John Updike’s Pennsylvania Interviews by James Plath

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

John Updike’s Pennsylvania Interviews
edited by James Plath
Lehigh University Press, 294 pp., cloth $85

Born in Reading, Berks County, and raised in nearby Shillington and Plowville, author John Updike, like the main character Harry Angstrom in his Rabbit series of novels, often tried to escape Pennsylvania in his literary work, but he always seemed to come back home. This book, with its gathering of interviews and local stories, both informative and nostalgic, demonstrates this side of Updike brilliantly if at times redundantly. Each selection, culled from local newspapers, college Q&As and NPR interviews, brings Updike home.

Such a collection of seemingly prosaic interviews might seem at first glance to be of interest to only the most ardent of Updike scholars. The selections, however, were originally created for a popular audience and are by turns eminently readable, fun and profound. Plath mostly – and smartly – stays out of the way, allowing Updike to speak eloquently for himself. But Plath’s editorial choices, the context he does provide and his introduction all work to turn these seemingly random articles and interviews into a cohesive whole. The selections are chronological, allowing us to choose the period (or Updike novel) we are most interested in exploring through his interviews. More powerfully, however, we can follow Updike’s life and career as it moved, from local boy who “made good,” through his apparent literary attempts to leave Pennsylvania behind, to his final explorations of the meaning of home and nostalgia themselves. The pieces allow an arc that takes us from a young, somewhat nervous writer trying to escape to an older, more accomplished writer at ease with who he is and whence he came.

After all, as Updike notes in the first piece, a Reading Times article in which he visits his high school some 18 years after moving, “you never know until you leave a town what was special about it.”

James Speese
Lehigh University