Brain Pickings

The Adulterous Society: How John Updike Made Suburban Sex Sexy

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“There is no such thing as static happiness. Happiness is a mixed thing, a thing compounded of sacrifices, and losses, and betrayals.”

John Updike (March 18, 1932–January 27, 2009) wasn’t merely the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Humanities medal, among a wealth of other awards. He had a mind that could ponder the origin of the universe, a heart that could eulogize a dog with such beautiful bittersweetness, and a spirit that could behold death without fear. He is also credited with making suburban sex sexy, which landed him on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “The Adulterous Society” — something Adam Begley explores in the long-awaited biography Updike (public library | IndieBound).

Begley chronicles Updike’s escapades in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in the early 1960s, just as he was breaking through with The New Yorker — the bastion of high culture to which he had dreamed of contributing since the age of twelve. His literary career was beginning to gain momentum with the publication of Rabbit, Run in 1960 — the fictional story of a twenty-something suburban writer who, drowning in responsibilities to his young family, finds love outside of marriage. The fantasy would soon become a reality for 28-year-old Updike, a once-dorky kid who had gotten through Harvard by playing the class clown clad in his ill-fitted tweed jackets and unfashionably wide ties. Suddenly, he and his wife Mary landed in the middle of a network of Ipswich couples entwined by more than close friendships:

Updike wasn’t the first in his Ipswich crowd to commit adultery, and it’s possible that he wasn’t even the first in his marriage…

He didn’t have to look far to find a lover. Several of the couples had already had affairs before moving to Ipswich, and once they were all settled and best friends, romantic intrigue was very much in the air. It’s safe to say that the group’s unusual closeness (and a large part of the pain that followed) had something to do with the collective willingness to indulge in extramarital sex. This “weave of promiscuous friendship” wasn’t a purely local phenomenon. “Welcome to the post-pill paradise” is perhaps the most famous line from [Updike’s 1968 novel] Couples, which Updike set in 1963, three years after he claimed to have first fallen “in love, away from marriage” — and three years after the first birth-control pill was approved for use in the United States. Did the advent of oral contraception unleash a frenzy of adulterous coupling in suburban communities all over the country? That theory seems a little pat, yet there’s a measure of truth to it. There’s no doubt that by the time of JFK’s assassination, the junior set of Ipswich were already hopping in and out of one another’s beds with impressive frequency. Whatever moral qualms Updike might have had were long since banished, and any lingering shyness had dissipated. He threw himself with reckless enthusiasm into the tangle of Ipswich infidelities. It’s worth stressing, however, that it wasn’t his idea; he wasn’t the instigator. He made suburban sex famous, but he didn’t invent it.

(Curiously, it was in the thick of that period that Updike penned his first children’s book.)

To give a sense of just how normalized the extramarital escapades were in the Ipswich community, Begley offers a telling example — the only two affairs of real significance in Updike’s life, one with Joyce Harrington, who was a “core member” of the love-swapping crowd along with her husband Herbert, and the other with Martha Bernhard, who had joined the circle later on with her husband Alex. Begley writes:

The first affair came within a whisker of ending the Updikes’ marriage in the fall of 1962; the second did end the marriage: John separated from Mary in 1974, and they were divorced two years later. John and Martha married soon afterward. And then, as if to demonstrate what a snarled web it was, Alex Bernhard, Martha’s ex-husband, married Joyce Harrington, John’s ex-mistress.

John and Martha Updike in East Hampton, July 14, 1978 (photograph by Jill Krementz)

John and Martha remained together for the rest of the author’s life, and yet Updike’s words to a Time magazine reporter in March of 1968 poignantly captured the essence of those thunderous emotional upheavals:

There is no such thing as static happiness. Happiness is a mixed thing, a thing compounded of sacrifices, and losses, and betrayals.

Though later, in his 1996 memoir Self-Consciousness — which is an altogether excellent read — Updike would speak of that youthful promiscuity with great disdain, proclaiming those behaviors to be “malicious, greedy … obnoxious … rapacious and sneaky … remorseless,” he did draw on them as raw material in his writing for decades to come.

That, indeed, was the most fervent and most faithful love affair of his life — his eternal marriage to literature. For all the rewards of carnal pleasure and cultural prestige, Updike remained most enchanted and gratified by the joy of writing itself. In 2006, upon receiving the coveted Rea Award for the Short Story after twenty years of wistfully watching it be awarded to other writers, Updike marveled:

It doesn’t do to think overmuch about prizes, does it? Being a writer at all is the prize.

Updike is an irresistibly rich read in its entirety, a rare dimensional glimpse of one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, housed in the interior of an infinitely interesting man. Complement it with Updike on writing and death, why the world exists, and the most important thing aspiring writers should know.

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