Every critic knows that John Updike was a gleeful child of his age, but did he rise above it? The common complaint against him is that the greatness of his style eclipsed the thinness of his substance, and Adam Begley’s new biography, full of insightful and sympathetic detail, does little to dim such prejudices. Begley portrays Updike as a man who could not stop writing and as a writer who could not stop thinking about himself. For Begley, in fact, Updike comes across as America’s first (and finest) blogger.
Begley’s Updike sets his sights on suburban, middle-class America but never takes his eyes off his own subjective, private experience. There is some truth in this portrait. Especially in his short stories, Updike delighted in translating the personal into the literary, and he did so with a workmanlike efficiency. A dinner with friends one evening provided the casual incident for a story completed the very next week. Updike was such a skillful writer that he did not need to spend much time revising, which is why he was puzzled by being pegged with the accolade of a stylist. He wrote as naturally as Ted Williams (one of his heroes) swung a bat.
Begley relishes the paradox of a writer who lived so modestly in private (aside from adultery, he was, for an artist, remarkably free of scandal) but so large on the written page. Updike’s everyday experiences were the material—the pure potency, we could say—upon which he exercised his boundlessly formative powers. That, however, is precisely what bothers many of Updike’s critics. His life was too ordinary, they insinuate, to serve as the medium for such an expansive imagination. After all, he was a small-town kid, politically conservative, churchgoing, and patriotic to boot. How could that life ever be the material for great American art?
And that is precisely what is wrong with Begley’s autobiography. Without getting to the heart of what he most cherished in his personal experiences, Begley’s Updike comes off as a grandiloquent and compulsive chronicler of his own thoughts and actions.
Begley does not get to the heart of the man because he does not grasp the soul of his faith. For example, Updike was a patriot in prose who thought America was large-hearted enough to inspire the boldest prose and contain the harshest criticism. That faith, of course, does not sit well with the literary history of the sixties and seventies that academics have constructed. Neither, of course, does Updike’s Christian faith, which played an even more important role in his life and his work.
The reason why critics as perceptive as Begley marginalize Updike’s religious faith has to do with the content of his theological convictions, not the lack of them. For Updike, writing was a religious act. He thought the best way to be a Christian and a writer was to try to be a very good writer (while, at the same time, avoiding any claim to being a good Christian). He reserved his deepest faith not for America but for the world as he saw it, on the theological assumption that the ordinary and everyday—the most mundane elements of human existence—are a gift from God.
This strategy let him keep his most specifically Christian beliefs somewhat private, even as he never shied away from a public theology of praising God’s creation. That, and not just the fact that he used a computer only late in his career and never made use of the web, is why Updike was the opposite of a blogger. Indeed, instead of avidly promulgating his most unguarded and indiscreet thoughts in print, he wrote letters. He was generous in this confidential genre, repaying friendly inquiries with amiable and straightforward divulgences about his inner life, including his Christian beliefs.
He wrote thousands of letters, and six of them are among my most precious possessions. Updike clearly enjoyed bantering about theology, confessing that a lifetime of reading Karl Barth left him “fortified and, yes, entertained.” Several of his letters were in response to my rather persistent inquiry into whether Roger’s Version should be considered a Barthian novel or a novel that gradually turns into a critique of Barth’s theology. Updike resisted such a stark alternative, of course, but he did admit that it was both “a discussion of Barthianism and an arrival at its limits, so to speak.” In another letter, he got to the heart of what drew him to Barth in the first place. “Barth has been a guide and comfort for me not only in his assertive fundamentalism but in his antinomianism, his lovely and tolerant acceptance of the wide world beyond the church walls.”
Updike as a believer was saved by his reading of Barth, since he looked to him for “confirmation of the bad news about the human situation vis-à-vis ultimate reassurance.” As a writer, however, I am not so sure that Barth did him much good. There is a way of reading Barth that leads to a radical separation of faith from the world, so that the world, in all of its secularity, can be affirmed just as it is, without trying to impose a thick theological framework on it.
That is how Updike read Barth, but it is not how he read the world, since he was nearly medieval in his belief in the power of material objects to convey the sacred. Updike’s celebration of the everyday was not just rooted in a natural theology of the goodness of creation. It was also entangled in what I would call the metaphysics of a Eucharistic realism. He believed that material objects could be revelatory if given the proper words. Writing for Updike was a profoundly transubstantional act.
Barth’s theoretical restrictions on any attempt to close the gap between spirit and nature, however, prevented Updike from exploring a thicker theological foundation for his prose. If his endlessly brilliant sentences sometimes seem complacent, his reading of Barth, if not Barth himself, is to be blamed. Even though Barth was known as a crisis theologian, there is not enough crisis—not enough Christ, that is—in Updike’s prose.
Updike was unapologetically aware of these limitations. In his own words, he was “pleasantly free of the crisis urgency that managed to infect Lutheranism even in the most innocent and rural parishes.” He became a Congregationalist “in an attempt to raise, with my Unitarian wife, four children in some sort of Christian context,” and moved to Episcopalianism, “in accord with my present wife,” but one suspects that these compromises fit his own spiritual needs as well. Not of the generation or geography to have been able to understand “spirituality or evangelicalism,” he liked religious sentiment that was finely and equably expressed.
The net impact of this rather cheerful form of Christianity on his reception as a writer was decidedly negative, and he knew it. “As to critics, it seems to be my fate to disappoint my theological friends by being not Christian enough, while I’m too Christian for Harold Bloom’s blessing. So be it.” Updike was not a martyr for his faith, but he was not above treating mainline Protestantism as the cross he was meant to carry.
Even though he wrote “cruel things” about the mainline churches as he documented the minor drama of their self-inflicted death throes, he “remained one of the faithful, in a pretty faithless age.” That the meager theological fare of liberal Protestantism was still enough to prompt people like himself to gather regularly just to say thank you to God was perverse evidence for Updike that the modern world still left room for miracles. In fact, gratitude was so important to him that I would call it the sum of both his piety and his art, and I don’t know how anyone can read his work in this era of resentment and entitlement without feeling grateful for him.
The one Christian virtue he hung to most tightly was hope: “I think the key to my attitudes political and religious and personal may be that I expected, after a lifetime of giving the dark side of reality plenty of bold exposure, I still expected some kind of happy ending to rescue me at the end. I am still waiting.” I pray that his hope has come true.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity.