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Author John Updike speaks at the Washington Convention Center, Saturday, May 20, 2006. (Caleb Jones/AP)

It still surprises me when I open the New Yorker each week that there’s not a review, poem or story by John Updike. His death in 2009 came as a shock: no one outside his immediate circle knew he was ill, and his prolific literary output was stunningly consistent right up until his death. In classic Updike fashion, three more titles were published in the year after his death: a collection of stories, a collection of poems (“Endpoint,” a conscious coda to his mid-career poetic opus “Midpoint”), and a bulky volume of criticism. I had gotten used to having a fresh Updike volume on my nightstand at all times, and these final three volumes kept that tradition going.

Even Updike’s detractors — and there are a few — cannot fault him for laziness, or for resting on his laurels. He was intoxicated by language and always on the prowl for clever, artful ways to describe ordinary experiences. He could turn a visit to the dentist or a round of golf into a story freighted with layers of existential dread. He took that cocky, unlikeable jock we all knew in high school and turned him into Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the most persistent and perhaps most recognizable anti-hero in late 20th century American fiction. He made poetry out of the soap opera staples of adultery and divorce.

He was intoxicated by language and always on the prowl for clever, artful ways to describe ordinary experiences.

Adam Begley’s new biography “Updike” has been well-reviewed. Orhan Pamuk in The New York Times Book Review claims that it made him want to “sit down at [his] desk and work harder and write more.” Louis Menand in The New Yorker ends his piece with a terrific pair of lines about Updike’s recurrent protagonists, the adulterous suburban husband Richard Maples, the cantankerous writer Henry Bech and the lovable, loathable “Rabbit” Angstrom: “They could never have created John Updike. And only Updike could have created them.”

Begley’s biography is worth reading for a few reasons. One, it harkens back to a golden era of American literature — beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the 1980s — when reading was still central to our cultural scene. A bright, committed farm boy like Updike, after attending Harvard with the help of a scholarship, could sit down in front of a typewriter and become a household name, not only because of his talent, but because the reading of literature remained an American pastime despite the rise of television. (The Internet and the smart phone are killing off book and magazine culture at a much faster clip than film and television ever did). Two, it’s an innovative biography, especially given the fact that it’s Begley’s first. I was impressed by his confidence in moving back-and-forth in time, flouting the convention of traveling year-by-year through a subject’s life. Third, and most importantly, Begley’s book revives Updike in such a way that readers will hopefully want to visit or revisit his works, but also to seek out new voices on the literary scene. In our information-overloaded age, we need committed writers more than ever to process and refocus what we understand, and how we understand it.

I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on Updike in the 1990s. My fellow graduate students were burrowing through archives and libraries to frame their arguments about authors long dead. Me? I wrote a letter to my subject with a few tentative questions about my thesis. To my surprise, just three days later, Updike wrote back. Like a stray dog who has been fed steak, I fired off a reply, pressing harder. Again, he responded. His little notes to me, typed on a manual typewriter, were like the writing in his published works: clever, a little sharp-tongued, amusing and carefully composed. I decided not to overplay my hand, especially since his fictional alter-ego Henry Bech had a special rubber stamp made to respond to letters from graduate students: “It’s your Ph.D. thesis; please write it yourself.” Still, over the next few years as I was turning the dissertation into a book with the help of Updike’s archives at Harvard, I sent him a few more questions, and he always replied. He even praised my work once it became an actual book, though he also pointed out a flaw in the typesetting of one of his poems.

How did a man who published over 60 books in about 50 years have time to notice a line of poetry in my book that wasn’t properly indented?

How did a man who published over 60 books in about 50 years have time to notice a line of poetry in my book that wasn’t properly indented? Or to have written to me at all while globetrotting, working on his golf swing, picking up details from the daily news that he might be able to use and doing everything else he packed into his days?

Begley’s biography showcases an alternative to the lonely wordsmith toiling away, alone, in a secluded room (like Dickinson, Proust, or, until recently, Philip Roth). What we see in “Updike” is an ordinary life, a prosperous life and a full life. Like Orhan Pamuk, reading it made me want to sit down and write more, but also read more. Golf more. Talk more. Travel more. Live more. Sleep less.

The last words of “Rabbit at Rest,” the fourth novel about Harry Angstrom’s life, are: “enough. Maybe. Enough.” It’s the end of the four-novel saga, but Harry comes back as a ghost in a subsequent novella, “Rabbit Remembered.” For Updike, “enough” was never enough.  TWEET

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  • Daniel E. Levenson

    You make an excellent point about the way in which digital media is having an adverse impact not only on the consumption of literature, but its production as well. It is hard to imagine someone today spending 4 years at Harvard, a little time in England and then going on to a major literary career amidst the clatter and confusion of the online world without a good deal of luck. I wrote my Masters thesis on Updike’s Rabbit Tetralogy, examining the arc of Rabbit’s life (and that of his family) as a lens to view changing ideas and attitudes about class and socioeconomic mobility in America, a project which drove home for me the importance of literature not only as art, but a medium through which we as readers can delve more deeply into key notions that under gird civil society in this country – asking us to consider civility, empathy and what it means to live a fully realized, reflective life. I enjoyed your piece on Cognoscenti and will be sure to keep an eye out for this new biography by Mr. Begley.

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