A literary biography ought to possess a voice and attitude that reflects and complements the literary voice and attitude of its subject. Leon Edel’s life of Henry James is prim and probing, with an energy that gradually accumulates into stately magnificence. Gerald Nicosia’s biography of Jack Kerouac is passionate, melancholy and fitful. This is how it should be, but this implicit rule must have been daunting to Adam Begley when he began writing Updike, the first comprehensive biography of the great fiction writer and critic John Updike, who died in 2009.
John Updike was, after all, one of the most confident and erudite prose stylists of his era, and an immensely likable writer. Fortunately, Adam Begley rises to the challenge in this enjoyable and perceptive biography, and while Begley doesn’t attempt sentences of Updikian beauty and complexity, he does follow the master’s lead in conjuring buoyant revelations from ordinary situations. Like a good Updike novel, this book captures the richness of one person’s well-lived life.
I’m enjoying Updike thoroughly. I haven’t even finished it yet — well, hell, I liked it enough to give it a good review from page one, which is another thing this book has in common with Updike’s best novels (and it was always easy to tell at a quick glance if an Updike novel would be one of his good ones or if it would be Brazil — if he’s writing about people like himself, it’s probably a good novel, and if he’s not, it’s probably not).
The early chapters explore his enthusiasm for his hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania, and the bittersweet nostalgia for this lost world that he managed to transform into so many books and short stories, as well as his relationship with his mother, an enthusiastic literary mentor who seems to have guided her son towards the literary life with a firm but heavy hand. She steered him towards Harvard University, where he roomed with Christopher Lasch, later the author of The Culture of Narcissism, and quickly found a home at the legendary Harvard Lampoon. The connections he made at the Lampoon would vault him towards New Yorker magazine, which soon became his literary home field, and would remain so for the rest of his life.
Everybody associates John Updike with the New Yorker, but Adam Begley’s book allows us to understand how primal a force this magazine was in John Updike’s imagination even when he was a kid, long before he had a chance of being published there. His childhood identification with the magazine that showed up in his humble Pennsylvania home each week was immediate and intuitive, though somehow he missed his obvious calling and tried to invent for himself a career as a New Yorker cartoonist before realizing that words, not pictures, were his thing. The extensive training in visual art that he obtained before abandoning his cartooning career would at least manifest itself in the observant qualities of his prose.
His poems and stories began appearing in the New Yorker just as he was winding up his Harvard education, and he even moved to New York City with his new wife Mary for a year and a half so he could become a New Yorker employee and write short “Talk of the Town” pieces in the mid-1950s. But the coziness of his thorough acceptance into the New Yorker’s inner circle created a crisis for the young man. This tableau is memorably captured, and correctly identified as a stirring example of the “anxiety of influence”, in Begley’s book.
Showing up to pound his typewriter day after day at the New Yorker office on 43rd Street near Times Square, Updike gradually came to realize that he could spend his life as a line worker in this literary factory, and might only achieve the stature of a “near-great” New Yorker legend like Brendan Gill. This might satisfy his mother, young Updike realized, but it wouldn’t satisfy himself. He walked away from the magazine’s embracing employment, and left New York City itself to raise his family in Ipwsitch, Massachusetts and begin the compulsive and messy series of intermingled love affairs that would inspire his first blockbuster novel Couples (which is still my favorite Updike of all).
Updike has always presented an unflappable cheerfulness to the world, and so readers like me will relish the end of the chapter in Adam Begley’s Updike that shows the novelist in an unlikely pose. By the mid 1950s, literary critics like Maxwell Geismar and Alfred Kazin had begun attacking the fashionable preeminence of the “New Yorker school of fiction” characterized by “sensibility (fine perception, gestural nuance, delicately modulated tone)”. Suddenly, young John Updike must have realized, his precocious success was being turned into a liability. The artist was in danger of becoming a mannerist.
Adam Begley spends a few pages on Updike’s virulent reaction to this new critical attack, and here we see a rare sight: the criticism truly got under Updike’s skin, and the author fought back with feverish delusion. He fires off what Begley calls an “ill-judged, unintentionally revealing” letter to Alfred Kazin arguing that there cannot possibly be a “New Yorker kind of story”, because the editorial selection process at the magazine does not officially incorporate any such filters.
Of course, this is a weak argument — there can emerge a “New Yorker school of fiction” even if the New Yorker editors do not conspire actively to create one.
For a big John Updike fan like me, it’s perversely thrilling to find this calm colossus in a rare pose of angry irrationality. The moment passes quickly, and Updike’s good judgement proves itself again when he leaves the cozy office on 43rd Street, perhaps more spooked than he can admit to himself by his near-fatal brush with literary complacency.
Updike would continue to symbolize the “New Yorker school of fiction” for the rest of his life, of course, but the distance he established by leaving 43rd Street seemed to give him enough fresh air and open space to cultivate his grand literary mission on his own terms. Perhaps even bad novels like the above-mentioned Brazil were necessary to preserve this distance and this freedom.
I’m continuing to relish this biography slowly, and looking forward to more surprising moments that will surely follow. My only complaints about Adam Begley’s biography at this point involve a strange number of oversights of detail.
For instance, Begley tells us that Updike would work on his own novel while employed at the New Yorker by “writing for himself in the office before the workday began, a stolen morning hour alone in his bare eighteenth floor cubicle”. But a few pages earlier, he tells us that Updike was always a late sleeper, and rarely reached the office before nine-thirty. Huh?
A similar unforced error occurs when Begley declares that Updike might just as rewardingly have chosen to publish his fiction in Saturday Evening Post or Life as in the New Yorker. Well, the Saturday Evening Post’s covers were painted by Norman Rockwell, which could never have pleased the budding expressionist, and Life was devoted to photo essays.
And yet another: Begley refers to Updike’s decision to include the story “Wife-Wooing” in the collection The Maple Stories even though Richard and Joan Maple (stand-ins for John and Mary Updike) are not mentioned by name as evidence that the story was about his own marriage. Can Adam Begley possibly not know that The Maple Stories is the later version of an earlier book of stories about the Maples titled Too Far To Go, and that Updike had already included “Wife-Wooing” in Too Far To Go? The old New Yorker of John Updike’s childhood dreams would have never let mistakes like this go through.