'Poon to Pulitzer, Updike Runs On

John H. Limpert ’55 wrote for The Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that occasionally used to publish a so-called humor magazine, during a year when the magazine’s president composed about two-thirds of its content himself. This young president’s vocation, he says, was clear to everyone.

“When people used to ask John Updike what he was going to be after college, he would say, ‘I’m going to be a great American novelist,’” Limpert remembers. “And nobody who heard that ever laughed.”

The literary career that began only months after graduation has carried John Updike ’54 away from the Lampoon Castle, but not from his early aspirations. Today, with more than 50 books and almost every major literary honor to his name, some might say he stands nearly peerless in American letters.

Updike entered Harvard a star student from small-town Pennsylvania. He left the University a scholar near the top of his class, a professional fiction writer and a young husband.

Updike, who declined an interview request, writes in his 2004 Class Report that “fifty years from graduation, [he] can at last appreciate how large a role Harvard has played in [his] life.”

He might not have anticipated such an influence entering the University in 1950. In his 1989 memoirs, Self-Consciousness, Updike casts himself as an awkward and skittish freshman, terrified of the world he found in Cambridge. He reports being particularly afraid of insects, water, and lobsters—an unpropitious set of worries for a young man coming to New England for the first time.

“To the travails of my freshman year at Harvard was added the humiliation of learning at last to swim, with my [psoriasis] and my hydrophobia, in a class of quite naked boys,” he wrote.

Eventually, however, Updike acclimatized to the water, to Harvard and to New England. Since graduation, he’s spent nearly 40 years living in seaside towns not 50 miles from the Yard.

In one personal essay, Updike described his experience at Harvard as a slightly awkward metamorphosis period between a fairly secluded childhood and the butterfly-like confidence of young adulthood. But even if Harvard was Updike’s cocoon it has figured rarely in his oeuvre. While his short fiction in particular—more than a dozen short story collections spanning 50 years—echoes his own biography, only one story explicitly draws on Updike’s undergraduate experience. A 1963 piece called “The Christian Roommates” centers on the first-year experience of Orson Ziegler, a hopeful pre-med from South Dakota.

Ziegler finds himself in “a dormitory, by and large, of public-school graduates, who feel the strain of Harvard most in their freshman year,” Updike wrote. “The private-school boys, launched by little Harvards like Andover and Groton, tend to glide through this year and to run aground later on strange reefs, foundering in alcohol, or sinking into a dandified apathy. But the institution demands of each man, before it releases him, a wrenching sacrifice of ballast.”

Like his character, Updike came to Harvard as a scholarship student from a small-town public high school, where his father taught mathematics, having been valedictorian and class president. Harvard attracted him partly because of pressure from his mother, herself an aspiring writer, who noticed that most of the authors in a particular anthology had Harvard degrees.

Updike’s own interest in the University, though, was not initially literary. Growing up on a diet of New York 1940s magazines like Colliers and The New Yorker, Updike developed a childhood love of cartooning. He worked intently on his drawing, aspiring at one point to be a Disney animator.

And the magazines schooled him in another creative outlet, too. Updike came of age during the heyday of so-called “light verse”—brief rhymes based on word play—and as his vocabulary matured the genre afforded him a crack at verbal virtuosity.

By the time he started looking for colleges—and beyond the provincial sensibilities of Shillington, Pa.—Updike found that his interests were perfectly matched to a Cambridge-based publication. After reading a magazine feature about the Lampoon, he submitted his application to Harvard.

LAMPOON CUM LAUDE

Arriving at Harvard, Updike did comp the Lampoon, contributing a steady stream of cartoons, comic poems, and sketches and rising quickly through the ranks of editorship. By the beginning of 1953, after bearing the titles “Narthex” and “Ibis,” Updike was elected the publication’s president.