Apr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
After a year spent in England on an art fellowship with his wife Mary and a baby daughter, he began work at the New Yorker in 1955, where, according to Brendan Gill, he “struck [the magazine] like an absolute bombshell.” The stories he wrote in the 18 months he spent on staff feature a young married man, his wife, and child living in apartments on Riverside Drive, then in Greenwich Village. Although these stories don’t command much attention in comparison with ones to follow about Pennsylvania and about the Maple family, they are early examples of (in Updike’s words) “the truth slightly arranged” so as to yield authorial resonance.
It wasn’t until he left New York that he began to say “the Pennsylvania Thing” in his stories. His early mentor at the New Yorker, Katherine White, had discouraged him from such nostalgic efforts, but her successor, William Maxwell, encouraged them during his 18-year career as Updike’s editor at the magazine. (Updike’s ride with the magazine was not always effortless; in his first year in New York, half his submissions were rejected.)
The Updikes and their two children left New York in 1957 and moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts. Aside from the pressures of city life, and especially the literary life that Updike was becoming more and more part of and wary of, the motive for departure, in the biographer’s homely phrase, was that the writer’s ambition required him to be a big fish in a little pond. Updike’s own retrospective way of putting it was to declare, “If Shillington gave me life, Ipswich was where I took possession of it.” Taking possession of it involved feats of composition; he wrote three pages every morning in an “effortlessly industrious” manner he would continue for 50 years. Both The Poorhouse Fair and its successor Rabbit, Run (1960), which inaugurated the Rabbit tetralogy, were written in less than a year.
The other main act of possession was a social one, his eager participation in the parties and sexual attachments that would later be anatomized in Couples (1968). Updike called his Ipswich character a “delayed second edition” of his high school self, and Begley describes this edition as “a sparkling entertainer, a witty, clowning charmer.” He fell in love with another woman, Joyce Harrington, the only one of the Ipswich women Begley talked to whose name he reveals, figuring rightly that an unnamed partner of Updike would be likely to talk more freely. His marriage nearly collapsed, saved at the last minute by Updike’s reluctance to leave his wife and family, and by Mary’s staying power, evoked strongly by Begley as consisting of “studious unruffled passivity—leavened by dry humor, bolstered by tenacious dignity, and sealed with maturing beauty.”
The effect of the near separation on Updike’s short fiction was powerful, as he began to favor what he called “the abstract personal mode,” writing stories that weren’t exactly “stories” but meditative, usually gloomy, evocations of a failed romance. He also wrote a novel, Marry Me, but didn’t publish it until 1977, after he and Mary had divorced.
With a writer of such massive production, the biographer must, out of necessity, treat some of the items in a summary way, if at all. Begley’s distinction lies partly in the large number of novels and stories he makes pertinent comments about. For example, he finds that what Updike called “the mutual forgiveness of mother and son” makes his brilliant novella Of the Farm (1965) seem “kinder and gentler than it is.” Couples, for all the “baroque splendor” of its exuberant prose, goes on too long and makes us feel at least ambivalent about the delight the writer seems to take in his less-than-noble events and characters.
Surprisingly to me, Begley judges Rabbit Redux (1971), second of the developing tetralogy, to be Updike’s most powerful novel, and he is unambiguously sympathetic to the long “teach in” in which Harry Angstrom is educated by the demonic black prophet, Skeeter. A Month of Sundays (1975), a pretty much forgotten tour de force written just after his separation from Mary, Begley finds “somewhat off-putting in its razzle-dazzle and stiff-arm irony” (my feelings exactly). He also interestingly suggests that the Nabokovian flamboyance of that novel and the one to follow, The Coup (1978), may have served as a welcome distraction from the disarray of Updike’s life as a separated man not yet fully established in his second marriage.