Unauthorized biographer gets a Guggenheim to proceed

Adam Begley, longtime book review editor for the New York Observer, was recently announced as a recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship Award to work on a biography of John Updike. According to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation press release, Begley was one of 180 artists, scientists, and scholars out of some 3,000 applicants to win support. The average amount of Fellowship grants is approximately $43,000.

When The Observer first announced only a month after Updike died that Begley planned to write a biography, ripples went through the Updike world. For one thing, it seemed too soon, especially since everyone close to Updike knew how adamant he was that no biography be written. A “living death,” he called them. For another, there was the hope that if a biography ever were written, it would come from an Updike scholar, just as the first major biography on Hemingway came from Professor Carlos Baker, one of the major Hemingway scholars.

Begley, who lives in Northamptonshire, England, interviewed Updike on two occasions, but his only association beyond that is through his father, Louis, who graduated from Harvard’s English department the same year as Updike.

“HarperCollins came to me,” Begley wrote in an email, “and though I jumped at the opportunity to write this book (having written two profiles of JU, a half-dozen reviews, and an obituary), it wasn’t my idea.”

When I asked Edward Hirsch, president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, to respond, he wrote back, “Adam Begley is a gifted writer whose work comes with the highest recommendations. We are excited about his book about John Updike. We are aware that it will be an unauthorized biography.”

Martha Updike, who, along with Updike’s editor, Judith Jones, forms The John H. Updike Literary Trust, had no comment.

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