John Updikes Early Years


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I think that people have that German conscientiousness. And so I was—it was fine in Shillington. Berks County Runs through His Novels. Berks County Living, February People in that part of Pennsylvania are somehow more open.

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There was, however, my mother, who was trying to to be a writer, so that the basic tools of writing—that is, the typewriter, the paper, and the manila envelopes—were all in the house, and I used to watch her type and I used to watch her send the things off and hope for the best. Eventually she did get published, although perhaps never as much as her gifts deserve. My father taught junior high math, and I was his student for not one but three years—all those junior high years. Indeed, he was my homeroom teacher for one of those years.

But, yes, it is a strange thing to see your father at work, as it were, and what I got out of it was two things really: A sense of pride, seeing him perform—because I saw him in high-school assemblies, and he was the funniest of the teachers and would say things which would make the whole auditorium roar with laughter. On the other hand, I did see, especially as he got older, the real struggle that teaching is—keeping discipline and saying the same things for the 15th year in a row—and so a sense of his agony, that is, the agony of the working teacher, was born in me also.

When I was sick I would watch her trying to write and I even remember she would ask me to stop talking. There was this sort of institutional coziness that was delightful to a child. I think that Berks County probably was an exceptionally pious and family-centered sort of place. Remarks made at a press conference, upon receiving the Distinguished Pennsylvania Artist Award. Each autumn the horse-chestnut trees dropped their useless, treasurable nuts; each spring the dogwood tree put forth a slightly larger spread of blossoms.

I sing the odd corner of Pennsylvania where the people are average, not stupid. I do get very excited here. I find I begin to talk very rapidly and jump around a lot, just being in the blocks, the streets. We ourselves had a large vegetable garden, which we tended not as a hobby but in earnest, to get food to eat.

John Updike's Early Years

We sold asparagus and eggs to our neighbors. Our peddling things humiliated me, but then I was a new generation. We kept the food money in a little recipe box on top of the icebox. I used to go to Shillington playground. I thought that was very exciting. I played a lot of basketball there. They were tearing the poorhouse down at Shillington and I went up and looked at the shell. My grandfather [John Hoyer], who is somewhat like John Hook in that book, was recently dead, and so the idea of some kind of memorial gesture, embodying what seems to have been on my part a very strong sense of national decay, crystallized in this novel.

A lot of the Rabbit books is what I imagine Pennsylvania to be like from an adult point of view. But the impressions you get in your first 18 years, you do feel very sure about them, so that in a sense I know how things happen in Pennsylvania.

John Updike: A life in pictures

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