Letters MAN

Updike bio deftly de­tails leg­endary scribe

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

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. 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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