More than any other American writer, Updike made his first home an ongoing setting, in intricate detail, for his 61 volumes of novels, short stories, poems, and essays. The house, where he lived with his parents and a grandparent and where he said his "artistic eggs were hatched," was also where many of his last stories are set.
"He said if he ever had a ghost, it would haunt this house," says Mogford, an English professor at nearby Albright College.
She points to two living-room windows: "He describes in at least three short stories how the family Christmas tree was placed between those two windows."
She steps into the dining room. "Right in the middle was a table," Mogford says, "and he used to curl up under it and read or draw."
Indeed, the 12-year-old Updike hid here on the day the family moved from the house in 1945, at his mother's insistence, to a farm about 11 miles away. For the rest of his life, through his fiction, essays, and poetry, Updike expressed bitterness at his mother's determination to leave the Shillington house.
Through a character in a short story, he called it "the crucial detachment of his life." Fifty years later, in another story, he said he "saw his entire life ... as an errant encircling of this forgotten center."
The John Updike Society, formed a few months after the author died in 2009, bought the house two years ago from an advertising agency that had occupied it. The group paid $180,000 for the property and expects to spend from $250,000 to $300,000 - with help from donors - to refurbish it.
Mogford says the museum won't have an adverse impact on Shillington - a one-square-mile borough, with a population of about 5,300 - because access to the home will be by appointment only on limited hours and days.
Updike drew material from other homes in the United Kingdom, New York City, and Massachusetts, but Shillington remained the richest source of his imagination throughout a half-century of writing that earned him two Pulitzer Prizes, the National Book Award, and many other accolades. His Shillington stories are written in rich, descriptive, lyrical language, and contain precisely remembered details from his childhood.
In his widely praised new biography of the writer, Adam Begley wrote: "For Linda Updike to regain her childhood paradise, her son had to relinquish his. In a letter she sent to him on the fifth anniversary of the move, Updike's mother wrote: 'If I had known then how much you hated to leave that house, I might not have had the courage to go.' My guess is that she would not, in fact, have found that courage."
Mogford points to a stained-glass window above the front door - "that's original" - then her finger drops to the mail slot. "So is that, and in one of his stories, he remembers sitting under the slot and letting the mail hit him as it was delivered by the postman."
Sunlight butters the bare floor of a second-story room that served as a studio for Linda Updike. "My mother dreamed of being a writer, and I used to see her type in the front room," Updike wrote in "The Dogwood Tree," an autobiographical essay published in 1963. "The front room is also where I would go when I was sick, so I would sit there and watch her."
The kitchen is empty save for a modern electric range, but Updike recalled the room "with its linoleum floor and wooden icebox and soap-smelling stone sink. The kitchen smelled of vanilla, cinnamon, and shredded coconut in its glass-fronted cabinets, and of the oilcloth on the little table where we ate, I seated at a corner that prodded me in the stomach."
The kitchen door leads to a side porch where, the author said, "I would play by myself or with others - setting up grocery stores out of orange crates and crayoned paper fruit" and that he described as "one of my favorite places in the world."
In the side yard is a dogwood tree planted by the Updikes in 1933 to commemorate his first birthday - and that he memorialized in the essay title 30 years later.
"We took a seedling from the tree this spring that we can plant and, in a way, keep it alive," says Mogford. "It's now 81 years old, and we don't know how much longer it will last. We also pruned it, and a local artist is making pens and jewelry out of the trimmings that we will sell in the gift shop."
Though it's currently unoccupied and no longer part of the Updike property, the two-story chicken coop is still there. Updike used the image of a chicken house dozens of times in his writing. His grandmother used to behead the birds, and Updike wrote of "the bloody stump" and "the frightened and stupid chickens, the vegetable garden that always needed weeding."
The society is seeking donations to restore the house to the way it would have looked during the Updikes' ownership.
As a national literary landmark, the Updike home, built around 1900, will attract scholars from around the world, but Mogford adds: "There are a lot of Updike fans out there - regular people who have read all his books several times. They'll be coming for sure."
Some may have already been. The society has held a biennial conference since forming and expects more than 200 when it meets again in October in Reading. Begley, Updike's biographer, is scheduled to speak, as is David Updike, the author's son, who is a fiction writer. The event will also include a picnic at the Philadelphia Avenue house and a walking tour of Shillington.
The town may already be a magnet because Updike insistently translated his own family and the geography of his youth into his literature. In his early novels, The Centaur, Of the Farm, and Poorhouse Fair, and in dozens of short stories, Updike has made himself, through different voices and physiognomies, his own chief character.
He has made his readers intimately familiar with his parents and his two boyhood homes. Shillington is Olinger in Updike's fiction; Plowville, Pa., where he moved when he was 12, is Firetown; and Reading, the closest city, is Alton or Brewer.
But Shillington was the most powerful influence on his writing. In one of his last poems, written a few weeks before he died and when he knew he was terminally ill, he thanks his childhood friends "for providing a / sufficiency of human types: beauty / bully, hanger-on, natural / twin and fatso - all a writer needs, / all there in Shillington."