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Letters man

Updike bio deftly details legendary scribe

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/4/2014 (1228 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Celebrated American author John Updike died in January 2009 at the age of 76. As versatile as he was prolific, Updike published over 60 books -- novels, short stories, poetry, criticism -- in his lifetime.

Journalist Adam Begley, son of novelist Louis (About Schmidt) Begley, has written the first full-scale biography of Updike, basing it on his own interviews and archival material, as well as Updike's books. Begley astutely gives us the genesis of all the author's major works, tells what they're about and describes the critical reaction they received.

Author John Updike


Author John Updike

Begley shows how autobiographical much of Updike's fiction is, while cleverly making a distinction between the man and the writer. The book covers the important milestones in Updike's life, while capturing the human being: he was precociously bright, talented, industrious, playful, congenial, religious and promiscuous.

John grew up in Shillington, Pa., the only son of Linda and Wesley Updike. Linda, a would-be writer herself (she eventually had some success, as Linda Grace Hoyer), tried hard to influence John, and did -- he wrote his first story at age eight on her typewriter.

She instilled in him a love of books -- not only their contents, but their physical shape and texture. He read voraciously; his string of As from grade 7 to 12 won him a Harvard scholarship.

Though he was anxious to get out of rural Pennsylvania, he returned to those pre-Harvard years for much of his fiction.

He cracked the Harvard Lampoon's inner circle, holding his own among the snobs without becoming one himself. The student publication regularly featured his cartoons and light verse. He graduated summa cum laude in 1954 with a fellowship from Oxford University's Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, as well as a marriage (to fine arts grad Mary Pennington).

In August 1954, just before he and Mary set off for England, The New Yorker -- "the most successful and prestigious magazine of the day" -- accepted his short story, Friends From Philadelphia. Begley doubts if any other American writer "so quickly and painlessly established himself in a magazine that could provide a lucrative, conspicuous and highly respected venue for his work." Updike contributed to it for the rest of his life.

While his early passion for drawing was waning, the Ruskin School helped him shape his self-proclaimed writerly duty: "to give the mundane its beautiful due."

Back in the U.S. in 1955, Updike accepted a regular position as reporter for The New Yorker's Talk of the Town section and moved to Manhattan with Mary and Elizabeth, first of their four children. It would be the only regular full-time job he ever had, and it lasted only 19 months -- he decided he didn't want to be a "New York writer." Now with baby David, they moved to Ipswich, Mass., north of Boston.

They made many friends and partied regularly. Soon, the 1960s had dawned, and partner-swapping became rampant in their coterie. Having by then established himself as a novelist with The Poorhouse Fair; Rabbit, Run; and The Centaur (winner of the National Book Award), Updike documented the free-love phenomenon in Couples (1968), a novel that gave him his first bestseller and made him rich.

It also gave him the reputation of being the laureate of suburban adultery and his marvellous stories about Joan and Richard Maple only confirmed it. These 18 stories, written over a span of more than 30 years (now together in a handsome edition called The Maples Stories), follow Updike's family life more closely than any of his other work. They poignantly chronicle the strains on his marriage and the eventual breakup.

But, as Begley points out, to see Updike solely as the scribe of sex is to discount his achievements: the four masterful Rabbit novels (that took the state of the world as their subject and won many awards), the comic genius of the Henry Bech stories, the high standard of his critical essays.

One of his Ipswich lovers, Martha Bernhard, became his second wife in 1977. In 1982, they moved to the tranquil coastal village of Beverly Farms (not far from Ipswich). She took on the role of gatekeeper, protecting him from fans and journalists, screening mail and phone calls. (Since Begley doesn't include her in his acknowledgements, it would appear she's still guarding Updike's privacy.)

Though John and Martha travelled often and widely, he continued to be amazingly productive, publishing fiction, poetry and articles right up until his death.

Plagued for much of his life by a stutter as well as psoriasis, John Updike perfected an "aw-shucks" pose that endeared him to everybody. In later life, he drew comfort from religion and golf, and often worried about whether he'd been a good father. Meanwhile, he could stare down his critics, knowing he'd achieved what he'd always wanted: to be an eminent man of letters.

And with Updike, he has in Adam Begley a most worthy biographer.

Winnipeg author Dave Williamson met Updike in 1989 and wrote about it in his book Author! Author! Encounters with Famous Writers.


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Updated on Saturday, April 12, 2014 at 8:03 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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