John Updike surely had the most enviable career in postwar American letters. He was published early, in the place where he most sought acceptance, and his talent was recognized, remarked, and encouraged at every stage. He seems never to have labored outside his writerly vocation, and almost everything he ever wrote found a home. Self-doubt seems rarely to have visited him. As a writer of prose, his efficiency and durability over more than five decades were almost disconcerting.
He was likewise at ease in the social world, despite a mild stammer. He negotiated the transition from rural Pennsylvania to Harvard with little strain, and from there the Lampoon, The New Yorker, and the Academy of Arts and Letters, vaulting almost carelessly from honor to roseate honor. For a man who jealously guarded his selfhood, he was to a surprising extent an institutional man, one who spent half a century associated with a single magazine (The New Yorker) and, after a false start, a single publisher (Knopf). Tall, attractive, affably wolfish, he also negotiated his way into the beds of many women, and reported back to us on what he found there, the sexual revolution in situ. He was divorced, suffered hostile reviews, endured bouts of psoriasis. But for the most part, John Updike’s life was an embarrassment of riches, as his genial but also slightly smirky public manner attested.
Miraculously, the lapidary Updike style seemed to arrive fully formed, as evidenced in his much-anthologized New Yorker piece about Ted Williams’s final game at Fenway Park, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” published when Updike was 28-years-old: the effortless phrase making (“a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark”); the revelation of beauty nested within the ordinary; the final flourish that enacts the very phenomenon it describes (“So he knew how to do even that, the hardest thing. Quit.”). Like Williams, Updike was something of a remote god, if a largely benevolent one. He would not pretend to find writing, or his own passage through life, arduous. In an interview given shortly before he died, he observed of the fin de siécle salon painter John Singer Sargent (like Updike — and Williams — a prodigy), “We’re drawn to artists who tell us that art is difficult to do, and takes a spiritual effort, because we are still puritan enough to respect a strenuous spiritual effort. We don’t really want to think that the artist is only very skilled, that he has merely devoted his life to perfecting a certain set of intelligible skills. Sargent misses getting top marks because he made it look easy.” These observations are shadowed by our knowledge of Updike’s relationship with his own readers, the sense that some final measure of love was withheld on both sides.
Updike died in 2009, and the public man of interviews and graduation speeches still seems to wait just offstage. This creates a problem of critical distance that is especially acute for Adam Begley, to whom Updike was also vivid in a more personal way, as a family friend. A second generation Harvard man, the son of the Wall Street lawyer-turned-novelist Louis Begley (like Updike, Harvard ’54), Begley knows the social and cultural terrain of Updike’s adult life well, and he renders Updike’s years at Harvard and The New Yorker of the Shawn period with authority. Begley also reconstructs the physical, familial, and psychological terrain of Updike’s Pennsylvania boyhood with subtlety and care, drawing connections between the writer’s family life and earliest aspirations without succumbing to a reductive determinism. Begley provides a clear and sympathetic portrait of Updike’s mother, the dominating presence of his early life and herself an aspiring writer, and he persuasively identifies the pivotal moment when Updike, as a Harvard freshman, began the gentle but decisive separation from her that allowed him to move unfettered toward adulthood. Begley knows that ultimately — as John O’Hara (born Pottsville, Penn., 1905 — and a special Updike favorite) put it — an artist is his own fault.
The biographer who renders a persuasive portrait of the artist’s evolution to age thirty does a good deal — perhaps most of what needs to be done. But Updike loses energy in its second half, as questions both critical and biographical are raised that Begley seems reluctant to take on. Remarkably, he says far too little about Updike’s prose style, assuring us only that it is brilliant. This is a crucial omission. Updike’s style is one of the most singular in postwar American fiction, an instrument both powerful and subtle, and the experience of reading Updike is defined by the contours of that style. If you are going to make major claims for Updike as a writer, as Begley wishes to do, you must show how Updike’s style and his cosmology correspond, and you must give an account of the effects that style produces. Begley has been writing literary journalism for two decades, much of it of high quality. Surely one of the advantages of having a critic of his range do this job rather than a professional biographer would be that the critic is likely to be sensitive to questions of form and possess the vocabulary to talk about them. Begley had the resources and, one would think, the mandate to attempt a significant exploration. His reticence is puzzling, and it has to be counted as a missed opportunity.
There was always a countercurrent of negative critical feeling about Updike, beginning with Orville Prescott’s scolding February 1963 review of The Centaur in The New York Times (“it contains numerous obscenities, no more loathsome than in many recent novels, but entirely unnecessary”) and gathering momentum in recent years as Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and James Wood all published lengthy repudiations. Franzen and Wallace’s criticisms might be written off in part as Bloomian filial agon, but Wood’s sustained attack is a more serious blight on Updike’s reputation, both because Wood is so skilled a critic and because what he values most in fiction — a strong visual sense, figurative vigor, a complex philosophical substructure — are things Updike is generally thought to provide in abundance. Begley largely sidesteps Wood’s increasingly pointed demurrals, perhaps in the name of letting the work speak for itself. It is true that in the long run the best of Updike’s work — the Rabbit novels, In the Beauty of the Lillies, The Collected Stories — will survive, or not, largely without regard to the current critical debate. Still, Begley does not serve Updike or his readers well by wishing that debate away.
Updike was a prolific and talented reviewer and essayist, but his conception of the critic’s work is a modest one; he believed that critical work, his own not excepted, was necessarily for lesser stakes than the work of the artist himself. Begley seems to share his subject’s view that critics, like children, are to be seen but not heard. In his March 2009 review of Cheever, Blake Bailey’s celebrated biography of a writer Updike greatly admired and whose thematic concerns he shared, Begley expresses admiration for Bailey’s research (“impeccable and exhaustive”) and his assessment of Cheever’s writing (“judicious and nuanced”), but he regrets that Bailey gave the more sordid aspects of Cheever’s life — his alcoholism, his sexual confusion, and his self-loathing — such fulsome treatment. Begley’s judgment here seems to have as much to do with manners as with literature; he seems to feel not only that knowing the facts of Cheever’s erotic life does not help us understand Cheever’s work, but that to discuss them is somehow bad form. But Bailey, unlike Begley, is an immodest critic, one who has sought to create works of expressive power and to achieve himself the status of a literary artist. The two views are finally irreconcilable.
It is true that a literary biographer must maintain some ultimate measure of respect for his subject, if only because the work compels it even if the life does not. A biography that dwelled too long on Updike’s marital infidelities, his weaker books, his occasional prickliness would risk both missing the point of the life entirely and burying the work beneath that life’s contingencies. James Atlas’s unaccountably hostile Bellow, an exemplar of the adversarial school of biography, sometimes does just that (though there is much in Bellow that is good, and Atlas deals with Bellow’s own vivid style at length). But in order to undermine the stronger possible criticisms of Updike, you must at least appear to have given them a fair hearing. Begley pulls his punches too often as to both the writer and his critics, with the unintended effect of draining some measure of interest from the subject. He has achieved a remarkable negative feat; Updike is so discreet and equable that after 500 pages it leaves the world, in terms of Updike’s reputation, just as it found it.
Despite his loving attention to quotidian detail of a specifically American character, John Updike is a quintessentially cool writer. Through his technical mastery, he always wished to move the reader just a bit more than he had been moved himself. Like Ted Williams, he sought self-sufficiency even as he sought public acknowledgement. Like his wayward but ennobled hero Rabbit Angstrom, Updike stands for the irreducible, irrepressible self, that kernel of being that may be bartered only at enormous spiritual cost.
Like Sargent and Williams, Updike has been made to suffer for his self-sufficiency. What will become of his posthumous reputation, whether he will have a community of readers at all in fifty years, or in twenty-five, still feels very much like an open question. Several lovely encomia followed his death: Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker (“one of the greatest of all modern writers, the first American since Henry James to get himself fully expressed”); Julian Barnes in The Guardian (“the Rabbit quartet was the best American novel of the postwar period”); Ian McEwan in the New York Review (“American letters … is a leveled plain.”) Despite these prominent champions, Updike is deeply unfashionable just now. This cultural moment, with its peaking anxieties about gender and privilege, does not belong to him. Adam Begley seems to have hoped to contribute to an Updike revival, but his curiously diffident biography preaches only to the choir.
To get to the movie theater that’s playing the new documentary about William S. Burroughs, I had to pass a six-story tenement at 170 E. 2nd St. on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A plaque by the building’s front door reads:
ALLEN GINSBERG (1926-1997) Internationally acclaimed poet and Member of the American Academy of Arts & Letters lived here from August 1958 to March 1961. His signal poem Howl (1956) helped launch The Beat Generation. Kadish (1961), a mournful elegy for his mother Naomi, was written in apartment #16.
The documentary, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, taught me several things about the author of Naked Lunch and other scabrous novels that, along with Howl and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, got the Beat Generation off the launch pad. I learned that Burroughs was fascinated by poisonous snakes, particularly when they were feeding, and he almost died when he rashly positioned a live mouse within range of a Gaboon viper’s fangs. I learned that Burroughs was a gun nut who liked to get liquored up before he started blasting, and that his beverage of choice was vodka and Coke. (This, surely, helps explain the “accident” when Burroughs shot his wife in the head during a drunken game of William Tell in Mexico City in 1951.) I learned that Burroughs was not much of a father either; his only son died of acute alcoholism at the age of 33. I learned that the poet-rocker Patti Smith, who recently won a National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids, used to have a crush on Burroughs and that the cult filmmaker John Waters considers Burroughs a “saint” and that Burroughs had a hard time expressing love because he was terrified of rejection and so he usually turned to young gay hustlers for sex and finally I learned that the poet who wrote Howl and Kadish was the great unrequited love of Burroughs’s life. Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997 and Burroughs died less than four months later and A Man Within suggests, not very convincingly, that Burroughs died of a broken heart.
Whew. That’s a lot of learning to get from a 90-minute documentary. But now the question must be asked: Am I better for knowing these things – richer, wiser, closer to some essential truths about Burroughs’s literary output? Not at all. I’m just a bit more stuffed with useless information because Yony Leyser, the writer-director of A Man Within, is a foot soldier in the army of Beat hagiographers who operate under the illusion that dissecting the personal lives of writers is essential to – even preferable to – understanding their writing. Burroughs’s writing is barely mentioned in the movie, just a quick note about how he appropriated his “cut-up” technique from the artist Brion Gysin. For the Beat hagiographers, not only is the work never enough, it’s almost beside the point. They’re in the business of erecting a cult, after all, and all cults need icons. It’s telling that A Man Within was released shortly after Howl, a documentary-feature hybrid starring the ubiquitous James Franco as the poet from apartment #16. At least there’s some poetry in Howl. At one point an interviewer asks Franco/Ginsberg, “What is the Beat generation?” He replies: “There is no Beat generation. It’s just a bunch of guys trying to get published.”
That may have been true in 1957. No more. Today the Beat generation is a thriving cottage industry.
What makes A Man Within such a dreary viewing experience is that it’s largely a parade of talking heads yammering on and on about what Burroughs meant to them. In addition to Patti Smith and John Waters, we get to hear from Iggy Pop, Jello Biafra, Laurie Anderson, David Cronenberg, Peter Weller (who played Burroughs in Cronenberg’s fine 1991 film version of Naked Lunch and also does this documentary’s voice-over), plus assorted lovers, writers, sycophants, enablers, academics, gun dealers, snake handlers and hangers-on.
My favorite of the bunch is Regina Weinreich, who is identified as “a Beat generation scholar.” While it’s no secret that the academic racketeers can turn just about anything into a “discipline,” Weinreich’s job description struck me as particularly delicious. Here is a woman who was canny enough to hitch her professional wagon to the Beat caravan more than 20 years ago. In 1986 she met Paul Bowles while teaching a creative writing workshop in Tangier, where Bowles had moved in the late 1940s. His home there became a station of the cross on the Beats’ holy itinerary. The year after she met Bowles, Weinreich co-wrote a documentary, The Beat Generation: An American Dream, that featured archival footage of Ginsberg reading “Howl” and Kerouac reading from On the Road accompanied by Steve Allen on piano. In 1994 Weinreich and Catherine Warnow co-directed Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider, an hour-long documentary about the author of the proto-Beat novel The Sheltering Sky. Weinreich also wrote a critical study called Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics and edited Kerouac’s Book of Haikus. Today she contributes to numerous periodicals, teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York, talks into cameras and, for good measure, blogs at Gossip Central.
Such industry is exhausting to contemplate but, it turns out, not unusual among the Beat hagiographers. The critical studies keep coming and the documentaries keep piling up, with titles like What Happened to Kerouac?, The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, The Source (a hash of TV and film clips spiced with performances by Johnny Depp as Kerouac, John Turturro as Ginsberg and Dennis Hopper as Burroughs), and One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur. This last train wreck – people getting weepy talking about Kerouac’s crack-up on the California coast – inspired Slant magazine to ask the one question that must be asked: “Who keeps inviting Patti Smith to these Beat docs?” Writing in The Millions last year, Lydia Kiesling speculated that Smith keeps getting invited back because she’s “perceived as having a never-ending fund of ‘cred.'” That must be it. It can’t possibly be that anyone still cares that she used to have a crush on William S. Burroughs.
I’m no fan of hagiographers, obviously, but I’m only a bit less distrustful of literary biographers. Too often their books slide toward what Joyce Carol Oates has dubbed “pathography,” which she defined as “hagiography’s diminished and often prurient twin.” Its motifs are “dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct.”
Since we live in an age that’s obsessed with personalities and celebrities, it’s not surprising that so few readers are satisfied with loving a book and so many insist on knowing as much as possible about the person who wrote it. While this appetite has inspired literary biographers to produce a long shelf of pathographies and other monstrosities – does the world really need Norman Sherry’s three-volume biography of Graham Greene? – it has also resulted in some well researched and finely written literary biographies that did what such exercises do at their best: they led readers back to the subject’s books. Among these I would include Blake Bailey’s recent biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever and, strangely enough, Ann Charters’s thorough and balanced 1973 bio of Kerouac. In her introduction, Charters wrote insightfully, if a bit clunkily: “The value of Kerouac’s life is what he did, how he acted. And what he did, was that he wrote. I tried to arrange the incidents of his life to show that he was a writer first, and a mythologized figure afterward. Kerouac’s writing counts as much as his life.”
I would argue that his writing counts more than his life, much more. Eventually Charters seemed to come around to my way of thinking. In 1995, after she’d edited two fat volumes, Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956 and The Portable Jack Kerouac, I interviewed her for a newspaper article. “I wanted (the book of letters) to be a biography in Jack’s own words,” she told me. “His life is in his books, but on the other hand the most essential thing is missing from those novels. What he tells you in the letters is that the most important thing in his life is writing.”
At the time The Gap was using Kerouac’s image – and images of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and other ’50s icons – to sell its khaki pants. In the face of such shameless hucksterism, Charters’s insistence on the importance of Kerouac’s writing seemed both quaint and heroic to me. It still does today, as the hagiographers keep bombarding us with abominations like One Fast Move or I’m Gone and Howl and A Man Within.
In the end I must admit that “A Man Within” did teach me one thing worth knowing. I’d spent years believing that Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote were the Holy Trinity of Shameless Self-Promoters among American writers. (That, by the way, is not a putdown; it’s a compliment laced with no small amount of envy.) Thanks to this documentary, I now realize that Burroughs was easily their equal as a self-promoter. This came home to me as I watched the archival footage of him rolling up his shirt sleeve and shooting dope into his left arm. The effect on me was very different from the shiver Yony Leyser was surely hoping for. My first thought was: No man would allow himself to be filmed shooting dope unless he was eager to package and promote his image as an outlaw.
It’s not hard to see why Burroughs is catnip for documentary filmmakers more than a dozen years after his death. In his late years he became a weirdly irresistible figure – the bag-eyed, fedora- and three-piece-suit-wearing patrician junkie misanthrope with the deadpan baritone who droned on and on about the rot festering at the core of the American Dream. He is the closest we’ve ever gotten to an American Jonathan Swift, and he’s to be credited for shunning those who tried to idolize him, including many Beats, hippies, punks and gay libbers. The only organization I could imagine him joining is the National Rifle Association because, as he put it, “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed to have guns are the cops and the military.” He shrewdly burnished the Burroughs brand by branching into recording and acting, reminding us that the man who wrote Junkie and Naked Lunch could be caustically funny. His turn as dope-hungry Tom the Priest in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy is not to be missed, and one of the highlights of “A Man Within” is Burroughs reciting his “Thanksgiving Prayer” as Old Glory flutters behind him: “Thanks for a continent to despoil and poison…thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes…thanks for the American Dream to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through…” Sadly, the documentary does not include any of Burroughs’s “Words of Advice for Young People,” such as, “Beware of whores who say they don’t want money. What they mean is, they want more money. Much more.”
A word of advice for readers and filmgoers of all ages: Beware of hagiographers who tell you a writer’s life is more important than the books he or she wrote. It never is. It might be diverting to watch a guy shoot dope and shoot guns and feed poisonous snakes. But the books are more important. Much more.
This year’s Pulitzer winner for fiction has gone to a book from Bellevue Literary Press, an “unlikely” operation that runs out of Bellevue, the famous New York psych hospital (the New York Times wrote up the press in 2007). Rounding out the fiction finalists is an effort from another small press, the venerable Soft Skull, and a much praised short story collection .Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with excerpts where available:FictionWinner: Tinkers by Paul Harding – (excerpt)Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet (Lydia Millet participates in our Year in Reading)In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin (a Year in Reading selection)General Nonfiction:Winner: The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy by David Hoffman (excerpt)How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities by John CassidyThe Evolution of God by Robert Wright (excerpt)History:Winner: Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed (excerpt)Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin – (excerpt)Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 by Gordon S. Wood (excerpt)Biography:Winner: The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles (excerpt)Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey (excerpt)Woodrow Wilson: A Biography by John Milton Cooper, Jr. – excerptWinners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.
The National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced last night and the hardware keeps piling up for Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall has already taken home the Booker Prize (and is in the running for the Rooster). Mantel’s book has also held a spot in our Top Ten of late.
In the non-fiction category, the prize went to The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes. In the criticism category, the prize went to Eula Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, which was endorsed by both Nick Flynn and Cristina Henríquez in our Year in Reading last year.