Rev. of Adam Begley’s Updike. [New York]: HarperCollins, .
John Updike famously wrote his memoir Self-Consciousness to discourage potential biographers while he lived. Now, five years after Updike’s death, Adam Begley, whose father was Updike’s Harvard classmate, has given us a comprehensive, perceptive, handsomely written critical biography. Updike owes its success to Begley’s studious use of the Houghton Library’s trove of Updike material, his tireless leg-work in interviewing relatives, friends, lovers, and writers, and his judicious evaluation of Updike’s oeuvre. Begley authoritatively dates Updike’s canon and precisely charts his timeline. For instance, though Marry Me was published in 1976, Begley shows it was written in 1964, and while Updike divorced in 1976, Begley reveals that he nearly left his family in 1962.
Begley’s exactitude is formidable: Shillington’s parking meters first appeared in 1940; Updike made $1,003 from The New Yorker in 1954; Joyce Harrington was the married woman for whom he nearly divorced in 1962; Madeline and Medea were the names of Miranda Updike’s two sheep; and Rosette was the Updikes’ Antibes babysitter. But does the reader need to know that an Updike Ipswich home had been owned in the thirties by George Brewer Jr. “who co-wrote Dark Victory,” later a Bette Davis film? Well, after such scholarly excavation, Begley can be forgiven his passion for detail.
So Begley is factually trustworthy, and so are his informed readings of Updike’s work—and his observations of Updike the man, as his “Introduction” discloses. In 1993 he witnessed Updike’s encounter with a meddlesome woman, and Begley cleverly perceived Updike’s spectrum of responses as he reacted. Right away we know we are in the hands of writer with sharp eyes and a shrewd mind. Updike will grab casual readers and be indispensable to specialists.
Begley skillfully marshals facts into understandings. He has an uncanny eye for implicative details, particularly when he describes where Updike lived and worked. His Harvard Lampoon building, fittingly “crouched like a friendly, slightly goofy sphinx with a jolly face staring out of a tower.” Updike’s one-room office over the Dolphin Restaurant lay ominously between the workplaces of a lawyer and a beautician—foreshadowings of Updike’s affairs that led to divorce lawyers. Updike’s last home is a white mansion. When Begley’s notes that it could have housed the Plowville farmhouse “comfortably inside, several times over,” he’s playfully intimating the distance from Shillington Updike had traveled with his “thin pencil line.”
But Begley never lets Updike off easily. When Updike enthuses that Shillington is his “being,” Begley indicates that such a remark may be intended to wound his mother for having uprooted him from the town. Most significantly, Begley impatiently attacks Updike’s recital of wounds in Self-Consciousness, and his “mooning” and “dithering” in stories over his Joyce Harrington affair. He shows evident relief when Updike returns to writing realistic short stories: “after the claustrophobia . . .of the abstract-personal mode, it feels like a window thrown open.”
Begley frames his exploration of Updike by taking his cue from this admission in Self-Consciousness: “Some falsity of impersonation . . . forms part of myself.” Updike’s good friend Joyce Carol Oates, detected this “element of impersonation in his character. . . hints that his modesty was exaggerated.” She knew that this “hillbilly” had managed to masquerade as a world-famous writer, and the role made him “uneasy and ironic.” Begley discovers Updike “impersonating the author as a wholesome family man,” while posing for a Life photographer, though instantaneously, “he couldn’t stop being a writer, his ‘inner remove’ apparent in the backward tilt of the head, the slight squint, the half-smile.” This is real sleuthing!
Such “disguise” enabled Updike to give “a bravura performance playing John Updike” in the biopic, What Makes Rabbit Run? “Relaxed, self-assured, reasonable, and painstakingly modest, Updike floats through his scenes dispensing low-key bonhomie.” The habit of posing no doubt helped him create characters that were alter-egos, like David Kern, “Rabbit” Angstrom, and Henry Bech.
Begley links this “falsity of impersonation” to another aspect of Updike’s creative process, “compartmentalization,” Updike’s ability to probe depths of his characters then spend the afternoon golfing and the evening at cards (while perhaps arranging assignations when living in Ipswich) and preparing a reading for church. Such a multi-tasker!
More importantly, compartmentalization explains how Updike could transform his agony at leaving his children into art, illustrated by the story “Separating.” Begley maintains that while Updike began to cry on telling them of his decision, he “artfully arranged” this “bare fact” in the story so that his alter-ego, Richard Maple, would cry the same way. Begley thus finds Updike “could sit weeping through this traumatic meal. . .all the while gathering up and filing away the detailed impressions that would later give life to a short story.” Further, “the tears were his shield. . .behind which the never-resting author was busy doing his work. . . . . . a way for him to relive (and reorder) events and emotions at a slight remove from the intensity of the actual, real-time experience of announcing the end of family life as he knew it.”
But another such case doesn’t quite convince. Begley reasons that Couples was made possible not because of Updike affairs, “but rather because. . . what mattered most profoundly to him wasn’t sex or even love; what mattered was writing.” This pronouncement makes Updike cold and devious, but Begley elsewhere writes that Updike’s poses were adopted because he “wanted to be loved—if possible, universally.” And he charts, somewhat dismissively Updike’s “vicious circle” in which “he fell in love, and his adulterous passion made him feel alive, but also sparked a religious crisis that renewed his fear of death—so he fell in love some more and read some more theology.” Writing was surely crucial to Updike, but so was love.
Such investigation returns us to the “Introduction’s” annoying woman. Updike parried her tiresome questions by impersonating a charming writer and compartmentalizing the incident for possible use when, “the altered, fictionalized story, now freighted with significance, displaced the less dramatically compelling reality.” Begley had witnessed Updike’s creative process at work, and he has provided a lucid and cogent enquiry into it. This comprehensive and detailed biography will delight general readers, scholars, and students for many years to come. Updike’s first biography is a winner.
Editor’s note: The above review was written especially for The John Updike Society by Jack De Bellis, who is well known in literary circles as the editor of John Updike: The Critical Responses to the “Rabbit Saga,” co-author of John Updike: A Bibliography of Primary & Secondary Materials, 1948-2007, author of The John Updike Encyclopedia and, most recently, John Updike’s Early Years. Jack is also a founding member of The John Updike Society and a member of the board.