Literary Ore of Updike, Do-It-Yourself Man of Letters

The New York Times, Arts, Books, June 2010

Literary Ore of Updike, Do-It-Yourself Man of Letters
By Sam Tanenhaus

In the mid-1960s, when John Updike began giving selected papers to the Houghton Library at Harvard University, they were cataloged and, for the most part, made available to researchers. But after an amendment to the tax law in 1969 eliminated the sizable deductions authors reaped from such donations, Updike, though he continued to deposit papers, did so only for warehousing purposes. He retained ownership of this material and let very few look at it. The calculation was proprietary. His literary cosmos was still expanding, and he was loath to expose its workings.

In 1987, when Houghton mounted an exhibition drawn from the collection, Updike, in the preface he wrote to the catalog, maintained that “the refuse of my profession” was of limited value — only the published result mattered — and tartly noted that “inspecting such material is (like most science) a form of prying.” He drew on the archive himself when overseeing new editions of his work but vigilantly warded off others. Updike’s widow, Martha, who helped her husband put the finishing touches on the collection, said he had a strict idea of who should see it: “legitimate, bona fide academics.”

So while he was receptive to a few scholars — Prof. William Pritchard of Amherst College examined some of the papers for his critical study “Updike: America’s Man of Letters,” published in 2000 — Updike stiff-armed potential biographers. He also withheld some precious items: a number of unpublished manuscripts, voluminous correspondence, scrapbooks, family photographs.

This all changed in October 2009 when Harvard purchased the collection from the Updike estate, which is managed by Mrs. Updike. Harvard will not disclose the price, but Glenn Horowitz, the manuscript dealer hired by Mrs. Updike to negotiate the transaction, has handled a number of other big-ticket archives, including Norman Mailer’s (sold to the University of Texas in 2005), and is known for driving a hard bargain.

“John never questioned his value as a man of letters and as a commercial property,” Mr. Horowitz said in a telephone interview. He too declined to divulge a dollar sum, citing a nondisclosure agreement signed at the time of the sale. But he dropped a broad hint. “One way I characterized the archive to Houghton is that I showed them what Texas had paid for Mailer,” Mr. Horowitz said. That figure, $2.5 million, “was a talking point until we concluded” the deal, for a sum believed to be about $3 million.

In return the library gained full possession of a collection that may be unique for the personal stamp it bears. Mailer, for example, assigned the task of organizing his papers to J. Michael Lennon, his authorized biographer. Without Mr. Lennon’s efforts, Mr. Horowitz said in an e-mail message, “Mailer’s voluminous archive would’ve arrived in Texas in a state of disorder along the lines of rush hour traffic in Cairo.” By contrast, Updike pieced his archive together himself and delivered the material several times a year, driving down to Cambridge from Beverly Farms, Mass., and carrying in tidily packed cartons. “It is very unusual for an author to be so organized,” Leslie Morris, the Updike collection’s curator, said in an interview in her basement office at Houghton.

For each novel Updike completed, “he would try to find a box that would accommodate the handwritten first draft, the typed second draft, bundle things together, tie them up. Each iteration that he had, from manuscript to galleys and page proofs, would all be together,” Ms. Morris said. When Updike grew too ill to drop off the boxes, Ms. Morris traveled up to Beverly Farms to pick up the latest offerings packed up by Updike and his wife.

“It seems to have been assembled with future scholars in mind,” said Christopher Carduff, an editor at the Library of America who explored a corner of the archive when he collaborated with Updike on one of his final projects, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” a slim anthology of Updike’s writings about his boyhood hero Ted Williams, the Red Sox slugger, published in April 2010.

Even under the new arrangement the manuscripts of two early unpublished novels, “Home” and “Go Away,” will be sealed for 20 years, remaining off limits to researchers.

In addition to literary ore, the archive offers a picture of an all-purpose do-it-yourself man of letters who typed his own manuscripts, designed his own book jackets, chose type faces and binding cloth and kept careful lists of corrections (down to errant accent marks) for new editions of his work. Updike’s self-sufficiency set him apart in another way too. In the era of gaudy contracts and multibook deals, he never had an agent, preferring to handle his own business arrangements, including those with his two principal outlets, The New Yorker and Alfred A. Knopf.

The Updike collection includes copies of his annual “first read” contracts with The New Yorker, giving the magazine first crack at all his short stories, essays and poems — and for a remarkably low price. The classic short stories he wrote in the 1960s fetched as little as 18 cents a word for the first 2,000 words (about two full pages in the magazine) and only 9 cents for the remaining text.

Updike also shunned book advances, content to live off royalties, foreign sales and movie rights, and to let Knopf negotiate sales to paperback publishers. The sums he earned for these last were considerable. Documents from Knopf record that he received guaranteed payments of $300,000 for the paperback rights to both “The Witches of Eastwick” and “Rabbit Is Rich.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 21, 2010

An earlier version of this article misstated who manages the estate. Martha Updike is the sole executor of the estate of John Updike.

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