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

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.

OF PRIZES AND PRINT

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.

Eudora Welty Accepts the 1991 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

Presented at The National Book Awards Ceremony on November 20, 1991.

Eudora Welty: When I was about nine years old, a newspaper advertisement appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal inviting children to write a jingle and win a prize, in praise of a product named Jackie Mackie Pine Oil. It must have been a household lubricant, for use on sewing machines and squeaky hinges and the like. Whatever it was, an invitation was all I needed: I responded.

In my jingle, Jackie Mackie worked a spell. I turned him into a magician. My instinct was right, in one respect. A jingle, as well as a poem, a story, does involve magic. My jingle won first prize, and my mother said she wasn’t surprised. Jackie Mackie sent me a check for $25. The time was that of World War I. I remember because my prize was converted into a War Bond, helping to defeat Kaiser Bill.

But all writers here will understand the important thing I was finding out: the joy of sending something you had written out into the world. You discover that somebody – not your mother – at the other end will actually read it. Whatever happens to it, this written word that goes forth from you now exists. It has a life of its own.

I loved from the first, as a child, the act itself of writing. The act could not be separated from the story. They spring up, grew, and came along, together. Each story became, for the time being, my teacher. So what serious writer could ever come to the end without starting another, starting anew?

The editors and the publishers, and the literary agents who have entirely made it possible for my work to appear, for my work to continue, I shall think of out of the clearest of vision and with love. Some of them are present here tonight. Those who are no longer in the world are present to me in spirit.

My father and my mother, my two brothers, would have been expecting it of me to make a better speech than I am making, to express their pride and my gratitude in this moment, all in one. That too supports me.

It is for all these people that I practice my art.

Yes, I regard writing as an art, an art of communication. We each in our own way will keep on with, and practice as well as we can, what it can keep teaching us to do. There are more stories to write-always more.

To The National Book Foundation I would like to say that your wonderful prize tonight is wonderful too in not being an end in itself. It can encourage an 82-year-old. It’s now on to the next story. In the prospect of working emerging – or for that especially – I now most deeply thank you.

Former Chairman of the National Book Foundation Board of Direcotrs Joel Conarroe with Eudora Welty. All photos: Robin Platzer

William T. Vollman Accepts the 2005 National Book Award for Fiction

ANDRE DUBUS III:

Good evening. I will be very brief. It was a true joy and an honor to read through this mountain of books these last four months. I thank the National Book Foundation and Harold Augenbraum for allowing me to do this. I want to publicly thank my hardworking judges, Rikki Ducornet, Cristina Garcia, Thomas LeClair and Anna Quindlen. They worked hard. [Applause]

William T. Vollmann and Andre Dubus III Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images
William T. Vollmann and Andre Dubus III (Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images).

At this point in the evening, I’m so nervous I’m about to throw up and I’m not one of the finalists. So I’m going to get right to it. The finalists for this year’s National Book Award for Fiction are:

  • The March by E.L. Doctorow, published by Random House
  • Veronica by Mary Gaitskill, published by Pantheon
  • Trance by Christopher Sorrentino, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Holy Skirts by René Steinke, published by William Morrow
  • Europe Central by William T. Vollmann, published by Viking Press.

The winner of this year’s National Book Award for Fiction is Europe Central by William T. Vollmann.

WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN:

I thought I would lose so I didn’t prepare a speech. Well, let’s put it this way: When I was in elementary school, they showed me a film loop about burned corpses being pulled out of ovens. I was really horrified, and later on I understood that I was partly German. I thought, you know, am I somehow guilty for this? I mean, I probably have relatives over there who had something to do with the Third Reich. How could this possibly be?

William T. Vollmann at the 2005 National Book Awards Ceremony as he is announced the winner for Fiction. (Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images)
William T. Vollmann at the 2005 National Book Awards Ceremony as he is announced the winner for Fiction.  (Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images)

I really have tried for many years to read myself into this horrible event and imagine how anyone could have done this, whether I could have done this, and that was what that book was about. I’m very happy that it’s over and I don’t have to think about it any more.

I’m very grateful to my wife for being here. I want to thank my agent, Susan Golomb, for all her hard work on my behalf. I’m so grateful to Paul Slovak and Viking for taking care of me for so many years. Thanks to the National Book Foundation. I never expected this honor. Thank you. [Applause]

GARRISON KEILLOR: 

It’s good to see a big prize go to a very nice young man. Thank you all for this evening. Thanks to all of our sponsors for putting on this wonderful festive occasion. Thanks again to all of the judges for doing the hard work. Congratulations to all the nominees. Good night.

Toni Morrison Accepts the 1996 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

THE DANCING MIND – NOVEMBER 6, 1996

 

TONI MORRISON: There is a certain kind of peace that is not merely the absence of war. It is larger than that. The peace I am thinking of is not at the mercy of history’s rule, nor is it a passive surrender to the status quo. The peace I am thinking of is the dance of an open mind when it engages another equally open one–an activity that occurs most naturally, most often in the reading/writing world we live in. Accessible as it is, this particular kind of peace warrants vigilance. The peril it faces comes not from the computers and information highways that raise alarm among book readers, but from unrecognized, more sinister quarters.

I want to tell two little stories– anecdotes really–that circle each other in my mind. They are disparate, unrelated anecdotes with more to distinguish each one from the other than similarities, but they are connected for me in a way that I hope to make clear.

The first I heard third or fourth-hand, and although I can’t vouch for its accuracy, I do have personal knowledge of situations exactly like it. A student at a very very prestigious university said that it was in graduate school while working on his Ph.D. that he had to teach himself a skill he had never learned. He had grown up in an affluent community with very concerned and caring parents. He said that his whole life had been filled with carefully selected activities: educational, cultural, athletic. Every waking hour was filled with events to enhance his life. Can you see him? Captain of his team. Member of the Theatre Club. A Latin Prize winner. Going on vacations designed for pleasure and meaningfulness; on fascinating and educational trips and tours; attending excellent camps along with equally highly motivated peers. He gets the best grades, is a permanent fixture on the honor roll, gets into several of the best universities, graduates, goes on to get a master’s degree, and now is enrolled in a Ph.D. program at this first-rate university. And it is there that (at last, but fortunately) he discovers his disability: in all those years he had never learned to sit in a room by himself and read for four hours and have those four hours followed by another four without any companionship but his own mind. He said it was the hardest thing he ever had to do, but he taught himself, forced himself to be alone with a book he was not assigned to read, a book on which there was no test. He forced himself to be alone without the comfort of disturbance of telephone, radio, television. To his credit, he learned this habit, this skill, that once was part of any literate young person’s life.

 

The second story involves a first-hand experience. I was in Strasbourg attending a meeting of a group called the Parliament of Writers. It is an organization of writers committed to the aggressive rescue of persecuted writers. After one of the symposia, just outside the doors of the hall, a woman approached me and asked if I knew anything about the contemporary literature of her country. I said no; I knew nothing of it. We talked a few minutes more. Earlier, while listening to her speak on a panel, I had been awestruck by her articulateness, the ease with which she moved among languages and literatures, her familiarity with histories of nations, histories of criticisms, histories of authors. She knew my work; I knew nothing of hers. We continued to talk, animatedly, and then, in the middle of it, she began to cry. No sobs, no heaving shoulders, just great tears rolling down her face. She did not wipe them away and she did not loosen her gaze. “You have to help us,” she said. “You have to help us. They are shooting us down in the street.” By “us” she meant women who wrote against the grain. “What can I do?” I asked her. She said, “I don’t know, but you have to try. There isn’t anybody else.”

Both of those stories are comments on the contemporary reading/writing life. In one, a comfortable, young American, a “successfully” educated male, alien in his own company, stunned and hampered by the inadequacy of his fine education, resorts to autodidactic strategies to move outside the surfeit and bounty and excess and (I think) the terror of growing up vacuum-pressured in this country and to learn a very old-fashioned skill. In the other, a splendidly educated woman living in a suffocating regime writes in fear that death may very well be the consequence of doing what I do: as a woman to write and publish unpoliced narrative. The danger of both environments is striking. First, the danger to reading that our busied-up, education-as-horse-race, trophydriven culture poses even to the entitled; second, the physical danger to writing suffered by persons with enviable educations who live in countries where the practice of modern art is illegal and subject to official vigilantism and murder.

 

I have always doubted and disliked the therapeutic claims made on behalf of writing and writers. Writing never made me happy. Writing never made me suffer. I have had misfortunes small and large, yet all through them nothing could keep me from doing it. And nothing could satiate my appetite for others who did. What is so important about this craft that it dominates me and my colleagues? A craft that appears solitary but needs another for its completion. A craft that signals independence but relies totally on an industry. It is more than an urge to make sense artfully or to believe it matters. It is more than a desire to watch other writers manage to refigure the world. I know now, more than I ever did (and I always on some level knew it), that I need that intimate, sustained surrender to the company of my own mind while it touches another’s–which is reading: what the graduate student taught himself. That I need to offer the fruits of my own imaginative intelligence to another without fear of anything more deadly than disdain–which is writing: what the woman writer fought a whole government to do.

The reader disabled by an absence of solitude; the writer imperiled by the absence of a hospitable community. Both stories fuse and underscore for me the seriousness of the industry whose sole purpose is the publication of writers for readers. It is a business, of course, in which there is feasting, and even some coin; there is drama and high, high spirits. There is celebration and anguish, there are flukes and errors in judgment; there is brilliance and unbridled ego. But that is the costume. Underneath the cut of bright and dazzling cloth, pulsing beneath the jewelry, the life of the book world is quite serious. Its real life is about creating and producing and distributing knowledge; about making it possible for the entitled as well as the dispossessed to experience one’s own mind dancing with another’s; about making sure that the environment in which this work is done is welcoming, supportive. It is making sure that no encroachment of private wealth, government control, or cultural expediency can interfere with what gets written or published. That no conglomerate or political wing uses its force to still inquiry or to reaffirm rule.

Securing that kind of peace–the peace of the dancing mind–is our work, and, as the woman in Strasbourg said, “There isn’t anybody else.”