I had a special link to John Updike, the celebrated writer who died in 2009. I once served as his muse.
It happened in 1983 when I was a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and sought an interview with Updike, whose publisher informed me never gave interviews. But a chance encounter with Linda Updike, his mother, broke the ice, and I ended up spending a full day with the author; mostly we drove around his boyhood haunts in Pennsylvania that served as settings for so much of his fiction.
Several months after the interview a short story appeared in the New Yorker titled, “One More Interview,” by John Updike. In it the main character, a famous actor, drives around his hometown with a journalist. Many of the events, even verbatim dialogue, were taken exactly from the real interview between me and Updike.
Over the next four decades, I would learn as an Updike fan that he consistently used his experiences and surroundings as wellsprings for his fiction. And thus I was not surprised this year when I visited the recently opened John Updike Childhood Museum in Shillington, Pennsylvania.
From the novel Villages I knew that the house itself was made of “bricks painted custard yellow and the wood trim parsley-green.”
Inside I beheld the kitchen with “slate sink with long-nosed copper faucets,” a “little walnut icebox,” and a “food grinder clamped to the edge of the kitchen table.”–all as described in “The Black Room,” a short story.
From my reading of another short story, “The Brown Chest,” I was ready for the second-floor guest bedroom that “held a gray-painted bed with silver moons on the headboard and corner posts shaped at the top like mushrooms, and a little desk by the window where his mother sometimes but not often wrote letters and confided sentences to her diary.”
While many homes of famous American writers–Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, and dozens of others, are open to the public, this one is like no other–for Updike not only lived here until he was thirteen, in his later years he made its rooms, furnishings, and occupants settings for his short stories and novels with detailed descriptions.
In front of the house is a state historic sign: “John Updike (1932-2009) Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and one of Americas’s most noted authors, Updike lived here until age thirteen.” I was greeted at the front door by James Plath, president of the John Updike Society, which owns and operates the house. He was eager to talk.
“What makes this house so special is that all of his life Updike treasured his memories of it,” says Plath, his eyebrows rising occasionally to underline his words. “The main character in his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, is based on the grandfather he shared a bathroom with growing up. His father is a main character in his second novel, The Centaur, and the house itself is a character in short stories. It was here that John Updike became a writer.”
Plath collaborated with restoration expert R.J. Doerr and engaged in “scholarly sleuthing” to determine whether the details of the house were as he described in his novels, stories, and poems.
“Determining how the house looked in the late thirties and early forties was a complicated process. Sometimes a description in the fiction would be corroborated by a passage in the nonfiction. Other times there would be overlapping or repetition in the fiction and poetry that was then confirmed by a family member or the subsequent owners of the house.”
Plath and Doerr had no shortage of material. From the time his first short story was bought by the New Yorker in 1954, until his death in 2009 at the age of 77, Updike wrote 30 novels, 14 volumes of short stories, nine of poetry and 10 collections of essays and criticism. He is one of only four writers to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once.
As an adult Updike revered the home where he spent his first thirteen years, and in a poem, he posited, “We have one home, the first.” He often visited the house in his later years, and in 1999 he told a local journalist, “This is the nest where my artistic eggs were hatched.”
He was heartbroken when his family moved to a nearby farm in 1945, and saw the rest of his life as “An errant encircling of his forgotten center.”
In “The Black Room,” he recalled, “The drizzly November day forty-seven years ago when the movers had cleared out their furniture, damaging the cane-back sofa and breaking two plates of Philadelphia blueware in the process.” In his short stories, he called Shillington “Olinger” as in “Oh, Linger.”
Plath enters the parents’ bedroom and notes,”We have to pass through this to get to Updike’s bedroom, just as he described in several stories.” In “The Laughter of the Gods,” Updike writes, “His little room was tucked behind theirs, at the back of the house.”
The tiny bedroom has his toys and books, ranging from Dumbo to the Lone Ranger, and some of the clothing he wore as a toddler. A bowl of marbles was found under the floor boards here. A childhood friend had no recollection of playing marbles and said he and John would use slingshots to shoot them out the bedroom window.
As I was leaving, Plath pointed across the street and assured me that I was not the only person to serve as an Updike muse. “When his mother died in 1989, he returned to Shillington to handle her affairs and noticed in the Yellow Pages that there was a notary across the street.”
Plath knuckled his eyeglasses up his nose. “Two years later, the New Yorker published a short story by Updike, ‘The Other Side of the Street,’ in which a man returns to his hometown after his mother’s death, seeks a notary to transfer the title of her car, and sees a listing for Georgene R. Muller across the street from his childhood home.”
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Written by: William Ecenbarger
William is an award-winning journalist whose magazine and newspaper articles appear in markets throughout the world. As a travel writer, he has produced more than 400 articles for major newspaper and magazine outlets. He has won 17 writing awards from the Society of American Travel Writers, which named him “Lowell Thomas Travel Writer of the Year” in 1996.
More bio at www.ecenbarger.com.
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