John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies

New Yorker's theological writer takes to Patterson, New Jersey

John Updike inherited a sense of sorrow and a kind of hopelessness.
  • John Updike inherited a sense of sorrow and a kind of hopelessness.

Author: John Updike was brn in 1932 in Shillington, Pennsylvania, beloved only child of a high school math teacher father and a mother who longed to be a writer. (In a television documentary, Updike was heard to ask his mother if she were pleased by his success. Her answer: “Frankly, Johnny, I’d rather it had been me.”) Updike grew up in Pennsylvania, reading and drawing. At Harvard College, which he attended on scholarship, he contributed sketches and cartoons to the Lampoon. As well, while still an undergraduate, he had several pieces accepted by the New Yorker. Updike graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1954.

After graduation he married and spent a year on fellowship at Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. Returning to the United States in 1955, Updike began an association with the New Yorker, which continues to this day. After two years in Manhattan, Updike and his wife left New York for Massachusetts, where he wrote full-time and they raised four children. In 1977 Updike divorced and remarried. He continues to live in Massachusetts.

Updike’s first book, a collection of poetry titled Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, was published in 1958, and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, in 1959. An anomaly among successful American writers, Updike, since The Poorhouse Fair, has remained with one publishing house — Alfred A. Knopf — and has never employed an agent. Since 1959, Updike has produced a new book almost every year, including 17 novels. He regularly contributes book reviews and poetry to the New Yorker and art reviews to various magazines. Updike has earned numerous prizes, including two Pulitzers, the National Book Award, and the American Book Award.

In the Beauty of the Lilies; Alfred A. Knopf, 1996; $29.95; 491 pages

Type: Fiction

Place: Paterson, New Jersey; rural Delaware; Manhattan; Hollywood; Colorado Time: 1910-Present

Updike’s 17th novel is a saga of four generations, beginning in Paterson, New Jersey, with Presbyterian minister Clarence Wilmot. Wilmot loses his faith and leaves his pulpit. He makes a shabby living as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman and comforts himself in the dazzle of the then-new moving pictures. After Clarence’s death, his widow and children move to Delaware, where Clarence’s son Teddy becomes a mailman. Teddy marries the crippled daughter of a greenhouse owner; their daughter, Essie, catapults herself into Alma DeMott, a sexy movie star. The novel’s finale concentrates on Essie’s son Clark, who finds himself caught up in a Christian fundamentalist commune not unlike that in Waco.

When we talked recently, by telephone, Mr. Updike had just finished a two-week reading tour on behalf of his new novel. He was at his publisher’s, in Manhattan, and outside the East 50th Street windows, snow had begun to fall. He sighed, said, “Ah, it must be warm where you are.”

In the Beauty of the Lilies opens in a meticulously re-created Paterson, New Jersey, in 1910. I asked, “Could you tell me something about the nature of your research for Lilies?”

“I began with Paterson. I actually went there, went to the public library. Paterson is very different now from the city I describe, of course. The mills are closed, if not actually torn down. It’s a black and Hispanic city. There’s rubble, big open spaces of rubble. At the same time, you can see the city that was there, the civicly proud place. At the library, I read old newspapers on a microfilm viewer. The old papers certainly give the flavor pretty quickly. I used some of their headlines in reconstructing Clarence’s reading, especially on that unfortunate day when he lost his faith.

“People around Paterson got wind of my writing about their city and corresponded with me. Steve Golin sent me his book on the Paterson strike (The Fragile Bridge: Paterson Silk Strike, 1913), which was very useful. I was able to put that crisis right in there with my character’s crisis.

“Of course, I did a lot of reading about the history of the movies. And then, for Teddy, who became a mailman, I found myself doing things like corresponding with the postal department. They were very cooperative but slow to respond. I needed to know about regulations and salaries and how routes were set up. They were also helpful in my learning what a mailman’s life was like because I never knew a mailman intimately; there was no mailman in my family nor had I ever been a mailman. So I had to kind of dope that out. Too, one does have friends in these places. As instance, an old playmate of mine from Pennsylvania happens to live in Denver, so she filled me in on some of the parameters of Colorado. At every stage, though, I had to use imagination and research. But in this book, it was a little more than standard, my research. It’s a rare novel that you don’t have to do some research for, but this novel took more and I probably could have done even more, but I didn’t want it to read like a textbook.”

I said that people who don’t write tend to think that fiction springs full-blown from writers’ imaginations, that there isn’t any research.

“I think that is the illusion novelists like to create and very few actually credit sources. But in this case and in the case of Brazil, my previous novel, I thought I had leaned on books enough that I should be honest and mention them. So I did credit the variety of sources in the back of the book.”

Poet and physician William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) lived most of his life in Paterson and wrote, over a decade’s time, a five-volume poem, Paterson. Did Mr. Updike reread Williams in conjunction with his new novel?

“That’s the first thing I did, come to think of it. I picked Paterson because of the poem. I’d read the poem in a course in modern poetry when I was at Harvard. I didn’t remember much about it. I didn’t find it in truth very helpful. Williams’s Paterson and my Paterson are two different Patersons. But at least the city was the subject of one of the few American epics, and I read it and it sort of got things started. I made a few notes. But I don’t think there’s much trace of Williams’s Paterson in mine except that he and I both notice the great ethnic variety, the strong Eastern European element in the millworking population.”

In Lilies, Updike describes the bookshelves in Clarence’s study. “He lifted his eyes to the wall of books opposite his desk, rows of books in subtly ridged cloth the careful dull colors of moss and clay, the dour greens and browns of putrescence, their titles in fading, sinking gold: Apostolic History and Literature and Systematic Theology and What is Darwinism? by Charles Hodge, The Atonement and Popular Lectures on Theological Themes by his son, Archibald Alexander Hodge, both professors at the Princeton Seminary before Clarence Wilmot arrived there in 1888.” Updike goes on to list dozens of other titles. How, I asked, did he re-create Clarence’s library?

“Again, with help from strangers, beautiful strangers. I wrote the Andover-Newton Theological Seminary, which is at Harvard and a place I’ve visited for other theological disquisitions, and by the magic of computer a librarian there was able to give me quite a long list of what might have been on a Presbyterian minister’s shelf at the end of the century, information which I was happy to seize and throw into the book. I was trying to create that suffocating feeling that books sometimes give you, all this learning and all this mental exertion — and what good does it really do?”

I said that Clarence’s selling encyclopedias, door-to-door, through Paterson slums was heartbreaking.

“That was a scary scene,” Mr. Updike agreed. “One is haunted by it. I’ve been on a tour this week and have thought of that scene. It’s a sort of parody of me, isn’t it, taking my books around? The idea of going door-to-door selling things that nobody wants is a nightmare, but people did it. During the Depression it was a way of scraping a few dollars together, in Clarence’s case only a few dollars.”

Did Mr. Updike recall that morning in April 1993, when television screens filled with the blaze of the Branch Davidian’s burning buildings?

“I watch the evening news or generally try to. But I didn’t see the coverage as it was happening. When I first saw it, it was a replay. But it replayed a lot. My memories of the actual Waco news event have been submerged by my reading of books about it and my attempt to re-create a version of it. I remember being very shocked and upset. In a way my novel is an attempt to slightly mitigate the Waco tragedy by, at my book’s end, getting some of the people out, staging a kind of rescue. Certainly, I was upset enough by the actual event to try to worry it into a fictional version whose outcome was not quite as devastating.”

Updike in his memoir, Self-Consciousness, writes that his paternal grandfather, Presbyterian minister Harley Updike, was forced to abandon the ministry due, according to his obituary, to “a throat affection.” I asked if Mr. Updike’s father ever talked to him about his own father.

“A little, just enough to be haunting. There’s a short story of mine called ‘Son,’ that more directly gives what I remember. He saw his father as a man of sorrows and it made him rather sorrowful too. He loved his father and felt the man sink. There’s a great deal I don’t know about their relationship or indeed my grandfather’s life, but what I did inherit was this sense of sorrow and a kind of hopelessness. To see your own father kind of waste away is probably a lifelong trauma.”

I had read somewhere that Updike had said about In the Beauty of the Lilies that in the book, he attempted “to make God a character,” although in ways that illuminate the spiritual emptiness of American life. Lilies Clarence Wilmot is a minister and in several other Updike novels — Rogers Version, A Month of Sundays — the protagonist is a minister or theologian. Updike’s use of theological texts and ideas in his fiction makes clear that he’s particularly well-read in theology. I said that I couldn’t think of any other major American novelist who reads theology.

“Or,” Mr. Updike said, “who admits to reading it. Perhaps Frederick Buechner doesn’t strike you as a major American novelist but he, I’m sure, has read theology. Another writer of great merit who’s taken a very theological turn is Reynolds Price. He not only reads the stuff but he turns it out, translating the Bible. My reading began mostly in my 20s when I was trying to orient myself in the universe. Also I found it pleasurable. Roger Lambert, in Rogers Version, reads both theology and pornography with the same degree of pleasure. There’s something about theology that’s exciting, that’s entertaining to me. I recommend it.

“Karl Barth was my hero among theologians. You can’t see

any of his books now in a general bookstore. You go to a theology or religion section. You find a little Zen, a little self-help, a little Buddhist mysticism, but not much Christian theology.”

Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) asserted against the gemutlich God of 18th- and 19th-century theological liberals a God who was totaliter aliter, wholly Other, revealed to man only through His revelation in Jesus. How, I asked Mr. Updike, did he happen to get started reading Barth?

“The first book I read was a collection of sermons and essays called The Word of God and the Word of Man. I think I just saw it on a shelf in a bookstore and bought it. I had read Kierkegaard and Chesterton. In that faraway ’50s era, theology was far more chic — we all read Tillich and Jacques Maritain. There were a number of Catholic novelists, like Bernanos, and Claudel was still alive and casting his spell, and of course Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene and then later Muriel Spark. There was much more religion, much more orthodoxy in the air than there is now. T.S. Eliot was probably very influential on me in that period — here was a first-rate mind and also a believer.

“And then I wrote a rather long review of a rather short book by Barth, called Search and Faith of Understanding. It was about the medieval theologian Anselm who devised the ontological proof of God’s existence. I read that and reviewed it, and of course it was highly unusual for the New Yorker to run theology reviews. But Mr. Shawn was a very permissive and intellectually curious person and when I said I would like to do this, he assented and they duly ran it. To do this was the sort of thing that probably couldn’t have happened under Harold Ross [the New Yorker's founder and first editor] and wouldn’t happen under Tina Brown, but did happen under Mr. Shawn.”

William Shawn was editor of the New Yorker from 1952 to 1987. Everyone who worked with Shawn — or “Mr. Shawn,” as he was called — seems to have a “Mr. Shawn story.” I asked Mr. Updike if he had one.

“The first time I met him I was just back from England, at the age of 23, and I had begun to appear in the New Yorker. Katherine White (E.B. White’s wife and for many years a New Yorker editor) had come to me at Oxford and offered me a job at the New Yorker and I’d accepted, but I had to meet Mr. Shawn. I was over in Pennsylvania and my mother and I set out in the car to drive to my appointment, and I got lost. I took the wrong turn in New Jersey and got under the Pulaski Skyway instead of on it. I finally had to call Mr. Shawn from a pay phone to say it looked like I was going to be late. He responded by saying in that very sweet, milky voice of his that he would wait. I said, ‘Oh, I couldn’t dream of asking you to wait. I’ll try again.’ So we turned around and went back to Pennsylvania, and I think I went alone the next time and got through to him.

“My family and I were always getting lost, and, surely, I was nervous. But it seemed to me the important thing about me as far as Shawn went was that I had shown this ability to write, and if I didn’t show much ability to make an appointment, it wasn’t a ruinous thing.

“Actually, I suppose that I never saw a great deal of him. There was that first interview, to which I finally arrived. He indicated, then, that he would give me a ‘Talk of the Town,’ which was where people began. My ‘talents,’ as he delicately put it, ‘might not be suitable to that.’ The odd quality of that statement in the old New Yorker was his implication that they would find someplace where I would fit. In other words, they were going to give me a job, regardless of my failures or inabilities. As a matter of fact, I took quite well to ‘Talk’; I liked doing it and there it was, so it was settled.

“Over the course of the years Mr. Shawn said a few things, very few, that were kind of magical and very reassuring. Once I said to him, ‘Perhaps I should give up all these book reviews.’ The reviews were taking time from my fiction and my poetry and my ‘real self.’ He said, ‘Oh, Mr. Updike, there’s nothing like them.’ That was a typical Shawn compliment, in that it meant almost anything. It could mean there is nothing so wonderful as these, or.... But it is a very minimal remark. The remark persuaded me right then that I should keep on doing these unique book reviews. His was a very delicate hand on the tiller and a very sure hand, really.

“In the early days, Katherine White was my fiction editor. She, rather soon after I came, went up to Maine with her husband. She had to give up the post as fiction editor, I think at some pain to herself. Andy [E.B. White’s nickname] wanted to get out of the city for good. Bill Maxwell then became my editor and remained so until he retired, at which point Roger Angell [Katherine White’s son by a previous marriage] became my fiction editor. Edith Oliver for many years was the books editor and would assign the books and we had a very good easy relationship at finding books I wanted to do and could do.”

In the February 19 issue of the New Yorker, Updike had a piece titled “Paranoid Packaging,” in which he complains gently about the new childproof pill bottles, the bags of peanuts handed out on airplanes, and other “consumer-resistant” packages. I asked Mr. Updike if he recalled a piece he’d written years earlier about the difficulty of opening the book envelopes in which reviewers receive books from publishers.

He did, and laughed. “Yes. ‘The Invasion of the Book Envelope.’ The packages that hurt you when you open them, the dangerous staples. The New Yorker ran that piece too. I aspired initially to be a humorist. Now, the very word ‘humorist’ well may be out of fashion. I read Benchley and Thurber as an adolescent and didn’t know that very voice, that kind of writing, would evaporate by the time I got there. There is still some humor, of course, Russell Baker and a number of other newspaper columnists, but you don’t see those exquisitely casual jokes in the New Yorker anymore.

“A genre I also regret the passing of is literary parody. Whether it’s the lack of people who can do it, or the lack of suitable objects of parody, I don’t know. A good parody is really a critique of the highest order because it really shows you what the author’s quirks and traits and faults are. Somewhere Woolcott Gibbs said you had to read an author until you were saturated with him before you could begin a parody.” Mr. Updike sighed.

We talked then, again, of the titles on the bookshelves in Clarence’s study. “It was a pretty defensive period for theology,” Mr. Updike said. “Neo-orthodoxy hadn’t quite been invented. Theology was trying to grapple with the scientific revelations of the previous century. Those were very tough times for thinking believers.”

I said that as I perused the titles on Clarence’s shelves, I thought that readers of such titles as The Principles of Jesus Applied to Some Questions of Today and New Light on the New Testament: Life on God’s Plan must have brought such hope and longing for solutions to their reading of those books.

“I am just learning, really, about the author business*” Mr. Updike offered, “that the reader, in fact, writes the book, that it’s the reader who shapes the imagery out of his or her own memories. You don’t have to do an awful lot to help the reader get started, a few words, a few images, and the reader will do a lot of useful work for you. I am really only now learning that.”

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