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Updike’s Affair With America

illustration by Michael Hogue

In January 1986, John Updike spoke at a PEN international writers’ congress in New York. He was well established as “America’s preeminent man of letters,” as Adam Begley describes him in his detailed new biography. It’s hard to argue otherwise. From his earliest appearances in TheNew Yorker in the mid-1950s straight through to his death in 2009, Updike published novels, short stories, poetry, memoirs, book reviews, and art reviews at a near-industrial rate of efficiency and quantity while earning literary renown and millions of dollars for the effort. He commanded attention in greater American public life not just as another great American writer but also at times as an unexpected contrarian, given his impeccably East Coast literary profile.

His qualified support for the American war effort in Vietnam ranks as the most notable instance of this contrariness. In 1966 comments, Updike saw worthy purpose in the war, insofar as it sought to make possible the South Vietnamese people’s right to self-determination. He also didn’t like the self-righteous ease of the collective dissent he witnessed around him, and he was more disposed to loving his country than loathing it, at least compared to most of the other people in his personal and professional circles. Such amor patria was far from fashionable in the late 1960s and has remained so since then, as Updike himself discovered at that 1986 writers’ congress in New York.

To much shock and dismay, Updike waxed witty and poetic about the U.S. Postal Service, focusing especially on the greatness of the American mailbox. He mused about how writers put their material into it and, in due time, frequently retrieved money and praise for their material from this very same all-but-magical box. In return, Updike was attacked by writers like E.L. Doctorow and Salman Rushdie for the politically irresponsible, if not ignorant, nature of his remarks—at nothing less than a Cold War-era writers’ congress intended to explore the relationship between the writer’s imagination and the state’s.

Updike’s implied views on this relationship were as obviously contrary to the consensus in the room—about a writer’s necessarily antagonistic relationship to any aspect of the state—as they were autobiographically inspired. This latter point we can better appreciate thanks to Begley’s exhaustive work. When Updike declared to his fellow writers, “I never see a blue mailbox without a spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude that this intricate and extensive service is maintained for my benefit,” his words came out of a firmly-willed innocence and baseline conviction about two matters: first, the essential goodness of the American experiment, despite many shortcomings; and second, the ceaseless marvels of what Begley describes as the “frictionless success” of his own writing career, which had few shortcomings.

Given the voluminous detail Begley loads into this book about almost every occurrence in Updike’s life—right down to the operating system on his computer and the various treatments Updike sought for his psoriasis—it’s strange that he only mentions this event in an early footnote and has nothing to say about the ensuing backlash or Updike’s response to it. This is all the more glaring because elsewhere he attentively describes the successive mailboxes Updike personally erected in front of his houses, out of a combination of practical and ritual import. But in fact, this imbalance of attention and treatment is less strange than symptomatic of this biography’s particular appeal and basic problem.

For readers keen to learn all about Updike-the-writer’s relationship to Updike-the-man—which mostly means Boomer-aged and older New Yorker readers who for years would have contemplated their own lives and times as reflected in so much of Updike’s work—this biography will prove endlessly fascinating. For readers, critics, and scholars interested in determining the relationship between Updike’s personal life and the lasting value of his work to modern American literature, culture, and public life, this book will prove, at best, occasionally persuasive and otherwise eloquently underwhelming.

Begley invites this disappointment by declaring in his introduction that he’s hopeful of a coming “surge in [Updike’s] posthumous reputation.” Though the author is too tactful to say as much himself, it’s natural that the first major biography of Updike would play a signal role in such a surge, and yet, ironically, Begley’s warm and admiring and self-consciously grand effort—he actually refers to himself as “playing Boswell” in spending time with Updike in the early 1990s—works exactly against this.

In a more significant way, the problem of Updike’s posthumous reputation may be the deceptively limited nature of Updike’s own lifelong ambition, as Begley describes it and in turn makes it the driving thesis of the biography. Born in small-town Pennsylvania in 1932 and doted upon by his literary-minded mother, he always wanted to be a writer—at least, after early notions of becoming an illustrator fell away. This meant that as he moved from a stellar undergraduate run at Harvard, where he roomed with a competitive Christopher Lasch, to a brief if impressive staff turn at TheNew Yorker, to a stand-alone career as a writer living in Massachusetts—with a steady income provided by his regular contributions to TheNew Yorker—he always prioritized his literary ambitions over all others.

Begley provides much evidence of the sincere depths, imperfect achievements, natural overlaps, and assorted conflicts of Updike’s various commitments—as a loyal son, a four-time father, a two-timing two-time husband, a proud American citizen, a dutiful New England townsman, a believing Christian—and treats them as the combined real-time source material for the majority of Updike’s work. When, for instance, Updike found himself living alone in Boston in the mid-1970s, at the wrecked end of an affair-filled first marriage, dealing with the demands of his thriving career and his uncertain children amid the gradual transformation of a decisive affair into his second marriage, he wrote stories about a man living alone in Boston, at the wrecked end of an affair-filled first marriage, dealing with just such demands and transformation. Decades later, he and his second wife were mugged while visiting Seville. “A month later,” Begley writes, “a short story followed in due course … with a blow-by-blow description of the mugging.” Even on his deathbed, according to Begley, Updike’s great anger wasn’t over his looming demise, or the tribulations of late-stage cancer, but that he was too incapacitated to write for the first time in his life.

Before then, over a 50-year publishing career he wrote some 61 books, which earned him every imaginable American literary prize, and hundreds upon hundreds of magazine pieces. This was a career that he managed with meticulous middle-class probity. While most writers regularly fall in and fall out with magazines, Updike was a loyal company man for The New Yorker for six decades. He also arranged with his publisher to cap his yearly royalties earnings so as to avoid a higher tax bracket, used a rubber stamp for the return address he put on envelopes, and often doubled up well-paying book junkets as vacations with his wife and kids. All the while he was busy living out the now banal-feeling hedonism of 1960s and 1970s American suburban life—heavy drinking, casual philandering, regular golfing. When Life profiled Updike in a story entitled “Can a Nice Novelist Finish First?”, complete with an idyllic picture of him and his wife and their four children in the living room, he was meanwhile pursuing what Begley describes as “adulterous shenanigans” with friends and neighbors. He would write about these frequently, and not just as fictions: Begley quotes one especially shocking admission from Updike’s 1989 memoir, Self-Consciousness:

I seem to remember, on one endless drive back home in the dark down Route 93, while my wife sat in the front seat and her hair was rhythmically irradiated with light from the opposing headlights, patiently masturbating my back-seat neighbor through her ski-pants, beneath our blanketing parkas, and taking a brotherly pride in her shudder of orgasm just as we hit the Ipswich turn-off.

What’s shocking: the event itself, the bemused tone of the recollection, and the untroubled happy feelings he expresses, not just about the dutifully done dirty deed but also about studying the unexpected lambency of his wife’s hair in the headlights the whole patiently masturbating time. What’s not shocking: that he decided to write about it in the first place. Updike at least waited decades before writing about this particular peccadillo, just as he many times requested that The New Yorker bank certain short stories—usually about suburban affairs and marital breakups in upscale Ipswich and other well-to-do parts of New England—whose events and characters mapped with dangerous directness onto contemporaneous events and people in Updike’s life.

At his best, Begley demonstrates how Updike’s intensely, even compulsively autobiographical method led to works of consequence measurable beyond his private compass. This is very much the case with his 1968 novel Couples. “Hailed as an exposé of ‘the adulterous society,” Begley writes, “Couples is both a celebration and a satire, a hymn to the joy [Updike] experienced in the company of the Ipswich set—especially the women he slept with—and a denunciation of a faithless, sexually promiscuous community, derelict in its most essential duty (the care of its children) and willfully, culpably detached from the outside world.” To develop his commanding commentary on the novel, Begley reveals the book’s primary inspiration: Updike and his wife attended a decadent dinner party the day Kennedy was assassinated because no one saw the point of canceling. This experience led the author to write a novel giving voice to what Begley crisply terms his “urge to cry foul and point the finger at ‘monstrous’ self-absorption and disregard for the civic life of the nation” evident in people like himself and his friends. All of this is captured in a recreated version of the dinner party in the novel, when the narrator observes, “the dancing couples were gliding on the polished top of Kennedy’s casket.”

As significant as Couples was to Updike’s career—dividing reviewers, stirring public debate, earning him a million dollars—this novel and everything else he wrote, including his wondrous early stories of young life in midcentury Pennsylvania, come second to his quartet of novels about a high-school basketball star turned middling husband, father, and Pennsylvania car salesman: Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Published in 10-year intervals, the Rabbit novels capture the intensities American life at the live-wire ends of the 1950s (Rabbit, Run), 1960s (Rabbit Redux), 1970s (Rabbit Is Rich), and 1980s (Rabbit at Rest). That Updike described the protagonist as a version of himself if he’d never left small-town Pennsylvania for Harvard and beyond matters less than the brilliance of his revealing a Middle American Everyman making his way through the bumpy back half of the American Century, feeling entitled and pressed down by all the temptations and trials surrounding him, personal and national both. There is a well-wrought fullness of human-scale national experience across these novels that’s hard to match in any other of Updike’s works, or really in any comparable sequence of novels from his most significant contemporaries: Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and Joyce Carol Oates.

Begley seeks to make just this case, holding up Rabbit, Redux as the best of the four (I’m for Rabbit Is Rich), but the effort falters because of the governing softness of his critical sensibility, as when he declares, early in his account of Updike’s Rabbit pursuit, that “Updike’s nonjudgmental immersion began with Harry and his local orbit and moved on to America as a whole.” Nonjudgmental? Then what’s the point of such an intense and sustained treatment of 40 years of American life, except that it occasions the creation of still more novels for a writer who only ever wanted to be a writer and publish in high-end places, regardless of what he wrote? thisarticleappears

In fact, the Rabbit novels are contrarian achievements for Updike, insofar as they’re far more than just four more fine outputs from in his industrial-strength literary production line. Whether Rabbit’s dealing with marriage, affairs, the death of parents and children, war, Japanese imports, home renovations, Reaganomics, a drug-addicted black radical, or a drug-addicted dumbass son, the overall effects are hilarious, scouring, scandalous, melancholic, outraged, despairing, and above all else penetrating about one American’s life and American life itself, both of which come across, in Updike’s most lasting achievement, as somehow at once exceptional and mundane.

You wouldn’t appreciate this as fully as you should based on Begley’s own “nonjudgmental” approach to this author’s life and works, an approach that will be entirely welcomed by Updike devotees and the many literary insiders dutifully name-checked in these pages, though it will feel indulgent and dull to others. But fortunately, this well-intentioned biography won’t prevent the Rabbit novels from taking their earned place as national classics and remaining there long after the author’s sundry back-issue writings and beloved mailboxes are themselves inevitable remnants of the American past.

Randy Boyagoda is professor of American Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto. His most recent novel is Beggar’s Feast, and his biography of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus will be published in February 2015.

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