Hugging the Shore cover poto

An Updike Geography

His houses from Shillington to Beverly Farms

John Updike
born in Reading, Pennsylvania, March 18, 1932
died in Danvers, Massachusetts, January 27, 2009

Even idle travelers need a destination. In the summer of 2001, my wife and I sought out the habitations of Updike.

Peter Windhorst

"Let me tell you about houses. Everything outs."
--Piet Hanema, on construction ethics, in Couples, originally titled Couples and Houses and Days

Click on thumbnails (in blue frames) to enlarge
side view front former chicken coop
living room, now occupied by dot-commers house now occupied by internet advertising and marketing firm photographer and wife in former dining room

117 Philadelphia Avenue
Shillington, Pennsylvania

John Updike's home until he was 13 years old

● "Olinger" and "Brewster"

Shillington Poorhouse
(no longer standing)

The Poorhouse.jpg (143196 bytes)
--picture above and quote below from Updike,
"Fictional Houses," Architectural Digest, January 1985

"Architecture confines and defines us. Our human world speaks to us, most massively, in its buildings, and a fiction writer cannot make his characters move until he has some imaginative grasp of their environment....I can still feel the thrill of power with which, in my first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, I set characters roaming the corridors of an immense imaginary mansion I had based upon an institutional building for the poor and homeless, which had stood at the end of the street where my family had lived in Pennsylvania."

26 East Street, Ipswich sign to right of door Ipswich 17th century house.jpg (129330 bytes)
picture on right and quote below from, Updike, "The Houses of Ipswich," Architectural Digest, June 1990

26 East Street, Ipswich, Massachusetts
1958 - 1970

Roger and Bea Guerin's house in Couples

"The decade was the sixties, my wife and I were youngish, and the house suited us just fine. It was Puritan; it was back-to-nature; it was less is more. A seventeenth-century house tends to be short on frills like hallways and closets; you must improvise....The straightforward, hearth-centered architecture of our house must have strengthened our family sense. Once we moved, the fact is, things fell apart...."

entrance Beacon Street apartment

Updike's apartment
151 Beacon Street, Boston
1974 - 1977

--photo above by John Blanding/Globe Staff

St. John's Episcopal Church, Beverly Farms, MA

Updike moves in 1982 to a house in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, which is described, along with its flora*, fauna** and metallobioforms, in Toward the End of Time. He joins St. John's Episcopal Church (left).

*  Truly florid flora!  A Colombian colleague, used to traversing literary rain forests, barely untangled herself from the verbal thicket.
** The house is hidden from the public roadway. Unlike Ray, Jose, Doreen and even dear Deirdre, I didn't presume to trespass or disturb the householder. (But I did see a large and frolicsome doe in the grassland park next to the Labor-in-Vain house.)

The Arizona Inn, Tucson

Sandstone Farmhouse

Sandstone farmhouse, 1955, with Updike.jpg (132820 bytes) Limestone farmhouse, color The Centaur, Of the Farm.jpg (207296 bytes)
--pictures above and quote below from Updike,
"Fictional Houses," Architectural Digest, January 1985

The family farm near Plowville, Pennsylvania, Updike's home from age 13 until he leaves for Harvard. (His parents and maternal grandparents lived here until their respective deaths.)

"The firmest house in my fiction, probably, is the little thick-walled sandstone farmhouse of The Centaur and Of the Farm; I had lived in that house, and can visualize every floorboard and bit of worn molding."

The Centaur
● Of the Farm

● "A Sandstone Farmhouse," in The Afterlife and Other Stories
● "The Cats," in Licks of Love

close-up of the Caldwell Building overview of Caldwell Building Caldwell Building on the Ipswich River

1961: Updike rents a one-room office, above 
a restaurant and overlooking the Ipswich River,
in the Caldwell Building, South Main Street, Ipswich

side porch front salt marsh

Labor-in-Vain Road, Ipswich
1970 - 1974

Ken and Foxy Whitman's house in Couples

"To describe these houses is halfway to describe the life lived in them. My Couples was originally titled Couples and Houses and Days and was all about our entry into other people’s homes, as guests and lovers."

Updike, "Fictional Houses," Architectural Digest, January 1985

104-0429_IMG.JPG (71985 bytes)

58 West Main Street
Georgetown, Massachusetts

1977 - 1982

--photo above by Jill Krementz

Updike, late in life, in Arizona

Spirit of '76 from Endpoint

Cypresses have one direction, up,
but sometimes desert zephyrs tousle one
so that a branch or two will sick straight out-
a hatchling fallen from the nest,
a broken leg a limp will not forget,
a lock of cowlicked hair that spurns the comb,
Aspiring like steeples inky green,
they spear the sun-bleached view with nodding tips

How not to think of death? Its ghastly blank
lies underneath your dreams, that once gave rise
to horn-hard, conscienceless erections.
Just so, your waking brain no longer stiffens
with careless inspirations - urgent news
spilled in clenched spasms on the virgin sheets.

Here in this place of arid clarity,
two thousand miles from where my souvenirs
collect a cozy dust, the piled produce
of bald ambitions pulling ignorance,
I see clear through to the ultimate page,
the silence I dared break for my small time.
No piece was easy, but each fell finished,
in its shroud of print, into a book shaped hole.

Be with me, words, a little longer; you
have given me my quitclaim in the sun,
sealed shut my own adolescent wounds, made light
of grownup troubles, turned to my advantage
what in most lives would be pure deficit,
and formed, of those I loved, more solid ghosts.

Our annual birthday do: dinner at
the Arizona Inn for only two,
White tablecloth, much cutlery, decor
in sombre dark-beamed territorial style.
No wine, thank you. Determined to prolong
our second marriages, we gave that up,
with cigarettes. We toast each other's health
in water and a haze of candlelight.

My imitation of a proper man,
white-haired and wed to aging loveliness,
has fit me like a store-bought suit, not quite
my skin, but wearing well enough until,
at ceremony's end, my wife points out
I don't know how to use a finger bowl.

"Not only do fictional characters have to be supplied with faces, life histories, speech rhythms, and psychologies; they must have houses to live in....A fiction can scarcely exist, however surreal and minimal, that does not involve some construction business....The houses we build in our fiction need not conform to a floor plan—indeed, the reader’s capacity for visualizing spatial relations is feeble—but they must conform to a life plan, feeding the characters’ senses whenever these turn outward, confirming social place with their walls and accoutrements, echoing in authentic matter the spiritual pattern the author intends to trace. A house, having been willfully purchased and furnished, tells us more than a body, and its description is a foremost resource of the art of fiction. Every novelist becomes, to a degree, an architect—castles in air!—and a novel itself is, of course, a kind of dwelling, whose spaces open and constrict, foster display or concealment, and resonate from room to room."

--Updike, "Fictional Houses," Architectural Digest, January 1985

For general coverage of Updike, see two sites at The New York Times:

and the site of The John Updike Society