John Updike’s Boston

Everywhere thought of as a very American (never mind libidinous male and middle class suburban) voice,  John Updike,  now gone, will also be read more and more as the years pass as  characteristically Bostonian. Furthermore,  because as William James reminds us, “we live forward, but we understand backward”,  Updike’s Boston, very different from Hawthorne’s — which Updike invoked at some length — will matter in the end no less to our understanding of what it means to be American.

New York has also a claim to  Updike,  who Professor William  Pritchard credited with ” a body of work that in intelligent creation will eventually be second to none in our time.” Indeed, our American Proust, or Balzac, or (in Mark Feeney’s apt words in The Boston Globe) our “Saint-Simon of the suburbs”, was notable not least in this: Updike knew his Boston and New York equally well —  well enough to make a choice between them–  and to take the measure of both cities in ways I don’t know have ever been bettered.

In New York’s case he did so briskly.  The “true New Yorker”,  he  was sure,  was someone with the “secret belief that people living anywhere else had to be,  in some sense, kidding.”   Boston took alittle longer. “What makes Boston…think it deserves championship teams all the time?  Updike asked,  and answered himself:  “The founding Puritans left behind a lingering conviction,  it could be,  that earthly success reflects divine election, and that this city built on a hill is anciently entitled to a prime share.”

The two cities were closely linked in his life and work.  And wheras I have sometimes said that perhaps a few more lives have been saved — and from worse than boredom   — by the New England  Journal of  Medicine than by the New Yorker magazine,  but couldn’t be sure,  Updike,  I think, was sure.  One can see it in the way,  in David Lipsky’s lovely phrase,  Updike “rode the old New Yorker style  (of dapper, frosty wit)”.  One foot in the intellectual capital. The other in the media capital.  It was  to be the pattern of John Updike’s life.

In the blizzard of articles that followed his death Clyde Haberman  in The New York Times admitted that though he was published in New York and was the New Yorker magazine’s signiture writer,  Updike– despite his sure-footed definition of the breed  — was “definitely not a true New Yorker.”  In fact, “to write as he really wanted,  he felt he had to leave.  That he did,  ” Haberman wrote, “in 1957,  settling  in an isolated stretch of Massachusetts, north of Boston.”  For this Haberman ventured by way of explanation only Updike”s famously telling the Paris Review that in his writing he took aim,  not for New York,  but  for somewhere “alittle  to the east of Kansas.”  Neither Christopher Lehman-Haupt nor Charles McGrath  had  much to add.  Updike, wrote McGrath, who grew up in Boston, “lived a quiet, burgherly life in a seaside Boston suburb” . Though it was perhaps telling,  McGrath added,  that Updike very seldom visited New York.

Only New Yorker editor Roger Angell used more dynamic and positive words:  “when {Updike} decided to leave New York and the New Yorker  {as a staff writer}  in 1957 and move his  young family to the suburbs,  he chose Boston.”  Decisive word–choice.  But it was not,  to be sure,  eveybody’s Boston.  It was neither on the Beacon Hill of Sylvia Plath,  nor  in the Back Bay of Robert Lowell,  nor in the Old Cambridge of Robert Frost,  that Updike settled.  It was on Boston’s North Shore,  in what would become the Ipswich,  later the Beverly Farms — of John Updike.

Boston in the Age of the Automobile

Historian Sam Bass Warner  is describing Updike’s beat when he writes  that “Boston today is a metropolis of distinct places and distinct roles,  places like Billerica,  the North End and Roxbury,  each place with its matching roles — senior softwear engineer, tile setter,  food and beverage technician”.  Increasingly,  throughout the post World War II period,   Warner writes,  there was coming into being a  “Boston metropolis with more than six million people,  stretch{ing} outward approximately eighty-odd miles from the old parent city.  {Boston’s} boundaries include many cities,  suburbs,  waste lands and resorts tied together in a social network of automobile commuting”.  That is  Updike’s Boston,   primarily,  the Boston of  “Couples” and of  “A & P”.  This last is  “Updike’s best known,  most anthologized and most frequently taught short story”, according    to critic Toni Saldivar, “its setting a small town north of Boston around 1960.”  That was the world of which Updike became master,  the “ironist”  according to The Christain Science Monitor  of  “suburbia…the prose poet of its small despairs.”

Glancing Backward

In his foreword to “The Early Stories”,  Updike calls his relocation to Boston “the crucial flight of my life,  the flight from Manhattan.”  And years later,  “sipping tea in the safety of  {Boston’s} Ritz-Carlton bar,”  he added that  “it took a little imagination”.  A view history  supports,  for a good book might be written about such “crucial flights”,  a tale in which Boston,  as all cities, has been both winner and loser.

Consider the departure from Boston — the flight, almost, so decisive was it–of William Dean Howells  for New York in the 1890s.  This move by the dean of American novelists certainly marked the passing of the Ameerican literary crown from Boston to  the larger city.  Just as certainly the move from New York to Boston in the 1870s and 1880s of  H. H. Richardson and Frederick Law Olmstead,  the greatest American designers of their day,  influential still, marked Boston’s substitution of the literary crown  with a  more architectural one.  One sees now why New York became in the 20th century America’s literary capital,  Boston the architectural capital at least through the time of Gropius.  Similarly,  Henry Adams’ move from Boston to Washington signaled the fact that in the post Civil War period Washington would achieve its full stature as the political capitol.

Indeed,  in some cases some seem, wherever born or raised,  posiively fated to move.  I think of  Leonard Bernstein,  Boston raised and Harvard educated,  but a born New Yorker.  Aaron Copleland,  on the other hand,  Brooklyn raised,  dreamed about Boston and its Symphony  as other boys dreamed,  he said, of being president.  Then,  too,  the move can mean much or little.  Henry Adams, when he moved to Washington,  remained very much the Bostonian.  Saul Bellow,   when he moved to Boston to teach in his late middle age,  remained (as how could he not) very much the soul of Chicago.

John Updike,  in fact,  turns out to have been a Bostonian born — in Pennsylvania —  in the same way Bernstein was — in Boston — a New Yorker born.  Yet to glimpse the  rite of adoption one must have recourse,  not to the literary page, but to the sports page,   perhaps the reason so many writing for the Times  misfired in this respect,  for as Updike himself saw it,  it was in his teenage years,  when he admitted he  “didn’t know Beacon Hill from Bunker Hill or Fenway Park from the Public Garden”  that he  “chose to attach my heart to that distant agregation” — the Boston Red Sox.

Baseball as a Means of Grace

A pled ge made,  significantly,  in the face,  so to speak,  of New York — “my barber was a Yankee fan”,  Updike remembers;  “that was the other choice in Pennsylvania” —  Updike  seems to have adopted at once that  fierce,  unreasoning  loyalty that brooks no argument. “I would rather loose with Boston than win with New York .” Love at first sight,  it would seem,  this adolescent attachment as he grew older strengthened,  so much so that some of his finest writing  derives from his love for the Red Sox. Who  among baseball fans does not know of  the “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark”,  which offered,  Updike solemnly propounded, “as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Euclidean determinations and Nature”s beguiling  irregularities?”  Or who has not read the authors hymn of praise to Ted Williams?

{Williams} radiated from afar the hard blue glow of high purpose….that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy….{At} almost certainly his last time to come to the plate at Fenway Park….{after two misses} Williams swung again, and there it was….He ran as he always ran out home runs — hurriedly,  unsmiling,  head down….He didn’t tip his cap.  Though we thumped,  wept and chanted…he hid in the dugout, he didn’t come back….The papers said that…even the umpires on the field begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he refused.  Gods do not answer letters.

Updike wrote that at 28,   still in thrall to the Sox, which seemed to him “all gallantry and grace”  and in those days without  “the crassness of victory”.  And it is not hard to believe him when he writes that  , not too many years previously,  “when my college choices came down to Cornell or Harvard the decision was obvious.”  In like vein,  of his  “crucial flight”  from Manhattan years later in his early career  he would insist:  “while it is not entirely true that I moved from New York to be closer to the Red Sox,  it is not entirely false either.”

Boston Drops the Ball

Actually,  it was more complicated than that.  While Updike was at Harvard — the time when the courtship with Boston begins for non-natives  (natives by then are dreaming desperately of warmer climes; even of New York)  — it was Boston,  not Updike,  that dropped the ball,  so to speak.  as critic Edward Hoagland has recalled.  Writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1982,  Hoagland remembered a walk across Boston Common with a venerable Brahmin editor who lamented the fact that Updike’s success at  the Harvard Lampoon was not taken seriously enough by the powers that then were in Boston.  “Houghton Mifflin ordinarily published Harvard writers first books,”  Hoagland remembered,  but as  his fellow editor pined,  “the trouble was that Harvard’s writing teachers had not recognized Updike’s talent.  Archibald MacLeish had twice passed him over for admission to the top writing course,  and so the wider Boston-Harvard establishment missed him too>”

Never mind.  Knopf  “grabbed”  Updike  (Boston’s word) and when the time came for the “crucial flight”  Updike apparently didn’t take Boston’s dumping him personally,  while Boston did not take his landing elsewhere for rejection;  “the Boston-Harvard axis of influence that lent  {Updike}  support after he moved back to that neighborhood” was,  Hoagland  recounted,  very nurturing to the young author.

Baseball,  even the literary politics,  seem to me,  however,  very much the outward and visible signs  (in the  Book of Common Prayer  definition of a sacrament)  of  the inward and spiritual grace   Updike seems to have been increasingly engaging with.  And it is nice to be able  to say — because The Boston Globe  is really a regional paper now;  not in the same league with Times or Monitor — that it was the Globe’s Feeney who grasped this I think when no one else did even at the Times.  Wrote Feeney clearly:  “raised a Lutheran,  Mr.Updike became a Congregationalist after moving to Massachusetts.

“John Updike’s Theological World”

Heirs to the Puritans, whose theology Updike famously invoked to explain Boston’s  invariable demand for championships in all sports all the time,  the Congregational church Updike found himself in every Sunday  was surely a kind of school for thought  for the author of novels whose protagonists included a historian of religion,  a minister,  and — the Devil.

But Updike  took what he needed,  so to speak,  and moved on,  in time-honored New  England fashion,  to the still Anglo-American and still  liberal but more Catholic than Protestant Episcopal Church,  where his faith journey has matured.  Sure that the only  attitude possible for the modern Christian is what I would call a devout doubt — not too different from what T. S. Eliot called “the Boston doubt” — Updike”s  is a  frank struggle in his books  with what Robert K Johnson calls in  “John Updike’s Theological World  ” the “secularism of the expanding megalopolis”  and “the  vacuity of church life in America.”  One of several theologians drawn to Updike’s work,  Johnson roots its theology in the concerns evident in Pascal’s Pensee 507:  “The motions of Grace,  the hardness of the heart;  external circumstances.”

Interestingly, Updike,  who has freely admitted to a spiritual crisis he got through only by reading Karl Barth,  has been the subject of admiring notices in the religious  press both Protestant and Catholic.  In 1997  the editors of “America”  awarded him the St. Edmund Campion Award for  “a distinguished person of Christian Letters”  and among Roman Catholics and Anglicans he is  perhaps most celebrated for a striking commentary,  as most have seen it,  on Flannery O’Connor’s  famously brief but trenchant eucharistic teaching.  Called “Seven Stanza’s at Easter”, and the subject of a penetrating  study by theologian Joseph S. O’Leary,  Updike  expresses himself in one stanza particularly with  great force:

Let us not mock God with  metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping transcending;

making of the event a parable,  a sign painted in


faded credulity of earlier ages;

let us walk through the  door.

While  Updike’s  personal  lense grew more Anglican  over time,  the principal theme    of his work remained rooted in Puritan Boston,   historically as immutable as Papal Rome,   never mind latecomers like Italy or Anglicanism.  Witness “Roger’s Version”,  that  “myth of post-Puritan Boston”  in which “Updike rewrites “The Scarlet Letter” from the perspective of Roger Chillingworth”.

One sees this as well in Updike’s art criticism, wherein  “Updike repeatedly singles out the Puritan influence” according to George Walden.  “Sargent’s faces”,  for instance, “offer not just a depiction of their subjects”.  Updike sees in Sargent  “a judgement on them”.  Adds Walden: “Sometimes  {Updike}  does this himself.”   Thus Shaun O’Connell,  Boston’s best literary historian,  noting that Updike  “honored Boston literary figures in luminous essays”  and has “reworked Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter”,  the central literary myth of Boston,  into three of his own fictional designs”  ,concludes that for Updike  “Boston’s errand into the wilderness is central to the American dream”.  O’Connell insists that  “for Updike,  Boston remains a site of personal and cultural conflict”,  furthermore, and points perhaps to a more personal resolution in the author’s mind :  Updike”  demurs from Emerson’s radical idealism and blind faith in the goodness of man,  but he discerns that Emerson has renewed his faith.  It was Emerson’s revelation that God and the self are of the same substance.”   O’Connell sees therein that  “for Updike Greater Boston…was where he came of age as an artist”.  For  me  there is the  useful truce Updike  made beteen his religion — Anglicanism — and his subject — Puritanism.

An Updike Geography

It was very telling, I thought,  that   the five column-wide photograph of  Updike that appeared on the front page of The New York Times on the day of his death identified the setting as the Boston Public Library.  For while Updike’s particular beat as a writer was suburban Boston,  he was a fixture in core Boston–  as befitted his stature , at  the  old Ritz  in the Back Bay,  for example — his invariable venue for interviews for half a century (his wife would’t have interviewers in the house).

There is Back Bay Station,  for another example,  where as a Harvard undergraduate  he remembered   one   arrival back at college particularly:  “How swanky that felt,  to read Milton all day…and in sight of the other undergraduates disembarking,  to be met  and embraced on the platform  by a girl — no, a woman — wearing a grey cloth coat , canvass tennis sneakers, and a  ponytale.”  Only  a few blocks away is 151 Beacon Street,  where he lived inbetween marriages from 1974 to 1976:  “my move to Boston….Yes,  I felt at ease,  oddly  arrived,  in my bachelor rooms….continu{ing} to get the words out.”  And in Copley Square itself  there is the Hancock Tower,  most provoking in its Updike connection because I am deeply wary of and yet cannot really refute Updike’s observation about the Hancock in one of his short stories:  “all art,  all beauty,  is reflection.”

Above all,  I think of John Updike in the Public Garden, where Barbara Probst Solomon interviewed him toward his end,  posting it on the “Daily Beast” after his death.  They talked   of  Sylvia Plath and John Cheever,  who had  themselves  lived nearby,  and  of Chekhov too.  “It does seem to me that your deepest self,  the territory you use,  is Chekovian”.  “Yes”,  Updike replied,  “I’m after little moments that add up.”  “Solomon:  “You always write great last paragraphs — about men and women, love and nostalgia….That’s what I think your essentially about.”   Finally: “Updike got up and stretched.  He stared at the swans,  at the children playing by the pond.  ‘I’ll buy that.  I’ll buy that.  That sounds nice.  It’s a nice way to think of me”.

Actually,  I disagree,  and wonder  if  Updike didn’t too.  Yes,  he was after “little moments which add up.”   But the most interesting remark he is on record as making about the Boston region he became so identified with  cast rather a different shadow.  “There are distances in New England,  hard to see on any map.”   The miles he marched for Civil Rights comes to  mind  (“feverish with a cold,  I marched with {my wife} in a large, singing, well meaning crowd from Roxbury to Boston Common.” )  For another, there was the time, he wrote,

on a Sunday morning,  around nine,  walking back up my driveway in my churchgoing clothes,  having retrieved the Sunday Globe from my mailbox,  I experience happiness so sharply I tried to factor it into its components….


Angell, Roger, “The Fade Away”,  NEW YORKER  (Feb. 6  2009)

“Dallas News Religious Blog”  (Jan. 2009)

Hoagland, Edward, “Bech is Back”,  THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW  (Oct. 17,1982)

Johnson, Robet K. “John Updike’s Theological World”, CHRISTIAN CENTURY, (Nov. 16,1977)

Kakutani, Michiko, “Intuitive, precise”, THE NEW YORK TIMES,  (Jan.28, 2009)

Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher, “John Updike”, THE NEW YORK TIMES (Jan. 28, 2009)

O”Connell, Shaun, IMAGINING BOSTON, (Beacon Press,1990)

O’Leary, Joseph S. “O’Leary’s hOMEPAGE”  (Apr. 23,2006)

Pritchard, William H. “Rough Magic”, THE BOSTON GLOBE (Feb.1 2009)

Salvidar,Toni, STUDIES IN SHORT FICTION (vol. 34/1997)

Solomon, Barbara P.  “My Conversation with John Updike”,  DAILY BEAST  (Feb. 5, 2009)

Updike, John, SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS   (Knopf, 1989)

Updike, John, “My Father’s Tears” NEW YORKER (Feb. 20, 2006)

Walden, George “American Beauty”, NEW STATESMAN (Mar.6, 2006)

Warner, Sam Bass, PROVINCE OF REASON (Harvard University Press, 1984)

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