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5.0 1
by Adam Begley

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Updike is Adam Begley’s masterful, much-anticipated biography of one of the most celebrated figures in American literature: Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Updike—a candid, intimate, and richly detailed look at his life and work.

In this magisterial biography, Adam Begley offers an illuminating portrait of John Updike, the acclaimed


Updike is Adam Begley’s masterful, much-anticipated biography of one of the most celebrated figures in American literature: Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Updike—a candid, intimate, and richly detailed look at his life and work.

In this magisterial biography, Adam Begley offers an illuminating portrait of John Updike, the acclaimed novelist, poet, short-story writer, and critic who saw himself as a literary spy in small-town and suburban America, who dedicated himself to the task of transcribing “middleness with all its grits, bumps and anonymities.”

Updike explores the stages of the writer’s pilgrim’s progress: his beloved home turf of Berks County, Pennsylvania; his escape to Harvard; his brief, busy working life as the golden boy at The New Yorker; his family years in suburban Ipswich, Massachusetts; his extensive travel abroad; and his retreat to another Massachusetts town, Beverly Farms, where he remained until his death in 2009. Drawing from in-depth research as well as interviews with the writer’s colleagues, friends, and family, Begley explores how Updike’s fiction was shaped by his tumultuous personal life—including his enduring religious faith, his two marriages, and his first-hand experience of the “adulterous society” he was credited with exposing in the bestselling Couples.

With a sharp critical sensibility that lends depth and originality to his analysis, Begley probes Updike’s best-loved works—from Pigeon Feathers to The Witches of Eastwick to the Rabbit tetralogy—and reveals a surprising and deeply complex character fraught with contradictions: a kind man with a vicious wit, a gregarious charmer who was ruthlessly competitive, a private person compelled to spill his secrets on the printed page. Updike offers an admiring yet balanced look at this national treasure, a master whose writing continues to resonate like no one else’s.

Editorial Reviews

Stacy Schiff
“’You have to give it magic,’ John Updike explained of the stuff on the page; Adam Begley has done him proud, offering up Updike the man and Updike the writer in an exuberant, stunningly choreographed pas de deux.”
Robert Wilson
“On the evidence of this judicious new biography, John Updike recorded in his fiction the most painful events in his life. . . . Begley demonstrates that Updike was more complicated than the twinkly public persona he created for himself.”
The New York Observer
“Begley seamlessly weaves biography and critical analysis throughout his book, much as Updike himself blurred autobiography and fiction. Updike is a monumental treatment of a towering American writer.”
Orhan Pamuk
“A brilliant biography. . . . A delightfully rich book. . . . Highly readable. . . . The joys of Updike are based on discovering the autobiographical content of the tens of thousands of details that populate Updike’s vast fictional universe.”
Scott Stossel
“A superb achievement. . . . A book that, in its evocation of a brilliant but flawed personality, conjured via the skillful deployment of just-so details and a subtle hint of haunting existential grace, is in some ways as rewarding as Updike’s best fiction.”
The Wall Street Journal
“As a biographer, Begley has a great many strengths — concision, eloquence, an eagle eye — and few of the usual shortcomings.”
Dwight Garner
“Honorable. . . . Updike’s exquisite words flowed, some felt, too freely and too amiably. . . . It’s one of the achievements of Begley’s book that it so acutely demonstrates how it all, in fact, didn’t come so easily. . . . Begley is a gifted literary critic.”
Joyce Carol Oates
“A beautifully written, richly detailed, and warmly sympathetic portrait of a great American writer.”
Francine Prose
“Adam Begley’s Updike is a model of what a literary biography should be: rich with penetrating insights not only about the life but also about the work. It will enthrall long-time Updike fans and help create generations of new ones.”
Ann Beattie
“Adam Begley’s careful and considerate biography illuminates all the right things about Updike, whose dramas were lived both privately and publicly. It’s a social history in which one man’s heart, mind, and talent came to resonate for an entire society.”
Janet Malcolm
“Adam Begley tells the story of John Updike’s life in art with brilliant tautness, as if he were writing a novel. He has rendered a portrait of the writer that shimmers with truth. This is literary biography at its highest level of excellence.”
Jayne Anne Phillips
“Adam Begley’s brilliant evocation of our own literary giant should be required reading for Americans; Updike illumines a particular era with John Updike’s own ferocity and tenderness.”
Michael Dirda
“Not only has Begley written a convincing interpretative biography, one characterized by suavity, wit, and independent judgment throughout, he has also produced a major work of Updike criticism. . . . Displaying total command of his material, Begley does his author proud.”
The San Francisco Chronicle
“The two-time Pulitzer winner couldn’t have hoped for a biography more respectful — or more critically attuned to his work — than this one. Updike is gracefully written. . . . It contains revealing tales about Updike’s work habits and publishing relationships that haven’t been told before.”
The Sunday Times (London)
“An exemplary biography, oceanically researched, full of insights. . . . Begley is even-handed in his judgments and is a fine writer himself, his supple and cadenced prose sometimes matching his subject’s.”
The Christian Science Monitor
“An insightful, compelling, discreet, and admirable biography. . . . In synthesizing a substantial amount of material through clear, intelligent prose, Begley does what I never thought possible: he writes a biography I wished were longer.”
The Financial Times
“This is a generous tribute to an amusing and brilliant man. . . . Begley is a perceptive reader, illuminating the different alter egos who populate Updike’s fiction.”
Dan Cryer
“Though Adam Begley’s biography is the first on the writer, it’s hard to see how it will be bettered. Thoroughly researched, written with intelligence, sympathy, and grace, it is a model of first-rate literary biography. . . . A complex, intimate portrait.”
The Guardian
“Adam Begley has written an exemplary biography. . . . Respectful and sympathetic. . . . Any Updike fan will find it rewarding, as indeed will anyone who has enjoyed his work and any reader with an interest in modern American letters.”
Sam Tanenhaus
“Begley is so much in command of his subject. . . . He has located the man behind the giant oeuvre.”
“A master storyteller comes to affably charming life in Begley’s incisive biography. . . . Begley finds the truest reflection of the man in his work.”
Entertainment Weekly
“Fabulous. . . . Updike fans will enjoy Begley’s marvelous biography, which is as much about the man as the writer.”
“Terrific. . . . Begley’s book blends biography with a brilliant close read of Updike’s work. . . . As insightful on the work as the life, it is a complicated and fascinating portrait of one of the great literary lives of the second half of the 20th century.”
Jonathan Dee
“A hefty, thorough biography. . . . Begley does an impressive, conscientious job of marshaling evidence of Updike’s many contradictions.”
The New Republic
“An insightful and meticulously researched book. . . . A sustained, very fine work of literary criticism.”
Louis Menand
“A highly literate illumination of a supremely literate human being.”
Hermione Lee
“Begley is quiet, careful, self-effacing, and steady. . . . He amply shows us the strangeness and contradictions under the affable mask.”
USA Today
“A sympathetic and thorough biography. . . . The more I read about Updike, the more I wanted to go back and read Updike.
William Boyd
“A wonderful, wise biography, judicious and intimately revealing, and does full justice to the highly complex individual that was Updike.”
The New York Times Book Review - Orhan Pamuk
…[a] brilliant…well-researched, considerate and almost affectionate biography…in a letter from Harvard, Updike "wrote to his mother about what was missing from the American literary scene: 'We need a writer who desires both to be great and to be popular.'" Begley's highly readable biography shows us how the tension between these two essential desires both formed and limited Updike's life and his immense literary achievement…The greatest pleasure in reading this biography is in discovering—essay by essay, story by story, novel by novel…the daily vicissitudes that lay behind Updike's ability to inhabit multiple identities, and the sheer range of his versatile pen.
Publishers Weekly
This deferential but insightful biography takes its place among the go-to sources on the life of the Pennsylvania-born “poet laureate of American middleness,” who died in 2009. Without always matching the laborious detail of Jack De Bellis’s John Updike’s Early Years (2013), this comprehensive account from literary critic Begley draws on deep research and interviews with the author and his circle to chart his early influences—in particular his ambitious mother, Linda—and rigorously explore the heavily autobiographical dimensions of his fiction and poetry. A homeward-looking yearning and an unswerving ambition run throughout Updike’s life and career. In addition to his own astute observations, Begley (whose father was a Harvard classmate of Updike’s) marshals revealing commentary by Updike’s contemporaries, like college roommate and future historian Christopher Lasch, who discuss the hesitations and insecurities hounding him. Begley devotes hefty chapters to Updike’s long relationship with the New Yorker, as well as the fame-making, family-growing Ipswich years from whence came Rabbit, Run. The book limns the conflicted emotional makeup beneath its subject’s polished public persona, detailing his tenuous relationship with the WASP establishment, his restless sexual infidelities, and his alienation from 1960s counterculture. At the same time, Updike is revealed to have no great interior tumult on a par with that of his troubled alter ego, Harry Angstrom. Indeed, readers will see in Begley’s Updike an exceptionally gifted, but in many ways mainstream, American man. 16-page b&w photo insert. Agent: Georges Borchardt, Georges Borchardt Literary Agency. (Apr.)
Library Journal
For this first biography of John Updike (1932–2009), Begley (editor, New York Observer) interviewed the author's friends and acquaintances, scoured library archives for correspondence, and assimilated much of the critical reception of the writer's fiction. He corroborates Updike's autobiographical admission that his destiny was shaped both by his strong-willed mother, who projected her literary aspirations onto her son, and by his birthplace, Shillington, PA, the archetype of the middle-class towns of his short stories and novels (The Centaur; Couples; the Rabbit tetralogy.) In a close reading of Updike's work, Begley fracts the dense shale of his subject's novels, short stories, and poems, extracting autobiographical substance, and melds it into an absorbing narrative. He plots Updike's literary trajectory from contributing editor of the Harvard Lampoon to his abiding association with The New Yorker through to the succession of novels that earned him accolades, prestige, and financial security. Updike's two marriages, his serial adultery, and his relationship with his children are delineated with cautious compliance to interviewed sources. Nevertheless, we discern that Updike's affable, congenial public persona belied an insecure, slyly derisive, and, as his last will discloses, mean-spirited individual. VERDICT Essential for Updike enthusiasts.—Lonnie Weatherby, McGill Univ. Lib., Montreal
Kirkus Reviews
A sympathetic, full-meal-deal biography—life, literary works, reputation—of John Updike (1932–2009), who was considered by many to be the most talented of his generation. Former New York Observer books editor Begley (Certitude: A Profusely Illustrated Guide to Blockheads and Bullheads, Past and Present, 2009, etc.) erects his formidable edifice on a sturdy foundation of research and convention. He interviewed the relevant relatives and friends, trod the ground in Pennsylvania (Updike's state of birth and youth), Massachusetts and elsewhere, and read all the works of Updike's most prolific career. Begley begins in Berks County, Pa., and shows us Updike's town-and-country boyhood, a time filled with reading and drawing and observing. His father was a public school teacher (see Updike's The Centaur); his mother, a homemaker and writer (she published in the New Yorker—like her son and grandson—and wrote novels). We see Updike's stellar schoolboy academic record and his matriculation at Harvard, where he earned a spot on the Harvard Lampoon staff and where he displayed the astonishing work ethic, creativity and precocity that would—while still in his 20s—earn him a staff position on the New Yorker and a lifelong publishing relationship with Alfred A. Knopf. Begley also shows us how Updike repeatedly mined his own experiences, populating his fiction with people like those in his own social circle (including his wives and many lovers). Perhaps too frequently, the author summarizes and explicates numerous of his works (including Updike's poems and essays) and throughout displays a patent admiration, even affection, for his subject. He suggests that Updike's conservative social positions (on civil rights, on Vietnam) were sometimes born of a desire to be contrarian rather than of actual conviction. Thorough, intelligent and respectful, but more bite would have released more of Updike's blood.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.10(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

Adam Begley was the books editor for the New York Observer from 1996 to 2009. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, New York Times Magazine, Financial Times, Guardian, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, and many other publications. He lives in England.

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Updike 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very well written and captivating. Recommend for any Updike reader and/or scholar.