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.
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.
Begley concurs with most readers’ admiration for the superb reach and particularity, much of it comic, of Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), completing the long work christened Rabbit Angstrom. As for the stories, he discusses with penetration some of Updike’s best, such as “The Happiest I’ve Been,” the four-part sequence beginning with “Packed Dirt,” and “Separating,” but also takes time to direct us to ones it has been possible to overlook, like “Toward Evening,” “Plumbing,” “The Gun Shop,” and the consummate tribute to his mother, “A Sandstone Farmhouse.” Begley also makes good connections between the Bech stories, some of which are situated abroad, and Updike’s increasing travel to many countries.
In 1969, after the financial bonanza of movie rights for Couples, Updike was a millionaire. Five years later, when he and Mary separated, he moved to Boston, then to Georgetown, Massachusetts, with the woman he married in 1977, Martha Bernhard. (He joked that if he should marry a third time it would have to be to Lazarus.) Since Begley did not interview Martha Updike, his treatment of her is somewhat problematic. But there is no doubt that, her husband having perfected, as Begley puts it, a “convincing, engaging impersonation of an eminent man of letters,” Martha became, with his cooperation, “gatekeeper” to his unstoppable literary production.
With too many people wanting the writer to do too many things, Martha’s vigilant supervision was unstinting. In 1982 the couple purchased a large property, Haven Hill, a secluded, grand house in Beverly Farms with views of Massachusetts Bay. In the 27 years Updike spent there until his death, he wrote 13 novels, 100 stories, over 250 poems, and some 300 reviews.
More than once in this biography, Begley says, in more or less these words, that Updike couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t help himself, for example, from returning, in the very last two months of his life, to his boyhood home in Shillington, which presented, in some lines from his moving sequence of poems, Endpoint,
. . . all a writer needs,
all there in Shillington, its trolley cars
and little factories, cornfields and trees,
leaf fires, snowflakes, pumpkins, valentines.
. . . Perhaps
we meet our heaven at the start and not
the end of life.
When he published his late novel Villages (2004), in which the first village is a stand-in for Shillington, he must have known that more than one reader would say something like Well, there he goes again, he just can’t help himself. The seven novels that succeeded Rabbit at Rest, Begley says, correctly, were “more likely to be met with polite indifference than with hostility,” although David Foster Wallace’s intemperate attack on the writer and James Wood’s steady disapproval were exceptions. Yet, whatever the verdict on his late novels, the stories, essays, and reviews were as good as anything he had written earlier.
The prolonged and extended “intimacy with the author” this biography produces is, of course, a bittersweet experience. Or so I found it to be, reading about his late years, living with his wife at Haven Hill with a calendar of limited social engagements, an increasing list of grandchildren to be visited and admired, and the never-ceasing piling-up of words. “The Lonely Post,” as Begley titles his penultimate chapter, is occasionally broken in upon—in one instance, for a weekend visit from the English novelist Ian McEwan (he would write a fine posthumous tribute to Updike) of which we are given a play-by-play account. Yet the visit was not allowed to disrupt the daily three-hour writing stint, and McEwan was impressed by Martha’s “protectiveness,” declaring that “she made a very good writing environment for him, and he clearly valued that.”
The final, brief chapter, “Endpoint,” much the shortest in the book, may be thought of as appropriate to the suddenness and mortal finality of the lung cancer that killed Updike. In November 2008, he suffered from a cough that wouldn’t go away; two months later he was dead. There is a particularly affecting and painful account of a short visit paid him by Mary and his youngest daughter, Miranda. In Begley’s words, prompted by Mary’s remembrance of the sickroom:
Updike tried to look cheerful buried under the covers, trying to keep warm, but the effect, as far as Mary was concerned, was miserable. “I felt I shouldn’t touch him,” she remembered, “except for his feet, so I was massaging his feet, and that seemed to be all right.”
Out of the blue comes a remark from the sick man: “Now remember Aunt Polly,” a reference to Mary’s aunt who lived into her 90s, which Mary took as Updike’s hope that she should live a similarly long time. He was finally moved to a hospice in nearby Danvers and died 48 hours later, leaving behind, along with a final book of short stories, the magnificent sequence “Endpoint,” the centerpiece of his final book of poems, which contains, most poignantly, the ones he wrote about his illness.
Remembering that, 40 years previous, he had published a long, autobiographical poem called “Midpoint” brings home to us the remarkable but typically Updikean determination to finish the story his life and works had made. As lines from “Endpoint” have it, No piece was easy, but each fell finished, / In its shroud of print, into a book-shaped hole. In some further words from his essay on biography, Updike wrote that reading about an author’s life “allows us to partake again, from another angle, of the joys we have experienced within the author’s oeuvre, in the presence of a voice and mind we have come to love.”
William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.