Inaugural John Updike Conference returns “Rabbit” to his roots


Inaugural John Updike Conference returns “Rabbit” to his roots

Updike’s boyhood hometown in Reading, Pa., to host first Updike Society Conference at Alvernia University, promoting study of the award-winning author’s literature and life.
Writer’s "Rabbit" Angstrom novels captured the imaginations of America’s middle class.

It seems only fitting that Updike scholars will return to the simple small town of John Updike’s childhood to gather for an international conference that celebrates his work. Such an honor is typically reserved for only the most revered authors, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Many believe Updike belongs in that company.

And so next fall the literary world will focus on the Reading, Pa. area, where Updike was born and raised, for the very first John Updike Society Biennial Conference The inaugural event will take place Oct. 1-3, 2010, at Alvernia University, a private Franciscan institution located in Reading and founded in 1958, the same year Updike saw publication of his very first book, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures.

The John Updike Society, formed several months after Updike’s death this past January, is devoting its first conference to celebrate the prolific writer’s masterwork, Rabbit, Run, which marks its 50th publishing anniversary in 2010. The novel gave readers the iconic character Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, an American Everyman. “Updike’s most famous creation, Rabbit Angstrom, has become, like Huckleberry Finn and Jay Gatsby, an American icon,” said Dr. James Schiff, editor of the Society’s journal, The John Updike Review.

For Updike scholars and aficionados, there could be no better place to attend a conference devoted to the life and literary exploits of the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Brewer, the fictional town featured in Rabbit, Run and three sequels, is modeled after Reading. Updike often spoke of “the proud state of Pennsylvania.

As an adult, he recalled spending time at the Reading Public Library, with its “cosmically mysterious” balconies, and the Reading Museum, with its Egyptian mummy and other objects that left an indelible impression on the young Updike. “Pennsylvania, where I spent my first 18 years, is a place of vivid impressions even after more than 30 years away,” Updike told an interviewer in 1986.

Books which he set in Pennsylvania or which prominently feature Pennsylvania include The Poorhouse Fair (1959), The Same Door (1959), Rabbit, Run (1960), Pigeon Feathers (1962), The Centaur (1963), Of the Farm (1965), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990), and Licks of Love (2000). The novels which earned him major awards were all written about Pennsylvania.

“Alvernia University is honored to host the very first Updike Society Conference,” said Alvernia President Thomas Flynn, himself a professor of Modern American Literature. “Updike was one of the great American writers of the 20th century, and it’s fitting that a society would be formed to promote reader interest in his work. When we learned about the Society and their intent to hold their first conference in Reading, we wanted to support this important effort.”

The conference is primarily for members of The John Updike Society, a collection of scholars, critics, and enthusiasts who will share recent research and critical studies.  The academic part of the conference includes a tour of local Reading sites important to Updike and his fiction. But panel discussions featuring Updike’s classmates, as well as the conference keynote presentation, will be open to the public.

In addition, area educators will be in for a treat: a unique, one-day parallel conference on “Teaching John Updike,” taught by recognized Updike scholars. The event will give high school teachers an extraordinary glimpse into Updike’s work and background. “We hope this conference will contribute to the continued interest in John Updike’s literature and life, ideally leading to even more critical responses to his works,” said John Updike Society President James Plath, who edited Conversations with John Updike.

Updike would go on to publish a book a year over a career that made him one of American’s literary legends. In addition to his Pulitzers for Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, Updike also won the American Book Award and the National Book Award for Rabbit Is Rich. “The John Updike Society could have chosen any number of venerable institutions to host this conference, said Flynn. “That they selected Alvernia reinforces a distinctive dimension of our university, which highlights unique community-based learning opportunities. These opportunities provide students with a perspective they can use as productive leaders in professional and civic settings.

 “In his general appeal to an enormous and varied readership, Updike has few peers,” said scholar Jack De Bellis, who, with Updike’s local contact Dave Silcox, will serve as co-directors of the conference. For additional information about the First Biennial John Updike Society Conference or to join The John Updike Society, visit the conference Web site at

About The John Updike Society

The John Updike Society is comprised of members from 11 countries. Among its members are scholars, college professors, college students, high school and middle school teachers, book collectors, and the “just plain readers” that Updike had in mind when he wrote his novels. Their mission is to promote awareness of John Updike’s works.

About Alvernia University

Alvernia is a selective, private university located in historic Berks County, Pa., that combines the academic rigor of a comprehensive university with the personal attention of a small liberal arts college. The institution offers more than 600 courses with 50 majors and minors. Guided by Catholic Franciscan values and the ideal of “knowledge joined with love,” Alvernia offers a rigorous, caring, and inclusive learning community committed to academic excellence.
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