National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Introduction of John Updike, Recipient of the National Book Foundation's DISTINGUISHED CONTRIBUTION TO AMERICAN LETTERS AWARD, 1998

Delivered by Paul LeCerc

It is a great pleasure to be here tonight to have the honor of introducing two of the most important forces in writing in our nation, the National Book Foundation, the sponsor of the National Book Awards, and John Updike, the recipient of the 1998 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

The two have much in common. The National Book Awards, established 49 years ago, now recognize annually exceptional works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people's literature. John Updike has now published 49 books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people's literature, an exceptional, indeed, extraordinary body of work that exemplifies the qualities of expression we all are here to celebrate.

The parallels between the Foundation's work and Mr. Updike's output continue well beyond the number 49. The National Book Foundation, when not engaged in honoring writers like John Updike and our finalists this evening, is dedicated to illuminating the relationship between reading and writing. Everyday, in inner cities and in rural communities, at settlement houses and Native American reservations, in public libraries and on the National Book Foundation's Website, the Foundation offers ordinary Americans the opportunity to do something extraordinary, to participate in the writing life of our nation.

John Updike Photo Credit: Michael Chikiris

Likewise, when not producing books that have earned him honors, including two National Book Awards and six nominations for the Award, Mr. Updike is devoted to exploring American letters. He does so through our Foundation's Writing Life Programs, a source of pride to our board, our staff, and our audiences. But tonight everyone who loves books must share in our particular pride as we honor John Updike for his other contributions to the writing life.

Throughout his brilliant career, he has relied on a single and a singular critical touchstone, a fervent relationship to the world. Whether his subject has been James Joyce or Doris Day, the Ming Dynasty or Moby Dick, millions of readers have reciprocated his ardent and abiding interestedness.

Of course, a fervent relation to the world is also the hallmark of John Updike's fiction. This developed, no doubt, during his boyhood in Chillington, Pennsylvania. His father, Wesley, was a high school teacher who loved to rub elbows and mixed up with his neighbors on Philadelphia Avenue. His mother, Linda, we're told, preferred typing away on her portable Remington typewriter with elite type. She wanted to be a writer.

Invariably, it seems, her stories were rejected but, as Mr. Updike once remarked, and I quote, "The bounce of their return at least demonstrated that this intoxicating vapor of printed material had a source which a person might some day, by following the same yellow brick road, reach.

For him, that yellow brick road led first to Harvard, then to Oxford and then to this island city, Manhattan, where he began working as a reporter for the New Yorker in 1955. Three years later, he published his first collection of poetry, The Carpentered Hen followed the next year by The Same Door, a collection of stories. In 1959, he also published The Poorhouse Fair, the first of his 17 novels to date and a book that introduced the world to a novelist whose achievements have been ranked alongside those of Dickens, George Elliot and Joyce.

The heroes of John Updike's fictions are as ordinary as characters can be who have left an indelible impression on readers around the globe, Rabbit Angstrom, Henry Bech, Richard Maple, Piet Hanema, are all more or less middle class Americans leading more or less mundane lives. What distinguishes them is an infinite capacity for wonder at the commonplace. What marks them, too, is their search for something divine to stave off the nothingness that terrifies them. Torn between the conventional mortality of the day and their own inner imperatives, they often fail to find the redemption that they seek. The dilemmas remain unresolved.

Nonetheless, in novels like Couples, Roger's Version, and In the Beauty of the Lilies, in collections like Midpoint, Trust Me, and Too Far to Go, and in his inimitable Rabbit Tetralogy and Bech Trilogy, the world John Updike depicts is always deserving of praise.

At the beginning of his career, he had said he felt overwhelmed by his self imposed task to say all that could be said and, I quote, "The whole mass of muddling, hidden, troubled Americans, to sort out, to particularize and extol it with the proper dark beauty. What I doubted," he wrote, "was not the grandeur or the plenitude of my topic but my ability to find the works to express it."

John Updike, it is a privilege to acknowledge what your readers have known all along. You have indeed expressed your topic in book after book. You have found exactly the right words with which to extol the dark beauty of America and particularize the middling, hidden, troubled lives of your fellow citizens.

On behalf of readers everywhere and especially on behalf of my fellow members of the board of the National Book Foundation, and also on behalf of our very generous donor of this year's medal, our friend and fellow board member, Walter Moseley, it is an honor to thank you publicly for all that you have done for the writing life in America and to bestow upon you the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.