Adam Begley's 'Updike' is first-rate literary biography

John Updike during his undergraduate years; he was

John Updike during his undergraduate years; he was Harvard class of 1954. The author is the subject of a new biography, "Updike" by Adam Begley (Harper, April 2014). (Credit: W. Earl Snyder/Houghton Library/Harvard University)

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UPDIKE, by Adam Begley. Harper, 558 pp., $29.99.

For more than half a century, John Updike streaked over the American literary landscape like a comet. A youthful prodigy at The New Yorker in the '50s, he soon made his mark as a fluent producer of stories, poems, novels and criticism, repeatedly topping best-seller lists and reaping multiple awards. There were 63 books in all. At his death, in 2009, he was our most acclaimed man of letters, perhaps shut out of Nobel Prize honors only because of his support for the Vietnam War.

Though Adam Begley's biography, "Updike," is the first on the writer, it's hard to see how it will be bettered. Thoroughly researched, written with intelligence, sympathy and grace, it is a model of first-rate literary biography.

Since the boundary between Updike's life and much of his fiction was famously porous, Begley has been able to produce a complex, intimate portrait. He also had access to Updike's papers at Harvard, to Updike himself, his first wife and children, and numerous friends and acquaintances.

It's disappointing, though, that he has nothing like the revelatory diaries of a John Cheever, a man as addicted to sexual escapades as Updike was.

As decisive early influences, Begley focuses on Updike's hometown of Shillington, Pa., near Reading, and his mother, Linda Hoyer Updike. Both towns provided grist for his fiction, from early stories to the four Rabbit Angstrom novels. A writer herself, Linda nurtured her only child's talents and urged him to get out of town and aim high. (Wesley, his math teacher father, was an exemplar of settling, rather than aspiring.)

At Harvard, Updike hid his lofty ambition beneath an aw-shucks modesty and a predilection for clowning. Even so, he made the Lampoon the vehicle for his swift ascent. By his final year, he was attracting interest from editors at The New Yorker. The magazine proved to be his springboard to fame, and an everlasting part of his identity, even after he left the staff to freelance.

Updike's successes, Begley notes, may have seemed effortless, but they were grounded in steadfast daily work. The fiction on which he worked so assiduously was inspired by his love of art (he had attended art school in England after Harvard) and by English writer Henry Green, whose "intensity of witnessing" made him "a saint of the mundane." Hence the painterly attention to detail that breathed life into Updike's domestic realism. By the time of "Rabbit, Run" and its three sequels, the realism had expanded to encompass the entire nation.

"Updike" portrays a man almost exclusively devoted to writing and sex without guilt. (Yes, he suffered remorse over emotional damage to his children, but he clearly didn't change much.) He had few real friends beyond poker and golf buddies. His closest friendships, with editor William Maxwell and novelist Joyce Carol Oates, appear to have been limited to literary matters.

No shocking revelations come from Mary Pennington Updike, Updike's first wife, except that she, too, had affairs during the swinging '60s. Martha Bernhard, his second, emerges only as Updike's stern gatekeeper, vetoing anything that would disturb his writing.

Begley regards the Rabbit novels and the Maples stories (about a young couple with four children, much like Updike's family) as the pinnacle of Updike's work. He fends off carping from feminists (Updike "hates women") and disparagers of the prose ("too pretty," with "nothing substantial to say"). On both counts, Begley believes, he rose above any initial failings. Though he can't rewrite Updike's position on Vietnam, he tries to showcase his courage in bucking a liberal consensus.

While naysayers could be harsh, Updike had fun with them. In "Bech Noir," the writer hero kills off his critics one by one.

The quarrels with writers of his generation, Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth, are summoned here, as is the rivalry with the older John Cheever. How Begley believes Updike ultimately will stand in comparison with these and others isn't entirely clear. He labels predictions of this sort "an amusing pastime." Nonetheless, he hopes this biography will spur "a surge in his posthumous reputation." I have no doubt this hope will become fact.

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