Will Anyone Pay Extra to Live in the House Where John Updike Grew Up? 

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 13 2011 3:59 PM

Do People Pay More for Houses Once Occupied by Famous Writers?

Updike Home.
The childhood home of John Updike, as advertised for sale on eBay.

As Ray Gustini pointed out on the Atlantic Wire earlier this afternoon, John Updike’s childhood home in Shillington, Pa. has been put up for sale on eBay, of all places. Why use the auction site for the sale? Is it because the owners hope to get more for the property on account of its Pulitzer Prize-winning former resident?

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

Perhaps: Gustini notes that “the opening bid for the property is a hefty $249,000,” and you can “Buy It Now” for $499,000. As of 2009, Gustini says, “a detatched house in Shillington sold for an average price of $158,467.” And the ad pushes the Updike connection pretty hard:

Shillington and nearby Reading, Pennsylvania are thought to be the backdrop for his novel Rabbit Run and the sequels Rabbit is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990) for which he received 2 Pulitzer Prizes. Until John Updike was 13 years old he lived in this 3 story brick home [...] During those formative years Updike’s creativity was nurtured in the rooms with, [sic] high ceilings, wide woodwork, and large windows. The original features and characteristics of the home remain as Updike recalled in a 1999 visit while being filmed for a German documentary on the childhoods of renowned authors around the world. [...] A Dogwood Tree that was planted in the front yard on John Updike's first birthday still blossoms every spring. 

If hopes for a big sale do depend on Updike’s name, the owners should probably prepare for disappointment, according to Anne Trubek, the author of A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses. As she points out in that book, “Other realtors have tried similar campaigns to no avail.”

In 2007, the price of Joseph Heller’s former East Hampton home was slashed month after month. ‘It needs a bit of work, and most buyers don’t want a project,’ remarked an agent of why no one wanted the beach home of the author of Catch-22. In St. Louis, a house that T.S. Eliot lived in was excitedly touted as a one-of-a-kind historical find for months before it was taken off the market.

Trubek opens the book with the unintentionally comical listing for an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which one realtor described as “so quiet, serene, and wonderful that one of the top 5 best novels of 2006 … was written here!” The apartment, Trubek writes, “sits in a bleak unadorned building that neighbors other similarly grim structures.” And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, the one-bedroom apartment (“with balcony”!) where Gary Shteyngart wrote Absurdistan did not sell quickly; a couple months later, the price was slashed by $25,000.

I emailed A.N. Devers, a writer who runs the popular website Writers’ Houses, for her take. She pointed out that this has been a farily tough time for the one-time homes of literary greats. 

It will be interesting to see if an Updike fan bites. But I doubt that it will ever be turned into a house that’s open to the public. This isn’t the best economy for buying writers’ houses up for preserving them. And turning a house into a museum is even more costly. You need furniture (preferably not reproduction), artifacts related to the writer, and a staff of dedicated Updike connoisseurs willing to give tours. In addition to the expense of running such a house, there’s also the fact that the reading public isn’t clamoring for houses to be saved. Several houses are in danger of closing this year: Edgar Allan Poe’s Baltimore home, most notably. And many more that should be preserved as museums are not being preserved. I, for one, would like to see Langston Hughes’ townhouse in Harlem open as a museum. Most of America’s writers’ houses were preserved and open to the public to establish proof of America’s own literary history and heritage. I think it’s a shame that interest in such an endeavor seems to be fading.



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