paper trail

Jun 21, 2010 @ 5:00:00 pm

The New York Times has been granted access to John Updike's archives. Among its many revelations is a letter that the nineteen-year-old Updike wrote to his parents: “We do not need men like Proust and Joyce; men like this are a luxury, an added fillip that an abundant culture can produce only after the more basic literary need has been filled. . . . We need great artists who are willing to accept restrictions, and who love their environments with such vitality that they can produce an epic out of the Protestant ethic.” The Times fawningly characterizes it as “a prescient formulation of what he would later achieve,” yet the real delight here is in seeing how Updike early on defined himself against the previous generation—high modernism—and thus staked out his literary territory (which will be thoroughly explored at the inaugural John Updike Conference, to be held this fall). However, as the Times writes, “at the time Updike’s work consisted mainly of cartoons and lighthearted prose and poetry he poured into The Harvard Lampoon, the campus humor magazine,” filling its pages with finely-turned fillips before moving on to write his Protestant Pennsylvanian epics, and the classic New Yorker stories that inspired twenty-eight-year-old Nicholson Baker to write this 1985 fan letter.