Friday, October 16, 2009

Updike's Ashes

John Updike died of lung cancer at age 76 in January. I have yet to write a Rest in Peace post for him, as I have for Tim Russert, Buddy Holly, Les Paul, and Dick Kemp, truck collector extraordinaire.

It was hard for me to come up with anything to write about this literary giant at the time of his death. For one thing, detailed obituaries are available from many major news outlets, and I don't need to rehash the details of his life . For another, his writing has resonated with me since I first picked up a copy of The Centaur on a trip to a continuing medical education meeting in Philadelphia in the 1980s, and I am saddened that his voice has been silenced.

I see this post not as a formal eulogy, but as a collection of random thoughts about Updike. Well, let's face it--this blog is nothing but a collection of random thoughts. Why should this post be any different?

Somewhere around here, I have a photo taken of me with John Updike at a reception following a lecture and reading he gave at the Dogwood Festival in Dowagiac, Michigan. I could have sworn I stuck the picture in the copy of the novel Brazil he autographed for me that night, but it's not there now. Someday, I hope it will turn up, in which case, I'll scan it and post it. One of the poems he read that night had to do with a Memorial Day celebration in a small town, and I have attended many of those. I find it awkward to try to come up with something to say to an author at a book signing, so I seized on that poem as something I could talk to Updike about, which I did when my turn came. He was very gracious and told me how his father had dressed up as Uncle Sam for a Memorial Day parade.

I've been thinking about Updike a lot since I read that his alma mater Harvard University has acquired his papers recently. As usual, one online discovery led to another, and I found out that a volume of his poems was published after Updike's death, so I bought the audiobook Endpoint from iTunes. Since the audiobook is abridged, I thought I should buy a printed copy. Then, driving between hospitals the other day, I decided to stop by a branch library to take have a few minutes respite before going back to work. In the unlikely event any of my partners should read this post, please note that I carry my lunch, and virtually never take a break to go to the doctors' dining room, so I'm entitled to ten minutes at the library. Not really expecting to find Endpoint on the shelf, I searched for Updike materials, and there it was, so I checked it out, along with Beowulf on the Beach (recommended highly by my son), Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric: The Lost Manuscript with photos by Barry Feinstein and text by Bob Dylan, and a CD of Bruce Hornsby's appearance on Marian McPartland's PIano Jazz radio show (which by the way is a great CD).

In further online meanderings I found out that Updike had been cremated and part of his ashes were scattered near the graves of his parents at the Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Shillington, Pennsylvania, where he lived till age 13.

Now comes the weird part. Last night at choir practice at our church, I read the fine print above the title of one piece of sheet music we worked on, which said it was written for the 100th anniversary of the Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Shillington, Pennsylvania! It's a town of 5000 people. It's over 600 miles from where I live. Yet there I was, holding a piece of music written to commemorate the church where Updike's ashes were spread. Uncanny coincidence, or an example of Jungian synchronicity?


Dave King said...

Was it really that long ago that he died? I made a vow to read some more of his works - haven't even made a start yet, so thanks for jogging the old memory.

David C. said...


Time flies, doesn't it? If you're interested in Updike's poetry, Collected Poems 1953-1993 would be a good place to start, if you haven't read it already. Other possibilities are Americana and Other Poems or, of course, the final collection, Endpoint. As far as the novels go, the Rabbit series is great, but then you can hardly go wrong with any of his work, IMHO.



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