When one thinks of the local Berks County, PA area, key concepts, like “small town,” “Americana,” and “middle-class” often spring to mind. Today, the Berks County area is known for heritage, quaintness, and simplicity.
While those ideas are indeed fitting, it’s authors like John Updike, who grew up in the local small town of Shillington, PA, who immortalized this reputation. This month, on March 18th to be exact, John Updike would have turned 89 years old.
A renowned writer of novels, poetry, and short stories, Updike was known for his careful craftsmanship and realistic-yet-subtle depiction of the Berks County slice of life. Though he passed away in 2009, Updike’s influence can still be seen in a certain class of writers who are just now beginning to surface.
One novel, Rabbit, Run, is particularly noteworthy, as it takes an in-depth look at the Late Modernism period (late 1950s) when new ideas began to infiltrate everyday small-town life and fundamentally change the way society thought about the morality of certain lifestyles and actions.
The novel is told from the perspective of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a 26-year old man living in the suburb of Mount Judge (a suburb of the fictional town of Brewer, Pennsylvania) who feels trapped in a loveless marriage and boring sales job. As the novel goes on, Angstrom begins to question his restrictive and unfulfilling lifestyle and attempts to escape it.
This plan backfires however, and Rabbit returns home to suffer the wrath of his estranged wife and bear the chaotic domino-effect of events that follow. The novel’s plot is overtly sexual, gritty, and dark, a forceful break from the chaste and reserved norm of the time period in which it was written.
Rabbit, Run sprung multiple sequels which take a more comical and retrospective approach of the relentless questing life of Rabbit against the backdrop of many major events that occurred throughout the latter 20th century.
It’s works like these that solidified John Updike as one of the major American writers of his, or any other generation, and it was in Berks County, Pennsylvania where the author claims his “artistic eggs were hatched.”
Today, The John Updike Society is working on a museum-in-progress that is run out of Updike’s childhood home. The house is located at 117 Philadelphia Avenue in Shillington, PA, where Updike lived from infancy until the age of 13.
During his life, Updike treasured the house. He visited Shillington often throughout his career, and frequently toured the home on multiple occasions, remarking on the many changes and similarities that can be observed in the home of his youth. One Updike short story, The Black Room, recounts one of these visits in depth.
According to the The John Updike Society, The John Updike Childhood Home is dedicated to awakening and sustaining reader interest in the literature and legacy of John Updike, promoting literature written by Updike, fostering and encouraging critical responses to Updike’s literary works, and telling the story of John Updike’s relationship with Shillington and the influence that Berks County had on his literary works.
The John Updike Childhood Home is a member of the Berks Heritage Council, the Shillington Business Association, and Pennsylvania’s Americana Region, as well as an Affiliate of the American Writers Museum in Chicago.
Currently, The John Updike Childhood Home is operating in a limited capacity until restoration is complete. Until then, tours are available by request only. Click here to learn more about how you can plan a visit to this important facet of Berks County literary history today.