Posts from Pumpjack Press authors and contributors about culture, books, economic and social justice topics, history and more, with the occasional poem and short story.

Letter to a young writer from John Updike

A second look at Rabbit Run by John Updike and a belated thank-you to the author 

I've been rereading some of the older work of John Updike. I first read the Rabbit series as a 20-something, inspired in large part because Updike's work is set in Reading, Pennsylvania (although he doesn't call it out as such), where he grew up and where my mother grew up. I spent many a holiday in what was then, and still largely is, a working class community, with strong Pennsylvania-Dutch cultural influences. The Rabbit books were bursting with familiar voices and touchstones from my childhood. I enjoyed the books and found, as a young woman, the insight into the mind of a man on a mid-life sexual crisis bender mildly instructive at an age where my ideas about relationships were still forming.

I returned to his work recently because Jim Holt, in his wonderful book Why does the world exist? An existential detective story, mentions Updike in a context that had not occurred to me as a young reader. He pointed to the subtleties of both structure and story in his books, calling out the phenomenological undercurrent and the inherent existentialist quest for meaning of the Rabbit character. I've only made it through Rabbit, Run thus far, but already have a new respect for Updike's extraordinary writing and remarkable ability to subtly embed a philosophical inquiry into the life story of one man. Still, the unexamined and casual misogyny in his work remains troubling, as it was decades ago.

Nevertheless, my return to the Rabbit series caused me to dig out this letter that Updike wrote to me long ago. In a proof of the six-degrees idea (or in this case three degrees), I asked my aunt (who still lives in Reading) if she knew any one that knew him, and it turned out that the women working in the cubicle next to her was the best friend of another woman who had gone to a school prom with Updike. And yes, she had his address. And so off I went, sending him writing samples and asking for literary connections. He gave me good advice and encouragement at a pivotal moment as I was tentatively embarking on my own search for meaning—through writing. I'll always be grateful. It's an amusing letter and my favorite part is the marginalia. Enjoy!