John Updike delivers annual Jefferson lecture

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John Updike delivered the National Endowment for the Humanities’ annual Jefferson Lecture Thursday night, accepting the highest honor bestowed by the federal government on humanists. Seizing on the NEH’s Picturing America project, which places reproductions of American art in public schools and libraries across the country, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author toured the artistic landscape to answer the question, “What is American about American art?” After surveying painters from John Singleton Copley and Edward Hopper through the artists of Abstract Expressionism, Updike concluded by applying to American art William Carlos Williams’s assertion that “there are no ideas but in things.” “The American artist,” he said, “first born into a continent without museums and art schools, took Nature as his only instructor, and things as his principal study.” When asked after the talk whether he ever felt the pull of academe, where many of his Jefferson predecessors made their mark on the humanities, Updike told Inside Higher Ed, “I think I’m too mean to be a teacher.” The author, whose father was a teacher, added that summer writing classes he led at Harvard University in the 1960s made him “depressed” with the suspicion that some of his students were better writers than he was.

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