Updike is Adam Begley's masterful, much-anticipated biography of one of the most celebrated figures in American literature: Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Updike--a candid, intimate, and richly detailed look at his life and work.Read more...
Updike is Adam Begley's masterful, much-anticipated biography of one of the most celebrated figures in American literature: Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Updike--a candid, intimate, and richly detailed look at his life and work.
In this magisterial biography, Adam Begley offers an illuminating portrait of John Updike, the acclaimed novelist, poet, short-story writer, and critic who saw himself as a literary spy in small-town and suburban America, who dedicated himself to the task of transcribing "middleness with all its grits, bumps and anonymities."
Updike explores the stages of the writer's pilgrim's progress: his beloved home turf of Berks County, Pennsylvania; his escape to Harvard; his brief, busy working life as the golden boy at The New Yorker; his family years in suburban Ipswich, Massachusetts; his extensive travel abroad; and his retreat to another Massachusetts town, Beverly Farms, where he remained until his death in 2009. Drawing from in-depth research as well as interviews with the writer's colleagues, friends, and family, Begley explores how Updike's fiction was shaped by his tumultuous personal life--including his enduring religious faith, his two marriages, and his first-hand experience of the "adulterous society" he was credited with exposing in the bestselling Couples.
With a sharp critical sensibility that lends depth and originality to his analysis, Begley probes Updike's best-loved works--from Pigeon Feathers to The Witches of Eastwick to the Rabbit tetralogy--and reveals a surprising and deeply complex character fraught with contradictions: a kind man with a vicious wit, a gregarious charmer who was ruthlessly competitive, a private person compelled to spill his secrets on the printed page. Updike offers an admiring yet balanced look at this national treasure, a master whose writing continues to resonate like no one else's.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-02-17
- Reviewer: Staff
This deferential but insightful biography takes its place among the go-to sources on the life of the Pennsylvania-born “poet laureate of American middleness,” who died in 2009. Without always matching the laborious detail of Jack De Bellis’s John Updike’s Early Years (2013), this comprehensive account from literary critic Begley draws on deep research and interviews with the author and his circle to chart his early influences—in particular his ambitious mother, Linda—and rigorously explore the heavily autobiographical dimensions of his fiction and poetry. A homeward-looking yearning and an unswerving ambition run throughout Updike’s life and career. In addition to his own astute observations, Begley (whose father was a Harvard classmate of Updike’s) marshals revealing commentary by Updike’s contemporaries, like college roommate and future historian Christopher Lasch, who discuss the hesitations and insecurities hounding him. Begley devotes hefty chapters to Updike’s long relationship with the New Yorker, as well as the fame-making, family-growing Ipswich years from whence came Rabbit, Run. The book limns the conflicted emotional makeup beneath its subject’s polished public persona, detailing his tenuous relationship with the WASP establishment, his restless sexual infidelities, and his alienation from 1960s counterculture. At the same time, Updike is revealed to have no great interior tumult on a par with that of his troubled alter ego, Harry Angstrom. Indeed, readers will see in Begley’s Updike an exceptionally gifted, but in many ways mainstream, American man. 16-page b&w photo insert. Agent: Georges Borchardt, Georges Borchardt Literary Agency. (Apr.)
Well Read: A true man of letters
Was John Updike one of America’s great writers or merely, as Harold Bloom famously said, “a minor novelist with a major style”? In Updike, his meticulously detailed and highly readable new biography—the first full-fledged life of the writer, who died in 2009—Adam Begley makes a convincing case for the former view while providing a rich account of the events that shaped Updike’s fiction.
Like his contemporary Philip Roth, Updike drew nakedly on his own life in his work, often relying on what Begley calls “bare fact, artfully arranged.” His autobiographical, not to say confessional, style of writing—navel-gazing, albeit on the highest plane—is why some critics perceive his work as less than canonical. Conversely, it is why many readers devoured his New Yorker stories as they appeared and eagerly awaited each new novel. Updike’s transcendent prose could elevate everyday experience into a realm well beyond the ordinary. His unabashed honesty—oddly self-indulgent yet self-critical—is hard to resist, even as he exposes his own (mostly marital) transgressions with uncomfortable candor.
What Begley does well in Updike is connect the dots between the work and the life. In many cases, they are actual dots on the map—in particular, three places that would figure time and again in Updike’s work: Shillington, the small Pennsylvania town where he spent the first part of childhood; the farm in nearby Plowville, where his mother moved the reluctant family when he was 13; and Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he and his first wife, Mary, raised their four children until their divorce. Updike revisits one or more of these locales, in barely masked guises, in many of his novels and dozen of stories, and Begley underscores how each marked him as a man and artist.
The outlines of the story are known to any Updike reader. A precocious child encouraged by a mother with her own unfulfilled literary ambitions, young John dreamed of someday working at The New Yorker. He was barely out of Harvard when that dream became a reality. A versatile and nimble writer, his talents perfectly suited the magazine at midcentury, but he left after a short time to devote himself to the life of a freelance writer, proving wildly successful—both critically and commercially—in short order. Ensconced in Ipswich, north of Boston, he and Mary became part of a social group that soon migrated from cocktail parties and weekend sports to bed-hopping and marital discord. Updike documented all of this misadventure with painstaking frankness. His notorious novel Couples, about the sexual shenanigans in a town that was clearly Ipswich, was published in 1968 and reportedly earned him a million dollars.
Given the serial adultery, the at times blissful and other times painful marriage to Mary—which unravels before readers’ eyes in his stunning Maple stories and in countless others—was doomed to fail. His second marriage to Martha, the woman for whom he left Mary, is given less attention. She clearly did not cooperate with the writing of the book (unlike Mary, who is the first person Begley thanks in the acknowledgments). Hence, Updike’s last 30-some years are given a less-thorough treatment than the first 40, which may be the one fault in this otherwise impressive biography.
Largely admiring, Begley offers an evenhanded portrait of Updike as highly intelligent, diligent in his work habits, impish in humor and generally kind, that nonetheless does not whitewash his less admirable traits—the adultery, of course, but also his quiet ambition and the collateral damage left in the wake as he recycled the personal into art. It is an occupational hazard that many great writers face, but Updike perhaps more than most.