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Essays and Criticism

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On Sale: December 30, 2008
Pages: 736 | ISBN: 978-0-307-55580-9
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Synopsis

“A drop of truth, of lived experienced, glistens in each.” This is how John Updike modestly described his nonfiction pieces, of which Due Considerations is perhaps his most varied, stylish, and personal collection. Here Updike reflects on such writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Don DeLillo, A. S. Byatt, Colson Whitehead, and Margaret Atwood. He visits China, goes to art exhibitions, provides a whimsical and insightful list of “Ten Epochal Moments in the American Libido,” and shares his thoughts on the fall of the Twin Towers, which he witnessed from a tenth-floor apartment in Brooklyn. John Updike was always more than simply one of America’s most acclaimed novelists; he was also, as the Los Angeles Times noted in appraising this volume, “one of the best essayists and critics this country has produced.”

Excerpt

Chapter One: Everything Considered

On Literary Biography
(A talk given on November 13, 1998, at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, in honor of the two hundredth volume produced by the Dictionary of Literary Biography. A less discursive version appeared in The New York Review of Books, January 21, 1999.)

There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people, if he’s any good.
–F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his notebooks

Poets don’t have biographies. Their work is their biography.
–Octavio Paz, “A Note to Himself”

The main question concerning literary biography is, surely, Why do we need it at all? When an author has devoted his life to expressing himself, and, if a poet or a writer of fiction, has used the sensations and critical events of his life as his basic material, what of significance can a biographer add to the record? Most writers lead quiet lives or, even if they don’t, are of interest to us because of the words they set down in what had to have been quiet moments. Regardless of what fascinated his contemporaries, Byron interests us now because of Don Juan and those other poems that still sing, and, secondarily, because of his dashing, spirited letters. His physical beauty, his poignant limp, the scandalous collapse of his marriage and his flight from England as a social outcast, his picturesque European dissipations, his generous involvement in the cause of Greek independence, and his tragically youthful death at Missolonghi in 1824–all this sensational stuff would be buried in the mustiest archives of history did not Byron’s literary achievement distinguish him from the scores of similarly vexed and dynamic men of this turbulent Romantic era. By his words he still lives, and they give the impetus to the periodic biographies of which last year’s, by Phyllis Grosskurth, will soon be followed, next year, by Benita Eisler’s.[1]

I am not an especial devotee of literary biography. Indeed, I have my reasons to distrust it. Yet, looking back, I see that I have reviewed a fair amount of it, and, in addition, have read an amount on my own initiative, to satisfy my own curiosity. Although one rarely sees literary biography on the best-seller list,[2] a prodigious amount of it is produced, some of it at prodigious length. The estimable British biographer Michael Holroyd topped his two-volume biography of Lytton Strachey with a three-volume biography of George Bernard Shaw. Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James took twenty-one years in the writing and occupies five volumes, of which the last is the bulkiest. In my barn I keep those books which, arriving free at the house, I deem too precious and potentially useful to give to the local church fair, and yet not so valuable as to win space on the packed shelves within my book-burdened domicile. Venturing out to my slapdash barn shelves, I note works of roughly five hundred pages on Edmund Wilson, Simone Weil, and Joyce Cary; six-hundred-page tomes on Oscar Wilde and Ivy Compton-Burnett; six hundred and fifty pages on Norman Mailer; seven hundred each on Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett; an eight- hundred-page work on Zola; and, the heavyweight champion in this vicinity, twelve hundred pages on the not notably prolific James Thurber. Length of life bears some relation to length of book; in the department of doomed poets, Sylvia Plath, dead at thirty, received three hundred fifty pages of attention, whereas Anne Sexton, who lived to be forty-six, one hundred more. However, Delmore Schwartz had the fifty-three years of his life compressed into a mere four hundred pages, as did the drink-raddled but surprisingly long-lived Dorothy Parker. And these are just the tenants in my barn.

My opening question–Why do we need it at all?–focuses us on the motives of the consumers, not the producers. Some literary biographies begin as Ph.D. theses; others as the personal accounts of a friend or acquaintance of the author. In general, people write books because they think they have some light to shed and because they aspire to the rewards and satisfactions of having written a book. We read, those of us who do, literary biographies for a variety of reasons, of which the first and perhaps the most worthy is the desire to prolong and extend our intimacy with the author–to partake again, from another angle, of the joys we have experienced within the author’s oeuvre, in the presence of a voice and mind we have come to love.

An example of such a prolongation is George D. Painter’s two-volume biography of Marcel Proust, which I read as a young man not long emerged from the full stretch of Remembrance of Things Past, intoxicated and thirsty for more. Painter’s biography, unprecedented in its attempt to treat Proust’s life with definitive completeness, allows us to enter the vast mansion of the novel by a back door, as it were, an approach that turns solid and hard and definite what in the novel was large and vague and inconsecutively arranged and beautifully charged with Proust’s poetic sensibility. Painter must use research and investigation to build what Proust constructed out of his memory, but it is recognizably the same edifice, with some practical additions. Painter restores great omissions, such as the writer’s younger brother Robert, and is frank and analytic where Proust was evasive, as in the matter of his narrator’s sexual preference. The enchanted Combray, where little Marcel is fed a tea-soaked madeleine by his Aunt Léonie and waits with desperate longing for the bell on the garden gate to signify that Monsieur Swann has left and his mother is free to come upstairs and give her son a good-night kiss–Combray becomes Illiers, a town on the map, not far from Chartres, with a distinct history, cartography, and set of houses. Aunt Léonie, we are told, was based, almost without modification, on Proust’s father’s sister Elizabeth Amiot; her house still stands, and Painter describes little Marcel’s bedroom with some of Proust’s words but in an altogether more factual accent: “His bed was screened by high white curtains, and covered in the daytime with flowered quilts, embroidered counterpanes and cambric pillowcases which he had to remove and drape over a chair, ‘where they consented to spend the night,’ before he could go to bed. On a bedside table stood a blue glass tumbler and sugar-basin, with a water-jug to match, which his aunt always told Ernestine to empty on the day after his arrival, ‘because the child might spill it.’ On the mantelpiece was a clock muttering under a glass bell, so heavy that whenever the clock ran down they had to send for the clockmaker to wind it again; on the armchairs were little white antimacassars crocheted with roses, ‘not without thorns,’ since they stuck to him whenever he sat down . . .” and so on, in a strange but pleasing transposition of the Proustian world into our own. The schematic principle of the two “ways” whereby Proust organized his narrator’s massive pilgrimage is sharply brought down to earth. Painter writes:

“To the child Marcel the two favourite walks of the family seemed to be in diametrically opposite directions, so that no two points in the world could be so utterly separated as their never-reached destinations. Whether they left the house by the front door or by the garden-gate, they would turn one way for Méréglise and the other way for Saint-Eman. . . . In his novel Proust called Méréglise “Méséglise,” for euphony; and as the way there went by the Pré Catalan, which he had transformed into Swann’s park, he was able to say with truth that it was also Swann’s Way.”

The biography becomes, then, a way of re-experiencing the novel, with a closeness, and a delight in seeing imagined details conjured back into real ones, that only this particular writer and his vast autobiographical masterpiece could provide. Lovers of Proust will be inevitably drawn to Painter because it is more of the same, mirrored back into reality. Richard Ellmann’s superb biography of James Joyce, though also dealing with a concentrated and highly personal oeuvre, cannot quite offer us such a mirroring, though its chapter epigraphs, ingeniously chosen quotations from Joyce, make glittering reflective shards. We read Ellmann not only to revisit Joyce’s Dublin but to understand how Joyce, modernism’s wonder-worker, did it–how did he produce from the drab facts of the provincial, sodden, priest-ridden Irish capital such rare and comprehensive art as is contained in Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake? What I remember from my reading, years ago, in Ellmann’s eight hundred pages is that Ulysses first came to Joyce as a short story, one more sketch of a Dubliner, and that during its seven-year composition, even to within a few weeks of its publication day, the author in his European exile pestered his relatives and friends back in Dublin for local details. He wrote his aunt Josephine Murray, concerning the Powells and the Dillons, models for Molly Bloom’s family: “Get an ordinary sheet of foolscap and scribble any God damn drivel you may remember about these people.” He asked her such relentlessly circumstantial questions as “Is it possible for an ordinary person to climb over the area railings of no 7 Eccles Street, either from the path or the steps, lower himself from the lowest part of the railings till his feet are within 2 feet or 3 of the ground and drop unhurt.” Ulysses, confronting the banality of modern life, compels quantities of drivel into a Thomistically schematic mold that parodies the incidents of the Odyssey; an excess of matter is heroically matched by an excess of form.

Perhaps only writers are interested in the details of craft, and how others manage the cunning dishevelment of composition. But of literary biographies I tend to remember curious methodological details: Ivy Compton-Burnett wrote sitting at one end of a sofa and stored the accumulating composition under a sofa cushion; Edith Wharton wrote in bed and threw her pages on the floor for a secretary to pick up and transcribe; Joyce Cary worked at whatever scene of a novel came to him and trusted them to all tie up at the end; Hemingway wrote with freshly sharpened pencils while standing at a tall desk; Nabokov wrote on three-by-five index cards; John Keats would put on his best clothes before sitting down to write a poem; Henry James, after he suffered an attack of writer’s cramp, began to dictate to a typist, and his later style was born in the dutiful transcription of his spoken longueurs, qualifications, and colloquialisms.

The question How did he or she do it? takes, in the case of William Shakespeare, the more drastic form Did he do it? A few years ago I went out and–always a reluctant move for a writer–purchased a book, Dennis Kay’s 1992 biography of Shakespeare. I was interested to see what a modern scholar could assemble of evidence regarding the historical identity of the greatest writer in English. I was persuaded, as I had expected to be, that the son of a small-town burgess and high bailiff, an eldest son presumably educated in the strenuous Latin curriculum of the King’s New School in Stratford, and evidently enlisted in a shotgun marriage at the tender age of eighteen, might go to London and become an actor and playwright and, in a career little more than twenty years long, write the greatest plays and some of the greatest poetry in the language. Unlike certain devotees of the nobility, I have never had any problem with the idea that a child of the middling provincial gentry (Shakespeare’s mother was an Arden, a family of prosperous farmers) might enter the theatrical profession and spin a literary universe out of his dramatic flair, opportune learning, and country-bred street-smarts. Robert Greene’s famous calumny, of “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers,” who “supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you,” fits the case perfectly. Shabby gentility has ever been the cradle of upstart writers. Nevertheless, there is a worrisome disproportion between the meagre verifiable biographical facts and the tremendous literary events associated with Shakespeare’s name. Something of the same disproportion affects the case of Jane Austen, another exalted literary performer about whom we seem to know too little, so that the recent biography by Claire Tomalin must pad its substance with a wealth of detail about the general period in which Austen lived.

Literary biography in all cases runs up against this limit of determinism: there is no clear reason why one secluded clergyman’s daughter should have been a literary genius while hundreds of others were not. Certain generalizations might be made, in retrospect, about the flowering of, say, Elizabethan poetry or Greek drama or the Russian novel, but the appearance of a great individual remains an indeterminate matter of microcosmic luck and will. The cultural situation at the turn of the last century might be said to have been sickly; but Yeats and Proust and Joyce all took their beginnings in it. To quote an old couplet of my own:

Fin-de-siècle sickliness became
High-stepping Modernism, then went lame.”

We read literary biography, often, in a diagnostic mood, as if dealing with a ward of sick men and women. Psychoanalytical theories of compensation and Edmund Wilson’s moving essay “The Wound and the Bow” have alerted biographers to the relation of creative drive to human disabilities. Any biographer of Kafka must deal, for example, with his insomnia, his unnatural awe of his father, his ambivalence toward his own Jewishness, and his inability, until fatally weakened by tuberculosis, to achieve a liaison with a woman–the entire psychological paralysis, in short, dramatized in his grave comedies of modern bafflement. Our mid-nineteenth-century giants Melville and Hawthorne, linked by an uneasy friendship, challenge any biographer with the mysteries of their affective lives. Melville’s mental fragility, his homoerotic vein, his inadequacies as a husband and a father hardly fit with the humor and vigor of his best creations and the toughness that saw him through a longish life loaded with disappointments. And Hawthorne, who spent the years of his youth haunting Salem, writing in an attic, walking out mostly at dusk, chiefly consorting with an eccentrically shy mother and a strong- minded sister who was, it has been speculated, a virtual wife to him– how does this strangeness feed into the strangeness of his work, lending it a shadowy intensity and an evasive reliance upon whimsy and the play of fancy? The vocabularies of psychoanalysis and of literary analysis become increasingly entwined; though we must not forget that these invalids receive our attention because of the truth and poetry and entertainment to be found in their creations. A wound existed, but also a strong bow, and a target was struck.

NOTES
[1] See pp. 504-14.
[2] “They don’t sell,” my friend the poet and book editor Peter Davidson has flatly reassured me.


From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

Preface

Everything Considered

ON LITERARY BIOGRAPHY

FIVE ESSAYS
Back from China
A Sense of Change
The Future of Faith
Invisible Cathedral
Late Works

GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS
A Case for Books
Looking Back to Now
The Tried and the Treowe
A Layman’s Scope
Against Angelolatry
Ten Epochal Moments in the American Libido
Five Great Novels About Loving
Hydrophobia
My Life in Poker
My Life in Cars

TRIBUTES AND SHORT TAKES
West 155th Street
The Academy As It Was and Is: A Talk, with Slides
The New Yorker
William Shawn
William Maxwell
Wright Morris
Eudora Welty
Ernest Hemingway
Ted Williams
November 22, 1963
JFK, Jr.
September 11, 2001

Considering Books


INTRODUCTIONS
To the Everyman’s Library edition of The Mabinogion
To The Blithedale Romance, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
To Walden, by Henry David Thoreau: 150th Anniversary Edition
To The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James
To The Diary of Adam and Eve and Other Adamic Stories, by Mark Twain
To Seven Men, by Max Beerbohm
To The Rich Boy, three stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald
To The Eighth Day, by Thornton Wilder
To The Golden West: Hollywood Stories, by Daniel Fuchs
To Karl Shapiro: Selected Poems
To Elephant House, or, The Home of Edward Gorey, photographs and text by Kevin McDermott
To Christmas at The New Yorker: Stories, Poems, Humor, and Art
To the German catalogue of an exhibit of photographs by Ulrich Mack of the Ipswich marshes

MONUMENTS
The Great I Am
Big Dead White Male
Down the River
Oz Is Us
Hide and Seek

THURBER AND WHITE
Introduction to the Perennial Edition of Is Sex Necessary?
Thurber’s Art
Magnum Opus
Introduction to a New Edition of The Letters of E. B. White

AMERICAN FICTION
These Trashy Years
Coming Home
Tote that Ephemera
Dog’s Tears
One-Way Street
Red Loves Rex, Alas
Angel-Tits and Hellmouth
Mind/Body Problems—I
Mixed Messages
The Great Game Gone
A Cloud of Dust

ENGLISH FICTION
Property and Presumption
A Same-Sex Idyll
Fairy Tales and Paradigms
Stonewalling Toffs
Flesh on Flesh
Absent Presences
Mind/Body Problems—II
Flashy to the Rescue

IN ENGLISH BUT NOT ENGLISH
Home Care
Love and Loss on Zycron
Dangerous into Beautiful
Both Rough and Tender
Papery Passions
Blood and Paint
A Case of Deutschfeindlichkeit; or, All About Abish
The Story of Himself
Pre-“Gay” Gray
Paradises Lost

IN OTHER TONGUES
Dying for Love
The Lone Sailor
Two’s a Crowd
Mind/Body Problems—III
Suppressed Atrocities
Murder Among the Miniaturists
Arabesques of Ambivalence
Extended Performance
Subconscious Tunnels
Bitter Bamboo

NON-FICTION
Groaning Shelves
Can Eve Be Reprieved?
Was Sex Necessary?
Chanel No. 1
The Poor Babies
Drawn to Gypsies
Survivor/Believer
Twice Collected

LITERARY BIOGRAPHY
Mud and Flames
Incommensurability
The Man in Bed
Poet on the Fault Line
No Brakes
A Natural Writer
Young Iris

ART
One Obstinate Survivor on Another
Metropolitan Art
Deceptively Conceptual
Dürer’s Passions
The Thing Itself
The Imaginary Builder

Personal Considerations

A Tribute to Saul Steinberg

Introduction to The World of William Steig
Introduction to a Section of The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker
The Would-Be Animator
Introduction to Poor Arnold’s Almanac
Introduction to Chip Kidd: Book One: Work: 1986–2006
Foreword to the Catalogue of My Father’s House (Will Barnet)
A Reminiscence of Hyman Bloom
Introduction to Wolf Kahn’s America
Saint Nick: Essay for the Catalogue of George Nick: A Retrospective
Foreword to the MFA Publications Reprint of Just Looking
Foreword to the Stackpole Books Edition of Buchanan Dying
A “Special Message” for the Franklin Library Edition of Gertrude and Claudius
Prefacio to Poemas 1953–1999
Foreword to Humor in Fiction
Foreword to the Easton Press Edition of Licks of Love
Note on “Bech Noir” for The Best American Mystery Stories 1999
Note on “Personal Archeology” for The Best American Short Stories 2001
Note on “The Walk with Elizanne” for The Best American Short Stories 2004
Comment on “Your Lover Just Called,” in the anthology This Is My Best
Recurrent Characters
An Interview Conducted by Henry Bech
Foreword to My Own Bibliography
Three Brits (Tina Brown, Frank Kermode, André Deutsch)
An Account of my Childhood Reading
A Response to a Question from The Yale Literary Magazine
A Response to a Request from Michael Dirda
A Response to GQ’s Request for My Favorite Year of the Century
Summer Love
The Beautiful
A Response to a Request from a Miss Gordon
Early Employments and Inklings
My Philadelphia
A Response to the Question “Why Do I Live in New England?”
A Response to a Request for a Memory of Harvard Dorm Life
Statement for There Is No Other Story: Ethics, Literature, and Theory
My Contribution to the NPR Series This I Believe

Index
John Updike

About John Updike

John Updike - Due Considerations

Photo © Martha Updike

John Updike was the author of more than sixty books, including collections of short stories, poems, and criticism. His novels have been honored with the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the National Book Award, and the Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Hugging the Shore, an earlier collection of essays and reviews, received the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. He died in January 2009.
Praise

Praise

“Updike’s scope is rather breathtaking. . . . When I do not know the subject well—as in his finely illustrated art reviews of Bruegel, Dürer and Goya—I learn much from what Updike has to impart. When he considers an author I love, like Proust or Czeslaw Milosz, I often find myself appreciating familiar things in a new way.”—Christopher Hitchens, The New York Times Book Review
 
“If the printed word disappeared, a future race could reconstruct a significant body of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature from Updike’s work alone. . . . He writes to converse with us on a high plane but in simple language, often stately and sometimes dazzling.”—Chicago Sun-Times
 
“Updike knows more about literature than almost anyone. . . . He’s beyond knowledgeable—he makes Google look wanting.”Baltimore Sun

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