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American Exceptional

By (July 1, 2015) No Comment

By Adam Begley
Harper, 2014

Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike, published in 2014 and now available in paperback, opens with a charming anecdote. It’s 1983 and a reporter named William Ecenbarger accompanies Updike on a tour of his home turf, the town of Shillington, Pennsylvania, where he spent his childhood, and the farm in Plowville eleven miles away where his mother moved the family against its will when he was thirteen. Begley writes:

It was only six weeks after their tour of Berks County that Ecenbarger realized the transaction had been mutually beneficial. The reporter filed one version of the story, and the fiction writer filed another: John Updike’s “One More Interview” appeared in The New Yorker on July 4, 1983; it’s about an unnamed actor who agrees, reluctantly, to drive around his hometown in the company of a journalist.

Here the central bifurcation of Updike’s life reveals itself: once upon a time, reality occurred, after which it was processed into the literature. Only here, in Begley’s biography, this lifelong gesture is caught in the triangulation of the reporter’s version and now the biographer’s version. “We walk through volumes of the unexpressed,” Updike said, “and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.” The problem for Updike’s biographer is in reconciling all these expressions, the double entries of life and art.

This is the first biography of Updike since his death in 2009, and as such it does yeoman’s work of putting into perspective the major life events that shaped the author. If the book feels at times slightly overlong and too plodding, it can be praised for trying to tie down as much of Updike as it can. Whether or not it actually reveals the nature of Updike himself or whether there’s anyone actually there to be revealed remains somewhat a mystery.

The most interesting discovery of the book is that Updike himself isn’t that interesting as a person. But the women in his life are thrilling. Updike himself is a writer’s dream of success, as Begley remarks about his quick consummation with The New Yorker: “It’s worth pausing here to marvel at the unrelieved smoothness of his professional path. Is there an American writer who so quickly and painlessly established himself with a magazine that could provide a lucrative, conspicuous, and highly respected venue for his work?” (No! screams your humble reviewer, boiling over with awe and envy.)

The only child of a high school mathematics teacher and aspiring writer mother (who eventually did get her own stories published in The New Yorker), he could have been nothing but an extremely successful writer. It was practically predetermined: He had the talent, the rural isolation, and the “ideally permissive writer’s mother,” who both believed in him and instilled within him a Christ-like notion of his own exceptionalism. “Little Chonny,” as his mother referred to him, was the chosen one. To this intense psychological preparation add a New Yorker subscription and a relentless work ethic, and you’ve got a kid from the sticks with stars in his eyes. Observing how all the coincidental elements of his life conspired to make him a successful writer, it’s less peculiar that he remained a lifelong believer in a higher power.

He succeeded with a radical steadiness: attendance at Harvard, mastery at the Harvard Lampoon, pieces accepted at The New Yorker immediately after graduation, followed by a staff writer position a year later, followed by an insane level of productivity and accomplishment at the magazine, followed by a career as a novelist, etc. Though the young Updike in his 20s expressed fleeting worry about whether he was good enough, his bibliography soon blew past any real possible doubt. “Except for his psoriasis, his stutter, and his intermittent religious doubts, he faced no obstacle that hard work and natural talent couldn’t overcome,” Begley writes. He was always successful and it’s hard not reading the biography and concluding that he was always going to be successful.

rabbitsHis private life was dominated by three women and the transitions between them. The first was his mother Linda, who created the central trauma of his early life when she moved him to Plowville, re-purchasing the family’s farmhouse in what to her was a spiritual victory, a return to form, but for the rest of the family was something they had to endure. Updike wrote about the transgression against his Edenic small-town upbringing his entire life. Linda moved out of her own desires, but there was also the secondary motive to remove John from the town of Shillington, to make him separate from the town itself (a theme which was repeated frequently in stories such as “Pigeon Feathers” and “Flight”). To wit, she attempted to (and succeeded at) infiltrating his first serious relationship in high school with a local girl, the first person he might have possibly married. Linda couldn’t let that entrapment happen because Johnny was destined for something bigger. Linda was such a powerful force in his life that she rode along with him to his first job interview with The New Yorker. In a move of Freudian significance or simple good planning on Updike’s part, he became lost on the way and missed the appointment; he had to make the trip again (alone) the following day.

The second woman in his life was Mary, the Radcliffe fine arts major who became his first wife. Daughter of a Unitarian minister, casually at ease with upper middle class East Coast intelligentsia in a way that the hickish Updike still aspired to be (she possessed a “careless authority”), she was his ticket to chinos, martinis, and adulthood. She married him, raised four children with him, and didn’t complain when he turned their life into fiction, a process he conducted with a machine-like regularity. In Begley’s account, she comes across as part earth mother, part saint, and all around dream girl: “a broad, engaging smile and a dash of bohemian style—sandals, ballet slippers, peasant blouses, dark hair worn long or cut dramatically short, no makeup, no lipstick. Her bicycle is mentioned nearly as often as her smile.” Throughout the book, Mary is the quiet hero of Updike’s life, and in this telling seems to be the most interesting person involved. Between the (mutual) affairs, the religious affront her rational Unitarian family background presented to the “wobbly” Lutheran Updike, and the resilience on display in dealing with their life together, one finishes the book wanting to read her biography. (Paging Stacy Schiff!)

couplesIf a return to the farmhouse was his mother’s meaningful midlife flight, Updike’s was a flight from his marriage. The sordid middle of the biography is also the most interesting: the litany of affairs. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that Updike engaged in a string of affairs beginning in the early 1960s that only ended when he eventually married his second wife Martha in the mid 70s. But what’s interesting is that Mary cheated on him, too, though perhaps not as athletically. Their set of young parents in Ipswich, Massachusetts, were (much like their fictional counterparts in Couples), a veritable flow chart of affections and fluids; many of the marriages ended in divorce. It’s hard not to read this section of the book without seeing figures like Rick Moody standing in the margins, taking notes for The Ice Storm.

Of course, it’s when his second marriage solidifies that one wishes to buy Updike a drink and ask him just what in the hell he was thinking, because Martha seems so unlikable in all the ways Mary was likable. One hesitates to judge a dead writer’s life decisions, and lord knows all marriages are islands, but Martha Updike still comes across as a massively controlling, epic stage mother. Perhaps the pithiest description of the differences between the two wives comes from Begley’s gloss on his Updike’s novel Memories of the Ford Administration, where Norma is “the Queen of Disorder,” “artistic, vague, maternal,” and Genevieve is “the Perfect Wife,” “peremptory, efficient, snobbish.” Here’s Begley on the new force in Updike’s life:

Never inclined to stand back, Martha marched straight into the role of gatekeeper and protector. When her husband wanted room to write, she held the world at bay, gradually assuming the management of his time, doing her best to make sure that nothing and no one encroached on the hours devoted to his work. . . . Compared with Martha, Mary was shy, passive, serene. The tough and fearless Martha was conspicuously purposeful, unhesitatingly vocal, and perfectly willing to bully John for his own good.

Where Mary gave Updike his life, Martha gave him his career. It’s when he marries her that he fully blossoms into the international celebrity author. Unfortunately for us, massive international acclaim is dull to read about. But what is interesting, though painful, is the exclusions that Martha made on Updike’s behalf, the rationed visits with his children, the complete cessation of contact with his old Ipswich friends after their marriage, even the strict single visit allowed to Mary Updike when John was on his deathbed. It might not be wholly fair to the lives they lived, but every book needs a villain. This is not to say that Begley steps out of his steady stream of data to pronounce Martha the villain. He is, for the most part, exasperatingly even-handed. What’s more, it’s important to note that Begley did not talk to Martha for the book. Though many people appear sincere and forthcoming (including Updike’s children and Mary), Martha Updike did not participate, judging by the primary text and the acknowledgments. Begley does not explain her absence, and the resulting silence solidifies a fortress of solitude around her life and the second half of Updike’s life and career.

Though there isn’t too much of the vigorous soft-shoeing that some biographers perform when approaching still-living and potentially sensitive subjects (e.g., D.T. Max on the subject of David Foster Wallace’s mother), Begley seems unwilling to offend. Aside from the book being a large assemblage of facts, it yearns for some grown-up judgment to be leveled at some of the participants, Updike included. I suppose it would be too much to ask for a biographer to have any kind of critical distance on his subject or his oeuvre. He can hardly air a criticism of Updike’s work (Wallace’s own infamous review of Toward the End of Time, for instance) without papering over it in the second half of the paragraph. Nothing is allowed that would possibly tarnish the endeavor of writing about Updike.

This problem goes hand-in-hand with the other problem of the overly deterministic reading of Updike’s fiction, especially his stories. Begley has proven, and Updike has admitted, that the stories in particular formed a kind of “shadow biography” of their author, but after establishing this fact, it becomes tiresome to have every piece of fiction dissected according to its biographical nutrients. There’s a lot of pin the tail on the marital transgression, and much less actual literary criticism in these pages. I realize this is a biography, but all things benefit from moderation. One leaves the book knowing that Updike wrote a great deal but with less a sense of why it was important as literature. There’s very little appreciation of the high-def brilliance of the prose itself, how those amazing paragraphs worked, why his interesting though not historically unique life, once transmogrified, sang the way it did. Perhaps the dearth of literary criticism is simply a consequence of the kind of writer Updike is, in opposition to someone like Nabokov; Brian Boyd’s biography of the Russian genius has chapter-long exegetical fast-breaks taking on whole novels. Updike’s work, for the most part, doesn’t demand that level of interpretive legwork. And like his contemporary Philip Roth, much of the available explanatory work has already been performed by the writer himself.

marrymeBegley’s book would have benefited greatly from a simple publication chronology. We don’t need to know the granular dates of all the stories and poems and essays, but a simple Wikipedia-like cross reference of when the different novels and collections came out would be helpful, because first, there are just so many of them, and second, some of them were published in a different order than they were composed, such as the novel Marry Me. Second, the biography seemed like it was yearning for a series of Infinite Jest-like endnotes, which could partition the more heavy Updike-head information and thereby streamline the narrative. This would help cordon off some of the repetition. The repetition isn’t of the scholarly cover-thy-bases variety but one of simple journalistic overabundance. There’s a mighty, lithe, 335-page biography inside here ready to bust out of these 486 pages and dance.

It’s strange to think that after so much self-documentation and biographical effort a person can still seem vague and unknowable. Nevertheless Begley’s Updike doesn’t really cohere as an actual person. He comes across as a void, a very productive and talented void, but a void nonetheless, and then when he gets with Martha it’s just one void covering another. What did he eat, for example? We know that he liked golf but why? Did he have a favorite song? Was he ever at a loss for words? I’m not totally clear on whether this absence is due to Begley’s book or Updike’s personality. One of the saddest moments in the book is the realization that Updike basically didn’t have any friends, especially toward the end of his life. “He had his golf and poker buddies and his literary pen pals such as [Joyce Carol] Oates”—a massive collection of letters between these two graphomaniacs will hopefully be published one day —“but few close friends, none of them intimate.” There’s the work, there’s the protective shell of Martha, and there is the literary celebrity—all three welded together—but there’s a dearth of mates.

About his enormous output one gets the impression that Updike simply couldn’t help it. Perhaps his comparison of his own literary productivity to various forms of excretion is less a creepy example of his persistent lack of restraint and taste and more an accurate self-diagnosis. The man sweated sentences. This relentless eloquence was coupled with a near total shamelessness. His verbal plenitude frequently ran over the banks of good taste, and as his own son admitted, Updike “decided at an early age that his writing had to take precedence over his relations with real people.” Joan Maple’s phrase, used to describe her helplessly unfaithful and lovelorn husband Richard in Updike’s great story “Separating,” seems apt; she called him “essentially incorrigible.” And Richard Maple was the closest thing to Updike’s doppelganger in a career-long cornucopia of doubles.

Updike2008Is Updike an important writer? It’s hard to know how people feel about him these days, if they feel about him at all. You can sense how terribly un-cool he is and how his post-war predilections are off-putting. What seems interesting coming from the likes of Don Draper seems skeevy from the likes of John Updike, though the latter (along with his slightly older peer, John Cheever) provided a dramatic template. There are many criticisms one could make about Updike, and there is so much of his writing, in so many different genres, covering different topics but with an almost seamless surface of excellence (even if his brand of eloquence is not to your taste), that he’s hard both to fully appreciate or to fully disparage.

More than anything, Updike was the consummate literary professional of the second half of the 20th century in America, and his sins are professional sins. (Though he left his staff position at The New Yorker to avoid becoming an “elegant hack,” as an unfair insult to his career it’s not unuseful.) After his first collection of poetry, he published his novels and story collections exclusively with Knopf, their title pages always looking the same, each new book another installment in a uniform array of first editions, with the kind of breadth and pace that seems Victorian in sensibility and Henry Fordian in efficiency. Above all Updike has an Anthony Trollope problem: too much writing produced under insufficient duress. We resent his ease. But whether you like his writing or not, the sheer historical fact of its accumulation is a monument to collaborative human postwar literary endeavor, a kind of totem pole for American publishing, many artisanal hands leaving us with the graven Updike grin above. Will anyone ever again have nearly every thought or scrap of experience memorialized in a cloth-bound volume of 10-point Janson type?

Barrett Hathcock is the author of The Portable Son, a collection of stories. He lives in Jackson, Mississippi.