In his more than forty years at Eerdmans, Vice President and Editor in Chief Jon Pott has mastered nearly every aspect of the field. Lest he rest too easily on his laurels, however, we’ve provided him a new challenge: blogging. In writing this, his first blog post ever, he admits he may have gotten a little carried away and given us a longer and more ruminative piece than we were expecting, but we’ll certainly forgive him his inexperience and enthusiasm.
We hope you will enjoy these musings on Eerdmans’s “modest, very occasional, but memorable connection” to one of the twentieth century’s greatest and most beloved literary icons, John Updike.
The blog was composed, Jon’s friends will want to know, in longhand.
When John Updike died two years ago this month, I promptly went to the bookstore, lingered over the Updike shelf, and came away with the paperback edition of Due Considerations, his final assemblage of nonfiction prose and the sixth such compilation since Assorted Prose in 1965. Most of these volumes are impressively fat. The man was so prodigiously prolific one marveled that he was able to consider much of anything at all duly, a wry irony that might have occurred to him as well when he titled the book.
I bought this latest tome as an act of homage to perhaps the most naturally elegant and felicitous American stylist of our time, that effortless ease — as it seemed — encouraging the output he achieved. I bought the book, too, as a nostalgic tip of the cap to a modest, very occasional, but memorable connection we at Eerdmans had with the man over his long career.
Updike, I’d like to think, had a bit of a soft spot for us. Perhaps he appreciated at least the sheer industry we put into taking his religious seriousness seriously — in no fewer than four critical studies, beginning with a volume in our series in the 60s and 70s called Contemporary Writers in Christian Perspective, a series of stapled 48-page booklets — always six signatures, 48 pages — edited by Rod Jellema in a period for us of literary idealism and, I’m sure, no little romantic pretension. Editing a number of them was one of my happiest early assignments at Eerdmans.
The series included wonderful little introductions to, for example, Flannery O’Connor (by Robert Drake) and C. S. Lewis (by Peter Kreeft), two subjects who brought to the series the helpful benefit of having already died. No one, on the other hand, succeeded in dating a volume in the series more quickly than did Updike, who continued to pour out novel after novel year after year, not to mention the poetry and the essays.
The writer of our CWCP on Updike was Kenneth Hamilton, who soon thereafter embarked with his wife, Alice, on a more ambitious critical treatment. Buried somewhere in our archives, waiting to be unearthed in this Eerdmans anniversary year, should be a note from Updike chortling over the coincidence of his working one summer in the Bodleian Library, knowing that only a few carrels to the side, the diligent Hamiltons were laboring away on a second book about him. The book came out under the title The Elements of John Updike, and, in a somewhat friskier time for Eerdmans than now, carried a racy (think Couples) drawing of Updike by David Levine, courtesy of The New York Review of Books.
If Updike’s interest in religion made us naturally interested in him, it also made him, however peripherally, aware of us, in particular of us as a publisher of Karl Barth. Updike knew and cared more about Barth than did any other important writer — read A Month of Sundays — and this occasioned the only writing, beside a blurb, that he actually did for us. We were about to publish in English a little volume of pieces by Barth on his great love, Mozart. And knowing of Updike’s interest in Barth but also recalling that he had written a children’s adaptation of The Magic Flute, we wondered whether he might combine the two interests in a foreword to our Barth on Mozart. Might we slip our mere sliver of a manuscript under his door for his consideration, we importuned? “Slip it under,” came the reply — in full, as I recall, on a postcard with his usual rubber-stamped address.
We may actually have sent him some marked-up proofs instead of a manuscript, because in short order came a foreword and a cover letter beginning, “If you are already in proof stage, then you have no time to waste, and I hasten to send you a few pages prompted by a delighted reading of your little book.” Then, later in the letter, came a little Updikian worry: “I hope that my thoughts do not seem overly much to summarize what the reader is about to experience, and that I have not stepped out of line in the tricky theological terrain.” Not content, however, to worry about his own text, he worried at a couple of points about ours as well: “On page 5, I did not understand the ‘each other’ in line 12 — aren’t we dealing with Mozart here? And on page 15, end of the paragraph, I must say I found the deleted ‘and did’ rather helpful in understanding the drift of the sentence.”
Due consideration all around.
Updike’s stylistic care, elegance, and eye for the graceful arc of the longer sentence would have made him an unlikely blogger, it would seem, notwithstanding what The New York Times, in a eulogy, called “his almost blogger-like determination to turn almost every scrap of knowledge and experience into words.” He remained to the end, as a tribute by Michael Coffey in Publishers Weekly magazine pointed out, a fervent devotee of the printed book. Not for him the chatterbox notion of writing as offering social access to the writer, only the click of a mouse away. And in a publishing world in which “content” is increasingly thought of as a neutral commodity conveyable indifferently through various media (never mind Marshall McLuhan), he held out for the tangible incarnation of paper, print, and glue.
In one of the essays in Due Considerations, entitled “A Case for Books” (publishing pun probably intended), Updike had some rueful fun with what we will miss if the experts (or “e-xperts,” as he quips) who predict the end of the physical book prove to be right. We will, says Updike, miss the book as furniture (“shelved rows of books warm and brighten the starkest room”); we will miss the book as sensual pleasure (“Smaller than a breadbox, bigger than a TV remote, the average book fits into the human hand with a seductive nestling, a kiss of texture, whether of cover cloth, glazed jacket, or flexible paperback”); we will miss the book as souvenir (“One’s collection comes to symbolize the contents of one’s mind”); we will miss books as ballast (“How many aging couples have decided to stay put because they can’t imagine what to do with the books?”).
Assorted Prose, Updike’s first nonfiction anthology, included his most celebrated essay and arguably the greatest baseball essay ever written. “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” which ran first in The New Yorker, is Updike’s tribute to Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, written after Williams’s last game, September 28, 1960. In his final time at bat, in one of those miracle moments in sport, Williams obliged his fans and posterity with a home run. And in 2010, as a 50-year tribute to the Williams farewell — and, as it turned out, a farewell to Updike as well — the Library of America reissued the essay, together with another Updike piece and a preface, in a special edition prepared by Updike himself shortly before he died. I bought the book for Christmas.
The prose remains in my rereading as fresh and immaculate as the infield grass — not a word or sentence out of place. But the book is a lovely physical specimen too, as slim as its subject — six signatures, 48 pages, wouldn’t you know — gracefully laid out, though, surprisingly, in Warnock type, not Updike’s favored Janson. The tawny endpaper pages photocopy the beginning and the end of the original typescript, strikeovers and caret insertions showing the artful writer in progress. The cover photo seems to give us the posed frontal Williams typical of the bubblegum baseball card. The frontispiece photo gives us the lone and lanky #9 from behind, ascending the tunneled steps up into Fenway Park for the valedictory event of September 28. And the front of the printed case gives us in sepia tones the final frame of the picture-perfect Williams swing, hitter’s head and eyes angled upward toward the outfield stands, catcher and umpire, heads also uplifted, continuing the photo in perfect crouched symmetry on the back, no role left for them but to admire.
So, then, at the beginning of our Eerdmans anniversary year, a tip of the cap to our past and to a splendid writer who, while hardly pivotal to our game (more on such figures later in the year), did show up along the way for a memorable play or two. So, then, looking forward (and in my very first blog post), a tip of the cap to the printed book, which, whatever its diminished role, a lot of us hope will continue to show up, too.
A tip of the cap, then — a gesture that, the thought occurs, the unsentimental Williams famously never allowed himself to make.