Updike by Adam Begley

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

by Adam Begley
HarperCollins, 558 pp., cloth $29.95 John Updike cover

“No, no, no, no, no, to paraphrase King Lear,” John Updike told me 12 years ago when I suggested he consider authorizing a biographer. “Please don’t ruin the rest of my life with any talk of a biography, that living death.”

Updike’s opposition to literary biography was so fierce it’s no surprise his widow, Martha Updike, refused to cooperate with Adam Begley after HarperCollins announced that the former New York Observer books editor would write about the life of the literary giant – and there’s really no other way to describe him.

Berks County native John Updike wrote more than 60 books, many of them set in his beloved Pennsylvania. They include The Centaur (1963), an homage to his father; Of the Farm (1965), which illustrates Updike’s love-hate relationship with his mother; and a tetralogy (Rabbit, Run, 1960; Rabbit Redux, 1971; Rabbit Is Rich, 1981; and Rabbit at Rest, 1990) in which Updike uniquely chronicles four decades of American life through the eyes of a single Everyman hero.

Updike was one of only three writers to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice and one of just four literary writers to appear on the cover of Time magazine twice. The other covers featured Nobel laureates Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, and many believe Updike should have won that prize too.

Begley is among them. He became a fan after John Updike: The Early Stories was published in 2003, and his love and respect stands out in bas relief throughout the pages of his much-lauded biography. But as Begley concedes, Updike did have his detractors. In Updike he seems hell-bent on proving them wrong.

Updike tells the story not only of the writer, but also much of the fiction that he produced. Begley skillfully interweaves biographical details with parallels in the texts, blending biography and literary criticism. That’s both a strength and a weakness. It makes for fascinating reading and a great introduction for readers new to Updike and his work, yet only a fraction of the books are discussed. There are also times when readers might crave more biographical details, more “dirt.”

Still there are plenty of revelations large and small, among them that newlywed Updike had a cat named Ezra Pound and his mother worked at a World War II parachute factory. Begley did his homework, taking five years to research archives and interviewing Updike’s first wife and children, high school and college chums, editors, coworkers and adult friends from the infamous Ipswich circle that inspired the 1968 wife-swapping novel Couples. Updike had to leave the country after the affair that led to the novel, Begley tells us, and again after Couples was published. The irony doesn’t escape him, and Begley draws insightful conclusions throughout this engaging biography – which seems a likely candidate for the Pulitzer short list.


James Plath is president of The John Updike Society, which owns The John Updike Childhood Home in Shillington, Berks County, and is presently working to turn it into a museum.