November 24, 2014
John Updike’s trash, re-revisited
by Liam O'Brien
John Updike, whose prolificity once memorably led a reader to inquire if he’d “ever had an unpublished thought”, wrote about a lot of things. Which is why it’s easy to find Updike quotes about garbage. There’s his poem, “Burning Trash”. There’s his description of aging as “a slow dissolution within a confused mass of perishing images like a colorful mountain of compressed and rotting garbage.” And there’s a Paris Review interview, in which the author says “my life, in a sense, is trash.”
The point is that if you want to write an essay explaining why you rifled through and collected Updike’s trash for years, and you were looking for an Updike quote to use as an opener, you won’t have to Google far. And that is exactly what Paul Moran did, in his recent essay about doing exactly this.
In the essay, innocently titled “Finding John Updike” and published in Texas Monthly, Moran tells his account how he came to collect the literary icon’s refuse; his accidental witnessing of Updike taking out trash one day in 2006, which quickly led to a regular drive-by trash picking expedition, and the creation of “The Other John Updike Archive”, also the name of the accompanying website, to display the objects.
If this is sounding familiar, that’s because Moran was profiled a few months ago in The Atlantic. The article went through all the key points, including the contents of the trash (everything from photographsand notes on a never-written novel to cancelled checks and royalty statements) and the opinions of those who were involved with Updike personally. Andrew Wylie thinks Moran’s a degenerate, Updike biographer Adam Begley thinks he’s sad, and Updike’s son was quoted in the Boston Globe as being cautiously interested.
Updike, of course, was exceedingly meticulous about self-archival. His collection of books, papers, and ephemera that’s officially stored at Harvard University was huge but curated, as Updike had been depositing materials at his alma mater for years. The natural question that Moran’s trash collection begs is of ethics, not legality. The trash was not legally Updike’s after being discarded. But is it right to?
Moran’s essay certainly does him no favors in that regard, as far as I’m concerned. It’s grandiose and unsettling, and contains several straight-up disturbing anecdotes. (It’s also fairly overwritten, though Ian McEwan seems to disagree.) In one story, Moran claims to have found early evidence, in the form of printed emails, that Updike was suffering from the cancer that ultimately killed him.
But somehow even creepier than that is an episode Moran recalls in which he approached Updike for an autograph, in the only instance in which he claims to have met the author who would become his unwitting ticket to notoriety.
…I handed him a card, blank side facing up. I had read that he had a habit of turning over anything he was asked to autograph. He started doing this in the sixties after people had tried to trick him into signing political petitions. I hoped that he would turn the card over, as this would allow me to reveal what I thought he needed to know. He appeared not to notice the feel of the embossed seal touching his fingertips. He wrote “For Paul. Cheers, John Updike” on the back of what was a White House invitation that he’d received years ago.
Putting aside how creepy Moran getting off on a potential confrontation is, the rest of the essay continually returns to Moran’s need to feel special. He positions himself as a savior of otherwise forgotten artifacts, vital in their disposal and essential to the literary community, but by claiming an obligation to art rather than himself, Moran abdicates any responsibility. He spends two lines claiming that at first he felt conflicted, and then the rest of the essay justifying it; the trash was in great condition, nobody ever told him to stop, and most importantly, it made him feel good about himself.
Let’s face it, I didn’t want to fall any lower than I already had and I hoped—secretly, maybe selfishly—that I could, through Updike’s alchemy, transform myself from this vulture into a cultural phoenix. In college, after all, I had started out as an art major, but I had wrestled with the value of what I was creating and whether it was useful. But with the items I was now collecting, there was no question that they had worth.
John Updike’s life, both as he depicted it and as detailed in the wake of his death, had and still has an eager audience. Plenty of Updike’s successful books were thinly fictionalized memoir in one form or another (he even wrote about the people who were writing about him), Begley’s biography was critically lauded, and his childhood home is in the process of being transformed into a museum.
It’s a slippery ethical argument in favor of Moran’s actions to point to this ongoing demand for all things Updike. Certainly the public figure like Updike, whose inner life and filterless ego were inextricably linked to great and vital literature, occupies a different social position than a normal citizen, and this should be considered when debating the benefits or detriment of Moran’s actions. The privacy of public figures is a debate that’s flowered in the information age, and Updike’s trash is certainly a part of that debate.
But when reading Moran’s essay, it’s hard to escape the idea that while this garbage collection may be interesting, and perhaps culturally significant, it would not exist without a collector whose motivations were colored by obsession, narcissism, and absolute moral certainty.
Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.