Borchardt Agency
Published by
HarperCollins (2014-04)
Original language


A Biography

by Begley, Adam

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.

Of course John Updike was a brilliant writer, and of course he wrote important books, books that made a difference to the culture (the Rabbit Tetralogy alone guarantees him a prominent place in the history of 20th-century American literature), but what's less immediately obvious is that he was the most professional writer of our time. Man of letters was a role he played to perfection, with the public, with the media, and with his editors and publisher. I want to write a biography of Updike that honors that professionalism and reflects it, a book that illuminates his life as a writer with special attention to his work. Most writers are only interesting in so far as they write books we value. Their daily lives are generally bereft of high drama. Though Updike's life can only be described as sedentary (how else could he have produced more than 60 books in just 76 years?), his character was more colorful than most (he was an attractive man easily attracted to others), and manifestly complex (he was a kind man who was ruthlessly competitive and a gentle man with a vicious wit). My principal aim in writing his biography will be to illuminate for the reader the nature of his character and of his greatest accomplishments. I am not proposing to write a minutely detailed chronicle of his comings and goings. I am interested in what he did on any given day if it reveals an aspect of his personality or sheds light on his work. Similarly, I am only interested in writing about those books that are of enduring literary value (no shortage there) or reflect some notable character trait. I do not intend to trudge dutifully through each book, explicating as I go. In sum, I propose a full-length biography that is nonetheless rigorously selective, that zeroes in on what makes John Updike fascinating as a man and as a writer. Though I will always be first and foremost an Updike reader (I've written reviews of at least a half dozen of his books), I had many opportunities to observe him in person a history that stretches back to my infancy in 1959. Updike and his first wife were friends with my father and mother, and family legend has it that Updike was the first person to make me laugh, a feat he apparently accomplished by juggling oranges. (My father and Updike were classmates in college, both of them majoring in English.) In 1994, on assignment for Mirabella, I spent several days following Updike around in Northern Wisconsin, where he was being honored by a small liberal arts college. We were in sporadic contact for the next nine years, and then in 2003 I wrote a second profile of him for The New York Observer. I liked him very much personally, and though I haven't always liked every one of his novels, I remained an ardent fan of his writing to the end. I am very eager to plunge back into his work, and to thoroughly explore his life, and I would like to think that I could deliver a completed manuscript within eighteen months.

Available rights (1)

Language Territory Type Vendor Status
German World All

Mohrbooks Literary Agency
Sebastian Ritscher

Available View on Rightsdesk


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, Adam Begley does his author proud.

Review: Washington Post

Deferential but insightful biography...

Review: Publishers Weekly

Essential for Updike enthusiasts.

Quote: Lonnie Weatherby, McGill Univ. Lib., Montreal

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.

Quote: Ann Beattie

Brilliant. . . . Well-researched, considerate, and almost affectionate. . . . Highly readable. . . . The joys of Begley’s UPDIKE are based on discovering the autobiographical content of the tens of thousands of details that populate Updike’s vast fictional universe. . . . Delightfully rich. . . . The strength of this biography lies in Begley’s efforts to place everything Updike wrote . . . within the context of Updike’s life. . . . The greatest pleasure in reading this biography is in discovering—essay by essay, story by story, novel by novel (and with the help of an index)—the daily vicissitudes that lay behind Updike’s ability to inhabit multiple identities, and the sheer range of his versatile pen. . . . This book’s overall effect on me is a desire to sit down at my desk and work harder and write more.

Review: New York Times Book Review

Adam Begley’s Updike is a model of what a literary biography should be: rich with penetrating insights not only about the life bur also about the work. It will enthrall long-time Updike fans and help create generations of new ones.

Quote: Francine Prose

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.

Quote: Stacy Schiff

Updike’s first biographer gets a gold medal. ...formidable...Begley skillfully marshals facts into understandings....

Review: The John Updike Society

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.

Quote: Janet Malcolm

And biographies? Would he (Updike) have wanted one written? How would he have reacted to seeing the “sadly prurient” details of his moral and mortal failings laid out on page after page so soon after his death in 2009? Biographies (not to mention reviews of them) reduce to easily graspable shapes – neglectful father, lying husband, self-deceived worshipper – traits that have the complexity of life itself; even an uneventful life is resistant to telling in 500 pages. No, it wasn’t like that, one can hear Updike protest, from whatever Lutheran or Episcopalian limbo he’s stuck in, arguing his case with Barthian reference and fabulous fluency; it wasn’t like that at all. Begley’s defence is a simple one: it’s all there, in the work.

Review: Times Literary Supplement, UK

A beautifully written, richly detailed, and warmly sympathetic portrait of a great American writer.

Quote: Joyce Carol Oates

Begley has produced 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.

Review: Boston Globe

Portuguese (Brazil): Globo

Quote: Client


Quote: Leonard Lopate Show

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