TNR’s Ruth Franklin has demonstrated a pretty good bullshit detector. So when she writes that the most interesting article of last week’s Times was Sam Tanenhaus’s essay on John Updike’s archive, I’ll overcome my usual aversion to the latter’s literary criticism. Here’s Franklin’s description:
Tanenhaus reports that Updike, who died about a year and a half ago at age 76, left an enormous cache of papers “fashioned as meticulously as one of his lathe-turned sentences.” Now at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, it is closed to the public until archivists have had a chance to catalog its 170 boxes—which they estimate will take about two years. In the meantime, Tanenhaus got a sneak peek, and writes that the files, which occupy an aisle and a half worth of shelves, “hold the keys to Updike’s literary universe.” They include manuscript drafts in pencil and typescript, photocopied pages of research material, and hundreds of letters Updike wrote to his parents that chronicle nearly 20 years of his life.
Franklin also has some interesting thoughts on the concept of “author’s archive”:
What’s more, the archive offers an illusion of completeness not entirely different from the way the novel itself offers an illusion of reality. All those boxes, their contents neatly filed and numbered and alphabetized, in all their exquisite order! But anyone who has spent time poking through a writer’s archive—and I have been doing a bit of this myself lately—will realize that the apparent intactness masks what is not there. The letters that got torn up, the drafts that were burned—if you’re lucky, there are hints of these in other documents, so that you can agonize in frustration over what was lost. But for all the diary entries and recipes and Christmas cards that your subject saved, there might have been an equal number that he or she threw away. And perhaps rightly so. Even the most dogged researcher, poring over pages after page of publisher’s correspondence (“Enclosed please find your royalty statement for the period January through June 1951 …”) and similar monotony, will remember why this stuff is called ephemera. In 170 boxes of stuff, is there really nothing that Updike could have parted with? A judicious edit of the archives would make it easier to find those documents with true literary value.
As to Tanenhaus’s piece, I’ll admit that this is interesting:
An Eagle Typing box contains a handwritten draft, completed in January 1989. Hurried on to the page (in pencil on the back of the typescript of a previous book), the flowing sentences are constellated with crossings out, insertions and circled text as Updike honed, phrase by phrase, the middle-American idiom and the hurtling present-tense that are signatures of the Rabbit cycle.
So numerous were the emendations to the opening scene, set in a Florida airport, that Updike stapled a typed page to the handwritten draft, in which the initial paragraphs are thoroughly resequenced to create an effect less linear and more interior. Further reworking the opening paragraph, to draw out its theme of impending death, Updike made subtly significant improvements.
And then there’s this, making it clear that some writers are more equal than others:
And there is a memo from a researcher catching Updike up on current sales and commissions at Toyota franchises of the kind owned by the Angstrom family, along with photocopied pages from a handbook on car salesmanship, with Updike’s marginal notes, and several pages (obtained through the Federal Highway Administration) showing sample Florida license plates. Other folders include a jotted list of basketball moves (“double-pump lane jumper”) and a letter from Bob Ryan, a sportswriter for The Boston Globe, summarizing the career of the 1980s N.B.A. dunk-shot specialist Darryl Dawkins.
You Might Also Like:
More from Conversational Reading:
- The Missing Link Between John Updike and David Foster Wallace I wanted to front-page Barrett's comment from yesterday's post on The Mezzanine since it's absolutely brilliant and far better than anything I cn say about...
- Updike v. CT Sometimes it can be both interesting and enlightening to compare two people’s view of one book. So it is with John Updike’s and Charles Taylor’s...
- The Anti-Tanenhaus The complete review emerges as the place to read reviews of fiction not orignally written in English. ...
- John Updike’s “New” Story Collection Everyman's Library has collected 18 stories published over the course of 50 years that John Updike wrote about a married couple known as Richard and...
- Updike on Books I wouldn’t have thought I would agree with John "I Hate the Internet" Updike. But, actually, I do. Authors that are truly worth reading take...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.