JOHN UPDIKE was born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, in 1932. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954 and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Foundation Award, and the William Dean Howells Medal. In 2007 he received the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. John Updike died in January 2009.
FOREWORD TO THE VINTAGE EDITION
Three of these stories are from my collection, The Same Door; seven are from Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories; and one, the last, has not previously been included in any book. All were first printed in The New Yorker. They have been arranged here in the order of the hero’s age; in the beginning he is ten, in the middle stories he is an adolescent, in the end he has reached manhood. He wears different names and his circumstances vary, but he is at bottom the same boy, a local boy—a selection could be called A Local Boy. The locality is that of Olinger, Pennsylvania, a small town bounded on the urban side by Alton and on the rural side by Firetown. The name Olinger (pronounced with a long O, a hard g, and the emphasis on the first syllable) was coined, to cap a rebuke, in a story called “The Alligators”:
“You’re not in Baltimore now, Joan,” Miss Fritz said.
“You are in Olinger, Pennsylvania.”
The name is audibly a shadow of “Shillington,” the real name of my home town, yet the two towns, however similar, are not at all the same. Shillington is a place on the map and belongs to the world; Olinger is a state of mind, of my mind, and belongs entirely to me.
When the idea was first proposed—in a kind of thoughtful letter from Mr. John F. Horty, Jr., of Philadelphia—that my “Olinger stories” be printed in one paperback volume, my publishers were agreeable but I hesitated. My other collections were still amply for sale, and an anthology derived from them, especially by me, seemed fussy. In the matter of arranging short stories, I think the order in which they written is the most natural and normally useful. A more pointed arrangement, seeking to reveal some inner consistency, could not help but point up inconsistencies of detail. Further, not all of the stories whose spiritual center is Olinger take place there. And further still, the book would be slim.
From the fact of the slim book in your hand you may deduce that my doubts were not conclusive. They succumbed to the hope that a concentration of certain images might generate new light, or at least focus more sharply the light already there. I hope that this book is justified. I bind these stories together as one ties up a packet of love letters that have been returned. Olinger has receded from me. Composition, in crystallizing memory, displaces it, and the town and the time it localizes have been consumed by the stories bound here. Not an autobiography, they have made one impossible. In the last of them, Olinger has become “like a town in a fable”; and in my novel The Centaur, by turning Olinger explicitly into Olympus, I intended to say the final word, and farewell. Perhaps I exaggerate; it is an inherited fault. But the most recent piece here, “In Football Season,” was written over two years ago, and I offer this book in the faith that it is a closed book.
The oldest story is “Friends from Philadelphia.” It was the first story I ever sold, and I wrote it in Vermont, on my father-in-law’s typewriter, in the June of my graduation from college. I had given myself five years to become a “writer,” and my becoming one immediately has left me with an uneasy, apologetic sense of having blundered through the wrong door. Nevertheless, it is a story I am grateful to, and it has remained, for all my zealous subsequent activity, my mother’s favorite. In it, Olinger, unnamed, is simply the world; its author is so young that everything outside Olinger—Harvard, marriage, Vermont—seemed relatively unreal, and in his innocence he gave the heroine a last name, Lutz, which people outside the Pennsylvania Dutch counties pronounce to rhyme with “guts” instead of, correctly, “Toots.” I have been told that the story seems to have no point. The point, to me, is plain, and is the point, more or less, of all these Olinger stories. We are rewarded unexpectedly. The muddled and inconsequent surface of things now and then parts and yields us a gift. In my boyhood I had the impression of being surrounded by an incoherent generosity, of—to quote a barefaced reminiscence I once wrote—
a quiet but tireless goodness that things at rest, like a brick wall or a small stone, seem to affirm. A wordless reassurance these things are pressing to give. An hallucination? To transcribe middleness with all its grits, bumps, and anonymities, in its fullness of satisfaction and mystery: is it possible or, in view of the suffering that violently colors the periphery and that at all moments threatens to move into the center, worth doing? Possibly not; but the horse-chestnuts trees, the telephone poles, the porches, the green hedges recede to a calm point that in my subjective geography is still the center of the world.
Olinger, if it is like Shillington, is a square mile of middle-class homes physically distinguished by a bend in the central avenue that compels some side streets to deviate from the grid pattern. Its population numbers less than 5,000, predominantly Protestant and of German descent. (D. W. Brogan, in his book The American Character, remarks that “The Germans who settled in early Pennsylvania have stayed put ever since, and their fertile, well-formed, stable countryside often evokes nostalgia in European breasts. But American was not made by ways of life that evoke European nostalgia…”) Olinger is west of greater Philadelphia and south of the coal regions and contains a box factory and a small hosiery mill which in World War II made parachutes. Most of its citizens look economically toward Alton, a middle-sized city whose industries are steel, textiles, pretzels, and beer. The surrounding land is loamy, and Olinger is haunted—hexed perhaps—by rural memories, accents, and superstitions. Cars travelling through see nothing here to make them stop; the town is neither young nor old, poor nor rich, backward nor forward. It is beyond the western edge of Megalopolis, and hangs between its shallow hills enchanted, nowhere, anywhere; there is no place like it. Its children however dispersed by military service and education, almost all return. I have returned often, though seldom bodily, and am delighted to report that the flags there still carry forty-eight stars, the pledge of allegiance omits “under God,” and the Lord’s Prayer is daily recited in the schools.
I have let the inconsistencies stand in these stories. Each started from scratch. Grand Avenue here is Alton Pike there. In “Pigeon Feathers” the grandfather is dead, in “Flight” the grandmother. In fact, both of my mother’s parents lived until I was an adult. In fact, my family moved eleven miles away from the town when I was thirteen; in “Friends from Philadelphia” the distance is one mile, in “The Happiest I’ve Been” it has grown to four. This strange distance, this less than total remove from my milieu, is for all I know the crucial detachment of my life. In some stories, like “Flight” and “A Sense of Shelter,” I have pretended the physical distance did not exist, but it is there, as the enchantment that makes Molly Bingaman and Mary Landis unattainable.
The hero is always returning, from hundreds of miles finally. Only the first two stories show a pure Olinger child. It surprised me, in making this arrangement, to realize that the boy who wrestles with H. G. Wells and murders pigeons is younger than the one who tells Thelma Lutz she shouldn’t pluck her eyebrows. But we age unevenly, more slowly in society than in our own skulls. Among these eleven brothers, some are twins. John Nordholm and David Kern, having taken their turns as actors, reappear as narrators. And optically bothered Clyde Behn seems to me a late refraction of that child Ben who flees the carnival with “tinted globes confusing his eyelashes.”
It does not do to dote. Fiction must recommend itself or remain recommended. But if of my stories I had to pick a few to represent me, they would, I suppose, for reasons only partially personal, these.