Op-Ed

John Updike’s trash is everyone’s treasure

The Atlantic magazine recently introduced us to Paul Moran, a onetime Salem resident who spent three years rooting through John Updike’s trash. It is an unseemly pursuit, if not technically illegal; the Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that trash does not enjoy the privacy protections of the Fourth Amendment.

Moran wasn’t out to make money – he and his wife now run a shave ice stand, Maui Wowee, in Austin – but scooping up John Updike’s trash was a habit he just couldn’t quit. On his first plunge into the late novelist’s waste stream, Moran unearthed honorary diplomas from Dartmouth, Bates College, Emerson, and Salem State that were bound for the dump.

Eventually, Moran plucked so many interesting items from the refuse that he created an online collection of found Updike-ana, called The Other John Updike Archive.

The trash – from the man Ian McEwan called “the greatest novelist writing in English at the time of his death” in 2009 – proves to be full of unexpected treasures. Moran salvaged boxfuls of canceled checks, a Screen Actors Guild payment ($1.34) for a “Simpsons” voice-over, as well as Christmas cards from Presidents Bushes and Clinton, and from John Lithgow and Elliot Richardson.

Moran rescued a lot more than ephemera. He has posted at least one explicit letter from a lover, and now owns an Updike address book, a trove of floppy disks (Wang!), and notes for a contemplated novel about Saint Paul, which may someday see the light of day.

“I don’t think Updike would be embarrassed” by the decades-old love letter, Moran told me.“His own writing was pretty explicit.”

Right-thinking people everywhere have decried Moran’s pilfering. In her Atlantic article, Adrienne LaFrance quotes Updike’s authorized biographer Adam Begley; Leslie Morris, the curator of Harvard’s Updike collection; and the Updike estate’s agent Andrew Wylie, dialing up the obloquy (“dumpster digger” – Wylie;“outrageous invasion of privacy” – Begley) at Moran’s shenanigans.

In contrast, Updike’s son David, who is also a writer, described Moran’s haul to me as“fair game. I’m also glad that Mr. Moran has saved some of these objects, as I’m interested in seeing some of them. If he’s trying to sell them and make a killing, I’d be less sympathetic.” After speaking with Moran, I had the impression that he would like to sell his collection to a library or museum, but so far he has no takers.

Morris, who works at Harvard’s Houghton rare books library, told LaFrance that “people always make choices about what’s going to be important and what should be thrown away and what should be kept. ... Anyone would like to think that their decision – that it’s not worth keeping – is the right one and should be respected.”

Except that authors make gigantic blunders when it comes to posterity. A kooky, Christianized Nikolai Gogol burned half of“Dead Souls,” his great, irreverent masterpiece about 19th-century Russia. Vladimir Nabokov tried to burn“Lolita” several times. Novelist Henry James boasted of the“gigantic bonfire” he made of his personal papers – records that fans and scholars would like to have seen.

In the name of deceased authors, well-meaning executors have committed equally egregious crimes. A coterie of Lord Byron’s friends decided to burn his (presumably scandalous) diary shortly after the great poet’s death. Byron wanted the diary published. The loss to literary history is incalculable.

My point? Thank you, Paul Moran. I’m glad you didn’t shut down your website last December, as you said you would. I’m a big Updike fan, and I found your archive to be endlessly fascinating. I disagree with your assertion that Updike’s tossed-out family and travel snapshots are copyright-protected. I wish you would post more of them, although I know you are alert to privacy considerations as well.

I know you feel the scorn of your detractors.“I get it,” is what you told me when I mentioned your critics.“I’ve felt bad about this.” Don’t. To quote Updike, you are “giving the mundane its beautiful due.”

To quote him again, from his famous poem,“My Children at the Dump”: “The waste seems wonderful.” You have created a “wonderland of discard” for us all to enjoy.

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