Author Interviews
3:40 am
Sat April 5, 2014

Biographer Explains How John Updike 'Captured America'

Originally published on Mon April 7, 2014 10:59 am

Writing a biography of John Updike is a tricky thing: The acclaimed American writer of elegant essays and elegiac novels and short stories may have been a genius, but he was also disconcertingly normal. He liked to drink, but wasn't a drunk; he had two marriages, but wasn't a womanizer; he could be wistful, but rarely depressed. He was a straight, white, Christian man who liked golf.

How do you write a book about an artist like that? Adam Begley, former books editor of the New York Observer, gave it a shot. His new, prodigious biography of the man who's often considered America's most accomplished writer is called, simply, Updike.

Begley tells NPR's Scott Simon that his relationship with Updike started when Begley was very young.

"My father and John were classmates at college ... " Begley says. "They were living in Cambridge and John dropped by one afternoon. And apparently I was sitting in a little baby chair and there was a bowl of fruit next to it and John picked up three oranges and started juggling. And apparently I laughed in a deep, baby way. And it was the first time I laughed."


Interview Highlights

On how growing up in Shillington, Pa., shaped Updike's world view

He thought of it as a complete world and the center of the universe. It was a very settled place when he was growing up. Though he was born during the Depression and World War II followed shortly thereafter, there was in Shillington, in his world, very little change, and that stability meant a lot to him. Shillington was in an interesting place in the American cosmos, which is it was that little town on the edge of a bigger city, called Reading, Pa. And it was sort of trapped between the urban world and the rural world, and [the] encroaching city meant that it might possibly have seemed to him, in some ways, stable but endangered, a lifestyle that couldn't last.

On Updike writing for The New Yorker

He once described the New Yorker voice — that "we" — as a bunch of dazed farm boys who were dazzled and delighted by New York. So, in a sense, you want to be a little tiny bit of an outsider if you want to get that quintessential New York voice. So in some ways he was perfect, but the real answer to that question, I guess, is that he was so unbelievably adept with his writing, and he could mimic almost any tone. And when he saw what the right tone was for The New Yorker, he did it infallibly every time.

On Updike's Rabbit book series

If you look at them as a unit, they are one of the most complete expressions of a society in all its workings. He captured the entirety of America from 1960 to 1990, which is an extraordinary achievement to do in four novels and a short story. He did it by creating an everyman [Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom] that most of us can relate to, inhabiting him thoroughly and allowing that everyman's senses to be totally open to the American experience. Rabbit really captured America.

On the criticism that Updike is a beautiful but empty writer

I think that's the easiest club to pick up and try to beat Updike with, and I'm never convinced with it. When I read deeply in Updike, which is really the best way to read Updike, is to immerse yourself, I'm struck by the beauty of his sentences always. You can't miss it. But what he hits when he's on top of his game is deep truths about the American soul, and not just politics, but personally. I mean, when his stories hit you, you realize that you are being targeted individually. There's something very specific about his voice talking to you. When he hits nostalgia, for example, you realize suddenly that you are nostalgic the way his characters are.

On what kind of dinner guest Updike was

Absolutely charming. Updike was one of the most charming men I've ever met. He was charming in his attention to you and in his ability to keep you at just a little arm's length. He would make you laugh, he would tell you things that you didn't know, and he would find out everything about you. You would be aware that he was noticing you with terrific intensity, and you might find even that he'd put you in a story next time.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Writing a biography of John Updike might pose a problem. The acclaimed American writer of elegant essays and elegiac novels and short stories may have been a genius, but he was also disconcertingly normal. He liked to drink, but wasn't a drunk. He had three marriages, but wasn't a womanizer. He could be wistful, but rarely depressed. He was a straight, white, Christian man who liked golf. How do you write a book about an artist like that?

Adam Begley, who was books editor of the New York Observer and has written for many publications, has produced a prodigious biography of the man who's often considered the most accomplished American writer. The book is simply "Updike." Adam Begley joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ADAM BEGLEY: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Tell us the story. John Updike was the first guy to make you laugh?

BEGLEY: Yeah. That's a story that my parents told me all through my childhood. My father and John were classmates at college, and they were living in Cambridge. And John dropped by one afternoon. And apparently, I was sitting in a little baby chair, and there was a bowl of fruit next to it. And John picked up three oranges and started juggling. And apparently, I laughed in a deep baby way, and it was the first time I laughed. And that's what I'd been told all my life.

SIMON: How did growing up in Shillington, Pennsylvania form John Updike's view of the world? He thought of it as a big city.

BEGLEY: Well, he thought of it as a complete world and the center of the universe. It was a very settled place when he was growing up, though. The - he was born during the Depression, and World War II followed shortly thereafter. There was in Shillington, in his world, very little change, and that stability meant a lot to him. Shillington was an interesting place in the American cosmos, which is it was that little town on the edge of a bigger city called Reading, Pa. And it was sort of trapped between the urban world and the rural world. And encroaching city meant that it was - it might possibly have seemed to him, in some ways, stable but endangered - a lifestyle that couldn't last.

SIMON: How does somebody come out of Harvard and become the quintessential New Yorker writer?

BEGLEY: Well, he once described the New Yorker voice, that we, as a bunch of dazed farm boys who were dazzled and delighted by New York. And so in a sense, you want to be a little tiny bit of an outsider if you want to get that quintessential New York voice. So in some ways, he was perfect.

SIMON: Yeah.

BEGLEY: But the real answer to that question, I guess, is that he was so unbelievably adept with his writing, and he could mimic almost any tone. And when he saw what the right tone was for the New Yorker, he did it infallibly every time.

SIMON: Yeah. I want to draw you out on what - certainly, you are in a league with a lot of critics and wise readers who consider his signature work to be "Rabbit, Run," "Rabbit Redux," "Rabbit is Rich," "Rabbit at Rest," "Rabbit Remembered." What do they represent, the Harry Angstrom story, in English language literature?

BEGLEY: If you look at them as a unit, they are one of the most complete expressions of a society in all its workings. He captured the entirety of America from 1960 to 1990, which is an extraordinary achievement to do in four novels and a short story. He did it by creating an every man that most of us can relate to, inhabiting him thoroughly and allowing that every man's senses to be totally open to the American experience. "Rabbit" really captured America.

SIMON: Could you tell me the Tootsie Roll story?

BEGLEY: Well, Updike never really believed in teaching writing classes, but in a moment of weakness, in 1962, he agreed to teach a writing class at Harvard. And so for about eight weeks, he went in and taught a room full of a dozen kids what he knew about writing. And one day, he brought in a letter that he had received from the Tootsie Roll Company of America thanking him for having mentioned Tootsie Rolls in the "Rabbit" books. He read this letter, which was a form letter from the company and very pompous about Tootsie Rolls. And he put down the letter when he'd finished, and he said, and that are the rewards of being a writer in America.

SIMON: (Laughter) What about the notion some critics had that Updike was a writer who could produce gorgeous prose, but in the end, it didn't say that much?

BEGLEY: I think that that's the easiest club to pick up and try and beat Updike with, and I'm never convinced with it. When I read deeply in Updike, which is really the best way to read Updike is to immerse yourself, I'm struck by the beauty of his sentences always. You can't miss it. But what he hits, when he's on top of his game, is deep truths about the American soul and not just politics, but personally. I mean, when his stories hit you, you realize that you are being targeted individually. There's something very specific about his voice talking to you. When he hits nostalgia, for example, you realize that suddenly, that you are nostalgic the way his characters are.

SIMON: I know he was the first man to make you laugh when he juggled. Would he have been a nice guy to have dinner with?

BEGLEY: Absolutely charming. Updike was one of the most charming men I've ever met. He was charming in his attention to you and in his ability to keep you at just a little arm's length. He would make you laugh. He would tell you things that you didn't know, and he would find out everything about you. You would be aware that he was noticing you with terrific intensity.

SIMON: Yeah.

BEGLEY: And you might find even that he'd put you in a story next time.

SIMON: Adam Begley, his new biography, "Updike." Thanks so much for being with us.

BEGLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.