Part of what allowed Updike the freedom to indulge his autobiographical impulse was his relationship with his mother, the elderly widow who tugged at Ecenbarger’s sleeve in the Shillington public library, eager to talk about her son, the famous writer. To say that Linda Grace Hoyer Updike encouraged her only child and nurtured his precocious talent is to understate and simplify an unusually close and complicated relationship. She helped him to become a writer (and he, when the time came, helped her, getting ten of her short stories published in The New Yorker), offering him yards of advice and unstinting praise from the moment he set pen to paper. She was, as he put it, “an ideally permissive writer’s mother,” meaning that he was free to write exactly what he pleased, no matter how painful to his family. When the biographer Ron Chernow, who went to see Linda Updike in Plowville in the early ’70s when he was a young journalist eager to write about Updike, asked her how it felt to pop up as a character in her son’s fiction, “she paused and said, ‘When I came upon the characterization of myself as a large, coarse country woman I was very hurt.’ She said she walked around for several days, brooding—and then she realized she was a large, coarse country woman.”
It is, like much of Updike’s fiction, a thinly disguised account of actual events – in this case, his affair with Joyce Harrington. To me, Begley’s account of this situation alone would make his book worth reading, but it leads into another area – one that I’m sure future biographers of Updike will dive into with much gusto: Begley’s decision to let Updike’s many lovers remain anonymous, with two exceptions – the aforementioned Harrington and Martha Bernhard, who eventually became his second wife. He also chooses to let the Ipswich, Mass. couples who were the models for the Tarbox couples in Couples remain anonymous. Begley writes that he let the lovers remain unnamed in order to protect their privacy and, also, in order to encourage them to tell him about their encounters with Updike. However, there isn’t very much in the book in the way of these encounters at all, a curious turn of events. In any case, I’m willing to bet that future generations of Updike fans and researchers will want to puncture all this anonymity, whether justifiably or not. It just seems like too broad an avenue of potentially important research.
I just want to thank you and the Dish staff for featuring so much John Updike lately. I’m a huge fan of the late master’s and had the honor of meeting him a few years at the Book Expo America in D.C. (where he shared the dais with a young and freshly-minted U.S. Senator named Barack Obama). Of course, because I’m me and prone to tremendous bouts of asshattery when confronted with my literary heroes, I visibly terrified the gentle and always-smiling Updike by inexplicably asking if he had read Augusten Burroughs’s essay “Killing John Updike.” Even that famous and face-creasing beatific smile of his couldn’t dispel the discomfort I’d caused him, and so I slunk away miserably, happy with my autographed copy of Terrorist and glad I didn’t get the chance to open my stupid mouth near a future U.S. president.
(Video: Jeffrey Brown interviews Updike in 2003)