Will the real Rabbit please stand up?

Updike by Adam Begley.

Within the last year, biographies of three major writers of the last half of the twentieth century were published: J. D. Salinger, Norman Mailer and John Updike. Without opening the pages of each book, the reader can almost sense something of the author’s life from the covers.

There is no photograph of Salinger on the cover of his biography. It is as if Salinger, even in death, is still hiding from his public. On the Mailer cover, there is Norman grinning back at the reader. We can almost imagine him saying to us, “C’mon, throw that punch. I can take it as much as I can give it out.” Like Hemingway, a writer he admired and modeled himself after, Mailer is daring us to refuse him the title of “the great American novelist”. It is a larger-than-life personality we see.

On the cover of Adam Begley’s “Updike” stands a young man in his mid-twenties, a journeyman of letters who is on his way. There is no challenge on that face, just a smile that says to the world, “I’m a nice guy,” a face that could be as Joyce Carol Oates affirmed when she reflected that Updike was “gentle, sly, clever, witty, charming”. In the middle of the book are more photographs.

Twenty-seven to be exact. For a writer 76 years old, and as well-known as Updike, I wondered why there were so few. Of all of these twenty-seven photographs, it is the one taken by his brother-in-law in 1964 that I think John Updike would have considered his best portrait, and the truest one. He sits at a typewriter, glasses on, doing what he loved best to do, writing.

Begley begins his biography not with a family history. He begins with a place. John Updike was born and raised in small town Pennsylvania where he would turn to again and again for inspiration. First, Shillington, then the farm at Plowville. His father was a school teacher and his mother was a wannabee writer. Sounds like a novel Updike might have written. Well, he did. They are “The Centaur” and “Of the Farm”, among others.

Here is the Pennsylvania boy who became a world famous and sophisticated writer, and yet in so many ways never left the Pennsylvania of his youth behind. In that, he joins Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain who never left their boyhoods behind either. He was a small town boy who went off to Harvard. Then he was in New York and at work doing the Talk of the Town for the New Yorker magazine. This most New Yorker of writers was least comfortable with New York and the parochial literary scene there in the fifties. So he left for Ipswich, Massachusetts. And there he stumbled into his subject.

Early on Updike, like Fitzgerald, earned his living writing short stories, most of them exclusively for the New Yorker magazine. But, with the novel, “Couples”, he found his footing. If alcoholism was Raymond Carver’s subject, if Ernest Hemingway’s subject was death and loss, if Scott Fitzgerald’s was money, if Flannery O’Conor’s was the religion in the deep South, and if Faulkner’s was the past, sex and adultery became John Updike’s. It also might be possible to say that his real subject was the politics of relationships, for he is a writer of the personal. What other writer would begin a story the way he begins “Love Song, for a Moog Synthesizer”: “She was good in bed”?

Begley’s book does not hold back on how much sex and adultery Updike experienced. Unlike other writers bad habits, it did not lessen his power as writer. He seemed to relish in it for over a decade. Until it destroyed his first marriage. Begley gives us details that say a lot about John Updike the man. Such as a wedding ring. In his first marriage to Mary, he does not wear a wedding ring. In his marriage to second wife Martha, he wore one (p.443). But, if he failed as a husband, he made an effort to make up for it by trying to be a good father.

Begley writes about the influence of Henry Green and Marcel Proust on his style, and his growing interest in Nathaniel Hawthorne. There is a good exploration of his fictional alter egos and where they fit into ouevre. Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom was the self Updike might have become had he stayed in Shillington. Richard Maples was the husband and father John Updike was. Henry Bech was the literary figure Updike could have become if he had stayed in New York. Bech helped his author in his evolution and passage to the world traveler that Updike became. One can see his traveling self as Bech in such stories as “Bech Swings?” and “Bech Third Worlds It”

There are the relationships he had with other writers, such as Joyce Carol Oates , John Cheever, Philip Roth, Ian McEwan and Nicholas Delbanco. And, yes, his spat with Tom Wolfe is in the book.

Updike’s fascination with theology and a belief in God is chronicled. Though he was a churchgoer and a subscriber to Christianity, it seems all an intellectual and emotional pursuit. Somewhere along the way he decided Christian ethics was not a code he needed to live by. One comes to the conclusion that the greatest fear for Updike was that if there wasn’t a Christian God at the center of all things, he would have to face a void of nothingness. This he did not have the courage to do.

Like Jacob, like Hamlet, John Updike spends much of his creative life wrestling with an angel. Seeking an answer to the question, how can one be a sinner and sin again and again, almost as if that sin was an obsession, and ultimately gain grace. This is the reason he read Kierkegaard, read Barth, read Tillich. Even read Freud. And it is also possible that he had some familiarity with Wilhelm Reich.

This is the biography for you, if you want to know how a fiction writer uses the pieces from his autobiography. Updike was one of the most autobiographical of fiction writers who ever lived. It is almost as if he had photographic memory, not only of details but of dialogue. When it came to his literary work, no relationship escaped the mix. Nothing, and no one, was off limits.

If Updike’s life teaches anything, it is the commitment to the work a writer must make if she is to be a great writer. If Updike’s work teaches anything, it is that commitment and talent are not always enough to create a great writer. If a writer learns nothing else from Updike, it is that a good work ethic is required to be successful at the literary craft.

Updike will down the line be recognized as a master of the short story form. After reading a number of his short stories, and this biography, I am beginning to realize that Updike could be referred to as the Chekhov of the American middle class. He is that wonderful a short story writer. In story after story, there are true gems, stories like “A&P” “The Happiest I’ve Been”, “Pigeon Feathers” and “A Sandstone Farmhouse”, written a few months after his mother’s death as a memorial to her.

Unlike his novels, Updike’s autobiography does not usually overwhelm the stories. But there are stories when John Updike cannot get enough of John Updike. For example, “The Bulgarian Poetess” is one long selfie, its protagonist, Henry Bech, a substitute for Updike. At least, it’s an interesting John Updike. If a selfie can be considered pleasurable, this selfie is a pleasurable read.

Begley has written what a biography of a writer should be, focusing on the work and how the writer’s life infused that work. Not on the details that do not pertain to the work. Fiction writers constantly have the dictum “write what you know” shoved down their throats. Updike did this more than most, and may have gone too far in some cases. In this biography, the reader will see just how much.

I don’t usually read biographies. I used to but not anymore. For a very long time John Updike remained a mystery to me. I would pick up one of his novels, read a chapter or two, then set it down and not pick it up again. John Updike didn’t appeal to me. When I would see him or read an interview with him, he always seemed worth my effort and time. He seemed to have it together as a writer. So I read this biography to get a handle on why he was considered a great writer by many in the literary establishment. And why I didn’t care for his longer fiction.

Adam Begley’s biography was helpful. If I have any complaints about the book, it would be that there was not enough about Updike’s obsession with golf and the lack of a narrative about any of the golf stories. The second thing I would have liked to see was a bibliography of Updike’s works with their order and the year published. But those really are petty complaints.

All in all Adam Begley has written an extremely good biography of John Updike. By the end of the book, he has accomplished the purpose he set out to do as written in the opening sentence of the Introduction. “In addition to the relevant facts, winnowed from heaps of raw information, a biography ought to give a sense of what its subject was like to shake hands with or stand next to or drink coffee with.” In the final chapter, “Endpoint”, is a loving tribute for a man who did everything with grace, even dying. And that John Updike would have appreciated very much.

Perhaps I shall read the Rabbit books soon. Not now, but in six months or a year. If I do, that will be an affirmation to the success of the biography of this most elusive of writers.

7 thoughts on “Will the real Rabbit please stand up?

  1. I enjoyed this, Don, thank you. I read two or three of Updike’s works years and years ago.The Rabbit series. At the time, I was in my early 20’s. Still very green. I remember feeling put off by all of the sex and infidelity. I wonder what I would think about his books now? Like you, I might give them a second chance.

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