ShareThis Page

New biography explores the genius of John Updike

| Saturday, April 12, 2014, 7:17 p.m.

During his lifetime, John Updike was acclaimed as one of the greatest writers of his generation, the poet laureate of middle-class, small-town, Protestant America.

From the time he was a boy, submitting articles and drawings to school newspapers in his beloved hometown of Shillington, Berks County, until his 2009 death at age 76, he produced an endless stream of short stories, novels, essays, poetry and criticism — more than 60 books in just over 50 years.

Now, after five years at work in the Updike archives, Adam Begley has written an indispensable guide to the man and his work. A former books editor at the New York Observer, Begley approaches his subject from the perspective of a literary critic, focusing mainly on biographical material that illuminates the work.

As Updike himself often acknowledged, his life was the basis for his fiction, and Begley carefully, decade by decade, documents the similarities, identifying in short stories from the late 1950s, for instance, the first glimmerings of adulterous feelings that Updike would famously explore in 1968's “Couples.”

“The more Updike one reads, and the more one learns about his life, the more blatantly obvious it becomes that he was enthralled by the detail of his own experience,” Begley writes. Yet, Updike's fiction was not merely “the prose equivalent to a live webcam,” he adds. “He selected, he edited ... sharpening the blur of daily life so that meanings began to emerge.”

Updike called it his “relentless domestic realism,” and it reached its apogee in the four Rabbit novels about everyman Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, each one set in a different decade against the backdrop of a changing America, from the 1950s through the '80s.

Begley, whose father, the novelist Louis Begley, was a classmate of Updike's at Harvard, is particularly well-suited for the job of Updike biographer. In the introduction, he recounts a family anecdote about the time that Updike visited his parents not long after he was born, saw the toddler in his baby chair and showed off his lesser-known skills as a juggler. Young Adam laughed.

Over the decades Begley has remained a fan; yet, his affection hasn't blinded him to Updike's shortcomings, including the oft-heard complaint that he objectified women. He sees Updike's strengths and his weaknesses and presents the full measure of the man in this engrossing and fair-minded book.

Ann Levin is a staff writer for the Associated Press.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.