A s the bills of mortality overtake American writers of my generation, it is of John Updike I speak. In my retrospective mind’s-eye, I see him using a glacial boulder at Squibby as a backrest, concentrating over a manuscript. The time, the early 1970s. I see him and his Mary on the tennis courts of the Chilmark Community Center, their names and reserved time listed on the sign-up pad affixed to the perimeter wire fencing. Years later I would send him a black-and-white wintertime picture of fallow courts, a reminder of sunnier times past and, I hoped, for future joyful return engagements.
As a high school basketballer, I competed against his hometown Shillington five. No, I was no Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom — though I did help our Muhlenbergers to prevail over his Shillingtonians. The school, where John’s father taught, and the county poorhouse all morphed into inspirational vistas visible from the Updikes’ backyard of their Philadelphia Avenue home.
These Pennsylvania settings, John renamed. Shillington became Olinger and Reading, “the stagnant city Brewer.” These, with his mother (who labored in Reading’s Penn street Pomeroy’s department store), all became grist for young Johnnie’s creative mill. In time, his apprenticeship over, he emerged as a master at refining everyday commonplace ore through the cauldron of creativity into shining word pictures.
Over the years his love affair with the Vineyard became one of two minds. In an August 2000 letter he wrote “. . . I am glad you have found a shelter on the Vineyard, where my first wife and I and our four children used to go for a month every summer in the flower-child days. I remember the nudity on the south beaches, and the syringes that littered the sand. An enchanted place presently being ruined by money, which is ruining a lot of dear places these days. Even then, the fight for court-time at Chilmark was fierce — my wife on the phone from dawn on, hoping for a break in the busy signal.”
On Sept. 9, 2007, after uncovering a long-misplaced Updike file, I sent John some reviews and commentary about his work from, mostly, the British press — with one exception. This, a New York Times piece headed: “Styron Given MacDowell Medal.” The cutline under the two-column picture read: “John Updike, right, congratulating William Styron after Mr. Styron was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal for his achievements as a writer.” A mass of gray hair crowned both writers’ smiling profiles. The date: August 21, 1988.
This belated news elicited a prompt reply. “Thanks for the batch of old clippings, they took me down a number of memory lanes. I had quite forgotten that Anatole Broyard was so enthusiastic about Rabbit Redux. Or that my mother had a public spat with my home town of Shillington. Or that I once had a lot of brown hair . . . I’m glad you are so fond of Martha’s Vineyard. My wife and I were there for a few days this summer (August 2007), after decades of never setting foot on the Island, and much of the old magic was still in the air, in spite of more happiness-seekers than ever.”
In one of my letters, I said that if younger, I would like to be a year-round Vineyarder, notwithstanding your words of caution: “Let’s not forget the rainy days, the dull days, the cranky-making crowding, and the moldy smell summer furniture gives off when breezes don’t blow through the screen door one keeps meaning to fix.” Yes, I replied, “but the reward of going ‘barefoot’ to sit on the Squid Row bench at the Menemsha Texaco, to watch the harbor traffic is worth that nuisance.”
Long ago, John remarked on the number of writers thick on the ground during the Island’s summer season, circa 1970s. They included William Styron, John Hersey, Art Buchwald, Lillian Hellman, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth.
Among his fellow Vineyard scribes, however, it is John Hoyer Updike who has bequeathed to us an oeuvre unequaled by any of his peers.
Richard Kepler Brunner is a longtime seasonal visitor to Chilmark and a retired editorial page editor. He lives in Emmaus, Pa.