There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people, if he’s any good.
Thus says F. Scott Fitzgerald in his Notebooks, the dictum used as an epigraph to John Updike’s talk on literary biography. Compelling as this sounds at first, it just can’t be the case, given the number of good ones that have been written in the last century, to go no farther back. Adam Begley’s biography of Updike may now be added to the list for the way it issues from the laudable motive of desiring (in Updike’s own words) “to prolong and extend our intimacy with the author.”
John Updike died at the end of January 2009, after a two-month siege of lung cancer. In the weeks that followed, with no “official” biography commissioned, Begley went swiftly to work. Although Updike’s wife Martha declined to participate in the project, Begley was able to talk to a number of people close to the writer, the most important of whom were Updike’s first wife, Mary, and their four children. Perhaps as important in facilitating the biographer’s task was the availability of the immense Updike archive purchased by Harvard, an overwhelming mass of manuscripts, letters to and from Updike, and first drafts and false starts of novels—all the papers that he had been so assiduously handing over to Harvard since the mid-l960s, forming what he referred to as “the refuse of my profession.”
As one who briefly consulted the archive some years ago, I can testify that to engage fully with this material, and live to tell the tale, is in itself a heroic feat. Although Begley was allowed only to paraphrase, not quote directly from, the archive, this is not a serious limitation, since Updike filled so many published volumes with declarations, original formulations, and trouvailles. The archive’s “vast paper trail, possibly the last of its kind,” in Begley’s words, provides irrefutable evidence of Updike’s faith in the enduring significance of his achievement.
The resulting volume, at 500-plus pages, could have been even longer, and it is much to Begley’s credit that he has managed the job in 12 chapters—each of them, beginning with Updike’s upbringing in Berks County, Pennsylvania, clearly focused on and skillfully intertwining the most important events of Updike’s life and the many works that he produced as a prolific man of letters.
The boyhood chapter is perhaps the richest in the book. Absolutely central, as we surely knew already, was the dominating presence of his mother Linda, whose aspirations for her son were virtually unbounded. (The fine early story “Flight” dramatizes her vision and the son’s response to it.) “I was made to feel I could do things,” Updike told an interviewer, adding, “If you get this feeling early and can hold it until you’re 15, you tend never to lose it.” The move, when he was 13, from his already-beloved Shillington to the farm in Plowville 11 miles away was his mother’s idea, and it provided the son, for all his distress at being uprooted from his town and classmates, with what he called “the crucial detachment of my life.” He would use that event as the key motive for so much of his writing to follow.
At Harvard, he began a long autobiographical novel, Home, which the publisher Harper encouraged him to submit, but about which they were ultimately less enthusiastic. Begley notes how fortunate it was that Updike followed Harper’s rejection by abandoning the novel, “doing himself a big favor” by using all of its best material to construct the great “Olinger” stories in Pigeon Feathers (1962), which were then supplemented by his novel The Centaur (1963). But first, instead of the autobiographical work, in a relatively short time he wrote and published The Poorhouse Fair (1959), which Begley terms “an anti-first novel” about a group of old people living in an institution, the principal character of which is based on Updike’s maternal grandfather, John Hoyer.
“We need a writer who aspires both to be great and to be popular,” Updike wrote his mother in one of countless letters they exchanged over the course of his years at Harvard. Not long after he graduated, he had both poems and stories accepted by the New Yorker. “Is there an American writer who so quickly . . . established himself with a magazine?” asks Begley rhetorically, while making the point that such “frictionless success” would be held against him by unfriendly critics. One of his colleagues on the Harvard Lampoon, of which he became president, testified that Updike could outwork anyone, the proof of which is found in the more than 200 items—cartoons, drawings, poems, and prose pieces—he contributed to that publication.