It’s often useful to separate artists from their art, to assume that a novel, or an entire body of work, isn’t thinly veiled autobiography*. Updike, Adam Begley’s exhaustive and revealing account of the American master’s life, begs us to reconsider that doctrine. Detailed yet readable, it goes far beyond describing the chronology of this unsurprisingly complex (and often paradoxical) character, layering on the lit crit where John Updike’s real life bled into his novels. Essential for admirers and illuminating for anyone with an interest in literature, Updike already merits consideration as one of the best biographies of 2014. Begley has provided us five tidbits from his research for a glimpse into the Updike known only to aficionados and close associates.
* For this reader, at least, who is seemingly drawn to works by or about questionable characters
Updike is an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection for April, 2014.
Five Things You Didn't Know About John Updike
by Adam Begley
1. He dreamed of becoming the next Walt Disney. Updike’s first love was cartoons and cartooning. “Have I ever loved a human being,” he once asked himself, “as purely as I loved Mickey Mouse?” His ambition, as a boy, was to become an animator, and only settled on writing when he was in college. Even so, he spent a year after college at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. All his life he doodled, sometimes extravagantly, and he would often draw his own Christmas cards.
2. He was rejected by Princeton. The brilliant, straight-A student at Shillington High was offered scholarships by Harvard and Cornell—but Princeton turned him down. He decided on Harvard, where the annual tuition in 1950 was $600. He was offered $400 in financial aid for freshman year. His aid package increased over the years—because his grades were consistently excellent—and by the time he graduated, tuition was fully covered. He graduated with highest honors.
3. He never had a literary agent. Updike published more than sixty books in his lifetime, and most of them were reprinted as paperbacks and in various foreign languages. The amount of office work to keep track of rights and permissions for all those editions would have kept an agent busy around the clock. A phenomenally focused and disciplined worker, Updike did it all by himself; it was what he did when he wasn’t writing.
4. He was pen pals with Joyce Carol Oates. When he wasn’t writing for publication, Updike was writing letters—to his editors at Knopf and The New Yorker, to scholars and journalists, to friends, to his mother. But the person he wrote to most frequently was Joyce Carol Oates, a lively, gossipy literary correspondence as voluminous as you would expect from a pair of authors who were at the same time producing at least a book a year, decade after decade.
5. He played poker with the same crew for more than fifty years. They started playing in December 1957, a group organized by the owner of an auto parts store and the local pediatrician. They convened every other Wednesday, for low stakes: nickels and dimes until they made the minimum bet a quarter in 1960. Poker night was a raucous event in the early days, drenched in beer and wreathed in smoke. The camaraderie, and the sense of belonging, was for Updike the principal attraction; he confessed, in fact, to being only a mediocre player: “I am careless, neglecting to count cards, preferring to sit there in a pleasant haze of bewilderment and anticipation.” In 2004 he noted that he’d been playing with more or less the same men for nearly half a century, and that in the meantime he’d “changed houses, church denominations, and wives. My publisher has been sold and resold. Only my children command a longer loyalty than this poker group.” Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that he was far less passionate about poker than he was about golf!