In search of John Updike

“He began as a prodigy… and he somehow remained one.”  Louis Menand reviews Adam Begley’s new biography:

Like many people who grew up in straitened circumstances in the nineteen-thirties and became financially comfortable in the decades after the war, Updike had a slightly superstitious relationship to money. He never used an agent. He didn’t put his books out for bid, and, after his first book, a collection of poems published by Harper, came out, he moved to Knopf, and stayed there all his life. He rarely took an advance, and he capped the amount Knopf paid out to him every year, so that he wouldn’t have an earnings spike and the resulting tax burden.

He used a rubber stamp to affix his return address to correspondence in order not to waste money on stationery that might, if he moved, never be used. The practice began as ordinary prudence and became an affectation. Even after he had become a wealthy man living in a mansion in the upscale Boston suburb of Beverly Farms, he stamped his return address.

This caution about money got cleverly incorporated into a slightly exaggerated fastidiousness that was part of Updike’s charm arsenal. Years ago, I was an editor of a magazine piece by Updike that had required him to travel to New York for a day. He expensed the hot dog he bought, from a sidewalk vender, for ninety cents. As he undoubtedly anticipated, we thought that this was extremely droll, and, in keeping with the spirit of the joke, reimbursed him.

[HT: Rachel Syme]

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