IWU professor helps save John Updike home

2014-05-07T06:00:00Z IWU professor helps save John Updike homeLenore Sobota lsobota@pantagraph.com pantagraph.com

BLOOMINGTON — Jim Plath's connection to Pulitzer-prize winning American writer John Updike is more than academic.

“He helped me propose to my wife,” said Plath, an English professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and president of the John Updike Society.

Updike wrote a note to Plath's bride-to-be in a copy of “Marry Me,” one of his 27 novels.

From an interest triggered in graduate school to a doctoral dissertation and later as editor of a book, “Conversations with John Updike,” Plath now finds himself overseeing the renovation of Updike's childhood home in Shillington, Pa.

“Owning a home on Clinton Boulevard … doing a lot of restoration myself, has been pretty good training,” Plath said.

"We're still in the deconstruction phase" of the Updike house, said the home's curator, Maria Mogford, describing efforts to return it to the 1932-45 period when Updike lived there.

Updike won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1982 and 1991 for “Rabbit is Rich” and “Rabbit at Rest,” part of a series on the character Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom that also included “Rabbit, Run” and “Rabbit Redux.”

“The 'Rabbit' books are closest to being the great American novel,” Plath said.

Plath first contacted Updike in 1986 while working on his dissertation and corresponded with him regularly. Updike visited IWU for the dedication of Ames Library in 2002.

From time to time, Plath asked Updike about founding an Updike Society. “He vehemently opposed it,” Plath said, until one day Updike added, “not in my lifetime.”

Updike died Jan. 27, 2009, and the John Updike Society was formed four months later.

Updike's childhood home “kind of fell into our laps,” Plath said. The owner decided to sell and contacted the society, which was able to buy it with a donation from the Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation. 

Updike lived in the home from birth to age 13. “He said that's where his artistic eggs were hatched,” Plath said.

Many of his short stories and essays include references to and descriptions of his childhood home and the surrounding area.

Among those was an autobiographical essay, “The Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood.” The tree planted on Updike's first birthday is still blossoming long after most trees of that type have died, Mogford said.

Wood from dead limbs removed from the tree was given to local artists to make items to sell in the planned gift shop, according to Mogford.

Plath said the society hopes to turn the house into a literary center.

“When you go into a home … you get a special feeling, you feel a connection to the person,” Plath said.

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