenting a mask of debonair geniality, only to retreat once more.

But all the while he was fending off the public, Updike was also leaving a trail of clues to his works and days: an enormous archive fashioned as meticulously as one of his lathe-turned sentences. "The archive was vitally important to him," Mrs. Updike said in a telephone interview, especially in his last days. “He saw it not just as a collection of his working materials, but as also a record of the time he lived in.” Today the material crowds an aisle and a half of metal shelving in the basement of Houghton Library, Harvard University’s rare book and manuscript repository that sits atop stone stairs in Harvard Yard, a short walk from Hollis Hall, the redbrick dormitory where Updike lived as a freshman 60 years ago....



comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list