Conversation: Archive Offers Revealing Look at John Updike

John Updike

Novelist and short story author John Updike in Massachusetts in the mid-1960s. Photo by Susan Wood/Getty Images.

It’s an extraordinary behind-the-scenes look at the work and the mind of one of this country’s greatest writers: John Updike, creator of “Rabbit” Angstrom and so much more, who died in January 2009. Harvard University’s Houghton Library, a rare book and manuscript depository, has inherited nearly 170 boxes of Updike’s papers, including rejected short stories, personal letters and revised and rewritten drafts.

The archive reveals a complex artist, “leaving a trail of clues to his works and days: an enormous archive fashioned as meticulously as one of his lathe-turned sentences,” writes Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review.

Sam TanenhausTanenhaus got an advanced look at that archive, when he spent three days poring over some of the material. I spoke to him today from his office in New York:

(A transcript is after the jump.)

You can read Tanenhaus’ article in the New York Times here, as well as see three drafts of the opening to John Updike’s novel “Rabbit at Rest” in this interactive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Joining me now on the phone is Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review. Welcome to you.

SAM TANENHAUS: Good to be here with you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So tell me about this, describe this archive that you had a chance to look at.

SAM TANENHAUS: Well, you know, John Updike was the most self-sufficient, do-it-yourself author in modern American history, and this archive shows another dimension of it. There are about 170 boxes; they fill an aisle-and-a-half in the basement of the Houghton Library at Harvard, and Updike assembled the contents himself — every single box. He’s a guy who saw his literary universe in a proprietary way. He was a kind of yahweh who controlled the cosmos he created and he built; we now know an alternative universe, which were the archival materials he used to produce this enormous and magnificent body of work, and he didn’t like other people to get involved. You know, Jeff, you may be familiar — you have spoken with Updike yourself — that he not only drafted all his manuscripts in pencil, he typed them himself even before the days of word processors. He designed his own book jackets, he proofread every edition of his book, and if he found errors, even an accent marks, he kept lists, sent them to his publisher, Knopf, so the next edition would be pristine. He loved every aspect of his craft, and the archive is a kind of through-the-looking-glass vision of Updike’s literary world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you get a sense from all of that you just said, plus looking at the archive, is it a control freak personality or is it a looking to legacy, or just as you say, he’s so much into the work of writing that he’s into all aspects of it?

SAM TANENHAUS: All three, but I’d say especially the last. He loved the tradecraft of being a writer. And there’s an interesting paradox here, because people who interviewed Updike or even knew him very well, like my predecessor Charles McGrath, Chip McGrath, who edited the Book Review before I did and was a close friend of Updike — in fact I saw letters from Updike to Chip, was surprised at how devotedly Updike was tending to his own legacy because he was very self effacing in person. If he sent a story off to the New Yorker, and here he was probably the greatest New Yorker writer of his time among many other things, he was delighted when they accepted it, you know, as if he were an apprentice writer sending his first manuscript over the transom. He never talked about his place in the literary pantheon. He never placed himself in a particular literary context, never said that Henry James or Herman Melville had been the lodestars for him, never matched himself up against other writers in a competitive way, spoke as a kind of workman of the literary world. And to discover as I did in the three days I had going through his papers, that from the beginning he envisioned where he would go as a writer, where American fiction should go, remarkably even when he was a college student, and that he would preserve a time capsule not only of the materials he worked from, but of the time and place that he inhabited as an interesting sense — and you know I don’t want to offend other writers or simplify Updike by saying in some ways the most patriotic of great American writers — was to see that he was continuing his work as a chronicler through his archive as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, this is a man, a writer, and you say this in the piece you wrote in the Times, who used his life and his place, such a fine sense of those things, to the extent that we as readers might have felt that we knew him in some way, but you also the papers also suggest that Updike “was a more complex artist and person than he chose to admit.” So was there a sort of ah-ha moment for you as you were combing through things? Something that stood out that told you that perhaps we didn’t quite know the man or that he was more complex, as you say, than even he chose to know?

SAM TANENHAUS: Yes, Jeff, there were a few such moments. One came when I looked at three different versions he wrote of the opening of the page of “Rabbit at Rest,” which is one of his two or three greatest works. It’s the culminating novel in that great cycle, that great tetralogy, the Rabbit novels, which are really Updike’s portrait of middle America after the Second World War. And Updike had the reputation for being the most facile of writers. He said more than once he wrote more quickly than he read. The words poured out of him, and he liked the idea and encouraged it that he didn’t really work all that hard. That he spent a few hours each day, he would try to complete three pages of fiction and then would rest. In fact what you see, what I saw, and on our website at the Times you can actually see reproductions of those three pages, opening pages of “Rabbit at Rest.” He was a painstaking reviser, changing entire sequences of paragraphs, rephrasing constantly, putting marginal notes to himself to remember to include a piece of information the reader would need, worrying about the phrasing of an adverb in the opening paragraph — he was undecided for three drafts whether he wanted to use the word vaguely or somehow, and went back and forth between the two. Fascinating. Also what was surprising was he had more self doubt than one associates with so confident a prose writer. Remember, this is someone whose first stories published in the New Yorker were written when he was a college student at Harvard. Yet he was repeatedly rejected for creative writing courses by professors there who didn’t understand that they had a genius on their hands, which is not uncommon. Also that fed questions he had, fueled most interestingly by his roommate, the remarkable social historian Christopher Lasch, author of “Culture of Narcissism,” who roomed with Updike for three years, fed fears Updike had that he might be too facile for his own good, that he was essentially a humorist and perhaps didn’t have the moral and intellectual seriousness he needed to be a truly great American author. And you see him struggling with this in the letters he wrote to his parents — there are two volumes called the Letters to Plowville saved by his mother, Linda Hoyer Updike, who was a writer herself and took enormous vicarious pride in her son’s accomplishments. She bound letters he wrote home almost every week for some 17 years, and he records all his tribulations there and you see him wondering whether he is going to be a slick entertainer or a major author, major artist and figuring out what he needs to do really to be both, to be commercially successful and to be a serious artist. This is attention that runs through much of Updike’s life and work, but there it is exposed in this very pristine way when he was 19 and 20 years old.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that leads to the final thing I want ask you about a particular letter that you referred to when he was 19, thinking about — well, this also ties into what you were just referring to when he got rejected by a professor of Harvard for one of the writing courses, right — this letter where he refers to the influence of European writers, particularly modernism and Joyce and what America or American writers really need to do.

SAM TANENHAUS: Yes, Jeff, to me this was the single most exciting discovery, was the letter Updike wrote at the age of 19 to his parents in which he said America doesn’t need a Proust, a Joyce. What it needs is a Shakespeare or a Milton or an Alexander Pope, someone he said who understands the limitations of his era and tries to record what it’s like to live in this moment with absolute fidelity, and he also says love. And he says for all the failings of my work, and this is a 19 year old saying it, it will stand as a manifesto of my love to the time in which I was born. And what Updike saw was — remember, put this on a timeframe — this was written in 1951, so Hemmingway was at the end of his career, Faulkner nearing the end of his, Fitzgerald was dead. There was a new generation emerging that was kind of critical of much of American culture. Norman Mailer would be one example, Saul Bellow, whom Updike really admired, was another, but what was missing in this extraordinary phrase Updike uses was someone who can create an epic out of the Protestant ethic. Here was Updike, small-town boy from Pennsylvania who thought heartland America was somehow being left out of the equation of contemporary literature because, as you say, of the influence of these great modernist innovators — Proust and Joyce principally among them — who saw the novel principally as an area of technical and informal innovation. While Updike respected that, and in fact said in another letter I didn’t quote, that Americans needed to catch up to the Europeans in their technical expertise, that what the country needed at that moment was a kind of literature of celebration, almost a curatorial literature that would bring to life the America of his period. And of course this is what Updike went on to do through that glorious career lasting some 50 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Sam Tanenhaus on John Updike. Thanks so much for talking with us.

SAM TANENHAUS: My pleasure.