Longtime Ipswich resident M.L. Scudder has a bone to pick with Adam Begley, author of an elegant new biography of John Updike, the late novelist, The New Yorker contributor, and all-around man of letters who called the North Shore home through his final 50 years.
Despite Begley’s claims about the leisure activities of the young couples of Ipswich in the 1960s, Scudder says they never played volleyball on the beach.
“It was always in our backyards,” she contends.
Though Updike’s years in Ipswich are often reduced to the hubbub over the 1968 novel “Couples,” infamously noted on the cover of Time magazine for exposing the growing “Adulterous Society” of the nation’s suburbs, the writer’s real legacy in his adopted hometowns north of Boston is, for the most part, far less melodramatic. The publication of Begley’s comprehensive “Updike” has refueled interest in the life and work of the celebrated author, who died in 2009 at age 76.
Equal parts biography and critical reassessment of Updike’s output, Begley’s book follows the writer and his family through a succession of prominent local homes, the first three in Ipswich. Beginning with a small cottage known as Little Violet, Updike raised four children with his first wife, Mary, first there and then in the historic Polly Dole House and, after his career took off, in a larger home on Labor-in-Vain Road.
When the marriage ended, Updike lived from 1976 to 1982 in a house outside Georgetown center on West Main Street before settling with his second wife, Martha, in a grand home near the water in Beverly Farms.
“It’s always a good idea with Updike to concentrate on geography,” says Begley, speaking on the phone from London. Many of Updike’s earliest stories in The New Yorker, published shortly after he graduated from Harvard in 1954, lightly fictionalized his upbringing in Berks County, Pa., setting the tone for his lifelong inquiry into the nature of smalltown American incidents and relationships.
Updike’s mother, Linda Hoyer, who published several short stories of her own in The New Yorker, “had a really highly developed mythology about place, which he inherited,” says Begley. “In her writing, where you are is somehow the key to a person. And that became so for Updike.”
One of the writer’s better-known stories, “A&P,” was inspired by three young girls in swimsuits roaming the aisles of the bygone supermarket in Ipswich (Tarbox, in Updike’s fiction). A poem rejected by the New Yorker, “My Children at the Dump,” was based on a real-life trip to the site he thought of as “one of the most peaceful and scenic places in the town.” In “Couples,” he reimagined an awkward party that actually took place on the night of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
As Updike’s literary star ascended, his friends in Ipswich enjoyed parsing the work for clues about themselves. But they were outwardly unimpressed by his celebrity, Scudder claims.
“Nobody gave a damn,” says Scudder, a library trustee and former School Committee member who lives in a sprawling house near Castle Hill with her husband, David, an investor. A copy of Begley’s book, freshly purchased for her husband’s birthday, sits on the coffee table at her knee.
“He was just John. He was good at what he did, and my husband was good at what he did.”
The Ipswich Public Library recently hung a portrait of the young Updike near its circulation desk, across from a picture of Anne Bradstreet, the town’s other most famous literary figure, says library director Victor Dyer. The Updike photo, he explains, was a gift from the writer’s first wife, whose second husband served on the library board. They still live in the same house that was Updike’s last in Ipswich.
In its archive, the library keeps a few file boxes filled with Updike memorabilia, including copies of the Time magazine cover story and a program for “Three Texts for Early Ipswich: A Pageant,” a local performance he wrote about on the occasion of the town’s 17th Century Day in 1968.
Updike briefly tried living in New York City after Harvard, but he and Mary soon decamped to Ipswich. They’d spent an “idyllic” honeymoon there, according to Begley, riding borrowed bikes, and they soon returned to make the place their home. Famously, Updike once wrote that his writing depended on “the whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled America.” He felt he’d found that on the North Shore.
Unlike so many other writers, Updike did not find bustling New York to his taste. “He felt he couldn’t make a big enough noise in New York,” says Begley. “He was too tied to The New Yorker, and his identity wasn’t shining forth.”
In part, Begley says, only half-joking, Updike settled outside Boston to be nearer his idol, Ted Williams, about whom he would write the famous essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” for The New Yorker in 1960.
An enthusiastic golfer, he played all of the courses in the area — Candlewood, Ould Newbury, the Beverly Golf & Tennis Club. Eventually he would join the exclusive Myopia Hunt Club in South Hamilton.
By then, well into his second marriage, to Martha, Updike had retreated into a more private life in Beverly Farms.
“My feeling is that Martha and John drew up the drawbridge,” says Begley.
Some of Updike’s ashes are buried in the little memorial garden behind the picturesque Emmanuel Church in Manchester-By-the-Sea, just up the road from the home where Martha still lives. She donated the benches in the garden; her late husband, the first person interred there, has the first name on the plaque.
The rest of Updike’s cremains are buried in a family plot in Pennsylvania, marked with a black slate headstone carved by his son Michael, a stone carver who lives and works in Newbury.
Though Begley spent considerable time speaking with Updike’s ex-wife and children, “I didn’t actually go to every place he put his foot down,” he says. “I wasn’t writing that kind of biography.
“What I wanted was to make people want to read Updike.”James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
Correction: An earlier version of this article had the incorrect year of John Updike’s death. He died in 2009.