John Updike Accepts the 1998 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

February 2016



Paul LeCerc: It is a great pleasure to be here tonight to have the honor of introducing two of the most important forces in writing in our nation, the National Book Foundation, the sponsor of the National Book Awards, and John Updike, the recipient of the 1998 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

The two have much in common. The National Book Awards, established 49 years ago, now recognize annually exceptional works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people’s literature. John Updike has now published 49 books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people’s literature, an exceptional, indeed, extraordinary body of work that exemplifies the qualities of expression we all are here to celebrate.

The parallels between the Foundation’s work and Mr. Updike’s output continue well beyond the number 49. The National Book Foundation, when not engaged in honoring writers like John Updike and our finalists this evening, is dedicated to illuminating the relationship between reading and writing. Everyday, in inner cities and in rural communities, at settlement houses and Native American reservations, in public libraries and on the National Book Foundation’s Website, the Foundation offers ordinary Americans the opportunity to do something extraordinary, to participate in the writing life of our nation.

John Updike Photo Credit: Michael Chikiris

Likewise, when not producing books that have earned him honors, including two National Book Awards and six nominations for the Award, Mr. Updike is devoted to exploring American letters. He does so through our Foundation’s Writing Life Programs, a source of pride to our board, our staff, and our audiences. But tonight everyone who loves books must share in our particular pride as we honor John Updike for his other contributions to the writing life.

Throughout his brilliant career, he has relied on a single and a singular critical touchstone, a fervent relationship to the world. Whether his subject has been James Joyce or Doris Day, the Ming Dynasty or Moby Dick, millions of readers have reciprocated his ardent and abiding interestedness.

Of course, a fervent relation to the world is also the hallmark of John Updike’s fiction. This developed, no doubt, during his boyhood in Chillington, Pennsylvania. His father, Wesley, was a high school teacher who loved to rub elbows and mixed up with his neighbors on Philadelphia Avenue. His mother, Linda, we’re told, preferred typing away on her portable Remington typewriter with elite type. She wanted to be a writer.

Invariably, it seems, her stories were rejected but, as Mr. Updike once remarked, and I quote, “The bounce of their return at least demonstrated that this intoxicating vapor of printed material had a source which a person might some day, by following the same yellow brick road, reach.

For him, that yellow brick road led first to Harvard, then to Oxford and then to this island city, Manhattan, where he began working as a reporter for the New Yorker in 1955. Three years later, he published his first collection of poetry, The Carpentered Hen followed the next year by The Same Door, a collection of stories. In 1959, he also published The Poorhouse Fair, the first of his 17 novels to date and a book that introduced the world to a novelist whose achievements have been ranked alongside those of Dickens, George Elliot and Joyce.

The heroes of John Updike’s fictions are as ordinary as characters can be who have left an indelible impression on readers around the globe, Rabbit Angstrom, Henry Bech, Richard Maple, Piet Hanema, are all more or less middle class Americans leading more or less mundane lives. What distinguishes them is an infinite capacity for wonder at the commonplace. What marks them, too, is their search for something divine to stave off the nothingness that terrifies them. Torn between the conventional mortality of the day and their own inner imperatives, they often fail to find the redemption that they seek. The dilemmas remain unresolved.

Nonetheless, in novels like Couples, Roger’s Version, and In the Beauty of the Lilies, in collections like Midpoint, Trust Me, and Too Far to Go, and in his inimitable Rabbit Tetralogy and Bech Trilogy, the world John Updike depicts is always deserving of praise.

At the beginning of his career, he had said he felt overwhelmed by his self imposed task to say all that could be said and, I quote, “The whole mass of muddling, hidden, troubled Americans, to sort out, to particularize and extol it with the proper dark beauty. What I doubted,” he wrote, “was not the grandeur or the plenitude of my topic but my ability to find the works to express it.”

John Updike, it is a privilege to acknowledge what your readers have known all along. You have indeed expressed your topic in book after book. You have found exactly the right words with which to extol the dark beauty of America and particularize the middling, hidden, troubled lives of your fellow citizens.

On behalf of readers everywhere and especially on behalf of my fellow members of the board of the National Book Foundation, and also on behalf of our very generous donor of this year’s medal, our friend and fellow board member, Walter Moseley, it is an honor to thank you publicly for all that you have done for the writing life in America and to bestow upon you the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.


John Updike: When I was told of this handsome honor, my mind flicked back to the two other times when I have been so fortunate as to be summoned by the National Book Awards. The first occasion, on March 10, 1964, was immortalized by a young reporter for the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune who signed himself Tom — as distinguished from Thomas — Wolfe. His coverage began with these two paragraphs:

“No sensitive artist in America will ever have to duck the spotlight again. John Updike, the Ipswich, Mass., novelist, did it for them all last night, for all time. Up on the stage in the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton Hotel, to receive the most glamorous of the five National Book Awards, the one for fiction, came John Updike, author of The Centaur, in a pair of 19-month-old loafers.

“Halfway to the podium, the spotlight from the balcony hit him, and he could not have ducked better if there had been a man behind it with a rubber truncheon. First he squinted at the light through his owl-eyed eyeglasses. Then he ducked his head and his great thatchy medieval haircut toward his right shoulder. Then he threw up his left shoulder and his left elbow. Then he bent forward at the waist. And then, before the shirred draperies of the Grand Ballroom and an audience of 1,000 culturati, he went into his Sherwin-Williams blush.”

In illustration of the tricks that memory plays, I remember the event as rather intimate and sedate. There had been a late-winter snowstorm in New England, and my then-wife and I had risen very early to catch a train, and arrived rumpled and sleepy for this moment of triumph. Newspapers don’t lie, so the Hilton Grand Ballroom it must have been, but my impression was of a small low room with a scattering of librarians in flowered hats on folding chairs. They smiled benignly, I remember that, and I also remember that just as I was about to step out into the spotlight for my turn at bat, somebody pestered me to sign his program, or scorecard. That, and the subsequent report by Tom Wolfe, were my first taste of the joys of celebrity.

The second occasion took place on April 27, 1982, in Carnegie Hall. The prizes at that point were, for no doubt valid reasons, called the American Book Awards, and only the winners were expected to show up. What I remember of that proud occasion is that my editor, Judith Jones, who sat beside me in the great concert hall, confided early during the ceremonies that she had just come from gum surgery. This is some editor, I thought at the time, and I think it still; Judith has been brave and loyal on my behalf for nearly forty years now. The ceremonies needed two hosts on stage, like the two interlocutors in minstrel shows of yore, Barbara Walters and William F. Buckley, Jr., by name, and their interspersions were so witty and well-considered, and the acceptance speeches of the other winners so heartfelt and elaborate, that as the allotted hour wore on, and as I sat there with the folded pages of my speech gathering dampness against my breast, it became clear that there would not be time for the fiction winner, who spoke last, to say anything at all.

A concert was scheduled for that evening, and we could hear, in the foyer and the wings, the musicians arriving with their clattering cellos and woodwinds, conversing of Stravinsky and Mahler and even emitting a few impatient toots on the French horn. Barbara Walters’s voice, normally so soothing, approached the strident as she advised us that our time was up; in a few gratefully applauded seconds I dashed up the aisle, grabbed my award from the large hand of Arthur Miller, and scampered away. The speech I never gave can be read in my collected works.

And now, as they say on television, this.

Photo Credit: Martha Updike

Like some graying comet, every seventeen years or so, I return from the outer darkness of the un-nominated. From under my thatchy medieval haircut I peer out and what do I see? Tuxedos! Sequins! Plunging necklines! I must be in Hollywood. There are, just as at the Academy Awards, quintets of nominees, to be shortly boiled down to one modestly blushing winner and four gamely smiling losers. As in the annual film ceremonial, there is a gala air of ritual sacrifice, and some docile old buck or doe of the trade is brought forward to be given a medal whose reverse side holds the invisibly engraved implication that the time has come to retire. Is there anything worrisome, anything Heaven-storming, about American publishing, whose saintly minions labor day after day far past dark over their endless proofs and their eerily glowing computer screens, putting on the dog for one night of the year? A Hollywoodian touch of glitz and glamour does not, let’s hope, entail a Hollywoodian bewitchment with the mass market, with billion-dollar grosses and gross-out courtship of the adolescent mind. One of the strengths and charms of the book industry, of course, is it’s relative modesty, bow tie more than black tie. A modesty that translates into a relative mobility, an ability to publish, without catastrophic loss, books which will appeal to few, and to give the public an immense variety of products. It is a variety that is both a proclamation and an enjoyment of American freedom.

And yet, to be honest, if I reflect on the psychological history that led me to become a cottage laborer in this industry, an impression of glamour was part of it. There was something glamorous about the Reading, Pennsylvania, public library, a stately Carnegie-endowed edifice at Fifth and Franklin, next to a sweet-smelling bakery, where I would go with my mother from an early age, walking at her side the block from the trolley-car stop at Fourth Street, climbing the many wide steps, and stepping into a temple of books. The towering walls of books seemed conjured from a realm far distant, utterly mysterious and gracious — the little numbers inked onto the spines, the pockets for a borrower’s card at the back, all these angelic arrangements. Who had done this for me? The well-thumbed volumes, with wider margins and smaller pages than are now customary, had a romantic savor of Thirties and Forties New York City.

I read through shelves of P. G. Wodehouse and Erle Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie and Robert Benchley, and expanded my borrowing to include the even more glamorous books rented, for I think a penny a day, from a certain counter at Whitner’s department store. Those books had retained their jackets, which were in turn jacketed in cellophane — a very glamorous touch, that.

And there was a glamour, a swank, in the chastely severe, time-honored classics of English literature that one bought for courses at Harvard; sitting in my little dormered room in Lowell House at midnight, tilting back in my wooden Harvard chair, holding a cigarette in one hand and in the other the blue-covered Oxford Poetical Works of Spenser, with its tiny type, double columns, and Elizabethan spelling that reversed the “Vs” and the “Us.” I felt like a glamorous person indeed, me and the Faerie Queene, together in the clouds.

And there was certainly a glamour in the sample pages I received, some years later, from the firm of Knopf to show me what my first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, would look like in print. The novel had been a stumbling block for my initial publisher, and it was by the happiest of flukes that a carbon copy fell into the hands of an editor at Knopf, Sandy Richardson, who liked the book just as it was; then it fell into the hands of Harry Ford, a perfect knight of the print world, an editor and designer both, who gave me a delicious striped jacket and an elegant page format, in the typeface called Janson, that I have stuck with for over forty books since. To see those youthful willful hopeful words of mine in that type, with Perpetua chapter heads set off by tapered rules, was an elevated moment I am still dizzy from. The old letterpress Linotype had a glinting material bite that all the ingenious advantages of computer setting have not quite replaced.

This is perhaps the fond moment to thank for manifold kindnesses and encouragements my wife, Martha, who is here with two of her sons and a glamorous daughter-in-law, and to express my human debt also to my own four children, and their mother, and my parents, now dead, and my mother’s parents, long dead, who all together provided along the length of my life warm and action-packed houses that accommodated the presence of a stranger, my strange ambition to be something glamorous. I was and am grateful. And to The New Yorker, which since 1954 has given me a home of another sort. And to Fawcett Books, my paperback publisher since Rabbit, Run.

The book industry scarcely needs glamour when it has at its command something better, beauty — the beauty of the book. Though visual imagery is in a sense more absolute — more vivid, less arguable — than the printed word, electronic projectors are clumsy and prone to obsolescence compared to the physical object that bound paper forms. Alfred Knopf, when he was alive, dressed up for publishing much the way John Keats is alleged to have dressed up when he sat down to write a poem. In his purple shirts, expressionist neckties, and Burnside whiskers, he seemed a cross between a Viennese emperor and a Barbary pirate; but the menace in him never frightened me because I knew I was in the company of a man who loved books and cared about their beauty. The books he published showed it. We assembled here should rejoice in our venerable product; a book is beautiful in its relation to the human hand, to the human eye, to the human brain, and to the human spirit.