Updike, by Adam Begley

John Updike was one of a small number of masters of English-language fiction in the second half of the 20th century, the only WASP in a group that includes Saul Bellow, Cormac McCarthy, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Philip Roth. This ­wasn’t just a matter of circumstances. Beginning at Harvard, Updike set out to immortalize middle-class America—to produce, as he wrote in a letter to his mother in those early days, “an epic out of the Protestant ethic.” And so he did in the brilliant Rabbit series of four novels and one novella, as well as in twentysome other novels, in hundreds of short stories, and in poetry, light verse, cartoons, and hundreds of essays on art, books, and popular culture.

But Updike has never been a critic’s darling. His desire for popular acclaim was probably an impediment to canonical standing. Furthermore, affability and seemingly easy popularity can turn critics sour.

Success did come early for Updike, according to this skillful narrative by his first literary biographer, Adam Begley. Less than two months after he graduated from Harvard in 1954, what Updike called “the ecstatic breakthrough” took place: the New Yorker bought the story “Friends from Philadelphia.” The magazine paid him $490, nearly half what Updike’s father earned in a year back in Pennsylvania.