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.
If life is a novel, death is an editor. It strikes through every extraneous detail. It erases periods of divagation, inactivity, and muddle. What’s left is the stuff of obituaries and of eulogies: stories that fit together with a retrospective snap. Applied to public figures who spend their lives “on message,” this tendency to condense may even represent a kind of fulfillment. Writers are an odd subspecies of public figure, however – an expansively private one – and when a writer dies, our journalistic last rites run the risk of cutting his million-word testimony down to a stingy clutch of nouns. Thus David Foster Wallace and John Updike, the two greatest literary losses of the last year, get reduced to “difficulty” and “depression” (in the former case) and to “virtuosity” and “complacency” (in the latter).Another quirk of writers, though: they bequeath us the tools we need to reach our own conclusions, without the mediation of professionals. For those disinclined to snap judgments, the death of a novelist may invite a long – even leisurely – period of reconsideration. Meandering through the back catalogue (it’s all back catalogue now) even longtime readers may stumble on a different writer than the one they thought they knew.This spring, I found myself returning to Updike’s fiction of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I was startled by how it diverged from my memory of it. In particular, I was bowled over by the strangeness, the reckless compassion, and the emotional power of Rabbit Redux (1971). Late in life, Updike published a slimmer novel called Terrorist, which met with distinctly mixed reviews. Reviewers found fault with Rabbit Redux, as well, Updike confesses in his introduction to the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus. But, in its ardent engagement with the revolutionary zeitgeist of Nixon-era America, Rabbit Redux now looks to be Updike’s great novel of the age of political terror.The novel, the first sequel to the celebrated Rabbit, Run, opens with Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, American Everyman, more or less reconciled with the wife he abandoned in the earlier book. Updike lovingly describes the creature comforts that surround the Angstroms in Penn Villas, a middle-class suburb of decaying Brewer, Pennsylvania: their “flagstone porchlet,” their “door with its three baby windows arranged like three steps, echoing the door-chime of three stepped tones.” Their son Nelson is on the cusp of puberty, astronauts are about to make a moon landing, and all is right with the world, or at least hunky-dory.Rabbit soon discovers, however, that his wife, Janice, is contemplating an abandonment of her own. Now a working woman, she has succumbed to the charms of her coworker, Charlie Stavros. Stavros shows her an emotional and sexual solicitude Harry has never been capable of. The hell of it is, Harry can’t bring himself to hate Janice, or even her lover, an upwardly mobile, politically progressive ethnic food aficionado who seems to hail from some distant, shag-carpeted planet. Updike – the poet laureate of infidelity – can’t bring himself to hate the adulterers either. Indeed, both author and protagonist take Janice’s sexual awakening as an opportunity to interrogate the Eisenhower-era values of which Harry Angstrom is a repository… and to find them, in their inflexibility, wanting.Updike, who openly admired many of those values, has sometimes been characterized by writers to his left as a reactionary. However, a bravura early scene in which Angstrom and Stavros debate the war in Vietnam exposes this as a caricature. We sympathize with Stavros, who “‘can’t get too turned-on about cops bopping hippies on the head and the Pentagon playing cowboys and Indians all over the globe.'” He tells Janice, of Harry, “‘See how little and tight his mouth gets when he talks about politics?'” And we sympathize with Harry, who claims not to think about politics. “‘That’s one of my Goddam precious American rights,” he says, “not to think about politics… And it really burns me up to listen to hotshot crap-car salesmen dripping with Vitalis sitting on their plumped-up asses bitching about a country that’s been stuffing goodies into their mouth ever since they were born.” To which Charlie retorts, “‘I want to follow your reasoning. Tell me about the goodies we’ve been stuffing into Vietnam.'”More than Bellow in Mr. Sammler’s Planet (that other great response to ’60s-era unrest, and surely an influence here) Updike is willing to interrogate his own biases, to exercise negative capability. He seems to conclude that politics are personal on both sides of the ideological divide. Rabbit can’t disentangle the message from the messenger; Stavros can’t see what a lousy messenger he is. Which doesn’t mean they can’t try. Stavros will eventually try to persuade Janice to return to her husband. And Harry will touchingly parrot Stavros’ point-of-view later in the book, in an attempt to enlighten Janice’s father. Indeed, by this point, Rabbit Redux has assumed a form borrowed from the counterculture Updike is supposed to have hated: the consciousness-raising session.The middle section of the book, wherein Janice moves out of the house – is a long, strange, irresponsible trip. Harry begins smoking dope and exploring the down-and-out side of Brewer. He entangles himself with a teenage runaway named Jill and a petty criminal-cum-black-nationalist named Skeeter. Updike’s willingness to hurl himself into the thicket of American race relations is remarkable. “The bus has too many Negroes,” Harry thinks, at one point.Two of the men in the shop are Negroes, Farnsworth and Buchanan, you didn’t even notice; at least they remember how to laugh. Sad business, being a Negro man, always underpaid… But against these educated tolerant thoughts leans a certain fear; [Harry] doesn’t see why they have to be so noisyThis is what the world of many white male characters in novels might look like, stripped of political correctness and bad faith. I can imagine readers who are black, or are women, or both, taking exception to Jill and Skeeter, who hover somewhere between character and symbol. But Harry’s re-education at the hands of these outcasts, his awakening to the sources of his own basic good fortune, precipitates a real change in him. Perhaps it even precipitated a change in suburban readers, circa 1971, as a novel more deferential to pieties or circumspect about stereotypes could not.A prominent critic condemned a later Updike novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, for its “theological complacency.” For all I know, he may have been right. But this verdict is far too narrow to contain the vast corpus Updike left behind. Rabbit Redux shows a writer willing as few other American novelists are (Norman Rush comes to mind) to suspend judgment on his characters’ political, philosophical, moral, and theological failings – to love them anyway. Indeed, it is characteristic of Updike that the “rhetoric of social protest and revolt… antithetical to [his] Fifties education” (as he puts it in the omnibus introduction) aroused not his defenses, but his curiosity.Agitated by the times, his limpid prose in this book approaches the visionary. Near the end, Harry thinks of Jill, now gone, and remembers “her daughterly blind grass-green looking to him for more than shelter.” We are reminded, adverbially, of the daughter Harry lost in Rabbit, Run. Yet even in his redoubled grief – that extraordinary, comma-less catharsis – there is some hopeful green stuff woven. Rilke wrote that beauty was merely the beginning of the arc of terror. Rabbit Redux suggests a corollary: that terror may sometimes be the beginning of the arc of beauty.
When other writers at a 1986 PEN panel on “How the State Imagines” were lamenting Cold War militarism, John Updike offered a hymn of praise for the U.S. Postal Service: “I never see a blue mailbox without a spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude that this intricate and extensive service is maintained for my benefit.” His co-panelists were miffed, but there was no gainsaying him: Updike was a lucky man. Lucky in his chosen career; lucky with women (or at least, he wrote about “getting lucky” often enough); lucky in being an American at the peak of the American century.Many remembrances of this literary polymath will focus on his native talent, and may be right to do so. Updike found his pellucid, synesthetic voice in his mid-twenties, and so seemed a kind of prodigy… even, at times, a prodigal. But at its best, what his voice expressed better than that of any other American novelist (with the possible exception of Saul Bellow) was gratitude for the superabundant gift – the sustained good luck – of everyday life.At the height of his powers… say, from 1959’s The Poorhouse Fair to 1996’s In the Beauty of the Lilies, Updike delineated a territory – American, lower- to upper-middle-class, uneasily suburban – that will ever after be associated with his name. In novel after novel, story after beautifully wrought story, he charted its tensions and ambiguities. That it is hard to remember that this territory was ever unfamiliar is a testament to the thoroughness of Updike’s cartography. Collectively, the novels of the ’60s and ’70s, the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus, and The Early Stories are a monumental achievement, one that will become clearer as the world they describe falls into the past.Somehow, Updike also managed to maintain a a sideline as a poet, as well as a prolific career as an essayist on literature and art. Though his opinions on each could be both narrow and strongly held, his Protestant circumspection always allowed room for doubt. His “rules for reviewing” remain a model of good faith and good sense.As five books became ten, and ten became fifty, Updike’s “spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude,” which seemed to distill a generational trait, could at times flirt with self-satisfaction. We forgive a writer for everything but success, and in his later years, Updike’s critics would execute a kind of pincers movement. From one flank, he was attacked for rehashing old ground, for being (in books like Villages) too… Updikean. From the other flank, he was attacked for his attempts to move beyond first-hand experience (see: Seek My Face, Toward the End of Time, Terrorist). If each position had its merit – more than a decade has passed since Updike’s fiction felt urgent – both overlooked the fact that he had been experimenting with form and subject since the mid-70s. And well into his own eighth decade, his reviews and essays, which he produced with the dependability of a classic Buick sedan, bespoke a writer still alive to the surprise of the new.In this, too, Updike was lucky: he outlived his aura of invincibility.He will not, however, have outlived his reputation. Now that he is no longer among us, it will be easier not to begrudge him his good fortune, and to appraise his legacy. The career of Émile Zola, that other prodigy of the real, tells us that a few golden works will outweigh any amount of dross. Updike’s gold-to-dross ratio was, in retrospect, remarkable, and his good books many. They remind us of our own good fortune. We are lucky to have had him.