Plath to Discuss "Backdoor Scholarship" and The John Updike Childhood Home
March 28, 2014
BLOOMINGTON, Ill.— The top of Jim Plath’s desk is pretty typical for a professor of
English – scattered envelopes, notes and papers to grade cover its surface. But as
he works, the boxes of author John Updike’s first-edition classics beneath his feet
are on his mind. The books will soon fill shelves in the living room of Updike’s
restored childhood home in Shillington, Pa.
On Friday, April 4, Plath, president of The John Updike Society, will share the details
of this important project during his Faculty Colloquium presentation at 4 p.m. in
Anderson Auditorium (C101) of the Center for Natural Science Learning and Research
Updike is best known for the multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning novels in his Harry “Rabbit”
Angstrom series and his short stories for The New Yorker in the 1950s. According to Plath, Updike also wrote, “what sports writers now consider
the best piece ever written about sports – Hub Fan Bids Kid Adieu,” a near-mythic account of Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams’ last at-bat.
Along with his daily responsibilities at the University, Plath handles all things
legal for The John Updike Society and serves as the public figurehead. A passionate
Updike scholar himself, he has aided students and professors as far away as India
and Iraq in their attempts to access Updike materials that their own libraries could
When Updike’s childhood home in Shillington, Pa. went up for sale, the Robert and
Adele Schiff Family Foundation donated the money to purchase the home. Suddenly, a
society that was launched in May 2009 became a property owner just three years later,
and Plath, as president, has had to take the lead. He officially purchased Updike’s
house by fax in between classes at Illinois Wesleyan. Now, he works with Maria Mogford,
the curator he appointed to lead tours of the house, various contractors, and Habitat
for Humanity of Berks County leaders to turn The John Updike Childhood Home into a
literary center and educational museum.
While visiting the home to plot the first phase of “deconstruction,” Plath recalled
memories of some of his personal visits to the Dickens house in London, the Fitzgerald
house in Montgomery, Ala., and Hemingway houses in Cuba, Idaho, Oak Park, and Key
“Writers’ houses are kind of special,” he said. “When you walk through the house of
a historical figure, history comes alive. In the case of a literary figure, you get
a better sense of their books, their world and their life,” said Plath.
The John Updike Society’s timetable was for 2013 to be devoted to deconstruction,
and 2014 for construction. Plath will return in May to outline the group of projects
that need to be done, and to plan a society member volunteer construction week. Plath
said that a number of members have already expressed a willingness to wield hammer
and saw, and he has heard that Updike’s grandchildren may even be interested in helping
with the project.
“Our first group of college students is coming to Shillington by bus the first week
in May. I’ve just ordered chairs and accepted a donation of a big-screen television
for the museum’s education room, which will be ready for their visit,” Plath said.
Once the museum is completed, teachers and professors will be encouraged to hold classes
in the house free of charge, and tours can be arranged by appointment through the
Society’s website. A Pennsylvania filmmaker will soon begin work on an educational
video on the importance of the house, the community, and Pennsylvania to Updike.
Plath said the restoration is demanding a slightly different kind of research than
the typical literary scholarship. Yes, he’s scouring Updike manuscripts and interviews
for statements about the house, and he’s interviewing Updike family and friends. But
there’s also a bit of architectural detective work to find “footprints” of the original
location of now-missing walls, room dividers, pillars, and grape arbors. Decisions
are often changed, too, based on new information. In one such instance, a bookcase
added by Dr. Hunter, who purchased the home after the Updikes had moved to a farm
in nearby Plowville, Pa., was slated to be torn down until the Society learned that
Updike returned to visit the house several times during his lifetime—and one of those
times he sat in a chair next to those bookshelves, where the Hunters kept their collection
of Updike books, and he signed every one. Plath said it would be the perfect place
to house those boxes of Updike first editions now sitting under his desk.
“Updike is considered one of the biggest literary figures of his time,” said Plath.
“We figured that we owed it to Updike and people who love literature to create this
For additional information regarding the colloquium, contact Sherry Wallace, director
for news and media relations at (309) 556-3792.