Monday, July 9, 2012

John Updike, Cartoonist

I'm working on an article about notable Harvard Lampoon presidents (George Plimpton, Conan O'Brien), and came across this essay excerpt by John Updike:
A 1950 issue of the soon defunct magazine Flair contained, in its eccentric format, a booklet about the Harvard Lampoon, including photographs of the young, crew-cut editors, the curious mock-Flemish building, and some sample cartoons. Somewhere in the concatenation of aspirations and inadvertences that got me to Harvard, this story played a crucial part. Early in my freshman year, I carried a batch of my cartoons down to the Lampoon building, there where Mount Auburn Street meets Bow at an acute angle, an ornate little brick flatiron fronted by a tower with a sort of cartoon face and, on its hat of roof tiles, a much stolen copper ibis. In due course, some of my drawings were printed in the magazine, and I was accepted for membership. The Lampoon, I was too ignorant an outsider to realize, was a social club, with a strong flavor of Boston Brahminism and alcoholic intake; to me it was a magazine for which I wanted to work. This I was allowed to do, especially as the upperclassmen year by year graduated and the various editorial offices fell to me. Though Harvard did little to attract cartoonists, in fact there were four on the Lampoon in 1950 -- Fred Gwynne, Lew Gifford, Doug Bunce, and Charlie Robinson -- who seemed to me much my betters in skill and sophistication. Fred Gwynne, a multitalented giant who went on to become an actor, best known for Car 54, Where Are You? and The Munsters, drew with a Renaissance chiaroscuro and mastery of anatomy; Bunce had a fine line, and Gifford, who made his career in television animation, a carefree, flowing brush stroke years ahead of its time.

I tried to measure up to their examples, and cartooned abundantly for the Lampoon -- but the budding cartoonist in me, exposed to what I felt were superior talents, suffered a blight; my light verse and supposedly humorous prose felt more viable. By graduation, I had pretty well given up on becoming a cartoonist. It took too many ideas, and one walked in too many footsteps. Writing seemed, in my innocence of it, a relatively untrafficked terrain.
Updike and Gwynne—who most people know only from The Munsters, were both Lampoon presidents in their day.

• The full essay appeared in Best American Essays 1998.

• "John Updikes Harvard," Houghton Library, Harvard University.

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