Texas Man Treasures Finds in Updike’s Trash
Ian McEwan signed books this fall at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, where he was presented the glasses and envelope containing a 1953 issue of The Harvard Lampoon, at his right. (Photo credit Daulton Venglar)
MANCHACA, Tex. — A man can get rich off his old emails and aborted novels, if that man is Ian McEwan. This spring, McEwan, 66, the Booker Prize-winning author of Atonement and On Chesil Beach, fetched $2 million for his archive from the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
To mark the acquisition, McEwan visited the center in September to give the first American reading of his latest novel, The Children Act. At the book signing afterward, a man with an open face and closely cropped gray hair waited in line for 20 minutes.
When the man, Paul Moran, reached McEwan, he handed him a pair of glasses and an envelope. Inside the envelope was a canceled check belonging to the American author John Updike, and a 1953 issue of The Harvard Lampoon featuring a cover Updike had designed and, as evidenced by the Pennsylvania address written on the envelope, mailed to his parents. The glasses were also Updike’s, Moran said. He wanted to give them to McEwan because he had called Updike the “greatest novelist writing in English at the time of his death.”
Moran, 56, a former special-needs English teacher who with his wife runs a Hawaiian shave ice truck called Maui Wowee in Manchaca, told McEwan that these were but bits of his large collection of Updike memorabilia, what he calls The Other John Updike Archive.
He gave McEwan a 6,300-word essay he had written about the origins of the materials. And then, aware that he was taking a lot of McEwan’s time, Moran asked him to sign a vintage copy of Anton Chekhov’s plays that had belonged to Updike, which McEwan did, in small print. Moran then walked off, bought McEwan’s book, waited in line again and had McEwan sign that, which he did with greater flourish.
McEwan could not be reached for comment.
Until several months ago, The Other John Updike Archive was relatively obscure. Moran keeps it in his apartment within one of the many landscaped luxury complexes — complete with a pool and parking spots “reserved for future residents” — cropping up on the fringes of Austin.
The collection came to the public’s attention after The Atlantic put out a call for submissions on the topic of things discarded and retrieved, and Moran sent the magazine a query about the essay he presented McEwan, detailing how he acquired his collection. A senior editor at The Atlantic said the piece would not be a good fit for the package, but that she wanted to write about Moran instead.
But nothing could be said that Moran had not already considered himself. During the course of collecting, Moran obsessively wrestled with the ethics of what he was doing, as he chronicles in his essay, an edited version of which is published on TexasMonthly.com as “Finding John Updike.”
By his telling, Moran’s history with Updike’s junk begins on a spring day in 2006. Then a resident of Salem, Mass. — he moved to Texas in September 2012 — Moran routinely took tonic, 22-mile roundtrips to Singing Beach to combat his alcoholism. On this day, passing through Beverly Farms, he spotted Updike putting out a blue recycling bin. Moran biked past, but he could not stop thinking about the sighting. He wondered if he might find a New Yorker with Updike’s name and address to filch as a souvenir. On the way back, he stopped to check, and found not only a New Yorker, but 10 honorary degrees in pristine condition. There was even one from Moran’s alma mater, Salem State College. Moran returned in his Honda Civic later that afternoon to retrieve the discarded degrees, and he secretly sold the batch to a now-defunct independent bookstore for $1,000.
The mysterious provenance of the degrees made the front page of The Boston Globe.
“I thought, ‘They’ve been well notified now,’” Moran said last month, referring to the Updikes, “so it’s incumbent on them, if they’re really paranoid about this stuff, to soak it in water.” Once trash hits the curb it is, after all, considered abandoned.
And so began another addiction. For the next two and a half years, Moran scheduled his Wednesdays around a trip past the writer’s house. Mrs. Updike, he said, drove past him a couple of times as he rifled through the bags, but she never commented. No one, Moran said, tried to stop him.
“I thought fate had granted me this gift or responsibility,” Moran said. “But I didn’t like doing it. I was desperate to stop. It made me question myself and my character.
“But I knew I would do this until one of us died, so I could find out what the entire thing was going to be.”
Updike died from lung cancer in 2009. “Some of the major things I found were tossed out after his death,” Moran said. “You could tell about the last load because there was this last really good blast of materials, and you could tell Mrs. Updike was just done.”
From that last blast, Moran scavenged note cards on Updike’s final, unfinished novel about St. Paul and the origins of Christianity, the drafts of which are embargoed until 2029.
But Moran’s collection includes the more mundanely poignant detritus that trails a careful life: a ticket stub to the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas; prescription bottles for the anti-anxiety medication Ativan; preppy pink plaid yacht shorts and L.L. Bean moccasins; a note written on the back of a scrap envelope — “SWEETIE, Let’s make love after your coffee. xx John”; a letter written and presumably left unsent, which starts, “No more Lampoons please”; and a stack of beautifully composed black-and-white pictures of Shillington, Pa., where Updike grew up, including one of his high school with a note jotted on the back, “I always liked this unique window and railing at the boys’ entrance 11/22/90.”
Moran has documented the very matter that one of the country’s most famous documenters — a man who carefully packed boxes of his own papers for his official archive, which resides at Harvard’s Houghton Library — deemed unworthy of eternal documentation.
Even so, Moran did throw out a few items: a pornographic dime novel climaxing, shall we say, with the protagonist having sex with his mother, and a copy of the Kama Sutra with two pictures of different women bookmarked between the pages.
“By holding on to those things, I was leaving myself open to the temptation of doing something unethical, like a disservice to his legacy,” Moran said. “I had no business with this stuff, and I’m not going to use it against him.”
Still, others argue that he should have let everything go to waste. According to the John Updike Literary Trust, which is managed by the literary agent Andrew Wylie, Updike did not want his personal or professional correspondence published. Leslie Morris, the curator of Updike’s official archive at Harvard, considers Moran’s collection an invasion of privacy. Other Updike scholars, however, are appreciative, like Mitch Fraas, a curator at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, and Jack De Bellis, a professor emeritus at Lehigh University, who is the director of the John Updike Society, advisory editor of the John Updike Review and Alvernia University’s first John Updike professor in residence.
In “Finding John Updike,” Moran concluded that the ethics of his actions would be determined by what he did with the materials.
“I found an uncorrected proof that Updike had tossed out, called The Thing Itself by Richard Todd,” Moran said. “He talks about this idea of the Kula, Trobriand Islander tribes that would pass on useless shells, and they would take on this value in the tribe based on whose hands they had passed through and who had owned them previously. He talked about historic aura and how that’s become more of a barometer of the value of works.”
Moran took inspiration and solace from this idea. He envisioned his collection as a Kula art project, and this is what spurred his gift to McEwan.
“I thought that was like a holy transmission of something that had belonged to him to someone else who was leading the legacy of writers and had this deep appreciation of it,” Moran said. If McEwan’s friend, the lion of letters “Christopher Hitchens were alive,” he said, “I would have given him something, too.”
McEwan appeared to be gripped by the incident. He talked about it throughout his time in Austin, according to those at the University of Texas who spent time with him.
And while conducting a class for students at the Michener Center for Writers, he read from Moran’s essay. According to several students in attendance, McEwan was disturbed by the invasion of Updike’s privacy chronicled in the story, but amazed by how well written it is.
McEwan, however, was less impressed with the glasses, which still had a slight dusting of Updike’s dead skin. He said he was unnerved by the thought of his friend’s “DNA rubbing off on him.” And so, no sooner did McEwan receive the glasses than they went right back into the trash.