“[John] Updike kept in touch with the literary world mostly by mail,” Charles McGrath wrote in an extended appreciation published by the New York Times. “He was a regular at the post office and eagerly awaited the arrival every day of the FedEx truck. He was old-fashioned in promptly and politely answering letters, and his correspondence was like the man himself: stylish, charming, gently self-deprecatory.”
All of this, I can confirm, is true. Back in the 1980s, my parents bought their first home, in Georgetown, Massachusetts, from a writer named John Updike. I would later recognize parts of the house—and the tangled, overgrown backyard, which bordered on a parking lot for school buses—in “Rabbit is Rich,” and “Too Far to Go,” a short story collection. I was very young at the time, and my memories from that time are coated in a good deal of dust, but my mom wrote last week in an email that Updike often came and said hello while I was in my high chair at the kitchen table, playing with “fat Legos.” Later, once we were settled in, we got a good deal of wrongly-addressed correspondence from Updike’s friends—from famous novelists, musicians, and poets.
Four years ago, after I landed my first real job, I contacted Updike’s publisher, and asked if I could write Updike a letter; one of the editors emailed back to say the novelist would be “glad” to hear from me. So I wrote, mostly expecting silence. Exactly a week later, the letter arrived—a page long and neatly-typed, punctuated by the stamp McGrath mentions near the end of his article. I think I’ll keep some of the contents to myself, but I do want to share one excerpt, which I have returned to repeatedly in recent years.
“Yes, of course I agree that where we write affects the way we write, often in ways we are not conscious of,” Updike explained. “I felt happy and energetic in the Georgetown house because, in part, it duplicated the shape of my boyhood home—a long house facing the street, with a generous backyard. It was wooden and my old house—my maternal grandparents’ house, in fact, where I lived with my parents through the Depression and World War II – was brick, but the psychic layout was the same… I built a lot of bookcases in my studio room, so many that one visitor thought I was running a bookshop and reached toward his wallet to buy some.”
As it turns out, most of those books went on donation to a library in Peabody. But my family got a pair of them—they are beautifully inscribed—and they have since migrated to my writing desk at home, in Brooklyn, where I often pick them up, and flip the pages, and feel some sort of connection, frayed a little by the passing decades, but still alive.