Essay On If Books Could Talk Animated

John Updike likes to imagine alternative lives for himself, creating fictional characters that are variations of his own life story: Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, the eponymous protagonist of Updike's Rabbit novels, lives the provincial small-town existence that his creator escaped by fleeing to Harvard and literary stardom. Henry Bech, the hero of three of Updike's books, is what the author would have been like if he had been Jewish and a slow writer, rather than a hyper-prolific goyim. Similarly, Updike's childhood dream of becoming a cartoonist found partial fulfilment in the form of Paul, the comic-strip writer featured in "Intermission", a 1958 short story reprinted in his thematic collection Golf Dreams (1996).

Like many of Updike's fictional alter-egos, Paul is wedged between boyhood and maturity. At 26, Paul feels slightly guilty that his days are spent thinking up ideas for a comic strip rather than in more adult pursuits. Yet he also clings to boyish things and, on an afternoon off, matches his fledgling golf skills against those of a cocky teenager.

Paul had expected him to ask, "What do you do?"

The answer would be, "I think up the plot for a comic strip called Brace Larsen."

The boy's face would be blank.

"One of the Hartford papers carries it."

"You just think up the story and let somebody else draw the pictures?"

Imagining this conversation while walking along with the dry grass in his eyes and the strap of the golf bag irritating his shoulder, Paul was losing patience. "That's right. I wanted to draw when I was a kid but the syndicate bought my ideas for this other guy to do up. They say anybody can execute; it's ideas that are rare."

Yet the boy's face would retain, clear as day, Paul's own conviction as a child that ideas were nothing and the actual drawing all that counted.

Paul's career is only one of many references to cartooning that are strewn through the Updike oeuvre. In 1980, he wrote a poem memorialising the cartoonist Al Capp, who created Li'l Abner. In a few brisk lines, Updike remembered Capp's "peg-legged limp / and rich man's blue suit / and Li'l Abner shock of hair." There is a prose tribute to Capp in More Matter (1999), which also contains a doting essay on Mickey Mouse. In the 1996 novel In the Beauty of the Lilies, a character is shown reading a Captain Marvel comic. In 2000, Updike (or his voice) made a cameo appearance on The Simpsons.

Updike is justly celebrated as among the most versatile of modern writers, yet aside from his achievements as a short-story writer, novelist, poet, book reviewer, art critic, sports reporter and memoirist, there is one other distinction that is frequently ignored: he is by far the most eloquent cartoon fan in the world. If all Updike's stray references to comics were gathered together, they would form a focused little thematic volume, superior in insight to almost anything else written on the subject.

In 1954 he spent a year studying at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford. In interviews and autobiographical essays, Updike occasionally mentions that as a boy he dreamed of being a cartoonist and settled into writing only as a default career. However, the real intensity of his drawing passion only became evident to me when I discovered a fan letter he had written in 1948, as a 15-year-old high-school student living in small-town Pennsylvania. The letter was sent to Harold Gray, creator of the "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip, and is housed in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center of Boston University, along with thousands of other fan letters the cartoonist received.

Describing Annie as "my favourite comic strip", Updike went on to astutely celebrate its many virtues. "Your draughtsmanship is beyond reproach. The drawing is simple and clear, but extremely effective... The facial features, the big, blunt-fingered hands, the way you handle light and shadows are all excellently done..."

The purpose of the letter was to wheedle an original drawing from the cartoonist.

When reminded of this forgotten scrap of literary history I had unearthed, Updike was slightly embarrassed at his youthful enthusiasm. "My goodness, what a gabby 15-year-old I was, shamelessly courting the venerable Harold Gray," he observed in a note to me. Updike recalls that Gray did send "a drawing, possibly the standard photo he had on hand with a personal comment in a talk balloon".

The love of cartooning is a thread that runs through Updike's life. Born to a genteel-poor family in Shillington, Pennsylvania, in 1932, he grew up in a golden age of American cartooning. Walt Disney, not yet ossified into corporate blandness, was releasing his best short and feature animated films. The newspapers filled large tabloid pages devoted to the four-colour adventures of Flash Gordon, Popeye, Dick Tracy, and (of course) Little Orphan Annie. The New Yorker was graced with elegant line-drawings by the likes of Charles Addams, James Thurber and Saul Steinberg while more conventional periodicals like the Saturday Evening Post had their own stables of artists.

"I can't remember the moment when I fell in love with cartoons, I was so young," Updike once recalled in Hogan's Alley magazine. "I still have a Donald Duck book, on oilclothy paper in big print format, and remember a smaller, cardboard-covered book based on the animated cartoon 'Three Little Pigs'. It was the intense stylisation of those images, with their finely brushed outlines and their rounded and buttony furniture and their faces so curiously amalgamated of human and animal elements, that drew me in, into a world where I, child though I was, loomed as a king, and where my parents and other grownups were strangers."

Updike's parents had cultural aspirations: they were well-educated and bookish. His mother wrote short stories while working as a sales clerk. However, like millions of Americans, they were financially hemmed in by the great depression. For the young Updike, magazines (invariably published in New York) offered a window into a world where he would have scope for his talents.

The importance of magazines in his life intensified when he was 12 and his Aunt Mary bought his family a subscription to the New Yorker. Although Updike would go on to become the pre-eminent New Yorker writer, he was at first far more interested in the drawings of Thurber and Steinberg than in the magazine's acres of prose.

"Our acquaintance was slight but long," Updike recalled of his affection for Steinberg in an essay for the New York Review of Books. "In 1945 I wrote him from my small town in Pennsylvania asking that he send me, for no reason except that I wanted it, the original of a drawing I had seen in the New Yorker, of one man tipping his hat and another tipping back his hat with his head still in it. At this time I was an avariciously hopeful would-be cartoonist of 12 or 13 and Steinberg a 31-year-old Romanian Jew whose long American sojourn had begun but four years before. Perhaps he thought that his new citizenship entailed responding to the importunities from unknown American adolescents. He sent me not the original but a duplicate he had considerately made, with his unhesitant pen, and inscribed it, in impeccable New World Fashion, 'To John Updike with best wishes'."

Aside from the Steinberg drawing, Updike solicited "treasures" from other artists. He told me of "an Otto Soglow Little King, and a Thurber dog he drew for me when he was all but blind. Also I have a Barnaby strip with the pasted-on lettering falling off, and half of a 'Sunday Mickey Finn'. I must have had 20 or more in my prime."

Since Updike was only a teenager when he wrote these fan letters (albeit an unusually suave and rhetorically persuasive one), most of these missives have no doubt disappeared. However, a few cartoonists did preserve their fan mail, and in the proper archives there is evidence of adolescent Updike. Thus, in the Cartoon Research Library of Ohio State University, there is the letter he wrote in 1947 to Milton Caniff, the comic-strip maestro behind "Terry and the Pirates" and "Steve Canyon".

Updike's standard letter-writing gambit seems to have been to start with extreme flattery. "For a long time, I was under the impression that 'Terry and the Pirates' was the best comic strip in the United States," he wrote. Never mind that he would in a few months name "Little Orphan Annie" as his favourite. Like a Don Juan of comic-strip fans, Updike was willing to say anything to complete a successful seduction.

The letter about "Orphan Annie" is particularly interesting because that comic strip was in its time extremely controversial. Although the strip is usually associated these days with a rather sappy musical, Updike's letter recalls the era when it flourished as a widely read comic strip.

During its heyday under Gray, who drew the strip from 1924 until his death in 1968, "Little Orphan Annie" combined the mass appeal of The Simpsons with the conservative politics of Rush Limbaugh. While Republican politicians as varied as Clare Boothe Luce and Jesse Helms publicly praised Orphan Annie for embodying rock-ribbed American values, liberal publications such as the New Republic denounced her attacks on the welfare state and celebration of capitalism as "fascism in the funnies". The industrialist Henry Ford was also a fan: he sent an urgent telegram to Gray expressing concern when Annie's dog Sandy went missing.

In the recurring narrative cycle of "Orphan Annie", a poor innocent waif is harassed by evil left-wing social workers (one, Mrs Bleating-Hart, resembled a sinister Eleanor Roosevelt). In the end, goodness triumphs when Annie is rescued by her adopted father "Daddy Warbucks", a billionaire arms dealer (consider his name: "war" plus "bucks") who made his fortune selling munitions in the first world war. Advocate of free-market verities and a hater of unions, Warbucks proves that capitalism is really a little girl's best friend.

It is unlikely that Updike enjoyed the politics of the strip: his family were Roosevelt-supporting liberal Democrats. Yet aside from its hard-right ideology, "Little Orphan Annie" has considerable artistic virtues, as Updike points out in his letter.

In a short paragraph, Updike beautifully captured its blustery melodramatic universe. "Your villains are completely black and Annie and crew are perfect, which is as it should be," he wrote. "To me there is nothing more annoying in a strip than to be in the dark as to who is the hero and who the villain. I like the methods in which you polish off evil-doers. One of my happiest moments was spent in gloating over some hideous child (I forget his name) who had been annoying Annie toppled into the wet cement of a dam being constructed. I hate your villains to the point where I could rip them from the paper."

What is amazing about this letter is that Updike was still only in the middle of high school when he wrote this. The critic Sanford Schwartz once observed in the New York Review of Books that "Updike found his assured voice, as a critic and fiction writer, when he was fairly young" and was "writing with an eerily developed authority and fluency when he was still in his 20s". One could argue he had achieved this "eerily developed authority" even earlier, while still an adolescent. According to Schwartz, Updike has never quite grown up: his early facility made the author a perennial boy wonder. The letter to Gray lends some credence to this view.

In asking for drawings from Gray and other cartoonists, Updike was hoping to find inspiration for his own career as a cartoonist. That career was short but it left its mark on his writing.

Updike still remembers with pride earning five dollars from a dairyman's journal for "a cartoon of a milk truck with a running cow instead of a greyhound on it". As an undergraduate at Harvard in the early 1950s, Updike did many cartoons for the Harvard Lampoon, some of which were reprinted in More Matter. Although these youthful drawings displayed a certain angular charm, Updike quickly decided his forté was in prose, not illustration.

Yet his years of close study of art have left an undeniable imprint and peep through in his mastery of visual description. Among the most tactile of contemporary writers, Updike's characteristic tone is a mnemonic lyricism. He has an uncanny ability to find lush rich words that conjure up the remembered past, so that even if we were born long after him, we still get caught up in his nostalgia.

Consider his description of the "bliss" found in a Mickey Mouse Big Little he read as a child. "The chunky but light-as-balsa-wood feel of the 10-cent volume in my hands," he wrote in Forbes FYI magazine. "The nice clarity of the print and brevity of the page, each page facing a panel of a comic strip. The inky cosiness of that three-fingered microcosm as Mickey and Minnie win out over Pegleg Pete and his dog-eared crew."

This attentiveness to visual texture stands behind many of the most memorable patches of Updike prose. His art criticism, collected in the undervalued 1989 volume Just Looking, testifies to the persistent visual leanings in his sensibility. Some of his best art essays are devoted to his old cartooning deities.

In small squibs and casual asides, Updike repeatedly reveals how cartooning is embedded in his mental universe. In a 1969 lecture to the Bristol Literary Society, he pooh-poohed the then-fashionable idea that the novel is dead. He thought there were many untapped possibilities for long narratives, including the integration of cartooning into literature. "I see no intrinsic reason why a doubly talented artist might not arise and create a comic-strip novel masterpiece," he said, perhaps anticipating the graphic novels of Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware.

Updike's past as wannabe cartoonist has left many residual traces on his work, like little flecks of ink that get caught in an illustrator's fingernail. "One can continue to cartoon, in a way, with words," he once noted in the New Yorker. "For whatever crispness and animation my writing has I give some credit to the cartoonist manqué."

The study of medieval manuscripts and early book culture is massive and specialized. The increasing sophistication, however, of digital technologies is making it easier to learn about manuscripts and examine them in detail.Below, I've gathered useful introductory resources to accompany the readings I assign in manuscript units.

The Basics: Terminology

One of the first hurdles to overcome in learning about into medieval manuscripts is the specialized language you need to talk about them. In addition to any handouts I provide in class, you can also access glossaries at the Medieval Manuscript Manual, another at the Free Library of Phildelphia's website, and another at the Auchinleck Manuscript website. The British Library offers an extensive illustrated glossary, which I recommend for learning basic and more obscure terms.

The Basics: Codicology

Any introduction to medieval manuscripts needs to begin with an understanding of how manuscripts were made. The complex and multistaged production process bears on both how manuscripts were read and consumed, and how they are described and studied today (called "codicology"). Here are some websites that will, er, illuminate this process:

  • The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK provides a lovely Flash animated video of the entire process, living sheep to bound codex (follow the directions to start the show).
  • The British Library's Medieval Manuscripts blog has a wonderful rough guide to making a manuscript.
  • The Getty Museum has provided three videos (cc) (first, on the structure of a manuscript; second, third on the process of making a manuscript) that cover the process from slightly different angles.
  • This series of YouTube videos, put together by a contemporary calligrapher who does manuscript reproduction, also walk you through the process of making a manuscript (starting with prepared parchment).

How to Look at a Manuscript

Advanced Studies in Codicology

Those of you fascinated by codicological minutae and the processes through which scholars work with manuscripts' materiality may find the following links and videos of interest:

  • A TEDx video on the kissing -- and resulting destruction -- of medieval religious books (and how to quantify that physical use)
  • Determining the kind of parchment used in a manuscript (video) at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania
  • A popular blog article on the backstories of five obsolete pigments (with more details in the comments)
  • Different kinds of green pigment used in medieval and Renaissance art (including manuscripts) (at the British Library's Collection Care blog)
  • Microscopic analysis of the artistic details and construction of the Lindisfarne Gospels (at the British Library's Collection Care blog)

Putting it Together: Looking at Manuscripts

  • The Getty Museum has an educational website entitled "Looking at Illuminated Manuscripts." Although much of the content is geared toward K-12 students, its two pages "About Illuminated Manuscripts" and "Brief History of Illuminated Manuscripts" are also a good starting point for you.
  • The Manifold Greatness website (sponsored by the Folger, Bodleian, and Harry Ransom Center) focuses on the 1611 creation of the King James Bible; nevertheless, it contains much interesting and useful information (including kid-oriented crafts) about handwritten manuscripts and early printing practices. Click "Before the King James Bible" for manuscript the earliest printed Bibles; click "Making the Book" for early print practices.
  • This video from the Public Library of Bruges on their Books of Hours (late medieval prayerbooks) offers a good introduction to this genre of book, with useful socio-cultural background.
  • Many of the "pretty" manuscript pages you will see are calendar pages, often taken from prayerbooks. This wonderful Getty video (cc) breaks down the different parts of the calendar page, so you can better understand what you're looking at.
  • Students are sometimes curious about medieval textbooks. This lecture (presented as an essay) by the scholar Malcolm Parkes details the way that university students got their textbooks.
  • You can also play with different elements of page design at the University of Washington's Historical Book Arts Collection sub-page on medieval manuscript production.
  • Go look at some manuscripts! I've collected a bunch of online facsimiles and images on my Digital Facsimiles page; if you work through some of the online exhibitions (bottom of the page), you'll learn even more.

Manuscript Study: Advanced Resources

  • Medieval Writing is an older but still useful website that focuses on paleography but also provides somewhat more substantial background on manuscript studies and culture.
  • Some years ago, Stephen Reimer of the University of Alberta sketched out a website for an online manuscript studies course. Although it has not been updated this decade (and I do not expect all its links to still work), the data and bibliography he includes are still very useful. In particular, the "Course Notes" section provides useful (if laconic) definitions and distinctions among the different areas of manuscript studies.
  • The Central European University has created an online Medieval Manuscript Manual that aims to bridge the gap between specialist knowledge of medieval manuscripts and the "interested layperson." It lays out the different contexts of manuscript production, the production process itself, structure/organization of medieval books (which can differ substantially from modern print ones), and the illumination process -- with glossary and copious illustrations.
  • The best print resources are Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Maidie Hilmo, Linda Olson, Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches. These two books will provide the kind of background, detail, and sophisticated analysis that no website or online tutorial can handle.

The Next Step: Editing

A related area is editing and studying textual variants. For some Middle English texts (like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), we only have one extant manuscript, making the editing process somewhat simpler. For others (like The Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman), there are many, many manuscripts -- all bearing witness to different versions of the poem. One good place to get a taste for how to think about, study, and make meaning from these textual variants can be found on Harvard's METRO: Middle English Teaching Resources Online website. In the Chaucer section, their "Platform 3" is dedicated to textual editing as well as codicology and paleography.

Just For Fun

  • The fact that codices are a technology is easily forgotten (we're so accustomed to bound books), although the advent of digital publication forms is drawing more attention to the codex's unique features. This YouTube video, "Medieval Helpdesk" (trans. in captions), is an amusing reminder of just how new the bound book would have seemed to late classical and very early medieval medieval readers used to scrolls.
  • Billy Collins' poem "Flock" is also worth recalling as you think about the economic cost of a vellum manuscript.


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