By Adam Begley
Harper, 576 pp., $29.99
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.
A year later, fresh from art school in England, the young author was working full-time at that venerable magazine--writing stories, "Talk of the Town" pieces, and light verse. Begley comments on Updike's reaction to his rapid success: "He wasn't despairing or thwarted or resentful; he wasn't alienated or conflicted or drunk; he quarreled with no one. In short, he cultivated none of the professional deformations that habitually plague American writers." The dust jacket photo portrays the Updike we know, the one with the grin.
Updike and his first wife, Mary, a Radcliffe fine arts major, met in a medieval sculpture class and married at a Unitarian church on Harvard Square where Mary's father had been a minister before taking a similar post in Chicago. In Begley's account, religion first comes to the fore in Updike's life through arguments he had with his father-in-law a year after the marriage. As a child growing up at Grace Lutheran Church in Shillington, Pennsylvania, Updike had "enjoyed a comfortable, untroubled faith," according to Begley. But when he was faced with an articulate representative of Unitarianism, his wobbly Lutheranism began to take shape. He decided that he could not respect Unitarianism's way of avoiding "embarrassments to reason." While in England he strengthened his religious mind and developed a spiritual resolve. He began reading G. K. Chesterton and Jacques Maritain and insisted that a Christian believes in certain "concrete attributes" of faith, such as the Eucharist.
Early on, Updike published stories with religious themes, such as "Dentistry and Doubt," in which a minister ponders his religious doubts while sitting in the dentist's chair. Another, "Sunday Teasing," depicts a young man who tires of churchgoing and decides to stay home on Sundays and read St. Paul and Miguel de Unamuno in solitary contemplation of the Divine.
The 1976 novel Marry Me: A Romance is also full of religious details and doubts. Its main character is Jerry, a Lutheran who reads Barth and Berdyaev and whose wife is Unitarian, adherent of a faith Jerry regards as "pale. …