Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Notes For March 18th, 2020

This Day In Literary History

On March 18th, 1932, the legendary American writer John Updike was born in Reading, Pennsylvania. As a young boy, he would watch his mother - an aspiring writer - as she wrote short stories and tried to get them published:

One of my earliest memories is of seeing her at her desk.... I admired the writer's equipment, the typewriter eraser, the boxes of clean paper. And I remember the brown envelopes that stories would go off in – and come back in.

Updike served as class president and graduated high school as valedictorian. He won a full scholarship to Harvard, where he frequently contributed articles and drawings to the Harvard Lampoon, later serving as its president until he graduated summa cum laude in 1954 with an English degree.

Instead of writing, he decided to become a graphic artist and enrolled at The Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing at Oxford. His wife, Mary Pennington, whom he married a year earlier, went to England with him.

When they returned to the U.S., Updike planned to become a cartoonist, and was soon a frequent contributor of both cartoons and short stories to The New Yorker. His first published books were The Carpentered Hen (1958), a poetry collection, and The Same Door (1959), a collection of short stories.

In 1960, Updike and his family moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he would write his first novel, the first in a highly acclaimed series. It was called Rabbit, Run (1960). It told the story of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a 26-year-old kitchen gadget salesman.

Rabbit is desperate to escape the confines of an unhappy marriage and an unfulfilling middle class life. A former high school basketball player, he impulsively decides to visit Marty Tothero, his old coach.

He has dinner with Tothero and two girls, one of which is Ruth Leonard, a part-time prostitute with whom he has an affair. Rabbit abandons Ruth when his pregnant wife goes into labor. After his baby daughter is born, Rabbit reconciles with his wife, but it doesn't last, and he returns to Ruth.

His alcoholic wife starts drinking again, and accidentally drowns the baby. Rabbit tries to reconcile with her once more, but at the funeral of their daughter, his inner turmoil explodes. Proclaiming his innocence in the baby's death, Rabbit runs away and returns to Ruth.

When she tells him that she's pregnant with his child, he's relieved that she decided not to have an abortion, but he won't divorce his wife. He seemingly abandons Ruth yet again, but his fate is unclear as the novel ends.

Updike followed Rabbit, Run with three sequels: Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990). Rabbit is Rich won him the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Rabbit at Rest won Updike another Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award. The 500+ page epic novel, which ends the series with the main character's death, is considered one of his masterworks.

The two award winning sequels made him one of only three writers to win two Pulitzer Prizes. The other writers were William Faulkner and Booth Tarkington.

John Updike would write other great series of novels including the Bech series, the Scarlet Letter Triology, and the memorable Eastwick books - The Witches of Eastwick (1984) and The Widows of Eastwick (2008).

He also wrote over a dozen solo novels, over a dozen short story collections, poetry collections, and nonfiction works. In 2006, he wrote Terrorist, a timely novel about the evils of religious extremism.

It told the story of Amad Ashmawy Mulloy, an American born devout Muslim teenager who lives in New Jersey with his liberal Irish-Catholic mother, whom he both loves and hates.

He struggles to balance his strict religious practice with the modern Western world in which he lives. Amad's only real friend is Jack Levy, his high school guidance counselor - a Jewish man who rejected his own religion.

When Amad develops sexual feelings for a girl, he represses his natural impulses as per the requirements of his Islamic faith. His frustrations lead him down a path of religious extremism.

Fearing that his education in Western schools will strengthen his growing doubt about his religion, he decides to leave school and become a truck driver. His truck driving skills and religious extremism lead to his recruitment by a terrorist cell.

Amad becomes part of their plot to blow up the Lincoln and Holland tunnels in New York. On the day of the attack, his accomplices fail to show up at their planned meeting place, so he decides to carry out the suicide mission alone.

Driving a bomb-laden truck, Amad runs into Jack Levy, who begs him not to go ahead with the attack and warns him that the whole plot was a government sting.

Amad's friend and co-conspirator Charlie Chehab was an undercover CIA agent and the other terrorists beheaded him when his cover was blown. Jack also admits to having an affair with Amad's mother.

As he approaches the location of the bombing, Amad finally reconsiders his extremist beliefs and decides that God doesn't want him to kill anyone. He and Jack return home to New Jersey.

John Updike is rightfully considered to be one of the greatest writers of his generation. He won over two dozen awards, including his two Pulitzer Prizes. He died of lung cancer in January 2009 at the age of 76.

Quote Of The Day

"Writing … is an addiction, an illusory release, a presumptuous taming of reality, a way of expressing lightly the unbearable... writing, in making the world light — in codifying, distorting, prettifying, verbalizing it — approaches blasphemy." - John Updike

Vanguard Video

Today's video features a 90-minute interview with John Updike on CSPAN-2's Book TV. Enjoy!

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