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He Gave ‘the Mundane Its Beautiful Due’

Updike

by Adam Begley
Harper, 558 pp., $29.99
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Nancy Crampton
John Updike, Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, 1987

When John Updike was a small boy living at 117 Philadelphia Avenue, Shillington, Berks County, Pennsylvania, with his parents and his maternal grandparents, he would stand on a chair every day after lunch to reach up and get at the “little metal Recipes box, with floral decorations and a red lid,” which stood on top of the zinc-lined, wooden icebox in the kitchen, and which held the family’s cash. He would take six cents from it—a nickel and a penny—so he could buy a Tastykake at Kieffer’s on the way back to his elementary school. This ritual is recorded, with minuscule variations, in his 1989 memoir, Self-Consciousness, and in several of the stories about his childhood.

It may have been a particularly tender memory because it was associated with a growing unease about where the “meagre” supply of cash was coming from and the realization that his father was “borrowing” it from the sports day receipts of the school where he taught: “My Father on the Verge of Disgrace” is one of the stories in which the anecdote appears. But the essence of the memory is pleasure: the pleasure of the treat, of eating the Tastykake as he is walking along the street “instead of sitting down and being told to have good manners.” Like many of Updike’s childhood details, it shines with a sense of security and realness. “If there was a meaning to existence, I was closest to it here.” It is a part of his Proustian memory hoard.

The recipe box and the Tastykake don’t figure in Adam Begley’s admirable biography, but not every tiny fragment of Updike’s stuff can be cited: there’s enough of it for a hundred biographies. The accumulation and dispersal of life’s things is one of Updike’s great subjects. He returns in his fiction to the places he has left: that first home in Shillington (“Olinger”); the nearby decaying industrial town of Reading (“Alton,” or Rabbit’s “Brewer”); the sandstone farmhouse, his mother’s childhood home in Plowville (“Firetown”), to which she moved the family when John was thirteen; the marital homes where his children grew up, in Ipswich, alias “Tarbox.” As he grows old, he becomes the last surviving witness:

The coal bin in the cellar, the shelves of homemade preserves, the walnut icebox, the black stone sink, the warping kitchen linoleum in the pattern of little interlocking bricks…only [he] was left to remember any of this.

The pathos of past things is one of Updike’s most poignant subjects. Rabbit Angstrom is always listing them as his town changes; and the stories are full of them. In “Still of Some Use,” the narrator is clearing out the attic of the abandoned marital home, full of “forgotten, broken games”: “Now no one wanted to play.” It’s like the poem “My Children at the Dump,” where his guilt at betraying them is embodied in the waste of rejected objects, a “universe of loss.” In “A Sandstone Farmhouse,” the grown-up son is remorselessly getting rid of the debris of his mother’s life; but like her “he had trouble throwing anything away.” “Personal Archaeology” has a list of the “remnants of his boyhood world” that have “washed up” in his last house: objects that had “been with him in the abyss of lost time, and survived less altered than he…. They had to mean something, fraught and weighty as they were with the mystery of his own transient existence.”

In one of his last stories, “My Father’s Tears,” he quotes from Emerson: “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.” Emerson is there too at the front of Self-Consciousness: “We are persuaded that a thread runs through all things….” And it is the ordinary, banal things that Updike tenderly cherished and made fresh on the page. As he said of himself, and as Begley rightly emphasizes, he is the artist of middleness, ordinariness, in-betweenness, who famously wanted “to give the mundane its beautiful due.” For over half a century—even though his own life moved far away from “middleness”—he transformed everyday America into lavishly eloquent and observant language. This—even more than his virtuoso writing about sex, his close readings of adultery and husbandly guilt, his tracking of American social politics, his philosophizing on time and the universe—is his great signature tune. No wonder that some of the narrators in his stories are archaeologists, or that he’s so interested in vanished cities, ancient civilizations, and extinct species.

The archaeologist of such a life has his work cut out. Updike (whom Begley often describes as “thrifty”) has sifted his hoard of relics over and over. As William Maxwell, his first editor, said, he is a “conspicuously autobiographical writer.” The more one reads him, Begley notes, the more “obvious it becomes that he was enthralled by the details of his own experience.” All his life’s material is metamorphosed into stories, poems, and novels. The biographer has to translate back to the unfictionalized life.

Early in the biography, for instance, Begley has a page on Updike’s move, in 1950, at eighteen, from the sandstone farmhouse to Harvard. “How long had he been dreaming of escape? Since the move to the farm? Or was it earlier still?” He answers the questions by drawing together a collage of phrases from Updike’s poems, stories, and memoirs about his desire to “get out,” concluding that the effort to leave “became the stuff of Updike’s novels and short stories.” Inevitably there is a feeling of circularity. It’s sometimes hard for the biographer to dig underneath the cunning personal archaeologist who is his subject. Indeed, Updike’s memoir, Self-Consciousness, was written to preempt any biographical enterprise, the thought of which Updike found “repulsive.”

But as Begley rightly observes, there are plenty of things left out or evaded in Self-Consciousness, and the fictions are processes of transformation, not of confession. As well as his alter egos, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, his sad, comical, unintellectual “conduit” into middle America, Henry Bech, his witty impersonation of a lionized, peripatetic, cosmopolitan New York Jew, and Richard Maple, the antihero of his most savagely truthful marriage/adultery stories, Updike invents personae for himself in his stories whose occupations seem like a series of self-directed jokes. “A divorced former business-school math teacher, he worked as a sales representative for a New Jersey manufacturer of microcomputers”; “He was an internationally known junk sculptor”; “[He] was an engineer, specializing in stress analysis of tall steel-frame buildings.” And then he translates his own story into that imaginary life.

A level, steady gaze is needed to sort out the life itself from that dazzling, profuse work of gleeful fictional masquerades. To get the job done, Begley is quiet, careful, self-effacing, and steady. He is especially good and revealing on how others see Updike: friends, fellow writers, mother, first wife, children, lovers, editors. He is very interesting on the literary influences that poured into Updike’s self-made style: Proust, Henry Green, Salinger, Nabokov, Hawthorne, even the “tiny phenomena” in the poetry of Robert Herrick, on whom Updike wrote a Harvard thesis.

He amply shows us the strangeness and contradictions under the affable mask, as he tracks Updike from the sensitive, forcefully mothered only child of the Depression to the clever, clowning, ambitious student, The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” man, and the astonishingly prolific writer, leaping fast into “frictionless success.” He shows us the young husband and father of four, the Lutheran churchgoer, the Ipswich adulterer, notorious in the late 1960s for Couples, the “emotional bigamist” caught between first and second wife, the world traveler and golf player, the relentless, compartmentalizing professional, and finally the mischievously smiling recipient of fame, honors, and wealth, the owner of a grand New England mansion, the urbane, ironical, guarded public figure. We see how the boy who took his six cents from the recipe box has become the world-famous author who is paid $30,000 for a single appearance at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival.

For all the success, this could be told as a story of anxiety, dread, and mortification. There was the early stammer, arduously controlled; the psoriasis, a lifetime affliction; the asthma, intensified at moments of stress; the appalling terror of death and annihilation; the religious crises; the early marriage made “to escape the farm” and his mother; the long, agonizing period of vacillating between his first wife Mary, his rejected lover Joyce Harrington, and then his second wife Martha; the guilt about his hurt children; the grief over loss of his father and the worry about his mother, living on alone. In the stories, “self-absorption and fear and shame,” guilt and embarrassment, are frequent themes.

But remarkably, this is in general a story of cheerfulness. Updike is mostly happy: happy as a small boy drawing cartoons sprawled on the carpet, happy clowning about to entertain his friends, happy in his sexual freedoms, happy in his country (“America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy”). “He was cheerful by nature,” Begley thinks. As he points out, even in the anguish of marital breakdown, Updike was miserable, but “not too miserable to write.” He never tired, the biographer concludes, of what he lovingly called “creation’s giddy bliss.” Almost up to his “endpoint,” he was writing his moving last poems of illness and memory. His last story, “Full Glass,” ends with a “strange old guy” who is “drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned.”

Others get cannibalized in this enterprise, and Begley makes his ruthlessness clear. No friend or lover was safe from being turned into fiction. “What mattered most profoundly to him,” Begley says, “wasn’t sex or even love; what mattered was writing.” The children recognized, with varying degrees of acceptance, that their father had “decided at an early age that his writing had to take precedence over his relations with real people.” Begley retells a well-known story of David, Updike’s older son, when a boy, calling on his father at his writing studio in Ipswich with some friends. They could hear him typing as they went up the stairs. He greeted them civilly, and was “faultlessly attentive.” The minute they went out of the room, they heard him starting to type again.

But this isn’t a blame-filled biography. Begley shows that Updike can be sour, and selfish, and mocking, and at times crudely wrong, for instance about the civil rights movement in the 1960s, though he dealt boldly with racism in the Rabbit books. He sees how he might have upset feminist readers, though Begley himself gives short shrift to what he calls “academic critics blinkered by ideology.” He explains Updike’s defense of the Vietnam War, for which he got into such trouble, clearly and well, and he understands Updike’s Rabbit-like conservative American patriotism. He is wry and open-minded (“a flexible worldview” is required, he says) about the “adulterous shenanigans” of 1960s Ipswich life. Updike was “a lusty man,” with “no scruples about adultery, yet he needed to dress up garden-variety infidelity as the inescapable consequence of some grand passion.”

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Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos
John Updike, Ipswich, Massachusetts, 1962

There is only one area of biographical bias, though he tries to resist it. Evidently it was Mary Weatherall, Updike’s first wife, who encouraged the writing of the biography. She talked revealingly to Begley, and is warmly thanked. Martha Updike is absent from the acknowledgments and there are no interviews with her. Since she is one of Updike’s literary executors, she must have allowed the book, but seems not to have participated. As a result, Updike’s first wife is vividly present, sometimes in her own words. But his second wife is seen only through the eyes of others, often as a domineering figure, brisk and bossy, who “marched straight into the role of gatekeeper and protector,” took him away from his old friends, and monitored access to him even on his deathbed. Begley admits, though, that Updike needed such protection in his famous old age.

Updike protected himself, too. “Shy” and “sly” are words he often uses of himself. In Self-Consciousness he describes himself as an ambusher, a cagey, detached outsider, lying low, avoiding, waiting, observing. In his memoirs, and in his wonderful stories—perhaps his best work of all, and astonishingly skillful and masterly from the very start—self-protection is a main theme. In the primal childhood scene, he is always lying low: stretched on the carpet drawing cartoons, hiding under the wicker chairs on the side porch in the rain, curled up in the bed listening to the parents next door, crouched under his four guardians, who loom protectively above him.

The childhood stories—stories of “family, family without end”—shine out of the two-volume Library of America Collected Stories. This has been excellently edited by Christopher Carduff, whose very full chronology makes a useful aid to set alongside the biography, which has no family tree, timeline, or bibliography. The two volumes frustratingly omit almost all the Bech and the Maples stories, which are to have their own later volume. Still, there are 186 stories here, written over fifty-five years between the ages of twenty-one and seventy-six.

One of the family stories is called “The Egg Race.” It was written in 1976, a few years past his father’s death, just after his divorce and his move in with Martha. Read alongside the biography, it made me think of two things: Updike’s tender cherishing of his own life as valuable subject matter; and the biographer’s responsibility to hold that subject steadily and whole, as if the biography were the spoon that carries the egg.

The narrator is one of Updike’s archaeologists, a seeker of lost cities. He starts with a memory of the long-ago school egg race of his childhood:

Or was it called the Spoon Race? The children lined up, each holding an egg in a spoon, out in front of his chest. The eggs precariously wobbled, of their own semi-liquid, semi-live weight. On your mark, get set, go. Those who dropped their eggs, of course, were out. In that rural green world careless of its produce, nearly forty years ago, there seemed no worry about a mess; the dropped eggs were casually absorbed by the earth of the playground where the race was held, once a summer at some fête when the gods of calendar and nation stooped low over the children, beaming, bestowing prizes as simple as a Hershey bar or a paper kite, furled. Ferguson had not thought of it for years, but lately he was visited, as if grown permeable in middle age, by recollections and premonitions.

He never won, because he was too intent on “finishing with his egg intact” to go fast.

Then the story wanders over his father’s death, and the breakup of his marriage (which couldn’t have happened if his father had been alive); his moving in with his second wife; his leaving his children, and an awkward trip with one of his sons; a visit to the Smithsonian where he is shocked to see a school almost exactly like his own displayed as an “antique” historical exhibit; a hospital visit to a dying archaeologist colleague; and a school reunion where he compares his own travels “in the land of guilt” to the innocents who have stayed at home. He wanders through his old town and catches himself looking for traces of the egg race of forty years ago. He goes home, where his new wife’s son is sick and out of school, and it reminds him of himself as a child, spending a day at home, long ago:

The house in all its reaches attended to him, settling, ticking, clucking in its stillness, an intricately worked setting for the jewel of his healing; all was nestled like a spoon beneath his life, his only life, his incredibly own, that he must not let drop.
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