I like to think that Updike would’ve approved. He wrote Self-Consciousness to stave off his biographers when he was alive, explaining in “On Literary Biography,” “A fiction writer’s life is his treasure, his ore, his savings account, his jungle gym. I don’t want somebody else playing on my jungle gym.” His writing, as Begley quotes from an early autobiographical essay, was “a method of riding a thin pencil line out of Shillington,” the home he loved, to Cambridge, and from there to New York City, Ipswich, and finally to Beverly Farm; as he moved from his parents — then in with his first wife, Mary, and their children, then his second wife, Martha, and her children — “into an infinity of unseen and even unborn hearts,” now including mine.
Updike’s mother, Begley says, was an angry person, sometimes hard-hearted, who Updike placated and amused. He knew when she was angry, and in his efforts at mollifying and entertaining her, Begley finds the seeds of his talent as a writer. Updike had wanted to become an animator, and Begley notes that Harvard may have “steered him away from his dream of becoming a cartoonist, but his elitist education hadn’t dimmed his enthusiasm for a medium with mass appeal.”
Begley suggests Updike worked his job like a professional tradesperson, as a plumber is an artisan of pipes or a dentist of teeth. Referring to Updike’s early story “Plumbing,” written after moving into his second Ipswich house, Begley says:
Mortality and the transience of the material world are the overarching theme, but another is the state of Richard and Joan Maple’s marriage, a joint less well crafted than the one that caught the plumber’s eye; it’s a pipe with a bleeding seam.
Begley follows both Updike’s well-crafted work and the bleeding seams of his life to produce a masterful biography, just five years after his subject’s death.
By 1956, the year I was born, Updike was embedded in his first and only job, at The New Yorker, having left behind the Pennsylvania towns of Shillington (which he idealized) and Plowville (which he didn’t). He had already gotten married for the first time, graduated from Harvard, and spent a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford. He came of age as a prose artist during America’s greatest period of prosperity and its first indications of decline.
Updike altered our understanding of an ascendant America by describing, in musical prose, the beginning of life in the American, oil-driven 1960s through 1990s, and the beginning of our warring, terror-infused 21st century. He produced a harsh, humorous, true portrayal of a period when the American middle class became prosperous, and failed. The American Dream was created and destroyed. Begley’s Updike inoculates us from forgetting this by encouraging us to read and reread Updike’s work, and to consider Updike’s portrait of our American impatience and our desperate attempts to avoid ambivalence and regret.
We fail, of course: Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy chronicles the American middle-class struggles with ambivalence and regret. It follows Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, a former high school basketball star become kitchen gadget salesman newly married to his pregnant girlfriend, Janice, through his life as a linotype operator at a local printing plant working with his dad in Rabbit Redux, to being a car salesman by sort of inheriting his father-in-law’s Toyota dealership in Rabbit Is Rich, and finally retiring to Florida in Rabbit At Rest. Along the way Rabbit departs, loses his way, and loses his second child, his baby girl, to an accidental drowning; alcoholic Janice is responsible. Updike portrays our American inability to mature: even at his most prosperous, Rabbit is a car salesman on the outside and a tormented, bright teenager on the inside, still searching for his identity. As Begley puts it: “Never a great success in the workplace, and a serial failure as a family man, he became an excellent conduit, an obliging medium, channeling the spirit of the times, the spirit of the nation.” And an excellent way to examine the beginnings of contemporary American greed, our universal monetization and faithlessness, our commercialization of everything. The books were, as Updike himself wrote, “a kind of running report on the state of my hero and his nation.”
Updike’s mother was coarse. She thought more highly of herself than others and his father could be considered a weakling. Updike’s parents were poorer than Rabbit’s, who have noble pretensions, but are lower middle class at best. Updike’s were, in a sense, homeless, living with his mother’s parents. Updike long thought his father felt condemned to teaching. His mother longed to be an author, remaining, from Updike’s perspective, an aspiring writer, even after he helped her publish some of her work. Updike was loved, even doted on, by his parents and grandparents, but his father was aloof, his mother moody. Updike’s writing, like Harry’s running, is his salvation. All imperfections are smoothed over by writing, and what was left was self-identification, empathy. He moved beyond his self-indulgent parents (he forgave them), and his personal struggles with psoriasis, stuttering, and asthma, through his writing. In Self-Consciousness he refers to 1 Corinthians 15:44: “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.” Updike’s natural body was his life. His spiritual body was his work. Begley’s biography keeps clear this distinction between Updike’s life, a historic site important for what lies beneath it, and his work, worthy of continued excavation.
Dwight Garner, in his review of Updike (“A Writerly Life, Beneath The Surface,” The New York Times Book Review), accuses Begley of failing to untangle the knot of Updike’s “intensity.” Garner also claims that Begley does not place Updike in the literary galaxy of his contemporaries, but only brushes his “soft edges,” by excavating the aggression beneath his charm, missing the relevance of his religious faith on his work. He says the biography “lacks a certain richness and allusiveness,” has “a gently simpering Oedipal quality,” noting that Begley’s father, Louis, was Updike’s Harvard classmate and friend. Begley was also The New York Observer books editor when David Foster Wallace wrote his scathing review of Toward the End of Time, essentially calling Updike a malignant narcissist.
Orhan Pamuk’s essay “Updike at Rest,” also in The New York Times Book Review, says that Updike captured the real America in a way “completely different” from anything previously written, “less dramatic, but more believable, and more intensely felt.”
The greatest pleasure in reading this biography is in discovering — essay by essay, story by story, novel by novel (and with the help of an index) — the daily vicissitudes that lay behind Updike’s ability to inhabit multiple identities, and the sheer range of his versatile pen.
How, Pamuk asks, was it possible?
Updike was possible partly because he lived in a large and democratic country like the United States, with a well-disposed and optimistic middle-class reading public, and partly because of his own Rousseau-like independence of spirit and individuality.
But the surprise for Pamuk — for every great writer has a unique independence of spirit — is how various were the personae that expressed that individuality. It left him feeling humbled, he wrote, and eager to get back to work, and to work harder.
Louis Menand’s review of Updike (“Imitation of Life: John Updike’s Cultural Project” in The New Yorker) says that what Updike’s critics perceived as malignant narcissism is sacramental.
The most persistent and mindlessly recycled criticism of Updike’s work is that he was infatuated with his own style, that he over-described everything to no purpose — that, as several critics put it, he had “nothing to say.” But Updike wasn’t merely showing off with his style. He wasn’t, as all those critics were essentially implying, masturbating. He was transubstantiating.
Updike did for American Wasps what Marcel Proust did for the belle époque of Paris, and James Joyce did by describing a single day in 1904 Dublin:
He had a cultural project. He wanted to rescue serious fiction from what he saw as a doctrinaire rejection of middle-class life and an apocalyptic interpretation of modern history.
Menand likes Begley’s approach, combining Updike’s life and art as “mutually informing.” This is the only way to go given Updike’s precocity, Menand suggests. A lesser biographer would have felt compelled to decide whether Updike’s work conformed more to Cheever’s magic, Kerouac’s jazz, or Orwell’s dystopia, but Begley cites Updike’s appreciation for all three, alongside the techniques of Proust, Joyce, and Henry Green. As Michael Dirda confirms in his review in The Washington Post, we discover Updike’s DNA only by reading his works — Menand calls it transubstantiating his life into his oeuvre.
William Deresiewicz’s review in The New Republic focuses on Updike’s nostalgia, which he finds to be of a certain sort: a quality of returning and departing that is disturbing rather than comforting. Updike, Deresiewicz writes, survived Harvard, New York, and The New Yorker, and took European modernism and reshaped it to his own needs. Only time will tell, he says, whether Begley’s book will rehabilitate Updike or be his final dismissal. Prospects are not good for the near future, though, because our cultural politics are still linked to identity politics in ways that Updike’s, according to Deresiewicz’s debatable formulation, were not. Still, he is hopeful:
Updike strikes me as the kind of writer who is going to be rediscovered, and who is going to keep being rediscovered. The time will come — in thirty or fifty or a hundred years — when the values of our own effulgent age will seem as odious as those of the 1950s (or for that matter, of the 1850s) do to us today. No one then will care how Updike did or didn’t vote. They will turn to him —
readers will, and writers, I think, especially will — for what is permanently valid in his work: the virtuosity of his technique, his ability to craft a sentence, a scene, a story, to calibrate tones and modulate effects; the penetration of his eye, his gift for seeing things and seeing into minds; his brave, honest, unembarrassed frankness; and the sheer aesthetic pleasure of his prose.
Deresiewicz argues that Updike’s confidence and optimism were his literary and personal salvation. He avoided confusion and reconstruction by knowing himself and being true to what he knew. Deresiewicz describes Updike’s depiction of adultery in Couples as a safety valve, made necessary by the fact that people married so young. He did not moralize about it — he wrote about it the way an anthropologist would, eclipsing judgment, or like an archaeologist excavating some confounding artifact. For him, sex was simply a facet of life, one previously written around, and he was particularly interested in the way sex sets the scene for our aging. Religion was another prevalent facet of everyday life that had been minimized by contemporary literature. Deresiewicz quotes the phrase “controlled rapture” from “Pigeon Feathers” as an example of Updike’s approach. In the story, David Kern finds God by copying him. After shooting and killing pigeons as pests in his barn, he notices their feathers’ coloring while burying them. Standing up from filling in their grave he experiences God’s benevolence as a form of immortality, not unlike what a story does for its author. But he also worried, as he wrote in The Poorhouse Fair, about “what will become of us, having lost our faith.”
Lorrie Moore’s review of Updike’s The Early Stories is often quoted out of context. Moore says that Updike is “arguably our greatest writer without a single great novel.” Begley mistook this as praise, “with a sting in its tail.” I asked Moore about this over email, and she said she meant that “no single novel of his is really the Great American Novel,” but that “the Rabbit novels have to be taken together. His stories are lyrical and brilliant and he put a lot of his true emotional life there.” The Early Stories focus on marriage, family, and divorce, its themes, culminating in the Maple stories, “Separating” and “Gesturing,” braiding Updike’s unique capacities for description and imitation, for depicting fictional intellect and intimacy while interpolating his own family life. He accomplishes this in his novels, as well, with accurate, realistic, plainspoken, and graphic prose.
Heather Havrilesky was halfway through reading Updike when she wrote “Ways in Which BuzzFeed Reminds Us of Impending Death” (The New York Times Magazine), in which she noted Updike’s uncanny anticipation of Buzzfeed’s success as a culmination of the ways American popular culture, pervasive in his writing, conflicts with our real lives, camouflaging our regrets with bravado, distracting us from ourselves and wasting our time.
Updike’s aptitude for writing is apparent in Begley’s biography. Begley says that one of Updike’s Harvard roommates, Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, claimed his IQ hovered at approximately 150. Updike’s mother’s ambition to become a writer only increased his facility for language, and his confidence came from being raised as an only child by a devoted, but sometimes angry mother, Linda (represented most clearly in Of The Farm), and a father, Wesley (seen in The Centaur), a self-sacrificing, maybe suffering, public school math teacher, his maternal grandfather and grandmother (discernable in The Poorhouse Fair and “The Blessed Man of Boston,” “My Grandmother’s Thimble,” and “Fanning Island”). He referred to his family as a star, with him as its fifth point. He mostly reveled in it, becoming adept at gauging their moods, especially his mother’s, but resented moving, at 13, from the town of Shillington to a farmhouse in Plowville, where his mother was raised. Plowville (with no running water for the first year or so) was confining, especially for an adolescent, but also confirming, drawing him closer to his father, with whom he commuted back and forth to school. When he left for Harvard he was ready to leave. He was familiar with adults, and was drawn to them. His work, even as a young man, reads as if it was written by someone older. Begley weaves back and forth between his subject’s personal life and his work, encouraging the reader to wander between them. Updike’s sentences are beautiful, but underneath is a complete reality, with all its warts. Life is fabulous and flawed. It is deliberate and surprising. Sex is one of its wonders, full of pain, ecstasy, loss, aging, and faith. Updike left considerable personal debris in his wake, a divorce and alienated children, but he flew in his writing.
Begley quotes Updike remembering Henry Green, who he discovered during the year he spent at Oxford after graduating Harvard. Updike said Green showed him “what words could do, in bringing reality up tight against the skin of the paper.” Updike loved blank paper. He liked drawing, and traced comics as a young boy, idolizing Mickey Mouse, and Walt Disney for creating something meaningful and popular. He chose to become a writer dedicated to art by religiously describing the world from his particular perspective, seeing it as a calling. Updike believed in God, and he admired the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, believing with him that our salvation depends on God’s grace.
Updike’s stories about Henry Bech, which were published in three novel-like books, are good examples of his artistry. The generation of novelists that preceded Updike in America — Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner — had more secure lives, able to make their livings as independent authors. During Updike’s time, a shift occurred, authors were paid less, and colleges and universities became places writers made their livings. Instead of artists they became academics. This coincided with the rise of creative writing programs, and the generation that followed earned MFAs and taught writing. Updike only taught writing one summer. It bored him. He found it foolish, and he never did it again. He wrote his first Bech story, “The Bulgarian Poetess,” after he’d been enlisted as “an ambassador of the arts” during the Cold War, along with John Cheever and others. He perceived this, according to Begley, as a public role in contrast to his private one as an artist, and he did not see it as a promotion but as a distraction. He generally perceived travel as a displacement. Begley aptly points out that half of the Bech stories “take place in foreign countries,” and perhaps impersonating Henry Bech helped Updike learn how to travel and grow as a writer. But Bech also reflects his struggle with celebrity, and with his critics.
Henry Bech became a character that Updike used in several ways. Once he perceived its usefulness, especially after “The Bulgarian Poetess” won an O. Henry Award, he used it to adjust to the demands of travel as a newly minted celebrated writer, compensating for some of his discomfort at becoming a public figure, assuaging his feelings about the publishing industry, and confounding his critics, who often were confused about his authorial motives. Bech helped Updike not take himself too seriously. Not nearly as interested in love and sex as some believed, and even less in celebrity, Updike was more interested in writing, and he strove to insulate himself from growing speculation about his personal life. Begley writes: “Updike professed to believe that ‘artistic creation’ is at best a sublimation of sexual instinct,” a psychoanalytic formulation he fleshed out in the character of Bech:
Art is his pastime, but love is his work. If that makes Bech a representative writer (and human character), then Updike is an anomaly: what mattered most profoundly to him wasn’t sex or even love; what mattered most was writing.
In Bech At Bey, the first chapter, “Bech In Czech,” finds Bech again standing in for Updike: “More fervently than he was a Jew, Bech was a writer, a literary man, and in this dimension, too, he felt cause for unease.” Bech visits Kafka’s grave like Updike did, let into the locked cemetery as a visiting dignitary. Bech appreciates the special treatment, but it also feels inadequate. Begley claims traveling allowed Updike “to encounter fictional selves, the refreshing false ideas of you that strangers hold in their mind.” Begley points out that Updike gives Bech the additional awkwardness of being Jewish and traveling in an Eastern European country in postwar Europe, worried that if he wasn’t careful he would go “up in smoke.”
“John Updike wrote about himself,” Begley says, and to describe how much, he uses a thesaurus of terms: copiously, reflexively, compulsively, ad nauseam, religiously, lucidly, and ironically. Writing for Updike was akin to worship. “Imitation is praise,” he wrote. “Description expresses love.” Updike’s writing and adult life coincided with the Cold War, with America’s ascendance and decline, with the family ’50s, the post-pill ’60s through the first decade of the 21st century. He watched, and recorded, the fight for all kinds of rights — the grappling with divorce, family disintegration, publishing’s change, technology’s rise, the monetizing of our culture, endless war, and the disintegration of the middle class. He spent his professional life from 1955 (“Ace in the Hole,” his first story in The New Yorker) until his death in 2009 writing about the end of the American century with unflinching honesty. He also made a fortune doing it.
Spending time with Updike while reading Begley’s biography helped me understand why he spoke so strongly to me. In his 1977 edition introduction to The Poorhouse Fair, about the elderly, Updike says: “The poorhouse is fair, I wanted to say, against my suspicions that it is, our universe, a poor house for us.” I have often felt that in middle-class America, we all, more or less, are in the same boat: working and spending and always indebted. As with Rabbit, youth may be the only period of time when we, depending on our circumstances, live free and imagine experiencing some glory. There are not many ways to recapture this feeling besides indulging in art.
Over the last year, spurred by Begley’s biography, I read much more Updike. I started by reading the short stories Begley chose to explicate his biography from The Collected Early Stories, and moved on from there, working through his oeuvre. The short story “Dentistry and Doubt” best captures the kind of reader I became. In the story, Burton, an American clergyman doing research at Oxford, visits a British dentist for the first time. The dentist asks Burton, “Does the dentist at home give you Novocain?” Burton is experiencing religious doubt, partly in anticipation of visiting a foreign dentist. As an American, Burton’s body is so viscerally connected to his spirit that he sees all discomfort as caused by the Devil. “That morning, possibly because of the scheduled visit to a foreign dentist, the Devil had been very active.” The dentist goes about his business treating Burton while holding a conversation with him. Since the narrator is neither Burton nor the Dentist it is hard to know who is telling the story, the writer or the reader, as if they are somehow doing it together. The dentist and his office are completely reasonable and described, as Begley says, with “intensely observed detail,” making Burton’s experience even more accessible, because it is something he is enduring for the first time. British modern realism à la Henry Green intersects with Updike’s American confidence and insecurity. Updike, it seemed to me, was like the dentist. He makes for painful reading. Doubt and reassurance cause the reader to think about their culture and their bodies and their existential predicaments in new ways.
It is an uncanny depiction of the American Dream with all its late 20th-century flaws and reconditioning exposed. The novels and short stories, the poetry, the essays — all examine optimism facing reality, love in the midst of despair. Updike’s alienation is ours, as are his losses described in beautiful, difficult sentences that are notable for their maturity. I am not sure I could have fully understood what I was reading any sooner. Parents and children, marriages, their beginnings and endings, separations and losses, are cast as always unique and painful, but always historically and economically inevitable. Reading Updike helped me to take a fresh look at fidelity and infidelity, not just marital, but, as in Updike’s oeuvre, in all senses of those terms, and Begley’s book got me started.