Lit Fans Bid Updike Adieu

January 27, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

(A completely non-sociological post.)

Here’s my story about John Updike. It’s just a rumor, and I probably shouldn’t be repeating it (nil nisi bonum and all that). But here it is.

One of Updike’s most famous essays is “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” about Ted Williams’s last game. It begins, “Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.” It ends nearly 6000 words later with Williams, in the last at bat of his career, hitting a home run.
He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. . . . the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.
Famous line, that last sentence. The essay is anthologized everywhere– sports books, literature books, Boston books.

“I arrived early.” That’s the first line of the second paragraph, and that’s where the rumor I heard begins. Updike had been living for years in Ipswich, north of Boston, with his wife and children. But in 1960 (and perhaps other years) he was having an affair with a woman who lived on Beacon Hill in Boston. Updike had come down to Boston that day for a tryst, but when he went to her home, she wasn’t in and apparently wasn’t going to be back for a while. With time on his hands and nothing else to do, Updike decided to go to Fenway. He arrived early.

Had he not been cheating on his wife, had his mistress been at home, we would never have this essay.

Is the story true? I don’t know. I heard it maybe twenty years ago, though I can’t remember where or from whom. I had forgotten it completely until my wife was converting some of our old family videotapes to DVDs, and I heard myself on tape telling it to my cousins. I’ve searched for confirmation on the Internet, but I can’t find anything.

Is it possible that it was that easy to get last-minute seats to a Redsox game? There’s nothing in the essay about it, of course. But as I was looking at it just now, this one sentence took on added meaning.
The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories.

I did meet Updike once. He was walking across Harvard Yard, carrying one of those dark green canvas book bags that were popular with students then, though he was well into his thirties at the time. None of the few people in the yard seemed to notice him. I caught up with him on the steps of a library. I didn’t know what to say. If I had said that I liked and admired his fiction, I’d have been lying. So I said that I very much liked his lighter poems and wished he’d write more of them. We talked for a minute – I can’t remember what either of us said – and as he turned to go in, he said he’d try to write more of the light verse. I think both of us knew that he didn’t really mean it.
Here’s an example of what I meant (I’m doing this from memory, so I might have the punctuation wrong. Roger Bobo was a tuba virtuoso.)

– headline in the Times

Eskimos in Manitoba
Barracuda off Aruba
Cock an ear when Roger Bobo
Starts to solo on the tuba.

Men of every station – pooh-bah
Nabob, bozo, toff, and hobo
Cry in unison, “Indubi-
Tably there is simply nobo-

Dy who oom-pahs on the tubo
Solo quite like Roger Bubo.

Update: A article from September 2008 says that Updike himself, in a 1977 epilogue to the essay, recounted the missed connections that took him to Fenway that day.
I took a taxi to Beacon Hill and knocked on a door and there was nothing, just a basket for mail temporarily hung on the door. A bright brown basket. So I went, as promised, to the game and my virtue was rewarded.
Those last five words seem quintessentially Updike – the combination of being oh-so-pleased with himself and yet being able to look at himself with irony.

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