April 30, 1998
Harvard
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The Early Days of John Updike '54

By Roberta Gordon

Special to the Gazette

The 1954 Harvard Yearbook shows John Updike at his typewriter, the confident president of The Lampoon, surrounded by his staff, with the caption: "Returning at night to their 'bastard chateau' to watch John Updike turn out another number of THE LAMPOON." In his senior year, according to the article, Updike wrote almost two-thirds of each issue.

In his four years as a Harvard student, Updike had been transformed from frightened freshman to self-confident senior. In Self-consciousness, his l989 memoir, Updike remembers himself as a Harvard freshman: "To the travails of my freshman year at Harvard was added the humiliation of learning at last to swim, with my spots and my hydrophobia, in a class of quite naked boys. Recently the chunky, mild-spoken man who taught that class over 30 years ago came up to me at a party and pleasantly identified himself; I could scarcely manage politeness, his face so sharply brought back that old suppressed rich mix of chlorine and fear and brave gasping and naked, naked shame."

Updike, despite his sense of shame, did learn to swim, and even, in some sense, to fly. Since his student days, Updike has written the now-classic novel Rabbit Run, along with 50 other books of fiction, poetry, and criticism, has twice won a Pulitzer Prize, as well as four National Book Awards, and is one of America's pre-eminent men of letters. Harvard has long been proud of him. And this Saturday, Updike, 66, will return to his alma mater to accept the l998 Harvard Arts Medal, given to honor a distinguished Harvard alumnus or Radcliffe alumna or faculty member who has achieved excellence in the arts and who has made a special contribution to the public good.

The records of Updike's years at Harvard offer a fascinating glimpse into the development of that man of letters who has contributed so much to the public good.

By the time he was writing most of The Lampoon, Updike was not only an editor, he was also a newlywed. He had left Lowell House and married Mary E. Pennington in a June wedding at the end of his junior year. His senior yearbook finds him living at 79 Martin St., Cambridge.

He had already made Phi Beta Kappa in the "Junior Eight," contributing to Lowell's unequaled record as the House of Scholars, boasting 11 out of 24 "Phi Betes" and a Rhodes Scholar.

As he had done in high school, Updike continued throughout his years at Harvard to write and draw, submitting work to The New Yorker and other less august publications. A few of his Thurber-esque drawings may be seen in a small exhibit currently on view on the ground floor of Houghton Library, along with a manuscript of Updike's story about a former high school basketball player, which he wrote for an English class. (He got an A, and later revised the story for The New Yorker. Annotations in the margins by Professor Guerard read, "It seems to me you start a little uncertainly. . . . A picture of ordinary, 'everyday' damnation?").

Although Updike majored in English, he continued to take art courses. He seems not to have decided on his vocation as a writer, even after his graduation summa cum laude and the acceptance by The New Yorker of a poem and a short story a month later. He continued to draw, winning the Knox Fellowship to study art at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in Oxford, England, after graduation.

During Updike's year in England, Katherine White accepted some of his light verse for The New Yorker and then offered him a position writing the column Talk of the Town.

After two years in New York, Updike moved to Ipswich, Mass., where, as he says in his 25th anniversary report, "small-town New England proved to have the kind of space you need to write fiction and raise children in." Updike notes with wonder that, since leaving New York, he has lived within an hour of Harvard.

Since l966, Updike has been depositing "in the library's meticulous, humidified care the refuse of my profession." There are notes, manuscripts, plays, drawings, prints, and proofs. The Houghton Library catalogues these materials and makes them available to readers. As Betty Falsey, manuscripts cataloguer, says, "Everything is here. . . . Updike has made available the chance to witness up close what a writer's life has been -- a remarkable gift."

When John Updike '54 arrives at Harvard to receive the Harvard Arts Medal -- an award that recognizes alumni accomplishments in the arts -- will he be remembered as the thin, frightened freshman who had to learn to swim? Or the president of The Harvard Lampoon? Or the writer of a story about a former high school basketball player for an English class? Updike has given much to Harvard, and Harvard much to him.

 


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College