John Updike was, by both commercial and critical standards, a fabulously successful writer. He won two Pulitzer Prizes (the only novelist besides William Faulkner and Booth Tarkington to do so), two National Book Awards, three National Book Critics Circle Awards, and was the recipient of just about every literary accolade short of the Nobel. Some would say that he deserves to be included (along with Saul Bellow, Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Walker Percy, Marilynne Robinson, pick your candidates) in any conversation about the greatest post-war American novelist.
Yet others would say, as David Foster Wallace famously did, ostensibly quoting a friend of his, that Updike was just “a penis with a thesaurus,” or that Updike’s facility with language came too easily, allowing him to obscure with his elegant fluidity a lack of substance, or that his easy profligacy with words (he published about 60 books, including more than 20 novels, numerous short-story collections, volumes of poetry, and hundreds pieces of literary and art criticism, collected over the years into doorstop compendiums) suggested a lack of restraint, or of depth. Writing in The London Review of Books in 1998, the critic James Wood launched a downward revision of Updike’s literary reputation by declaring, “It seems to be easier for John Updike to stifle a yawn than to refrain from writing a book” and then, decrying Updike’s “puerile misogyny” and “puffy” lyricism, he brought the hammer down: “Updike is not, I think, a great writer.”
Adam Begley disagrees. While he is not shy about deprecating Updike’s missteps and weaker efforts, he writes at the outset of this biography that one of his aims is to produce a “surge in [Updike’s] posthumous reputation.” I mostly agree with Begley’s assessments: Even in his weakest work, Updike’s lyrical sentences can make life seem somehow more vivid, like a TV screen with the contrast heightened. And I believe his strongest work — “The Centaur,” some of his short stories, and especially his Rabbit tetralogy (“Rabbit, Run”; “Rabbit Redux”; “Rabbit is Rich”; and “Rabbit at Rest”) — ranks among the best fiction any American writer has produced. Published across four decades — from “Rabbit, Run” in 1960 to “Rabbit at Rest” in 1990 — the books manage to be almost a transcription of late 20th-century middle-class America, plotting the life of everyman Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom against an evolving cultural backdrop that runs from the stultifying constraints of post-war 1950s suburbia to the kick-off-the-traces upheaval of the 1960s to the heedless materialism of the 1970s and 1980s.
As a biographical subject, Updike presents challenges. He had only mild neuroses. He refrained from public feuds with fellow literati. (A memorable swipe at Tom Wolfe late in his career was a notable exception.) He didn’t drink much. His career began easily and persisted steadily. Aside from a brief period of rather elaborate carnal indulgence in the 1960s, Updike led an undramatic suburban life. He approached his writing the way dentists or insurance brokers approach their jobs: He went to his office and did his work — “effortlessly industrious,” as Begley puts it. Bland porridge for the biographer aspiring to make the life interesting.
Making Begley’s challenge steeper: There is almost no episode from Updike’s past that the writer himself has not already transmuted into fiction or poetry or both — in some cases many times over. Updike spoke guiltily of how he “plundered” his own life and the people in it, sometimes using digestive metaphors to describe the process: “We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.”
All of which makes Begley’s superb achievement even more impressive. He has performed a kind of double alchemy, capturing the sublime magic by which Updike turned his own life into art and rendering the life with such depth and sympathy that when the reader closes the book, Updike lingers in the mind like a character from a novel.
The only child of a Depression-straitened family in Berks County, Pa., he was crammed with his parents and grandparents into a small farmhouse and yearned to escape the smallness and relative penury of semirural life. His father was an honorable but generally unhappy schoolteacher; his mother was a writer or — as Updike puzzlingly insisted on calling her despite her published novels and short stories — an “aspiring writer.” Struggling with a stammer and a skin condition that made him socially awkward, he sought refuge in reading (he loved mysteries and P.G. Wodehouse) and in art. Originally intending to be a cartoonist (he wanted to be the next Walt Disney), he spent hours sprawled on the floor of his house, drawing and writing. His mother showered him with praise and strategized with him about how to make his way in the world of letters.
Updike was exceptionally talented, but he was also a disciplined worker and a canny operator. After being accepted at Harvard, he joined the campus humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon, which was known to provide entrée into New York publishing circles. He worked hard at the Lampoon, both writing and cartooning, and cultivated the right contacts. After graduation in 1954 he landed a staff job at the New Yorker magazine — the place he had aspired to work since he was 12. “I loved that magazine so much I concentrated all my wishing into an effort to make myself small and inky and intense enough to be received into its pages,” he later wrote. (Aside from perhaps J.D. Salinger and John Cheever, no writer of the immediate post-war decades is more closely associated with “New Yorker fiction” than Updike — and Updike’s production dwarfed Salinger’s: 146 New Yorker stories for Updike to a mere 13 for Salinger.)
But Updike feared becoming “an elegant hack,” as he wrote his mother — of ending up like Brendan Gill, a talented career New Yorker staffer who had foregone the quest for artistic greatness in favor of the comfortable near-greatness afforded by the limiting confines of The New Yorker. So a week after he turned 25, Updike left the storied magazine and embarked on a career as a freelance writer and novelist, moving with his wife Mary and their two children to Ipswich, where he hoped to solidify his connection with “the whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled, America.” Updike would become, Begley writes, “the poet laureate of American middleness.”)
An irony of Updike’s career is that after spending the first two decades of his life striving to escape Berks County, he spent the rest of days returning to it again and again in his fiction. His second novel, “The Centaur,” is set there and was a tribute to his pathetic-heroic father. (Though half the novel is told in a mythological mode — his father is a noble centaur among the Greek gods of the school faculty — much of the book is directly autobiographical.) Harry Angstrom haunts Updike’s suburban Pennsylvania — Harry is Updike as he would have been without the college education and the writerly sensibility.
Begley stipples the narrative with bits of literary gossip. For instance, John Cheever, on the judging panel for the 1964 National Book Awards, steered the prize that year to “The Centaur,” even though some of his fellow judges preferred Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel, “V.” (Later, Cheever would express jealousy of Updike; still later, Updike would help the haplessly alcoholic Cheever, whom he found wandering around drunk and naked outside his apartment, pull himself together long enough to get to the Boston Symphony one night.) Updike’s mixed review of Philip Roth’s 1993 novel “Operation Shylock” reportedly so unhinged Roth that he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. (Later Roth would deny that the Updike review had anything to do with his institutionalization, but the two writers, previously friendly, never spoke again.) Updike’s famous New Yorker essay on the home run Ted Williams hit in his final at-bat for the Red Sox, on Sept. 28, 1960 (“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu’’) came about by fortuitous accident: Updike strolled over to Fenway Park that afternoon only because a mistress he had gone to visit on Beacon Hill had turned out not to be home.
Ah, yes, Updike’s mistresses. This brings us inevitably to “Couples,” the 1968 bestseller that “made suburban sex famous” and made its author a millionaire. Updike later would deny the book had much basis in fact — but apparently it did. (In two Updike novels, a male character brags about having had sex with three women in one day earlier in his life. On a draft of the later novel, “Toward the End of Time,” published in 1997, Updike’s second wife, Martha, whom he had married in 1977, advised that he should cut the passage, because it sounded boastful. He left it in.)
In the “post-pill paradise” of the 1960s, the Updikes and their Ipswich neighbors got caught up in “a daisy-chain of adulterous affairs,” as Begley puts it, that ended up eventually destroying the marriages of almost everyone involved, including Updike’s. Though Updike indulged in this decade-long orgy of concupiscence with ardor, he embarked on it reluctantly (due to religious misgivings), and he professed later to regret it. In his 1989 memoir, written when he was 53, he called his promiscuous phase “malicious, greedy . . . obnoxious . . . rapacious and sneaky . . . remorseless.”
He and Mary nearly divorced as early as 1962, after he was confronted by a mistress’s husband over an affair — but he called Mary at the last minute in her lawyer’s office, unwilling to break up his family. They stayed together, through multiple additional affairs on both sides, until 1974.
Begley amply covers Updike’s lifelong preoccupations — sex and death and God and golf (his “narcotic pastime.” The priority Updike ascribed to those preoccupations seems to have reversed themselves as he aged. In later chapters, Begley evokes the mild loneliness and melancholy of the novelist’s later years: increasing physical decrepitude; a decline, after “Rabbit at Rest,” in the amplitude of critical plaudits; a deepening of his lifelong obsession with his own mortality; his resigned sense that he needed to make way for the writers who would displace him; his acquiescence to the reality that Sweden would not be calling.
Even late in his career, with his reputation well-established, Updike remained sensitive to harsh reviews. Begley describes a striking scene from 2006 in which the novelist Ian McEwan came to visit Updike at his house, and Updike confessed he had not been able to bring himself to read Christopher Hitchens’s savage review of “Terrorist” in The Atlantic. “Updike has produced one of the worst pieces of writing from any grown-up source” since 9/11, Hitchens wrote. (Ironically, The Atlantic had earlier excerpted a short story from that novel.)
By the late 1990s, Updike may indeed have lost a little something off his fastball (though his final fiction collection, “My Father’s Tears,” had some excellent stories in it). Still, in recent years Cynthia Ozick and Jonathan Raban, no softies in the critical judgment department, have placed Updike alongside Cather, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Balzac, Eliot, Joyce, and Dickens, among others. I think Begley would agree that Updike, who died of cancer in 2009, belongs there. Skillfully interweaving the work and the life, Begley has produced a book that, in its evocation of a brilliant but flawed personality, conjured via the skillful deployment of just-so details and a subtle hint of haunting existential grace , is in some ways as rewarding as Updike’s best fiction.
Scott Stossel, editor of The Atlantic magazine, is the author of “My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind’’ and “Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver.’’