Was John Updike one of America’s great writers or merely, as Harold Bloom famously said, “a minor novelist with a major style”? In Updike, his meticulously detailed and highly readable new biography—the first full-fledged life of the writer, who died in 2009—Adam Begley makes a convincing case for the former view while providing a rich account of the events that shaped Updike’s fiction.
Like his contemporary Philip Roth, Updike drew nakedly on his own life in his work, often relying on what Begley calls “bare fact, artfully arranged.” His autobiographical, not to say confessional, style of writing—navel-gazing, albeit on the highest plane—is why some critics perceive his work as less than canonical. Conversely, it is why many readers devoured his New Yorker stories as they appeared and eagerly awaited each new novel. Updike’s transcendent prose could elevate everyday experience into a realm well beyond the ordinary. His unabashed honesty—oddly self-indulgent yet self-critical—is hard to resist, even as he exposes his own (mostly marital) transgressions with uncomfortable candor.
What Begley does well in Updike is connect the dots between the work and the life. In many cases, they are actual dots on the map—in particular, three places that would figure time and again in Updike’s work: Shillington, the small Pennsylvania town where he spent the first part of childhood; the farm in nearby Plowville, where his mother moved the reluctant family when he was 13; and Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he and his first wife, Mary, raised their four children until their divorce. Updike revisits one or more of these locales, in barely masked guises, in many of his novels and dozen of stories, and Begley underscores how each marked him as a man and artist.
The outlines of the story are known to any Updike reader. A precocious child encouraged by a mother with her own unfulfilled literary ambitions, young John dreamed of someday working at The New Yorker. He was barely out of Harvard when that dream became a reality. A versatile and nimble writer, his talents perfectly suited the magazine at midcentury, but he left after a short time to devote himself to the life of a freelance writer, proving wildly successful—both critically and commercially—in short order. Ensconced in Ipswich, north of Boston, he and Mary became part of a social group that soon migrated from cocktail parties and weekend sports to bed-hopping and marital discord. Updike documented all of this misadventure with painstaking frankness. His notorious novel Couples, about the sexual shenanigans in a town that was clearly Ipswich, was published in 1968 and reportedly earned him a million dollars.
Given the serial adultery, the at times blissful and other times painful marriage to Mary—which unravels before readers’ eyes in his stunning Maple stories and in countless others—was doomed to fail. His second marriage to Martha, the woman for whom he left Mary, is given less attention. She clearly did not cooperate with the writing of the book (unlike Mary, who is the first person Begley thanks in the acknowledgments). Hence, Updike’s last 30-some years are given a less-thorough treatment than the first 40, which may be the one fault in this otherwise impressive biography.
Largely admiring, Begley offers an evenhanded portrait of Updike as highly intelligent, diligent in his work habits, impish in humor and generally kind, that nonetheless does not whitewash his less admirable traits—the adultery, of course, but also his quiet ambition and the collateral damage left in the wake as he recycled the personal into art. It is an occupational hazard that many great writers face, but Updike perhaps more than most.