'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.

The publication didn’t garner too favorable a response from other undergraduates under Updike’s aegis—“the magazine did not appeal as highly as in the past to the students,” the class yearbook reported—but every page reflected Updike’s exacting standards.

“As an editor, John was very demanding,” remembers G. Wesley Johnson Jr. ’55-57. “Sometimes the social organization got in the way of actually getting the magazine out.”

From the time Updike joined the editorial board, scarcely an issue went to press that was not introduced by a “JHU”-signed rhyme. His skills, Limpert said, coincided perfectly with the humor magazine’s needs.

“John wrote wonderful prose, wonderful poetry, and he also was a wonderful cartoonist,” he says. “He did them all with equal facility.”

He says Updike’s Lampoon colleagues assumed he was destined for great things.

“There was never even any question that he would achieve the success that he has achieved,” he said. “Everybody who worked with him knew.”

According to Johnson, the respect Updike won through his work compensated for what might otherwise have been social awkwardness.

“John was slightly ill at ease with some of the people at the Lampoon who, let’s face it, were from more privileged backgrounds,” he explains.

Updike ruled over the Lampoon Castle during an eventful period, thanks to a series of pranks originating both inside and outside the building. In one case, the president and his colleagues succeeded in “kidnapping” the Mass.

governor by leading him to the Lampoon instead of to the Young Democrats reception where he was supposed to speak.

“Updike did a wonderful job in hosing this thing and asking he governor questions,” Johnson says. The politico spent half an hour speaking to the Lampoon editors before he realized that he had been fooled.

Updike also contended with a series of exploits by waggish Crimson editors that culminated in the nighttime theft of the Lampoon’s prized ibis statue from atop the building [See full story, p. 3].

Updike’s staff retaliated by kidnapping The Crimson’s president and managing editor and demanding back the copper bird as ransom. Eventually he released the newspaper leaders, who, instead of returning the ibis, presented it to the USSR’s deputy representative to the United Nations as a peace offering.

Updike didn’t only take on The Crimson, though. One 1953 rhyme he penned for the magazine begins, “Old Advocate, once you were famous and staid, / But Now, both obscene and sub-standard; / For thus you are called by printers appalled, / Who never should bother to read what they’re paid / To print: we say you are slandered.”

And, according to Johnson, the young writer’s funniest work at the Lampoon never appeared in print. Staff members would regularly enter notes and jokes in a comment book kept open inside the building.

“I often thought that some of the witticisms that John put in that book were some of the cleverest things he ever did,” Johnson says. “Some were not printable.”

Updike’s undergraduate attentions were not confined to his extracurricular interests, though.

“It was perfectly evident that he pursued his studies with the same zeal and excellence that he turned out for the Lampoon,” Limpert says.

As Updike left swimming tests and youthful phobias behind, he found his niche in Harvard’s humanities. According to his son David Updike ’79, John sometimes spoke with special fondness about a Chaucer class taught by Professor William Alfred.

“Trying to picture an especially happy self,” he writes in his memoirs, “I come up with a Harvard student—a junior, I think, cockily at home by now in the English department.”

Updike, in fact, excelled academically and was one of eight students in his class to get elected to Phi Beta Kappa during his junior year.

And the same perfectionism that impelled him forward in the Lampoon lay behind this academic success. He researched a thesis called “Non-Horatian Elements in Robert Herrick’s Imitations and Echoes of Horace” and was frustrated when it didn’t snag a summa grade.

“He got a magna and I think that still sort of irritates him,” laughs his son.

But in June of 1954 Updike graduated summa cum laude. In his alumni reports, he has upheld this academic training as preparation for the critical work—such as his frequent reviews for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books—that have increasingly become a part of his corpus in the 50 years that followed.

EARLY STARTS

Updike’s interest in drawing also flavored his academic career, carrying him into the Fine Arts department (now History of Art and Architecture) and eventually into marriage with Mary E. Pennington ’52.

“The girl who was to become my wife was standing at the top of some stone museum steps that I was climbing,” explains the narrator of “Museums and Women,” the title story of a 1972 collection. “Though it was bitterly cold, with crusts of snow packed into the stone, she wore threadbare sneakers from which her little toes stuck out, and she was smoking….I pursued her through the museum. It was, as museums go, rather intimate, built around a skylight-roofed replica of a sixteenth-century Italian courtyard.”

Like his narrator, Updike followed Pennington, herself a Fine Arts concentrator, through the Fogg and a few more classes in the department. In June of 1953, at the end of Updike’s junior year, they were married. Updike moved out of Lowell House and into an apartment at 79 Martin St., where he remained through his senior year.

Contemporaries say marriage during college was unusual in the mid-1950s, but no cause for a raised eyebrow. In subsequent accounts and interviews, Updike himself has cited different reasons for marrying at 21.

Johnson says he remembers when Updike left Lowell House to get married, but never noticed any change in the Lampoon president—or his work—in he months that followed.

“At first people thought it’s going to be difficult from the point of view of the magazine, but it wasn’t,” he says.

And by that point in Updike’s undergraduate career, his interests had veered increasingly toward writing.

Despite being repeatedly rejected from Archibald McLeish’s poetry workshop, he was able to take a fiction-writing class with Albert Guerard, where he drafted a short story about a former basketball player named Flick.

Though Guerard’s comments on the manuscript suggest several small changes—the opening paragraph was too conventional, he explained, and the main character needed to be more clearly defined—he said he found “real power and authenticity” in the piece and suggested that Updike submit it to The New Yorker.

It was rejected, as were a few other attempts. But the summer after Updike’s graduation, preparing to study drawing at Oxford on a Knox fellowship in the fall, he wrote a short story in response to a piece by John Cheever that he had read. The New Yorker accepted it and, a bit later, bought a slightly revised version of his ex-basketball-player story, now titled “Ace in the Hole.”

The character of a high-school basketball star carried Updike through the first leg of a precocious literary career. Flick Webb became the ex-basketball player in an early poem that remains one of his most anthologized, and, more famously, Rabbit Angstrom the hero of a tetrology of novels that has become the cornerstone of his oeuvre.

Flick Webb is the subject of an early poem that remains one of his most anthologized, and, more famously, the figure of the ex-basketball player evolved into Rabbit Angstrom, the hero of a tetrology of novels that remains the cornerstone of Updike’s oeuvre.

RECENT CHAPTERS

Updike wrote the four alliteratively titled “Rabbit” novels about a decade apart, beginning in 1959, tracking middle-class America over a period of 40 years through the realism that has become his hallmark. The last two of the series collectively garnered two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, a National Book Critic’s Circle Award and the Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The New England setting that has been his home for nearly 50 years has strongly colored Updike’s work, particularly during the second half of his career.

He decided to stay in the area, he has written, after falling in love with it in college.

Updike has left New England only twice since finishing his education—once to take a job in Manhattan as a Talk of the Town reporter for The New Yorker in the late 1950s, and once to England, in an effort to escape the turbulence of the late 1960s.

Otherwise, he has moved among a series of homes in the Boston area: after leaving New York he and his growing family moved to Ipswich, Mass. where he’d had his honeymoon. Divorcing in 1976 and remarrying a year later, he first moved inland to Georgetown, and then, in the mid-1980s, to the coastal community of Beverly Farms, where he presently lives in the childhood home of a Harvard classmate.

In his memoirs, Updike explains that the decision to live in small New England towns gave him “a place out of harm’s—e.g. New York agents’ and literary groupies’—way, yet one from which [he] believed reports would be news.”

Some have suggested that Updike mined this news source too extensively.

“I would have thought he would have gone into some other major themes because of his phenomenal talent,” Johnson says.

Still, laurels of success have followed Updike everywhere.

His 1968 novel Couples, based on the social milieu he had encountered in Ipswich, won Updike a spot on the cover of Time—the first of two cover features about him that the magazine ran in fewer than 15 years.

Last year, he received the National Medal for the Humanities and the National Medal of Art. His latest major publication, a collection of his early stories, took the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction last month.

Still, Johnson says success has not jaded the writer.

“John has become very famous, but he is a man who wears his fame, for his friends, very lightly,” he says. “When you see him, it’s just like old days.”

He even worked with Johnson, a history professor whose research touches on Africa, to research his 1978 novel The Coup, set in an imagined African nation.

He has occasionally taken political stands as well, co-authoring an open letter against the harassment of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1974 and, in 1978, testifying before members of Congress against government support for the arts.

In addition to fiction and poetry, Updike—who now tries to produce three pages every day—has written a play and the libretto for an opera with music by Gunther Schuller.

Remaining close to Cambridge in the 50 years since his graduation, Updike has been a frequent visitor to Harvard. He received the University’s Arts First medal in 1998.

His work has frequently been turned into films—often for television, but occasionally for the big screen as well. His novel The Witches of Eastwick, became a film starring Cher, Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon.

During the earlier part of Updike’s career, he has said, fans frequently greeted him with the exclamation, “Run, Rabbit, run!” in reference to his precocious success.

The joke has tarnished under the weight of what Updike has described as his “ponderously growing oeuvre, dragging behind [him] like an ever-heavier tail.” But even half a century later, the image remains an apt one for the small-town high-achiever who grappled through Harvard and, for the 50 years since, has sustained a steady pace across the page.

—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at heller@fas.harvard.edu.