Conference Returns 'Rabbit' to his Roots
Pennsylvania played large role in Updike’s work, life
John Updike, who often spoke of “the proud State of Pennsylvania from which I come,” was born in West Reading, raised in Shillington for the first 13 years of his life, and lived on the family farm in Plowville until he left to attend college at Harvard, spending three summers working as a copy boy for the Reading Eagle.
The first Updike Society Conference will use the Berks County, Pa., area where Updike spent his early years as the backdrop for the biennial gathering of scholars, critics, and enthusiasts who will share recent research and critical studies of the author’s work.
His high school yearbook described him as “the sage of Plowville” who “hopes to write for a living.” In later interviews, Updike recalled spending time in the Reading Library with its “cosmically mysterious” balconies, and frequently checking out stacks of books.
“I am drawn to southeastern Pennsylvania because I know how things happen there, or at least how they used to happen,” Updike told an interviewer. “Once you have in your bones the fundamental feasibilities of a place, you can imagine there freely.”
Pennsylvania towns and landmarks turn up constantly in Updike’s fictional world. In Rabbit, Run and its sequels, Reading becomes Brewer, Mt. Penn turns into Mt. Judge, and the landmark Pagoda Hotel shows up as the Pinnacle Hotel. “Pennsylvania,” Updike told an interviewer in 1986, “where I spent my first 18 years, is a place of vivid impressions even after more than 30 years away.”
Reading, he said, “was a grand place—thriving downtown, factories pouring out smoke and textiles and steel and pretzels and beer. It was a town that made things. It was a muscular, semi-tough kind of place.”
Updike’s books which are set in Pennsylvania or which prominently mention Updike’s birth state include The Poorhouse Fair (1959), The Same Door (1959), Rabbit, Run (1960), Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1962), The Centaur (1963), Of the Farm (1965), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990), and Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel (2000).
The novels which earned him major awards were all written about life in Pennsylvania. In addition to the two Rabbit volumes that won Pulitzers, The Centaur and Rabbit Is Rich received the National Book Award, and Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
In 1983, Updike received the Distinguished Pennsylvania Artist Award from then-Gov. Richard Thornburgh.