Review: Updike biography reveals brilliant, complex, flawed man

John Updike at Harvard University. Updike joined the staff of the Harvard Lampoon as a freshman, a rare achievement, and excelled in his academic career.
John Updike at Harvard University. Updike joined the staff of the Harvard Lampoon as a freshman, a rare achievement, and excelled in his academic career.
Published April 8, 2014

Updike, the new biography of literary titan John Updike, really, really made me want to run over to my shelf full of his novels, short stories and criticism and start reading them all over again.

I've been an ardent fan of Updike's work since I read his second novel, The Centaur, as a high school student, so it's a mark of author Adam Begley's skill that I resisted the urge and stuck with the biography.

This is the first full-scale biography of Updike, who died of lung cancer in 2009 at age 76. Begley has a closer relationship than the typical biographer to his subject, whom he knew from babyhood — his father, novelist Louis Begley (About Schmidt), went to Harvard with Updike, and the two remained longtime friends.

But as a biographer, Adam Begley maintains a balanced and insightful view. He clearly admires Updike, but he doesn't beatify him. His book reveals a complex man who was enormously talented, bright, productive and charming, yet capable of destructive selfishness and slyly ruthless rivalries.

Updike was among the few American authors who have been large public figures. Many of his 60 books were bestsellers, and several became movies or television shows; his long relationship with the New Yorker made his short stories, essays and criticism widely known; he was a deft public speaker who appeared all over the world; and he won dozens of prizes, including two Pulitzers, two National Book Awards and three National Book Critics Circle prizes.

Begley covers that public presence, but what he's really interested in is the private Updike — which presents him with an interesting dilemma. More than many writers, Updike transformed his own life into his fiction. Not that we should ever assume any author's work is autobiographical, but Updike's domestic realism was often firmly, even transparently based in his own experiences, a choice that no doubt gives his charting of human aspiration, desire and betrayal such intimate intensity. Begley chooses to roll with that situation, casting Updike as a critical biography that weaves the fiction with the fact, illuminating both.

This biography is richest when Begley is writing about Updike's early life, which upends the myth that writers are birthed from miserable beginnings. John Hoyer Updike was born in 1932, the adored only child of Wesley and Linda Updike. John had, by all accounts including his own, an idyllic childhood in the tiny town of Shillington, Pa., which appears over and over in his fiction, usually as Olinger (pronounced, Begley tells us, "oh linger"). He lived with his maternal grandparents and his parents, a precocious and gregarious kid who began writing early, although his first ambition was to be a cartoonist — "the next Walt Disney."

Updike's mother was his strongest influence and cheerleader. Well-educated — she had a master's degree in English from Cornell — and ambitious, she saw her son as a golden boy and did everything she could to point him toward success. (And she didn't do badly herself; ten of her short stories were published in the New Yorker.)

Planning your weekend?

Planning your weekend?

Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter

We’ll deliver ideas every Thursday for going out, staying home or spending time outdoors.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Her guidance led Updike straight to Harvard, where he joined the staff of the Harvard Lampoon as a freshman, a rare achievement, and excelled in his academic career. He graduated a married man, having met Mary Pennington, a bright and beautiful Radcliffe student, during his junior year. After graduation, the couple spent a year in England. But even before they left, he had word that the New Yorker had accepted one of his short stories, and they returned to an apartment in Manhattan and a staff position for him at the magazine.

"It's worth pausing here," Begley writes, "to marvel at the unrelieved smoothness of his professional path." But Updike stayed on staff at the New Yorker for less than two years, although he continued to write for it as a freelancer. Begley details how the family — Updike and Mary had four children — moved to the Massachusetts village of Ipswich (a.k.a. Tarbox), the second small town to provide the author with a treasure trove of material. His busy social life became the source of, among other works, the notoriously lusty 1968 novel Couples and its famous line "Welcome to the post-pill paradise." Ipswich's exuberantly adulterous milieu also led, after 22 years, to Updike's and Mary's divorce and his second marriage, to Martha Ruggles. Where Mary and his kids had embroiled Updike happily in social and domestic life, Martha became, in his later years, a fierce protector of his privacy.

Begley recounts many of Updike's professional relationships. Some were warm friendships that endured for decades, notably his bonds with one of his New Yorker editors, William Maxwell, and with writer Joyce Carol Oates. Other relationships with writers — John O'Hara, John Cheever, Philip Roth — were fraught with competitive tension. And then there was the dustup with Tom Wolfe, whose novel A Man in Full Updike dissed in a review. Norman Mailer and John Irving sided with Updike when Wolfe struck back, leading him to call them "Updike, Mailer and Irving. My three stooges."

Begley rightly devotes much space to two of Updike's most enduring and revealing characters. Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, antihero of four great novels (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit Redux; and Rabbit at Rest) is, Updike said, himself if he "had lingered in Shillington after high school, married young, and skidded into a dead-end job." Henry Bech, of three inventive comic novels (Bech, a Book; Bech Is Back; Bech at Bay) is a Jewish bachelor with writer's block, "a version of what Updike might have been had he started out in New York and stubbornly held his ground."

Begley gives us (sorry, Tom Wolfe) the man in full. Updike's writing was sometimes criticized for being more style than substance; critic Harold Bloom famously called him "a minor novelist with a major style." But Begley's biography gives us a richer understanding of the depth of Updike's work, where always "modest doings are imagined with magical intensity."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435.