John Updike admires Edward Hopper

Let’s be honest, John Updike is intimidating. He is an author who can only be described as prolific; one who drew an impressive crowd at Benaroya Hall in what is often described as one of the most literate cities in America. Since his early success in the 1950s, he has continued to add to his reputation as an influential literary figure. Now in his mid-seventies, Updike has written over 60 books, numerous short stories, and a large amount of criticism—a major portion of it art criticism. However, during his appearance for Seattle Arts and Lectures on November 12th, it became obvious that it is the mythos of John Updike that is intimidating—the man himself is quite charming. The format of his appearance was unique for Seattle Arts and Lectures in that it was set up as a loosely formatted interview conducted by local author David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars) and Patricia Junker, the curator of American Art at the Seattle Art Museum. The conversation that took place revealed Updike to be thoughtful and wise in his speech, but also surprisingly funny and relatable. Updike is not necessarily self-effacing, as many celebrities become in order to avoid being cocky, but he is obviously comfortable in his own skin and in the way he presents himself to the world. The interviewers divided their questions between Updike’s writing and his opinion of visual art—particularly the work of Edward Hopper who is currently on exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. His answers were unrehearsed and unhurried leaving one to believe that John Updike might just be the icon next door.

After graduating with a B.A. in English from Harvard in 1954, he achieved the young writer’s dream and was published in The New Yorker. Rather than pounce on this opportunity, Updike left the states and put his writing career on hold in order to pursue his love of drawing at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford University. Updike grew up fascinated with cartoons as a child and always imagined that he would grow up to draw stories. When he decided to abandon drawing as a career and turn to authorship it was because he realized that “you could draw with words;” with this thought in mind he attempted a life of writing. When asked why he decided to be a writer, Updike claimed that it was mainly fueled by his lack of motivation for a nine to five job. Though, he admits that it is also the joy of creation that pulled him into writing. He expressed a sense of satisfaction at shelves filled with his own books and the fulfillment he feels knowing that he has “created something from nothing.”

Updike’s appearance at Benaroya marked not only the anniversary of his first appearance with SAL to inaugurate their lecture series 20 years ago, but it also coincided with the opening of an exhibit of Edward Hopper paintings at the Seattle Art Museum. Patricia Junker asked Updike what he valued about art in general and why he liked Hopper so much. In his answer he revealed not only why he gave up drawing, but also why his stories have been described as vivid and lifelike. He enjoyed his time at Ruskin but he felt that in the art world: “Once we [the art community] ran out of movements that could be named, I fell away. ”The shift to pop art amused Updike, but his critiques for movements like minimalism—“well-made boxes”—or artists like Jeff Koons—“very shiny”—show where his true allegiances lie.

“Modern artists,” he mused, “almost need an erasure of the common memory so that they can begin from scratch. ”For himself, Updike sees his role as an artist is to “create some kind of commentary on the environment and the country in which I happened to be born. ”This, perhaps, is the reason why he lists Edward Hopper as one of his favorite artists. He explained that one of the reasons that Hopper resonates with him is that: “he paints the world of my parents. ”The paintings exhibited in Edward Hopper’s Women at the SAM do indeed evoke another time. They bring forth a time when women were venturing out into a new urban scene and Hopper’s goal was to catch these women in these environments unaware. A woman eating alone in the automat, a couple having a secret conversation on the porch—Hopper draws our focus to them and yet we never know why, the exact mood or theme of the piece is always a mystery and we are left “eavesdropping on that wonderful Hopper silence.”

John Updike answers questions form Patricia Junker and David Guterson.

Updike himself represents a bygone era. When asked what advice he has for modern day authors, Updike seemed to pity the current situation. “It has gotten harder,” he admits and says that he feels like there were more opportunities and more demand for young writers when he was coming up. Updike won’t be giving up his place anytime soon; though he is older, he is not done just yet. “The joy of creation is still too real to me,” he says, and his recent release The Widows of East wick is proof of this. Like his Rabbit series, the return to his past characters was not a planned move. Instead, he found his inspiration partially in the flawed adaptation of the original Witches of East wick to the big screen. Updike felt that the movie left out some of the elements that he found most pertinent to the story. He wanted to use Widows not only to revisit his characters after they had aged but also “to remind the reader of the wrong and the hurt.”As for whether or not this return to familiar territory will present a wiser, more reflective John Updike, the author thinks it’s unlikely. “You don’t really know much more in your mid-seventies as in your mid-twenties,” he chuckled. Herein Updike explained where his seemingly unending drive comes from. He is the first to admit that: “A novel is more complicated than you might think. ”Yet, he continues tackle these complications and we are fortunate enough to be invited to see the results.