Barbara Kay: We all know about John Updike. But what about his mother?


National Post - Wednesday July 9th, 2014

Joanne Rathe/The Boston Globe
Even literary Olympians such as John Upside are not immune from uneasiness about sharing a passion for writing with their moms.

My friend David, an evolving short-story writer, spends a week every summer at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Last year, one of his fellow students in a class taught by novelist Robert Anthony Siegel was Siegel’s own 75-year old mother, Frances. David recently sent me an article by Siegel the younger published on The New York Times’ online site, “Draft” (dedicated to the art of writing), entitled “My mother, my writing student.”

It’s a charming piece, in which Siegel frankly acknowledges his ambivalence about his mother’s late-life decision to produce fiction drawn from her life experiences. Frances’s flair for writing, revealed in her novel-in-progress, surprises her son, but her sex scenes make for an “odd reading experience.” Siegel writes, “I was happy that she had found writing, and yet a part of me was secretly annoyed, too. A small childish voice inside of me said that writing was my thing, not hers.”

I smiled at that, wondering if my own son — and editor — sometimes feels that same ambivalence. I am sure I would if our situation were reversed. Writers are a notoriously insecure lot.

Even literary Olympians are not immune from uneasiness about sharing a passion for writing with their moms. The subject is one of the more interesting facets of Adam Begley’s excellent new biography of John Updike, Updike.

Everyone knows that Updike’s fiction was extraordinarily faithful to reality, especially the many expansive, exquisitely rendered accounts of his numerous adulterous affairs (one reviewer referred to Updike as “a penis with a thesaurus”). But almost nowhere in Updike’s fiction does the reader see evidence of the fact that his mother was also a writer. Only in a late poem written after her death, Mother typed Birdsong, do we have a clue in the first line, “My mother knew non-publication’s shame.”

In conversation, Updike was wont to refer to his mother Linda, erroneously, as “an aspiring writer,” a phrase much more suited to the likes of Robert Anthony Siegel’s mom Frances. Linda held a Master’s degree in English from Cornell University, wrote constantly all her adult life, and eventually saw ten stories published over the course of 20 years in The New Yorker (under her maiden name Linda Grace Hoyer).

Indeed, Updike never knew Linda when she was not writing. After her death he told an audience, “I was really an editor before I was a writer. From quite young, I was asked to read her things and comment on them, a sort of wearisome but awesome responsibility for a child of 10.” By age 11, Updike, a gifted illustrator as well as writer, was himself sending out cartoons and drawings and light verse, so the two of them often shared the ignominy of “plodding out to the mailbox to reap … rejection slips.”

Perhaps Linda’s greatest gift to her son was her unconditional respect for the artist’s obligation to speak his own truth without regard to the feelings of those he writes about

Much of Linda’s energy went into what she considered her magnum opus, a historical novel about Ponce de Léon (never published). Updike recalled the drawer it lived in and the continual revisions made to it with a striking image that speaks both to Linda’s writerly drive and to his own conflicted feelings about this rival for her attention: “Like a strange baby in the house, a difficult papery sibling, the manuscript was now and then roused out of its little rectangular crib and rewritten and freshly swaddled in hope.”

But Linda’s own ambitions always came second to her sacred task (she believed her only child was literally destined for greatness) of seeding propitious terrain for Updike’s “frictionless success.” Updike wrote: “I was made to feel that I could do things. If you get this feeling early and can hold it until you’re 15, you tend never to lose it.”

Perhaps Linda’s greatest gift to her son was her unconditional respect for the artist’s obligation to speak his own truth without regard to the feelings of those he writes about. Updike described her as “an ideally permissive writer’s mom,” who was “never other than encouraging, even when old wounds were my topic.” In his novel, Of the Farm, a ruthlessly accurate portrait of his upbringing, Updike portrayed Linda as “a large, coarse country woman.” Begley reports that Linda brooded over this for a few days, “and then she realized she was a large, coarse country woman.”

Full disclosure was all very well for Updike mère et fils, but my son and I have a quite different, mutually agreeable working arrangement: He refrains from writing anything that might wound his mother, and his mother refrains from writing sex scenes in her columns.